My grandparents’ homes are as much what I love and miss about them as the people themselves. I grew up with one set in California and the other set splitting time between Wisconsin and Florida. My semi-annual sojourns to visit them were the highlights of my youth, not just because I was spoiled rotten and could watch as much Nickelodeon as I could handle, but because I loved being in the three distinctively wonderful houses.
Until the end of my high school days, my father’s parents lived outside San Francisco in a classic ranch house in a place called Happy Valley. To me, it truly was. After a drive on windy roads up many hills, we would pull into their drive, and I’d eagerly leap through the open door. To the left was the formal living room, full of windows and light. It was also very still, most often used by grandfather to play games of solitaire at the card table on the far end of the room. There was a mantle filled with books, a bust and an eerie painting. I loved the stillness of the room and would creep quietly to watch him play. To the right was a hall that led to the bedrooms. I stayed in the one that had orange shag carpeting for most of my youth and sliding glass doors that led into a sun-filled rose garden. My grandma’s sewing machine was in that room, and I often sat in the glow of light as she made me a dress from a pattern and fabric we’d pick out together. The large galley kitchen was home to my favorite mugs, featuring a small ceramic animal attached to the inside that I’d drink my milk quickly to save from drowning. A window bench made for two seats at the table, and through the glass, you could just make out the city through the hills. Gardening was my grandpa’s other passion, and outside, surrounding the pool, were more roses and a forest (in my child’s eye) of other plants. They even had a guest suite with more bedrooms that would fill up when my aunt and cousins came for Thanksgiving. I remember the house feeling distinctly calm but distinctly warm and full of a touch of 60s nostalgia.
My mother is from Wisconsin, and her mother lives half the year at the lake house they built when my mom and her siblings were kids. A different forest surrounds this home, as does a different type of calm, but it’s an equal sanctuary from my childhood. There are four bedrooms, each with its own name. I prefer to stay in the princess room, with its canopy bed and plush white carpet. I recall laying across the floor with my headphones on, simply listening to music and looking at the glistening lake. Downstairs, in the original part of the house, is a tall stone hearth with a big fireplace that I’ve never seen used, because it’s always summer when I’m there. The best room is the porch, which is all white and bathed in light. We have dinner on the porch each night, seated around a small glass-top table while the sounds of Sinatra and his contemporaries float through the house.
I went to college in Palm Beach, just across the bridge from my grandparents’ winter home, and it was my escape from my sometimes exhausting life. Each room is bright and colorful, filled with the warmth of southern Florida and curated with items selected from a lifetime of travels. It’s nearly magazine quality in its pristine decor, but almost none of the pictures are hung straight, which makes it feel like a real home somehow. I used to love to crank the AC up and snuggle in with a comforter in the huge bed upstairs, a welcome respite from my lower bunk at school. Dinners that weren’t spent out, my grandparents and I would crowd ourselves around the tiny kitchen table and eat takeout in our bathrobes, proving the truism that even in the most stately homes, the closest times are spent in the kitchen.
Today I live alone, but I still relish my warm patches of sunlight, my dueling views of city and garden and the knickknacks I’ve started to curate for myself. My own home has become my escape now, my safe place from the sometimes harsh city, and in it I reflect on the way I still live in a little part of the homes of ones I love.