It was a tiny house in spirit and square-footage if not in style or name, an old-fashioned shotgun house with a few additions. Nana’s house didn’t have a loft, but it had a sunny built-on bedroom with windows on three sides, a beautiful hand-made quilt on the bed, and the foot-pedal sewing machine where she stitched patches together to make more quilts

I remember a flushing toilet and claw-foot bathtub with hot and cold running water in what had once been an alcove, but Mama had memories of Nana’s original “composting” toilet, an old-fashioned outhouse, and of water heated in a kettle on the kitchen stove to pour into a big round galvanized tub moved temporarily into the warm kitchen for a bath. There was no room for a lavatory in the updated bathroom. We brushed our teeth and washed our hands and faces at the kitchen sink made of concrete and with the plainest of faucets, like a sink you might find in a workshop.

The sink had a crude shelf underneath. Nana had fashioned a red checked curtain to hide the supplies on that shelf. A Formica table, four mismatched chairs, a narrow four-burner stove and oven, a very shallow cupboard, and an icebox completed the kitchen furnishings. The icebox was a porcelain-lined wooden box with handles on the top and bottom sections, and a large draining pan underneath. A big block of ice, delivered regularly from the Ice Man’s truck, prompted by a sign in the window showing how many pounds the householder wanted, was loaded into the top compartment. It cooled a few perishable things that could then be placed into the bottom section. As the ice melted, the water drained into the pan, which had to be emptied regularly. I was a teenager when Nana got a small electric refrigerator, a castoff from her daughter, Aunt Dorothy.

Three or four print dresses with matching belts hung in the tiny closet between the living room and the kitchen, and her pretty nightgown and robe were handy on a nail just inside the closet door. The dresses were always clean and pressed, and she complemented her outfits with small gold hoops in her pierced ears and a strand of faux pearls for a really special occasion. Her sturdy grandma dress-up shoes were clean and polished, and the slippers and old gardening shoes she wore around the house were comfortable and serviceable.

A summer gathering on Nana’s porch. Nana is in the background at left.

The whole house was as cheerful and welcoming as Nana herself. A gas heater in the living room kept it warm and cozy in cold weather. Open doors and windows and a couple of electric fans made the Texas heat tolerable. Outside, there was a tree to climb, Nana’s carefully-tended flowers to enjoy, plenty of dirt and battered discarded kitchen utensils to make mud pies, and a porch with metal chairs where neighbors were invited to share watermelon and cantaloupe or to just sit and visit.

When my cousins and I slept over, the youngest was privileged to share Nana’s double bed in her cozy bedroom. The rest of us were comfortably tucked into a roll-away bed pulled magically out of her TV cabinet, or the fold-down living-room couch, or improvised pallets on the floor, padded with extra blankets. In warm weather, the older cousins were allowed to take our pallets out to the porch.

We thought of Nana as kind of poor, living as she did with the help of her daughters, a little spare change from baby-sitting or ironing, and a monthly Social Security check for eighty-five dollars, but she always had what she needed plus something to share—a patchwork quilt, a hand-embroidered dishtowel, a jar of homemade plum preserves. She never complained, and she never talked about things she wanted to buy.

My other grandmother lived in a big house with an air conditioner and beautiful furniture, rugs, and curtains. There were fireplaces in the living room, dining room, and all the bedrooms. The big front porch had a porch swing, and her grand kitchen contained a deep-freeze and all the latest appliances, but Nana’s house was where I wanted to be. My other grandmother was deeply unhappy, a hypochondriac who spent most of her days in bed. Her house, though elegant and spacious, was dark and uninviting. I don’t remember ever seeing a fire in any of the fireplaces, even at Christmas or on the coldest days of the year.

Minimalism was not a word used to describe anyone’s lifestyle. We saw the world in terms of prosperity or poverty. Advertisements on billboards and TV assured us that happiness was just over the horizon after our next purchase, but I couldn’t help wondering why my Nana, who had so little, was the happiest person in my family.


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