Column: Peeking through my fingers as Grandma’s house burns down

Joseph Palmersheim mug shot
Joseph Palmersheim

The little blue house on the corner of 93rd Street and Highway 169 was one of the everyday landmarks I passed on my way home.

I’d never really paid it any close attention until the day I noticed people, obviously family, milling about in funeral clothes in the somewhat aimless way that people passing time after a funeral do.

A few months later there was no house. It was gone – scraped from the earth as if it had never existed. This marked the closing of a chapter of someone’s family life – with a very definite “period” at the end of the sentence.

I know how this feels.

This week’s story about Dorothy Williams, the Bloomington resident who recalls seeing her grandparents’ farm house burn to make way for progress in Richfield, brought back memories.

We’d seen the writing on the wall for my grandma’s farmhouse for a long time. My family had worked that soil in Hales Corners, Wis., for more than 100 years, but the former produce fields had long since become overgrown with tract homes and car dealerships.

The last domino fell when Grandma moved out in September 2012. The barn was dismantled and the house was turned over to the fire department. I made sure to email them and ask for any training photos they took of the planned live burn.

The Hales Corners Fire Department (bless them) posted 124 picture in a folder on their Facebook page called “Vacant Home Final Burn Dec. 20,2011.” Seeing my grandma’s house referred to in such clinical terms was almost more shocking than seeing the photos of it burning. I could recognize parts of the house, now stripped to the bone, that the fire department was setting ablaze.

Fire crews gathered in what had formerly been the living room, the site of countless childhood Christmases. The fire was started in the front bedroom where my brother and I had spent nights falling asleep to the white-noise rumble of car tires on four lanes of concrete.

My family called that house home for more than a century. It was my refuge from the world, a place where nothing ever changed. I drove away the last time without looking back, knowing that it was better to leave the place shrouded in the anesthetic fog of memory.

So why did I seek these photos so intently? Why did I run multiple searches for what I knew could possibly upset me? Why the need to peek through my fingers?

In the end, I don’t have any better answer than this: I wanted to verify that the house was really gone.

The old house lives on in small ways. Our memories are vivid, but I made sure to take a few things before I left. I grabbed a rain-smoothed stone from the stone-and-mortar ramp that allowed tractors to be stored on the barn’s second-floor.

The door to my father’s old bedroom is leaning up against a wall in my own garage, waiting for the day when I finally get around to turning it into a work table. Explaining why I wanted it was somewhat awkward (Typical response: “You want what? Why?”) but I’m really glad I saved it.

I am glad my girls were able to spend time in their great-grandparents’ old house. They won’t remember it, but they’ll be able to see video of what once was, which is good for me, too.

Before I left for Milwaukee for that last trip, my wife told me about how she would imagine herself walking through her grandparents’ old house on Lake Nokomis. Her description was very vivid, right down to describing the feel of the floor on her feet.

I find myself doing the same thing now, hearing the sound of the rusted spring on the lower level screen door and smiling as I recalled my Grandma reading the latest issue of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal on the well-worn kitchen table.

When old homes die, more is destroyed than old timbers and mortar. Homes serve as the backdrops and main settings for the dramas of our lives. In some small way, they take a part of us with them when they are gone.

Contact Joseph Palmersheim at [email protected]