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Monday, May 25, 2009

An Empty Lot And A Full Memory

Every time I find myself in Houston travelling on Shepherd Drive just south of I10 I find myself inescapably drawn to this vacant lot. Countless Houstonians drive within a block or two of this vacant lot every day without so much as a thought. I drive within a block or two, or three, or twenty and I find myself parked here; remembering. This vacant lot on Nett Street has not always been vacant.

Once upon a time there was an old house sitting here. A pier & beam house with a big front porch and a small closed in back porch. Going off the back porch was a screened door that slammed as you went into a relatively small back yard with a dog tied in the corner. The backyard was mostly dirt. The house was white. From the front porch you walked into the front room. To the left there was a door that went into a bedroom. The door always had a couch sitting in front of it. Walking across the front room you went through a huge opening that led into another room. I am not sure what the room was intended to be but it had been transformed into a bedroom. Walking straight across that room you went through a door that led to a small kitchen. The sink and cabinets was to the right with a window over the sink overlooking a dirt driveway. As you went through the door, immediately to the left was a small stove. A window was on the back wall in front of which was situated a small kitchen table. At the back of the room in the left hand corner was a door that gave entrance to the small back porch. In the middle room that had been transformed into a rather public bedroom if you went to the left you would find a hallway that could not have been over 10 or 15 feet long. Straight across the hall was a small bathroom, the only one in the little house. If you turned to go left down the hallway there was a bedroom that was also adjoined to the front room by a door in front of which always sat a couch. If you turned right in the hallway you came to the second true bedroom in the house, that was snuggled between the hallway, bathroom, and back porch.

This house had no central air or heating. There was one bedroom that had a little window unit that kept that one bedroom frozen like the Arctic tundra. An effort was made to keep the rest of the house comfortable by opening windows and doors and moving fans around. In the winter the house was heated, at least in the front room by a gas heater. The kind where you turned on the gas, stuck a burning match through a little door on the side until the flames caught. It had some kind of "clay" brick, tile devices in the back I suppose to reflect the heat with a grill in the front. If you cannot teach your kids to not mess with the electronic devices in your home this kind of heater would spell real disaster for them. The little heaters were terribly inefficient. If you wanted to be warm, you had to stand in front of the heater. You would stand with your back to it and then when you were properly roasted on the backside you would turn yourself around and roast the front side. Of course you never got cooked all the way through.

The old house had glass door knobs. That is probably why I am drawn to glass door knobs to this day. The house had wood floors throughout. The ceilings were high, maybe 10' at least it seemed that way. I know they were higher than the standard 8' ceilings we see in houses today.

Where that house stood is now the above vacant lot. This house is where my Granddaddy and Grandmama Knox lived.

More than the house I remember the people. We spent several weekends a year there and usually at least one week during the summer.

My Granddaddy lived there. I always thought what a neat thing it was to be a "grand" daddy. I actually thought, and still do, that my Daddy was pretty grand. But here was a guy whose name was Granddaddy. I think of my Granddaddy and I think, work, boots, pickup trucks, dirt, tobacco, and front porch. I can't remember anything my Granddaddy said to me. I don't ever remember him saying much. I remember him working. I remember it always seemed like he was gone before the sun came up and came home after it had went down. It seemed like he worked every Saturday, maybe he didn't but that is my memory. He operated heavy equipment, a bulldozer. How neat is it to tell your friends that your Granddaddy drives a bulldozer, maybe that is why he was called Granddaddy. I remember the thermos of coffee. I remember the old lunch box. A real lunch box, not a miniature ice chest. The kind where your banana taste like your sandwich and your sandwich tastes like you banana. I always figured you were not really going to work unless you carried one of them with you. I remember him drinking coffee out of his saucer. It started in his cup but was poured into his saucer and drank from there. I remember the dog tied in the backyard was always his dog. I remember him sitting down at the table and taking this little brush like thing with a round handle on the end of it and slouching it around in a little cup making lather which he brushed onto his face and then looking into a mirror sitting on the table he took an old razor and shaved himself rinsing the razor in a bowl of hot water. I remember him chewing and spitting tobacco. I remember hims sitting on the front porch in the evening with his shirt off. I remember him being revered by all those around him. I remember crying when he died. He died at the hospital, but while residing in the house that once occupied the above vacant lot.

With my Granddaddy also lived my Grandmama in that house. What a providence that a Granddaddy would have a Grandmama for his wife. That surely must of had something to do with why I was a Grandson. I think of my Grandmama and I think of kitchen, cooking, home, and church. I remember her standing over the stove clearly hot and uncomfortable. I remember that when she fried chicken she fried the chicken neck. I remember because I think I always got the chicken neck. If I had not been more interested in playing than in eating that could have been very frustrating. I remember that kitchen heating up to what would be unbearable for most people today. I remember her waiting on my Granddaddy, maybe that had something to do with why she was a Grandmama. I am guessing that she probably wielded a lot of influence in that home but this was clearly a woman that had not been influenced by the women's movement. She did not mind, at least it seemed to me, to wait on Granddaddy. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table for hours talking to my mom and aunts. I thought, what a boring life. Don't you all have anything to do but talk. Of course I would on occasion stand around and listen to what they were saying until someone, usually mom told me to run along and find something to do. Ah, man it was just getting interesting. I remember her going to church. I remember that she gave me my first Concordance. Young's Analytical Concordance. I used it for several years until someone suggested using a Strong's. But, I still have the Young's and always will. My Grandmama gave it to me. When my grandmother last went to the Hospital I was Pastoring. I spent the last couple of days at the hospital with her and some of the family. She was in intensive care but using my credentials as a minister I helped myself to checking on her from time to time even outside of visiting hours. My Grandmama had gone blind. I went to her door at some point just to check in on her, and she said, James. She knew I was standing there. I was in the room with my mother, a couple of cousins, and several aunts when my Grandmama died. We all shed a few tears. And one of the greatest honors I have ever had is for my Grandmama to ask me to officiate at her funeral.

With my Granddaddy and Grandmama at that house lived anywhere from two uncles to three or four aunts. They were all a bit older than me other than my uncle Robert. I was born in March and he was born in April. Yes, my Grandmama and Mama were expecting at the same time. How cool is it to be older than one of your uncles. He was actually more like a cousin. Oh, and were there ever family get togethers at that house that once stood on the now vacant lot. With five boy cousins and three girl cousins and my three brothers we made a lot of memories. Playing army, hide and seek, army, kill the man with the football, army, football, army, murder in the dark, and army. We played a lot of army. We did so most of the times with sticks for guns. One year one of my aunts bought us all army helmets, I suppose from an army surplus store. Boy we were fit to be tied. We would throw dirt in the air to simulate battle scenes. When you were shot you counted to three and you could be alive again, otherwise the battles would not last very long. Which also meant when you shot someone you better run because in less than three seconds they would be shooting back again. We crawled over every square inch under that house many times, for many different reasons. We used that front porch for everything from a dinning table, to a fort, to a ship, to a prison, to a spaceship, to who knows what else. Maybe that is why I have an affinity for front porches. It is certainly why I return to this vacant lot on Nett Street just south of I10 off of Shepherd/Duram. I return, park, stare, remember, repeat a few silly comments to my wife that she has heard several times before (my wife was in that house a few times right after we were married). I wonder if I really did live that life. I know I did. I think, no one really knows me. My kids don't know me. Most people only know who I have become, but they don't know from whence I came. I feel self-conscious going back there. I go back often in my mind, and the closer I get to that vacant lot the stronger the pull to return, park, stare, and remember. I will probably repeat the process several more times before I am unable to do so, I can't help myself!
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