The house my mother grew up in burnt down in ’85. I hope y’all never experience something like that—losing everything, Mom told my brothers and me when we were too young to understand. The house stood smack center of a dead-end street in southwest Louisiana, and my grandfather built a new one in the ashes. In an old photograph, Pawpaw is perched on the rafters of the gabled roof, high above the ground, hammering a nail. It’s just him up there, rebuilding the house his father built.
My family gathered in my grandparents’ house for every holiday and birthday, weddings and funerals, to drink and gamble, dance and eat. Over twenty Joneses spilled across four properties. Pawpaw was a roofer and Mawmaw managed a local Cajun buffet, but we were a dynasty on that dead-end street.
Since my immediate family shuffled around a lot, my grandparents’ address was listed on my school forms. It was where I spent summers catching bumblebees in mason jars, playing baseball with my cousins, and picking blackberries from the fence line for a cobbler. When my mom found a place for us to finally settle down, I didn’t claim it as my own. I already had a home. I don’t remember the exact moment I found out my grandparents’ house was being foreclosed, but I remember the day we moved everything out. The way the floorboards moaned as I walked over them for the last time. The way the light hit the window and sliced the kitchen in two. I wrenched the wooden address numbers from the door just so I could have something solid to hold on to.
Mawmaw and Pawpaw moved in with my great uncle next door. When my grandmother washed dishes in Uncle Red’s sink, she could glimpse her old kitchen through the window. The house was close enough to touch but not close enough to have. I invited my girlfriend over to stay one weekend when we were fifteen. I wanted to show her where I came from. We crept around the old house’s perimeter, careful not to disturb the trespassers inside. I’m going to buy it back one day, I swore to her. But that promise felt more like a child’s fantasy with each passing year.
In January 2019, a few months after Pawpaw’s death, I rode with Mawmaw to check on Uncle Red: the only Jones left on the street. I hadn’t been back in over a decade: I was away at college, then grad school in Massachusetts, but my wife and I had recently moved back south and were living in Houston. This time I could freely walk the perimeter of the old house, now empty and falling apart. I placed my palm on the rotting wood, the paint-peeled paneling, the same way I had touched my Pawpaw’s shoulder, the sweaty sleeve of his white tee as he took his last breath in a hospice bed—the way we touch things we’re letting go of. I peered through the windows. No bourré games being taken a little too seriously. No pot of gumbo steaming on the stove.
That December, I was sitting in the yard of my Houston rental when my mom forwarded me a Zillow listing. I swiped through photos of a modern home with clean vinyl siding and an open floor plan. There was something familiar but unplaceable about it until my eyes caught the address. My grandparents’ house, remodeled and flipped. My wife and I spent the next few days weighing the pros and cons. Ultimately, she reminded me of the promise I made to her when we were teens: Now’s your chance. We were under contract two weeks later.
Mawmaw moved into the house, along with other family members who had been renting together. But I didn’t feel the overwhelming happiness I expected—instead I felt nothing. After move-in, she stood in the kitchen and looked around. Pawpaw wasn’t there, but traces of him were. His Zippo lighter on a shelf next to his fishing hat. His portrait on the wall. An indentation from a champagne cork when they celebrated an anniversary still pressed in the ceiling tiles. Mawmaw, not the emotional type, hugged and thanked me. When I wrapped my arms around her, her chest heaved, and I felt, for the first time, the weight of it all. I worried I was dredging up trauma; they lost the house together, but only one got to come back. I have to believe the pain of returning tempers the pain of being gone. It does for me.