EssayThat One Piece

That One Piece: A Vignette Sparking the Magic of Childhood Nostalgia

by Kelli Kehler

When I was little, some of the most magical trips I took were the ones where we packed up the car and drove six hours south through Indiana to my grandparents’ house. Everything about their home entranced me and made me feel warmth, curiosity, and joy.

It was a menagerie of unique sights for me, my siblings and my cousins. In the living room, floral upholstery mixed with stained glass lamps, old books, and dainty ceramic treasures tucked thoughtfully behind the glass doors of a china cabinet. In the kitchen, we’d pluck from the countertops squares of cold cheese and bologna wrapped in red wax on our way off to the next adventure. Downstairs, the finished basement held my wonder the most — toys that my mom and her sisters and brother once played with were prized playthings, the excitement sparked by them only reserved for items that possess the newness felt from being old and unfamiliar. A two-story dollhouse with white columns and little black shutters would entertain my sister, cousins and me for hours (and maybe even instigate a few tiffs over who had what miniature room for their doll first).

Illustration above by 12-year-old artist Viola Guerrero, @miyukuii

Image above: Me as a baby with my grandparents in their home, in 1986.

All of this splendor was wrapped up with the cohesiveness of a home decorated by people who simply gravitated toward what they loved, who they loved, and their life’s achievements. Embedded deeply in my memory is the presence of well-made, wooden furniture pieces, a result of my grandpa (“Papaw”) working for the Indiana-based furniture company Tell City Chair Company for many years. One of my favorite Tell City pieces (besides a dresser I’m lucky to have passed down to me from my parents) is a maple dry sink with punched metal pie safe-style doors. I couldn’t tell you where exactly this specific furniture piece was placed in their home in my childhood years, but I remember it strongly, its influence staying with me over time. Atop it, and other surfaces throughout “Papaw” and “Gaboo’s” home, you’d surely find glass jars filled with treats — chocolate soldiers wrapped in colorful foil, or in the springtime, a porcelain, lidded dish concealing pastel jelly beans. This magic, this feeling of being young and full of curiosity, still swirls inside me, laced with golden light (thank you, synesthesia); and it’s a feeling that sparks when I see these pieces of theirs grouped together so thoughtfully.

Image above: A scene in my grandparents’ present-day kitchen.

As such, my own That One Piece is a vignette I saw last summer in my grandparents’ home — not a singular item. My husband, children and I had made the trip from Southern California to Indiana to spend time with family, and, most importantly, give my grandparents time with my daughters Grace and Poppy (who were almost four and almost one last June). Stepping foot into my grandparents’ house — not the same one from my childhood memories — my nostalgia came rushing in like a joyful flood. The house is nothing like the one they lived in when when I visited in my early years, but it feels just the same. I could feel my heart swell in my chest as I led my daughters into the kitchen, my eyes landing on the dry sink — stationed below an old wooden bread board and a beautiful needlepoint made by my Aunt Cathy many years ago. On top of the dry sink, glass vessels containing treats and cookies beckoned, a pewter dish preciously clutched hydrangea my grandma had snipped from her garden outside. As I watched my grandparents lead the girls to the dining table and present them with snacks — cold squares of cheese and red wax-wrapped bologna — my eyes blurred with tears. The strength of my memories, and those memories being relived before my eyes through my own children, was almost more than I could bear.

I wanted to remember this feeling forever. Wiping my eyes, I quickly snapped a photo of this vignette: of my childhood’s magical memories. It was the closest tangible thing I had ever seen of an intangible memory come to life.

Soon enough, with Poppy playing on the floor, Grace was reaching, on tiptoes, up towards the glass jar of cookies on the dry sink. My grandpa chose a cookie for her, put it on a plate for my grandma to stud with a candle, which she then lit to celebrate Grace’s upcoming birthday, and the magic began again. —Kelli

Image above: My grandma lighting a candle to celebrate my daughter Grace’s fourth birthday, June 2018.

Image above: Four generations in one photo: My mom, me, my daughter Poppy and my grandma. My grandma is showing us a book that contains most of the family’s history.

Read more from our That One Piece series here.

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  • I have a granddaughter named Poppy (4), another one named Penny (2) and one so new I don’t know her name yet. She was born an hour ago and the only thing I know about her is that she weighs 5 pounds, 9 ounces. And is healthy (THANK YOU GOD, MOTHER NATURE, AND FATE). Waiting with my phone in my pocket to get more details.

    Can you imagine how timely this article is for me? The two girls already mentioned, plus their two cousins (big brothers to a sister, today) LOVE coming to our house for the same reasons, I assume. Fortunately we all live close so our visits are frequent. But they also play with their parents toys, sleep over in a big bed, try on my jewelry, and indulge in all sorts of treats and outings that — so far, at least — they are wise enough to downplay so that we all stay out of trouble. Occasionally we might mention broccoli with dinner while forgetting to mention the ice cream (ALWAYS with sprinkles. The law, in MoMo’s house). But anyone can make that mistake. Right?

    This stuff is SO important…..especially in a rapidly changing (and often scary) world. SOME things should be constant. And Grandma and Grandpa’s house should always be a haven.

    To Life!!!!!!

    • I think it’s weird to reply to my own comment but — my new girl’s name is Lilia Marie! And she’s a pearl!!!

      • Congrats, MoMo! I just adore your warmth and your grandkiddos are so lucky to have you. Watching my two sons’ adoration of their Nana and Grandma is a highlight of motherhood– for all the little, important details and all the big, deep love that you mentioned. Watching my sons play with my Fischer-Price farm and the dollhouse my dad made for me and my sisters is so tender, and layered, and joyful. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Anyway. Thank you for sharing! What a beautiful piece here to spark so many memories, old and in the making.

  • What a wonderful memory. How nice to re-live it with your own daughters. My eyes would be brimming with tears, too.

  • This was such a beautiful post I enjoy
    ed it very much. sMade me cry but with joy. Barbara