Revising A Year: The Great Heist of Easter, 2011

“I’ll keep the phone with me, in case the police call,” my mom said Easter morning as my husband and I headed out around 7 a.m.

We were counting on early morning quiet and holiday revelry to cloak our nefarious activities. My mother, skeptic and naysayer that she is, had nevertheless provided the tools required for our daring do. And while she wasn’t exactly going to wait at the curb in a getaway car with the motor running, she had our backs. Or at least she had the cash for our bond. Good woman.


My grandmother’s house, you see, was torn down two weeks ago. My grandfather built it for her as a wedding present. Until about ten years ago, my grandfather and grandmother and our family had been the only people to live there. Then my grandmother, by that time a widow for over a decade, needed the peace of mind and available medical assistance of a retirement community. So the family embarked on the long goodbye of helping her pack and take what she could of half a century of living to her lovely new apartment, and the house was sold. And that was hard. But I loved her and was glad letting the place go gave her the means to enjoy the last six years of her life secure and independent, without the hassles and anxiety of property ownership that she could no longer handle.

Which didn’t mean it any easier, passing our family home all these years and watching it and what was once a magnificent, three-tiered, immaculately-groomed (by my grandparents, thank you very much) yard fall into ruin and disrepair. The new owners were renting the place out to whomever would do it the most harm, it seemed, until they could afford to tear the three-story home down and build something modern and “smancy” in its place. You know, in one of the oldest, most historic neighborhoods in town. What else is there to do, when ancient brick and plaster and glass and duct work won’t support all the modern conveniences you have to have to get by?

Not that I’m bitter.

But I digress.

I said farewell to the house a little over a year ago. In fact, it’s sat empty and for sale most of the last two years. I’m not entirely sure if the original buyers are the owners that had the place raised. Or if it did in fact finally sell to someone new. Suffice it say though that a year ago, during my last visit to the property, the paint was peeling and the trim crumbling and the doors warping to the point that the outside basement door that opened inward to what was once my grandfather’s work room in the basement couldn’t even close properly and lock. It was a shock when it opened at my slightest touch. Then it was an invitation.

I decided on that hot summer day to one last time take a tour of this place that no longer belonged to anyone I knew.Yeah. Not smart. But it was clearly deserted and I couldn’t help myself. There’d been too much rush and hurry when my grandmother moved, and I’d had a younger child at home then and little time to hang back and spend grieving properly. So, yeah, a year after my grandmother’s death I walked into the abandoned, dilapidated ruin of some of my best childhood memories and felt myself grow colder and colder with each new room I entered.

There was grafiti on the walls. Both panoramic screened porches–one on the second floor that I’d slept on countless nights as a little girl on this amazing swing that went on for miles and was piled high with fluffy pillows–were in tatters and literally falling off the house. Hardwood floors gouged out in places. Beautiful, original-to-the-home tile work in the bathrooms shattered. And worst of all, all the sounds were the same (of the doors opening and closing and the echoes of my footsteps down her long hallway) but the smells and feels and warmth of it all was gone. My grandmother was gone. Everything that she’d worked so hard to make beautiful and loving and welcoming for me and my family there. Gone. It was a slap in the face. A wake up. So clearly time to let go. And I did, thinking there’d never be a reason to come back. There was nothing left of my “Grand” to know there.

Except…This last Saturday my husband and I walked down to the building site where the foundation for the new house is going in. We stood at the curb looking over the huge lot, down the hill, trying to see what was left if anything that looked familiar.

And there, off to the side! My mother had been wrong. They hadn’t ripped up all the camellia bushes.


They’re trees, actually. Camellias thrive where my grandmother lived, these bushes that bloom rose-like flowers twice a year, including early winter. And my grandmother babied her camellias like she did everything and everyone else she cared for. Her bushes, some of them thirty and forty years old by the time she moved away, grew to be two-stories tall and at one time took up half of the side yard beyond her carport. My mom had thought they were all gone. But we could see one remained, left as part of the gangly mess of border plants separating the builder’s work space from the neighbor’s property.

And below on the second tier of the yard, where my grandmother’s flower garden once thrived, I could see something else my mom hadn’t. Blooms twisting and turning around one of the few oaks that hadn’t been dug up. An oak tree that had always been there, in my recollection. A rose bush that family stories say my grandmother brought with her when she and my grandfather moved in–from a cutting she took out of her own mother’s yard.

