3RD PLACE IN ENSPIREME: PASSION PROJECT’S SHORT STORY CONTEST

In 2003, the population of Union, Oregon rose from 1,926 to 1,928 when, after forty- three years of marriage, Lyle bought Peggy the house of her dreams. The 1,240 square foot, Victorian-style house had been around since before either of them were born, and Peggy knew just from looking at its crisp white paneling, spacious wrap-around porch, and high arching windows that she had finally found the one. If she hadn’t been convinced before, the original claw-foot bathtub, narrow-yet-intricate sloping staircase, and four perfectly sunlit bedrooms confirmed it.

Peggy wasted no time. Even before their boxes had arrived, she was painting each bedroom a different color—deep maroon, mossy green, bright rose, tiffany blue. She was wallpapering the bathrooms and tearing up the downstairs carpet to reveal a century-old, perfectly preserved hardwood floor. The kitchen, which featured an original stained-glass window, was outfitted with new glass cabinet doors and crystal knobs shaped like grape bunches to match.

As soon as the paint had dried, art was hung—mostly Monet, but Peggy placed some of her own work beside, and for most, it was difficult to tell the difference. She framed the windows with layers of sheer and lace curtains—to let the morning in, she explained—and placed antique vanities just-so in every room, knowing precisely where the natural light would make anyone look their best.

She installed a crystal chandelier in the center of the dining room—one that shook with even the softest steps. She brought in Tiffany lamps and placed them in every corner: one next to the high-backed sofa in the living room; one next to the pink velvet chaise lounge in the sitting room; and a smaller one on the writing desk directly beside. Next came the porcelain: Diana of Versailles in front of the sitting room mirror; da Vinci’s David on the fireplace mantle; and a ballerina, her slippers cast in bronze, welcoming newcomers from the entryway’s marble table.

It was nearly perfect. Her glittering, colorful, pristine home was missing only one thing: people to fill it. And because her family, big and beautiful, was spread throughout the world, she took the next best thing—photographs—and set to work. The upstairs hall that connected the maroon, pink, green, and blue bedrooms became a chronological timeline of her family’s history.

On December 24, 2004, the population of Union, Oregon went from 1,928 to 1,943 for two days only, and Lyle and Peggy were happier than they had ever been in their entire lives. Peggy’s table, illumined by the shaking chandelier, was bursting with people—sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and grandchildren. Her family was amazed at the house, amazed by her hard work, and she was amazed by how right it felt—how each room was made to be filled to bursting.

The adults of the house played cards and drank coffee and sat in the living room, laughing and talking and telling their children “it was a grown-up joke” when they didn’t understand Uncle Terry’s punchline. The children of the house ran up and down the stairs, thundering through the narrow hall, chasing and hiding and hiding-and-seeking. There were so many of them that Peggy could hardly keep count, but she loved it that way—loved how her grandchildren poked around corners and popped out of closets and snuck candy from her well- stocked stash of almond Kisses and Werther’s caramels.

After presents had been unwrapped and bellies had been filled, it was time for the picture—just to remember, to be together, Peggy said—and the entire family squished and sat on top of one another and layered and smiled while the camera flashed. Peggy had it printed and framed and added it to the wall, and when she walked past it, long after everyone had left, she could almost hear the thundering feet and the clinking coffee cups and the laughter coming from downstairs.

On July 3, 2005, Peggy’s dream house was once again empty and expectant. Cookies were in the oven, corn on the cob was boiling, and the fridge had been stocked with root beer and Pepsi and Mountain Dew. All day she had vacuumed and dusted and baked and baked, and just as the sun was starting to throw color into the kitchen’s stained-glass window, she heard it: the car’s rumble, the doors opening and closing and opening again. And then her house was full of thundering feet and laughter, and she and Lyle felt once again happier than they had ever felt in their entire lives.

They ate corn on the cob for supper—a proper corn feed, Lyle said—chins dripping with butter, fingers salted and wet. The sun was nearly down but they stayed on the porch—it was finally cooling off—and the adults drank soda and fanned themselves and sat close together while the children ran around and around the yard, chasing grasshoppers and each other. The next day they set off sparklers and whistlers and golden willows and poppers and when it got dark enough and the kids had been up way past their bedtime, they watched the sky fill with fire and light, and Peggy saw the show reflected in the wide eyes of those around her. That night, huddled under a quilt, Peggy insisted, just one picture—keep your eyes open! Just to remember—and everyone squinted and smiled into the dark.

Every family visit, every school picture, every major and minor milestone made its way onto Peggy’s wall. Soon the pictures were hung floor to ceiling, and when Peggy’s grandchildren visited they spent hours admiring them, amazed that their forebearers had not always been old.

