Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Biltmore House

I wish I could say that the neighborhood has weathered the years well, but it hasn't. This morning, I used Google Maps to find my grandparents' old house on Biltmore Street in Memphis, and then I zoomed in for a street view. I almost wish I hadn't looked. I'm certain that the "Beware of Dog" sign affixed to the chain link fence surrounding the front yard is there for a reason, and from the looks of things, I'm thinking that these days, having an aggressive canine in that neighborhood is not so much an option as a necessity. But it wasn't always like this.

In the early 1960's, my grandfather Leslie, a grocery store owner, suffered a massive stroke which left him confined to a wheel chair. Five years later, he would suffer a second, even more serious stroke. It was sad, because Leslie was a rather quiet, calm man who always had something nice to say and was something of a practical joker. Some aspects of his life were quite interesting; for example, he had married his wife Estelle when she was 14 and he was 26. I didn't find that out until years later, when my grandmother told me that 14 was, in her opinion, just way too young to get married.

Because of my grandfather's condition after his first stroke, he needed to move back into Memphis from his country house to be closer to good medical care, so he and my grandmother (with some financial assistance from my father, I believe) moved to a tidy white frame house on Biltmore Street in North Memphis. The house was typical of many in the area, three bedrooms, a bath, a generous kitchen, and a big front porch that spanned the width of the house. Swings hung from each side of the porch, and an array of comfy chairs were placed alongside them. We spent a lot of time on the porch.

It seemed that everything happened at the Biltmore house. Whenever my aunt, uncle and cousins would visit from California, Biltmore was their headquarters. On one of their visits, my uncle, a Methodist minister, baptized me, since I had only been christened as an infant when we lived in California and was still left religiously hanging, so to speak. It was also the house where I "gently" persuaded my grandfather to surrender the TV to me for a few minutes so that I could watch The Beatles in their American TV debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Biltmore was where I would play with the next door neighbor Billy, at least until that one day when we were exploring under the house and Billy, in his words, "broke" his head and therefore became somewhat wary of any future associations with me.

It was the house where I played with my dear friend Sandy when she was visiting with her family from the West Coast. Sandy died from leukemia in her mid-teens and was one of the sweetest people I have ever known. I still remember the afternoon we spent spinning Duncan tops on the sidewalk on Biltmore.

Not only had I first seen The Beatles at Biltmore and collected John/Paul/George/Ringo trading cards with my cousin Debi during one of her visits from California, but on one memorable day, the daughter of my grandparents' next door neighbor, a girl six or seven years my senior, spontaneously donated to me all her Beatles albums. I hadn't asked for them, but she just did it. I thought that was amazing, and I still have all those albums in my collection.

It's funny how a house, a place built of bricks, wood, and mortar, stitched together with plumbing and wiring, can mean so much and carry so many memories, but truly, a home is of course much more than a physical structure, it's what we make of it. I would have to say that given their limited means, my grandparents kept a pretty nice house for us all. They sincerely loved us, and we sincerely loved them, and that's what the house on Biltmore was all about.

So, it may not be the prettiest house at the moment, but then again, I don't know the whole story. I'm just glad I own a piece of its history, and I hope that its current residents are making memories of their own, because that, my friends, is what seems to me to constitute living.