“What if…” I said to my husband. My soon-to-be partner in crime. All these years, I’d never thought to do it. It had never occured to me. And now that it’s almost all gone. Now, I think I just might be able to keep one more piece of my grandmother’s world alive? “Would anyone really mind?”

I was so excited and trying not to cry with the hope of it. He was hugging me close and understanding. And in his eyes and the tight nod he gave me I saw that we were really going to do it.

So off we went the next morning, pre-dawn delinquents casually strolling up a tree-lined street with shovel and buckets in hand, on a mission.A likely hopeless mission, even if we found what we were looking for and liberated our ill-gotten booty without being carted off to the poky. Because, unlike my grandmother, I can’t baby and nurture anything with honest-to-God roots into staying alive. Not if my own life depended on it. But that didn’t stop us, because I’d caught a whisper calling to me on top of that hill the night before, while I stood at the curb searching for a glimmer of a past that should have been dead and buried. We were going back to dig for more. To listen. To feel that connection I still couldn’t believe was so completely gone.

Legal? No. Even though we only wanted clippings and had no intention of damaging anything the new owners might want to do with the dregs of my grandmother’s prized flowers.

Were we going to rethink our plans and give into my mother’s warnings that it wasn’t a good idea? I’d kept looking over at my husband the night before as she’d tried to talk me out of it. And each time his response had been the same. Another tight nod. 

This was too important a last chance to pass up.

He did the hard work, digging up a camellia seedling from that massive root system. We had to crawl into the overgrown thicket these bushes create when left to go wild. The massive tree-like trunks loomed over us. We were surrounded by limbs and leaves and suddenly the smell of working outside with my grandmother on other cool mornings just that this one. And just that easily. That quietly. She was there.

The house might have been lost, but a pat of my Grand had been right there, thriving, all along.

It took several tries before we found an off-shoot we could dig away from the others. While my husband finished things up (as the neighborhood started to awaken around us and shorten the time we had left), I sliped quickly down the side of the building site and to second tier where the basement of the house should have been. And there, in the dappled morning sunlight shining through the oak’s limbs, was the last of my grandmother’s beautiful roses.


Old roses. The straggling remnants of a bush that my Grand had cut with such care, from another old vine that had likely been part of roses that had lived over half a century before I was born.

I’d promised myself not to take anything that would be missed. Not to damage whatever the new owners might want to keep, if they even saw the roses at all as they envisioned their new home. What if that wasn’t possible now? What would I do?

But I hadn’t needed to worry. I should have known. My grandmother was there, too.

Right beside the main blooming vine, smaller and its flowers already done for the season, was a tiny offshoot. Large enough to replant. A root system all its own. Separate enough that we didn’t have to disturb the other. Perfect. Waiting for me to discover it. Reminding me of all the mornings my Grand had gotten up early to water her garden and prune her roses before the heat of the day, and make sure they had what they needed to bloom and live through another year and then another, growing stronger and hardier.

No one’s cared for them in years. Whatever’s still there is growing wild. Fighting on its own. Biding its time until someone came back to remember and steal it away to its next adventure.

As we walked home to my mother’s with our two containers of stolen memories, my husband nodded again and I found myself smiling through the tears I could no longer fight. Because the night before, I’d almost talked myself out of going. Because of all the things I have that once were my grandmothers, digging up those precious seedlings were the closest I’d felt to my Grand since she died. Dirt and a few stems and leaves and a lifetime of memories, and they were reclaimed. Ours for as long as we could keep them alive.

Her memories. Her life. Not forgotten. Not torn down. Not gone. And now, a growing part of mine.

4 Responses to “Revising A Year: The Great Heist of Easter, 2011”

  1. M.E. Anders says:

    What a beautiful, heart-touching Easter story, Anna.

  2. Irene says:

    One last gift from your grandmother to cherish forever. How wonderful.
    Too bad so many good memories won’t have a place to haunt, though. It’s terrible when a house must be torn down. At least the memories will replay in hour heart. Let’s hope you have photos, too!

  3. Irene says:

    That’s supposed to be “your”, not hour. duh

  4. Pam Asberry says:

    Beautiful story, beautifully told. I blogged about my grandmother yesterday; she was a part of so many of my happiest childhood memories. I spent my 16th birthday with her; she made me a lemon cake and cut 16 pink roses from her garden and arranged them in a vase for me. She had dozens of varieties of day lilies on her grounds; what I wouldn’t give to have a start of something to plant outside my own house. Thank you so much for sharing.

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