Remembrance is the sweetest flower that in a garden grows. — Anon.
If Rose had any say in this, she’d want me to mention the peonies.
Hell: If Rose had any say, I wouldn’t be talking at all. As far she was concerned, old stories were best left in the ground. Life is hard enough the first time you live it—who would waste a moment being sad all over again?
She knew something about sadness.
Rose was my great-grandmother; the peonies were her pride at the Detroit home where she lived for almost 50 years. By the time I knew her, Rose was in a different house with a different garden. I’ve only seen the flowers in photos, and the house at 17210 Hull Street just once in the 1990s.
We did not get out of the car. It was already too late.
* * * *
From the early 1920s to the late 1960s, 17210 Hull Street, Detroit, was my family’s home. It was not fancy, but it was large. It kept my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my dad and aunts, extended relatives and barely connected cousins, safe and together for a long time.
The house at 17210, and many of its neighbors, have been brought down in recent years. The neighborhood was once closely packed, with house upon house upon house for blocks. Now, there are as many vacant lots as there are homes.
Reclamation is a brute’s business. Grass does its work to cover the scrape of the bulldozer, but there’s no denying the gaps.
I bring my own myopia to this. Pretty much every place I grew up in—homes, schools, stores, and neighborhoods—is still there. I could walk through those addresses today, followed by ambles around all of my schools. Even the grocery store where we shopped in the 1970s is open and still owned by the same company. The places of my life have always been valued and protected. Their advocates were heard, are heard today. The house where I grew up looks better than ever.
I don’t know how I would even feel if I saw my old neighborhood the way my dad sees his. To think of faces and see absences. To find grass growing over your remembered places. To wonder where the advocates went.
* * * *
After three years of writing biographies of people I never met, it feels strange to write about a house that I never walked in. But it’s in my life. The house stars in a half-century of family photos. I have pieces of its dining room set. Some of its traditions are my traditions even today. So why not write about the house, and the village of people around it? Because, for however briefly, a kind of village did connect in that neighborhood, and then just as quickly vanished.
The risks are obvious to me. I don’t have all my research done. My dad and his sisters have some great happy memories about the house on Hull Street, but their sadness about its end is very real. It’s hard to ask them: Can I open this file of yours, the one with the happiness and the pain all mixed together?
But I want to know what happened, mark what was lost, and see what remains. They gave me the OK. I will step cautiously.
So begin here: Every summer the peonies nodded in a heavy-headed line next to the low fence that ran along Stender Avenue. They were the summer stars in a garden show that provided a constant array of new things to enjoy, from spring through fall.
Just how Rose wanted it. ☗
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