Adelia Clara Huenefeld Kittrell was my grandmother. I formally called her “Grandmother,” because she was proper, and would not stand for anything silly, although our eldest cousin, Suzanne, impishly and in a spirit of rebellious fun got away with calling her “Granny.” I think Grandmother secretly might have tolerated it because she had a sense of humor about it buried down deep somewhere, but my mother forbade me to push my limits and persuaded me to go the safe route with my moniker for her.
Grandmother lived in one of those small houses you see in older parts of a town that you see and think, “I’ll bet a retired person lives there.” You know, the ones that are painted clean white and have green and white striped awnings, a metal porch swing and a carport with gravel under it. There were gigantic pecan trees on both sides of the driveway, and a cotton field across from the house that welcomed us after a long drive from Salina, Kansas to Gregory, Arkansas. The rocks under the carport made crackly noises when our car pulled up to the side of the house in the summer times, announcing our presence in the quiet of the countryside. My brother, Chris, and I would have exhausted our book supply by then, taken turns laying in the back window, and had numerous “foot fights” by the time we arrived.
We always went in through the side door, which was the kitchen, where grandmother was usually in an apron, and always, always, ALWAYS in a skirt, panty hose, and sensible heels. She greeted us with soft, fleshy kisses and pillowy but strong arms as she drew back after the hug briefly so as to gaze into our young faces, to drink them in, a small but delighted draw about her lips and cheeks. Her grayish/silvery/bluish hair, depending on the most current rinse, gleamed in its controlled waves and she had just the briefest hint of a lady mustache that was easy to ignore, because of the magnetic pull of her clear, baby blue eyes. Time had not taken away the intelligent vividness of the sight and color behind the glasses. I barely noticed that she wore glasses, so taken was I with her eyes.
This was the house in which my dad grew up. He was the last born, after his four siblings, in that house. It was the place I imagined his life before my mother came into the picture, before he was a Marine, before I was born. I was, and still am, hungry for stories about his youth there. William Baytop Kittrell, Billy, was a beautifully handsome baby, child, kid, teenager, and young man in his small town world. I have always felt proud of the physical attributes of my father and the perfection of his facial features. Those blue eyes were passed from Adelia to Billy, and I was enchanted.
Billy’s room, while growing up, was an attic space that he shared with his brother Benny. To get up there, there was a door with a glass knob that opened on to wooden steps leading up to it right from the living room, that made it seem like a secret stairway reminiscent of Nancy Drew; as if we were climbing into an upward cave of mystery.This was no ordinary attic. This was a place not only of storage, but of A-framed, wooden-floored, spacious respite and privacy. It was dim at first, but as your eyes adjusted it became bright enough, especially as you walked easily toward the bedroom end, past the enormous attic fan, small furniture, games, and bookshelves along the way, where there was a big window providing light. The floor was hard wood, and there were intricate, old metal floor vents that, if you crouched down and peeped through, you could see and hear the people in the dining room. You didn’t stay long because they were always talking about boring things, though.
The attic, you see, was a place of refuge from talking to the adults when Chris and I visited. We were the youngest cousins and often felt bored and excluded from the conversation at the big, formal dinner table or in the Victorian-decorated living room that held the gorgeous mantel clock reminding us with its heartbreakingly beautiful bonging every quarter hour that there is beauty in the world and time was important. When our cousins weren’t around to play with us, and we didn’t go outside, the only kid-friendly thing to do was retreat to the attic.
The attic was a place where my brother and I were in perfect union and at peace. Chris and I spent hours reading Archie, Donald Duck, Richie Rich, and action comics. There were old board games of Pachisi and checkers and wooden blocks, but mostly we liked laying around on the floor or on the beds reading. Sometimes we slept on the old, twin metal beds with squeaky coiled springs,where Billy and Benny slept. Uncle Benny used to hide peanut butter, mayonnaise and bread for snacks under the bed because he was a big guy and had fits of hunger in the middle of the night, which grandmother didn’t approve of, but we have a sneaking suspicion she turned a blind, twinkling eye to it back in the day.
Early in the morning, earlier than we cared to rise, the smell of bacon and coffee would waft up the steps and curl into our consciousness. Our mother, Yvonne, in her infinite grace and wisdom, did not force us to conform to grandmother’s house standards of crack-of-dawn wake-up times on vacation; we were eternally indebted to her, for we realized she was risking her standing of being the perfect daughter-in-law, and gaining the reputation of being a rule-breaker. Nevertheless, we would be overwhelmed by the friendly invitation of the café-like atmosphere and gentle adult morning laughter and get up anyway, lured by the delicious food produced on Grandmother’s stove-top .
To this day, I never smell the combination of bacon and coffee without being reminded of Grandmother’s house. The reminiscence of my grandmother’s love and hospitality and the security of family is just as strong as the connection I have with the scent of irises representing my childhood God. The attic and the glory of independence it fostered was a place of growth, reflection, and childhood literacy. It planted the seed of a life-long, persevering philosophy that solitude and escape can engender freedom of spirit… and that tucked-away places such as an attic can be a gateway to peace.