Mema’s House

Caitlin Butler

The story goes it didn’t matter what my mother’s mom wanted to be called as a new grandmother. I was the first grandchild, so when “mimmaw” came out of my mouth, it was decided.  My Mema was still a young woman then, or else barely middle-aged. Her hair, which she had worn in a glossy brown beehive before Mama was born, was now sandy blonde and fluffed with strong hairspray. She was my sing-along partner and sandwich maker. My Pepa, whose pink complexion and curls I inherited without his silence, was the Easter egg prize-money supplier and fixer of everything. These, my earliest memories, are from the summer of 1994, the summer I turned five, and The Lion King replaced The Little Mermaid as my favorite movie.

Mema and Pepa lived together in the yellow house with the white front door, but I always called it Mema’s house. Mema’s house had a number of mysterious doors. For instance, the closet door by the front door shocked me, possessing instead of a wall at the back, another door leading to Mema’s room. Or the door at the top of the stairs, which emanated quietly ominous sounds. But the front door mystified me most. Did it work? Why did we never use it? I thought maybe it was for decoration, that it was a requirement for houses to have front doors whether or not you want them. But one day it snowed on Christmas, and Pepa yanked that door open so we could go out from the living room into the front yard, and scoop snow into small plastic bowls. Then my little sister and I ate the snow with spoons, sitting by the fire. Every other time, we used the side door.

The side door held no air of mystery, and was worthy of no special attention. It opened simply into the dark back den, which sat lower than the rest of the house. Mama would park Daddy’s blue station wagon left of the big magnolia whose red seeds looked so much like candy. Three concrete steps, their round-molded edges beginning to crumble, sat to the left, and to climb them was to have your right arm tickled by thriving four-o-clock bushes. There was a tiny half bathroom immediately right, a kitchenette filled with potted plants after that, and against the far wall on the left, an out-of-tune piano stood over its bench, dignified and mostly unused. One of my greatest delights was to play thunderstorms, pounding madly with both hands at the left side of the piano for thunder and tinkling excitedly at the high end for rain, sometimes banging a handful of black keys for a jarring jolt of lightning.

And then there was the puppy room. To get to the rest of the house from the den required walking through what probably once was a breezeway turned room, where Mema conducted the practical aspects of her toy poodle business. The puppy room air hung thick with clipper oil, dog perfume, and sanitizer. I didn’t like it. The entire left wall comprised modular kennels, and housed between eight to ten dogs. I liked them outside, or roaming the house, but not in their cages in the puppy room, where they ceased to be sweet little curly dogs and turned into a wall of rattling sound. They yapped and yelped whenever someone passed through, clanging the doors of their cages. I developed a strategy: I took a deep breath as I came through the den, and held it and stopped up my ears, then charged through. The running made them bark even more.


I liked to run, and the floorplan in Mema’s house was practically made for it. I remember being helped down from the washing machine beside the stovetop.  I liked to sit on it during the spin cycle, nabbing Cheez-Its from the chicken casserole Mema was making. I asked to get down, and then I’d run. It was endlessly entertaining to run one path through three different rooms! Living room, kitchen, and dining room, over and over and over! I ran in lopsided ovals, my feet snicking through thick, sticky carpet before slapping across the plasticky, patterned linoleum. Snick-snack, snick-snack, snick-snack! Flying past the velour couch with country scenes made dark by years of cigarette smoke, I’d grab the doorframe, and pivot right: slip-slap, slip-slap, slip-slap! Racing past Mema at the stove, I’d grab the next doorframe and pivot again, careful not to crash into Tillie, mumbling quietly to herself in her birdcage on the left, or into the dining room chairs straight ahead.

Those chairs! I was always intrigued by their woven, wicker backs. How did all those straight lines make a pattern of circles that weren’t quite big enough for me to stick my pinky finger in? The chairs guarded the oval oak table in the center of the dining room, where I did little dining. It’s where I sat coloring with Crayola crayons on continuous-feed office paper, admiring its playful, perforated, and hole-punched edges, or scratching water from a Tupperware tumbler onto a paint-with-water picture of Pocahontas. It’s where I took a break from sliding down the stairs on my bottom to persistently try whistling back to Tillie, the orange-cheeked cockatiel. But I didn’t spend much time in there, and the solemn china cabinets in the corners made me feel reverent. Sometimes I ate outside, sipping Co’Cola, and carefully folding orange slice cheese into uniform squares for saltines. But mostly, I ate in the breakfast nook.

The dark, wooden shutters in the breakfast nook fascinated me. I don’t know if they had always felt tacky, or if I made them that way by touching them so often. I wanted to play with them, and for some reason nobody wanted me to. Maybe they didn’t enjoy the swish-click of the open and shut, and the ability to control the sun’s entrance. I ate crustless square sandwiches with Sunbeam bread and Blue Plate mayonnaise, cut into quarters and served with ruffled chips, which I nibbled ridge-by-ridge at the round table in front of those shutters. I was watched by a kitchen full of decorative geese, circling my plate and padding across my placemat, trailing blue ribbons from their necks, and looking for their partners on the canisters and walls. I purposely accidentally dropped crumbs for the puppies, full-grown toy poodles. Pepa taught me to count coins at that table. I thought it was unfair that dimes were 10 cents but smaller than pennies and nickels – I still have affectionate feelings for dimes.

Sitting there with my back to the wood-paneled wall, I could see out the sliding glass doors to the pool. I wore out so many bathing suits then. The once-shiny fabric would get all picked and fuzzy from me sitting and lying on concrete. My navy blue sailor stripes and red with white dots faded from sun and chlorine in the hours spent swimming with ankles together, perfecting my mermaid technique. No swimming pool in my life has measured up to that oasis, and no track has been better to run than those long, rectangular laps on sun-hot concrete. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to run on it, or get close to the edge without my floaties, but that didn’t stop me. When I got braver and older, I made it a game to jump corners as I ran and to hurdle the diving board instead of going around it.

At night sometimes, Mema and I would sit by the pool on folded-up towels, swishing our feet in the water, which always seemed warmer at night. We’d listen to Delilah on the radio, giving advice and taking requests in her soothingly somnolent voice. Mema would smoke a cigarette and drink her last beer, snug in its black rubber coozie. We swished our feet through the water, and up and out, flinging water drops forward, seeing whose would splash furthest. I watched my larger-than-life Simba float, gliding lazily across the surface. Even the Polaris was tamer at night, mainly restricting his vacuuming to the bottom of the deep end, but I still pulled my feet out, just in case, when Mema stood up.

Elton John had begun to sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and Mema left to turn up the volume for me. I didn’t have to ask anymore; she just knew. She returned to me, and I put my feet back in, swishing them quietly, listening to my song. I didn’t sing along—the  words on the radio were different from the ones in the movie:

Can you feel the love tonight? How it’s laid to rest? It’s enough to make kings and vagabonds believe the very best.

I listened, and watched the tip of her cigarette glowing orange, wondering why it glowed and how the ashes didn’t drop into the pool, glad they didn’t; wondering what a vagabond was, glad he believed the best; planning to ask Mema if I can sleep in one of her tee-shirts because I love the way they smell like the wood of the drawer I know she keeps them in. I wished that I could stay up, stay there, wished the song would play again, and wished it wouldn’t always end before I was ready for it to be over.


Lyrics written by Tim Rice for the song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” (music written by Elton John) appear in the story Mema’s House.