A Framework for Gratitude.

November 11, 2015

It’s a curious thing to live in a space where you are related to almost everyone who has haunted the halls, or the walls, before you. On some days, you feel like if you are quiet enough, reverent enough, or maybe just aware at all, that you can in some way get a sense of the souls who inhabited the space before. It’s the blessing of an old house. Besides non-existent closets, this is something that only comes with pre-war construction. Unfortunately (to me), this house isn’t haunted, but it definitely has a presence. As you walk into this space, it feels like babies were born here. Like dinners were served over laughter here. That something good before you came together. Here.

It also holds a lot of potential. It’s mostly untapped potential of lives lived before the opportunities we have now, but it’s also in its simple layout, its small frame and its considerable age. As I look around, I mostly just see everything that it could be, everything that needs to be done. But in reality, there’s beauty in where it is and what is has withstood.  This home has a lot of stories, euphoric and tragic, there’s no doubt. I just don’t know many of them. But sometimes, if I’m quiet enough, reverent enough, or maybe just aware at all, I think that’s why this house drew me here.

But let me back up. More than five years ago, we moved from the center of giant Houston to the outside of small Austin and into my great grandparents’ house. My mother’s, mother’s, mother and father were the second residents of the home in the 1920s, followed by my grandmother’s brother (my great uncle) from the 1960s through the early 2000s.

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That’s my great uncle on the right. He was a dancer on Broadway in the 1940s, and that is his official headshot. He was born Phillip Jefferson Allen, but always went by P.J.  Except, in New York he went by Leigh Allen (his stage name), and lived on Christopher Street, and danced at the Roxy Theater with Ethel Merman in Something for the Boys and Annie Get Your Gun. He also allegedly ran with Cole Porter, amongst other West Village heroes of the day… and I would give almost anything to know his stories. The sad reality is, I don’t know them, because he never told them. I’m not a hundred percent sure why he didn’t open up, but I’d speculate that we weren’t ready. He was a man born too soon, I guess. I can only guess. But now, instead of his tales, I have barns full of his memories and artifacts of his later profession, designing and building parade floats. But that’s another story.

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And these were his parents. This is a closer shot of the photo on the upper left, a photo of my great grandparents, George and Arnie Bell Allen. I love the way she is smirking into the air…and I really love the way he is looking at her. George was a Texas Ranger, she was kind, loved children more than anyone could understand, and baked bread every day. What I know about them is not enough, but I love this line that was in my great uncle PJ’s obituary:

“His parents loved to dance, and the children were taught to waltz as they learned to walk. In the Allen family, honesty, kindness and manners were of utmost importance. P.J. said his most valued possession was his friendship with his parents.”

Whoa. His most valued possession was his friendship with his parents. As someone who is raising a son, that feels like a lot of good to live up to, and I live in their home.

When we first moved in, probably for the first year or two, we were working on the bones and structure of the house, and I was too intimidated, confused, or overwhelmed to do anything with the decor.  So it sat undone, an open space of drab, incompletely existing in between neglected decay and what’s next. It was odd and sort of depressing.

I wanted to honor its former residents, but I wasn’t sure how. Because a Texas Ranger and a dancer-turned-parade-float-maker have very different styles and sensibilities, and I had no idea how to recognize any of that while incorporating my own thing, especially since I wasn’t sure what my own thing would be.

But then I saw a photo in a magazine of a wall of photos and it made sense. I would fill the walls with those who had lived here, visited here, spent holidays here. I thought if I featured a collection of those who had been here before, it would unlock how I should arrange things now. So I did it. I found a bunch of photos.

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Like this one. This photo was taken on Christmas 1947 in the room I am currently sitting in as I type this. On the left, the third woman back from the front is my grandmother, who was then, in this photo, the age that I am now. Today, there is only one person in this photo who is still with us. The front baby on the right side, that baby is my mother.  Everyone else is gone.

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Or this photo from 1951. This photo was taken in the next room, the room where this photo hangs now. And man, I would love to hear what they are laughing about. Well some are laughing, some are very serious. My great grandparents are sitting in the middle, surrounded by their seven children and their families. Almost half of the seven took their own lives. There are some stories there, trapped in a time where people didn’t tell their stories or have any words to name depression, much less to understand it. And yet in the midst of it, there is joy. That’s what I wanted to frame.

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I have about 50 of these photos collected. Black and white photos taken at, near, or connected to the house. So I spray painted 50 frames blue and began to hang them up on the wall. Most of them hint at stories I don’t know.

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Like, my great uncle, the “old bachelor” as they say around here, well, he was married once. To a lady. There’s a story there.

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Or my great grandfather, who was not only a Texas Ranger, he was the Sheriff of this county. He is standing tall, back row, middle at the Capitol in Austin where he served as Secret Service. But check out the little dude in front with the giant hat, posing with the cigar and the gun. There is definitely a story there.

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Or this guy. Who is this guy? I have no idea. But he also has a gun (Texas) and he is not messing around with trespassers. As they have trespassed against us.

I began to put these around the house, paying tribute, and slowly (very slowly), quietly, the patterns started coming together. The house, as it currently exists and stands, is starting to look connected.  It sounds completely woo-woo, but it worked.

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Here’s a bit of the collection. Only, a ten-year-old human lives here, a growing human boy child who jumps and runs around and bounces balls on the regular. So as a result and after a while, it is truly impossible to keep the frames hung straight up on the wall, and it starts to look like a janky hodge podge hanging in the Weasley’s house … and not in a good way. (Those of you who are really undone by the uneven crookedness of the photos above, you are my people and I feel your pain.)

It was clear that collected together, the snapshots of the past began to look like clutter.

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So I took them down today.

It now looks different. A bit stark, a bit blank, but also clean and fresh.

The symbolism here is obvious.

Those who came before us may have established the scene that we entered, but it’s clear we are here to create what’s next.

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And for all of that, I am thankful.

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8 Comments

  • Reply Emi Lee November 12, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    This is beautiful Laura.

    • Laura Harrison Mayes
      Reply Laura November 12, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      Thank you Emi Lee!

  • Reply Padrino November 12, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Awesome post. I liked the photos on the wall, even when they were crooked, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next …

  • Reply Judy Woods November 12, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    I miss the black and whites framed in turquoise.

  • Reply Jennifer November 13, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    I have a secret for those janky-looking pictures on the wall. (Happens at my house, too–three boys–and one of my wiser neighbors, whose boys have grown, had to tell me how to fix it.). Velcro self-adhesive dots. Velcro the two sides of the dot together, adhere to the back corner of the frame, mash it against the wall, and the sticky back side will adhere to the wall. Then the kids come through with their entire circus, and the pictures don’t move. It is awesome.

    But I also appreciate the clearing you might have happening here.

    Either way, your writing is beautiful. Take care.

  • Reply Traci November 13, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Wow.

  • Reply Laura Ingalls Gunn November 13, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    I absolutely loved this post. You are one heck of a writer. I keep my people on my stairwell. Having grown up in foster care they complete me somehow. Perhaps someday I too will be ready to take them down.

  • Reply Amy @ MomAdvice November 17, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    You are such a gifted storyteller, my friend! I am swept away in your family stories and I just love the display! xo

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