Jan 09, 2014 0 Share

Subtle Magic


The author as a child with her grandparents in Arizona.
Photo courtesy of Caroline McGraw

It happens every year at the holidays. Every time the new year approaches, I want to revisit the books I loved in childhood. Instead of being productive, I want to read the complete works of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. In the midst of everything new, I want something old. And whenever I read these books, I'm struck by how the world has changed. I'm amazed at the amount of work that was required simply to stay alive back in their day. I relish all the sowing, reaping, churning … all those old-fashioned verbs. I come away from these books with gratitude for all I have, and a resolve not to take opportunities for granted. 

And as I read about days gone by, I can't help but think of rural Arizona, where my grandparents used to live. There, the nearest post office is a 20-minute trip, mostly on dirt roads. My grandparents had lived on five acres there since before I was born. But this year, they've made a big move: relocating to southern New Jersey. Most of me is happy for them, but part of me is sad. Their unique cordwood house up for sale, and the summers Willie and I spent there seem farther away. 

To be sure, we only spent about three weeks in Arizona each summer, but three weeks of summer is an eternity when you're young. And it was a world so different from that of suburban New Jersey. Instead of paved roads, dirt prevailed. Instead of neat laws, barbed wire and iron gates were the order of the day. When Grandma did laundry, she used an old-fashioned washer with a crank turn. I remember her telling me never to put my fingers near the crank, never to let my hands get too close. 

Willie and I would watch her do laundry, awed by both the contraption and her capable hands. Instead of a dryer, Grandma had clotheslines strung from the barns to a broken-down old truck that rested in the center of the yard. (Mom tells me that, when it was time to move the vehicle off the property, they turned the key in the ignition and it still ran. I couldn't believe it.) The truck's white paint was peeling, and there was a plastic owl perched atop the rod that held the clotheslines steady. I remember the sound that fake owl made, creaking faintly as it turned around and around when the dry wind blew. 

While Mom and Grandma washed the clothes, Willie and I would hang them out on the line to dry. We'd hold the rough, weather-worn wooden clothespins in our hands, and cling to the sheets. When the wind blew, it was hard to keep a good grip. But if we let go, dirt would swallow an item immediately, and it would have to be washed again. In such a place, the world described in “Little House on the Prairie” didn't seem so distant. I spent at least one summer wearing a sunbonnet. 

Willie and I would collect the eggs and feed the chickens in the morning; we loved to do that chore together. I'd close the door to the roosting house and check the simple latch, and Willie would race about, giving the chickens a fright. He loved to chase them around the coop, to watch their feathers ruffle as they squawked in protest. As I once wrote, “Allowing my brother to [chase chickens and roam around] was an essential part of my parents’ responsible caregiving … because it gave Willie a chance to be himself, to embrace the dignity of personal risk.” 

The summers of childhood are no more. And in most respects, my current home—a small town in Alabama—is nothing like the cordwood house in Arizona. Yet as I step into the house my husband and I are renovating—a 113-year-old space—I can't help but feel close to my brother, and to those long-ago summers. And I can't help but believe in the magic of those old books I love. That's what brings me back every year: the subtle magic of family, the assurance that we'll carry on together.