He sold the house with the spare room to a woman who painted it yellow. Not the bright, cheerful yellow of sunflower petals, but the faded yellow edges of my father’s Bible which sat for forty years unopened on the mantel. I felt sorry for that Bible; its words misquoted and its pages worn only by age and not use. But I suppose the entire house was like that.
My grandfather had built it when the war ended. A small, cramped space, room enough only to hold his always pregnant wife and babies stacked against the wall in cardboard boxes. But it was all he could afford. The blood and tears soaked into the walls became a mark of distinction and he never tired of telling his guests that he built this grand place with his bare hands. That was the only thing Grandfather was ever prideful about.
But it was the only thing my father wasn’t. Grandfather stayed in the house until he dropped dead cleaning the breakfast dishes in 1998. And before I could sweep up the shattered pieces of the serving tray he’d been scrubbing, my father had sold the house to the first bidder.
And she is the one who painted the spare room yellow. And I am the only one who noticed.
I often wondered why my father was so eager to sell the family home after his father died. “Progress,” he said in his gravely voice as he beat his first on the kitchen table. “Can’t live in the past. The future’s coming and I ain’t going to be late.” So there went the house, the family photo albums and my grandmother’s book of handwritten poetry, the one bound in leather with the title embossed in cursive. All in the name of modernity.
But when my father died not six months after the house was sold, I discovered the truth in a hatbox. I have my mother to thank for that; it’s the one thing she got past my father when cleaning out the house, and she had the brains to keep it hidden until he was good and gone. I waited until he was interred and mourning had passed—something he hadn’t respected for his own father—before I opened it. And that’s where I found my grandfather’s journal, tear stained and tattered, which held the secret that he was an addict.
The sixties had left my grandfather in a delirium. His veins ran with alcohol and he had long since given up reading his Bible and had taken to beating his children over the head with it. Grandmother tried to calm his rages, to help him off the pills and liquor, but he wouldn’t have it. That’s how she lost baby number eleven. And my father, ten years old and two feet too short to stand up to him, just tried to keep out of his way.
It worked until my father’s eleventh birthday on April 27, 1971. Grandfather had come home drunk, his steps shuffling and swerving as he progressed down the hall toward the spare room where he slept. After the miscarriage, Grandmother had banned him to the back of the house, never to touch her nor share her bed. But she was too religious to divorce him. “For the children’s sake,” she said. But I think she was too scared of the backlash from the Baptists. I would be too.
“Good for nothing bar…” Grandfather muttered. He tried to twist the doorknob but it slipped from his grip and snapped back to its upright position. Trying again and failing, he cursed.
Shielded behind the slightly ajar bathroom door, my father held his toothbrush and stared down at the toothpaste dripping down his arm. He kept one eye on his father, still trying clumsily to open the spare room door, and noticing how quickly the paste dried and stuck to his arm hair. He pivoted, reaching for the towel to wipe it off but banged his shoulder into the side of the mirror. Down went the toothbrush with a clatter to the tile floor. It echoed in the silence of the broken down home.
Grandfather spun around and nearly toppled over. “Stop that racket, boy! Come help me with this blasted door.” My father froze, his eyes darting about the darkened hall like a flashlight beam, searching for an escape. But there was none.
“Now, boy.” Grandfather roared, gripping the doorknob. It twisted right, swung back and Grandfather went down. He was still, a tangle of limbs too confused to unravel themselves. “Help me up!”
My father, shaking in his socks and his mussed brown hair falling in his eyes, ran toward the one he tried every night to run from. I reckon it was the fear that pushed him into it. How Grandfather expected a boy to lift his limp, 250-pound frame I still don’t know, but he did.
My father got him sitting up and leaning against the wooden slats of the bed frame. He was halfway around, desperate for the door, when a hand shot out and clipped his left cheek. Tears streamed from his eyes, the salty wetness soothing the burning skin.
“Take it like a man,” Grandfather growled. “No son of mine cries like a girl. Come here, boy.”
My father didn’t move. But two broken ribs later, and my father had been hardened to any semblance of love. And my grandfather was still drunk. But not enough to forget.
Grandfather sobered up after Grandmother died in ’82. But he never forgave himself for not changing in time to ask for her forgiveness. But that didn’t hurt him as much as never receiving it from the only person who could truly help him heal.
They never spoke once my father left home at seventeen, though Grandfather tried time and again to mend things. The only reason I knew him at all was because of my mother. “Just because you won’t associate with him,” she told my father one night when I was eight, “doesn’t mean you can deprive our daughter of a loving grandfather.”
“Loving!” he scoffed. “Have you met the man?”
“Yes, I have,” Mother said, “but you haven’t.” They never discussed it again, but my father always paced angrily, muttering to himself or buried himself in paperwork at the office whenever we visited Grandfather’s house.
My mother was right. He didn’t care to meet the man Grandfather had become once he got sober and saved. That didn’t change what he had done when he was a kid. Nothing could change that. Not even God. No wonder why he never opened his Bible.
But I saw the man Grandfather really was. Even as a kid, looking through what everyone presumed was rose-coloured glasses but was really just an aid for my nearsightedness, I could see what my father wouldn’t admit was there. I remember sitting for hours on Grandfather’s lap, pretending to sleep so that he’d keep singing my favourite song. “I’ve got sixpence. Jolly, jolly sixpence,” he crooned. I know now that I never fooled him, not for a minute. He was gentle and wise, and had a faith as unbreakable as my father’s stubbornness. And so, he sold the house and scrubbed the memories from the walls of the spare room, in hopes that if he used enough detergent and distraction, they would disappear.
But even the yellow paint can’t hide it. It’s still there, buried beneath that hideous shade, and it will always be there unless you completely strip it and start over. But why put in the effort when you can sell the house and hand over the burden to the new owner?
So there it sits, the spare room in Grandfather’s house, with fading yellow paint and hurts that only stain the walls like blood.
But you know, my father wasn’t the only one needing to heal. And that’s why, after a trip to Vegas, I bought a Bible, that old house and a can of forest green paint.