The air in my mother’s attic smelled of mothballs and dusty clothing. Boxes decorated the floors like forgotten building blocks, while spiders’ webbing, substituting for lace, hanged above dingy windows. It was a far cry from the airy wonderland where I spent rainy afternoons during my childhood. The visit wasn’t planned, not really. Mama’s health was declining. On a whim, she invited me one weekend to take what I wanted of my childhood memories before the remaining loot was donated or thrown away.
“So tell me again, what we are looking for?” my son Jonathan asked. “Dang it!” Dancing like a cricket on a hot skillet, he fought with a cobweb that decorated his head and fell backward into a dressmaker’s dummy. In seconds, he’d made it from the stairs to where I stood, several yards away. “What the heck was that?” he shrieked.
I fought the smile that was tickling the corners of my mouth. “Um… that would be Chelle.”
Jonathan stared at my face incredulously, looking for answers. “And that’s who? The chick ain’t got no head.”
“It’s your granny’s dressmaker’s dummy.”
My son nodded, frowning as he surveyed the rest of the attic. “Um-hmm.” He pointed to a frizzy-headed, one-eyed, doll hanging from a hook on the wall. “So it’s not some freakish experiment like that.”
“No, that’s my Rub-a-Dub Dolly. I used to get too excited while bathing her and accidentally rubbed one of her eyes out.
“Well,” Jonathan huffed. “I’m glad you got outta that phase before I was born.”
I laughed and flicked a dust ball at him. “Smart-alec. Just make sure you watch where you step. Rotten boards are over the kitchen, and I don’t think Granny would want anything other than creamer in her coffee.”
“Again, what are we looking for?” Jonathan shuddered and glanced at a dark crawlspace nearby. “This feels like a scene in a horror movie. Any moment, Freddy Kruger will appear and take me to some weird alternate universe.”
“Don’t worry, old Fred would bring you back after an hour.”
A large box secluded in the shadows had captured my attention. Carefully, I maneuvered my way around containers of forgotten Christmas ornaments and trunks of clothes from days gone by. I don’t remember this box being here. Reverently, I blew the dust off the top and smiled at childish scribbling on the lid: “DO NOT OPEN OR ELSE.”
“’Or else’ what?” an older woman’s voice, roughened by years of exposure to crop dust and weather, asked inside my mind.
“’Or else’ I’ll dye your hair pink Granny!” a teen giggled, also in my mind.
“Now Debbie, that’s not ladylike. How ‘bout ‘or else’ I’ll tickle you,” my grandmother responded.
The conversation had been followed by waves of giggles from both parties. I smiled at the memory, so fresh in my mind as if it’d happened just the day before instead of twenty years earlier. I leaned forward, closed my eyes, and sniffed the box. The faint scent of gingerbread and donuts wound its way through my nasal passages and to my heart. Still smells like your house, Granny.
I eased the top off the box. Nestled between two high school letter jackets was my one and only “first place” barrel racing trophy. I held it against my face, enjoying the coolness of the metal against my cheek before laying it aside. Digging deeper, my fingers brushed against something flat and hard.
A lump formed in my throat as I gazed at the old hymnbook in my hands. It’d been my grandmother’s. I could almost feel her hands over mine as I caressed the cover, enjoying the feel of it in my grasp and the memories that came with it.
After my father’s death, I was angry and reclusive. No one knew how to penetrate the wall of resentment encasing my heart, and not many dared to try.
I was surprised, when during a visit to Granny’s house, she dropped the book in my lap. “And what am I supposed to do with this?” I held the book like it was a soiled diaper.
Granny raised an eyebrow. “What anyone else would do—sing of course.”
“If you haven’t realized it, I have nothing to sing about.” I ignored the look of hurt in my grandmother’s eyes.
She sat on the sofa beside me and took my hand in hers. “My child,” she began. "When you sing, your brain concentrates on the lyrics and the melody. Your heart is filled with love of life, and the shared memories of loved ones, past and present.”
She pressed the book back into my hands. “You’ll feel better, I promise. Now, let’s raise the roof!”
That afternoon, and for many years afterward, we made it a point to join our hearts in song and “raise the roof.” And my burdens were lightened each time.
Our sessions became less frequent after my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s’. The lyrics and melody became difficult for her to remember, and as a result she would become uncharacteristically agitated. After one visit, my grandmother, with tears in her eyes, handed me the book. There was a finality I understood, but didn’t want to accept.
“I want you to keep singing, for me,” she’d insisted. “And when you do, raise the roof with your heart and voice, and remember me.”
Now, I held the cherished book to my heart, as if hoping to absorb the memories it represented. I opened the book, selected a hymn, and in a voice weak from lack of practice, began to “raise the roof,” just as my grandmother would want me to.