They saw their button nose in their Grandpa Lyle’s, who sat tall and handsome on his graduation day, clean shaven with a jawline that none of them had ever seen quite so square. They found their eyes in their Grandma Peggy’s as she laughed, looking up at the sky in her wedding dress. They saw their dimples in their aunt Tami’s as she smiled and held her first baby, their oldest cousin, who was then new to this world. And they saw many people whom they had never met— great people, great-great people, old beloved pets, and even Sea Biscuit the horse—whose picture was framed beside a tidy lock of his tail.

As they moved down the hall, further in time, they saw their dad growing up—a chubby- cheeked baby, to a youngest brother, trying so hard to be as tall as his siblings, to a mullet- sporting high schooler, standing proudly next to his motorcycle, to a brand-new husband standing proudly next to their mom. They saw their parents with teased hair and dark lips—“It was the 80s,” they said, and their children nodded solemnly as if they understood—and they saw themselves growing up, too—each school picture placed right beside the next, as if baby cheeks had disappeared and lost teeth had been replaced in the blink of an eye.

Peggy’s grandchildren came to know her hallway as the “Hall of Fame.” They would count how many pictures had themselves in them—Matthew had seven, Mariah had six, Amber had three, but Kayla had eight because she had been born first and had been in pictures the longest. Matthew was quick to point out that, even though Kayla had eight, their cousins all had more—because they were even older. But it didn’t matter, and Peggy told them this, because there on the wall, everyone was always together, and everyone was always happy.

When Peggy’s house once again felt too big, too quiet, and too pristine, she would frequently wander down her hallway, pausing to smile and remember times when she had been happier than she had ever been in her entire life. There was her bursting family, crowded together around her Thanksgiving table filled with turkey and potatoes and cranberry sauce, and there was her bursting family licking melted ice cream off of their wrists in her backyard, and there was her bursting family standing in snow up to their knees, clasping innertubes and bundled so tightly that you could only see their smiling eyes. She was looking at a picture of her bursting family all crowded together in a hot tub, the water threatening to pour over the sides, steam rising over their heads, when she got the call that her son, Terry, was in the hospital.

It was an aneurism, the doctor explained. Painless and unforeseeable and irreparable. Peggy’s grandchildren, too young to comprehend, felt the gravity of the situation when they realized that Terry’s count of pictures in the Hall of Fame had become permanent, fixed. Peggy never again considered her family to be bursting. She never even considered it to be complete.

Soon, another call—this time, Peggy’s granddaughter, Danielle. She had been in so much pain, they said. We’ll see her again, they said. Kayla, Matthew, Mariah, and Amber realized that their cousin had become another fixed number. They realized that they would never lay in the grass, share soda, or have sleepovers with her again—sleepovers with flashlights and shy conversations about boys and love and the greater mysteries of life. They felt this loss deeply— they felt her age, so close to their own, and they felt how much time they had left to live without her.

With each unspeakable loss, Peggy felt her family continue to deflate. And still the calls continued: Arissa needs surgery, Kayla’s been diagnosed, Mariah’s dropped out of school.

Tami’s out of work, Lorraine’s in the hospital, Phil’s in jail.

The weight of it all was almost too much to bear. Peggy felt it in the way her bones ground together as she slowly walked up her sloping staircase. She felt it in the way her hands and head had started to shake, at first imperceptibly, and then noticeably. She felt it in the way her body was begging for rest. And all at once, her perfect house had become impossibly imperfect. It could never be bright enough, warm enough, loud enough. It could never be full.

Even though there were other moments and other days where Union, Oregon swelled from 1,928 people, Peggy never again insisted on a photograph. She loved her family, and she loved the togetherness—the thundering, the laughing. But she didn’t put any new pictures up. Well-meaning family and friends reminded Peggy that “in [her] father’s house are many mansions,” and that there would soon be pearly gates and streets of gold and no more tears. At this she would smile and nod, and look away.

As Peggy’s grandchildren grew, so did their understanding of her, and their understanding of themselves and of God and the mysteries of the universe. And they realized that, instead of pearls and precious jewels and mansions, all they wanted was their grandmother’s house with her multi-colored rooms, Tiffany lamps, and shaky chandelier. They wanted her cookies, corn-on-the-cob, and coffee. But most of all, they wanted her Hall of Fame because there, everyone was together. There, everyone was smiling. And there, everyone was healthy and whole and alive, and Peggy’s family was bursting.

Kayla Gonzalez is the third place winner of EnspireMe: Passion Project 2019 in the short story category.

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