In my grandparents' long, deep yard was a huge two-story garage. On the second floor of it, my father had built and painted a complex miniature electric model railroad setup, complete with papier-mâché rocks and mountains, plastic forests and houses, railway stations, streams, small towns, and small townsfolk. It was magical. On rare occasions, he'd delight us by taking us up there, where, in the attic's hot motionless air, he'd let us stand on stools with our heads poking up between the mountains and watch as he made the trains traverse the rails around some snowcapped peaks down into a sagebrushy desert to the depot. There a train would take on water or perhaps let go a few cattle cars, then proceed out through a valley with livestock and a few ranches. We weren't allowed to touch, but I drank it in whenever he'd allow.
Grandmother and Pepaw, who was barely a presence, had a little one-room playhouse built for us. This small gesture, this act of making something just for my brothers and me, loomed so large in my tiny psyche that years later, when I was filming Family, and realized that we were shooting less than two miles away, I had to scratch that nostalgic itch and go visit.
My grandmother's house was at 95 Columbia Street in Pasadena. For some reason I have in my memory that they'd bought the house in 1900 for $800, a tidy sum in those days. It was a beautiful old Victorian house, white clapboard with beveled glass fans over windows and doors. I'd remembered it as huge and imposing: steep steps up to the grand pillared porch and a very heavy, important oak door. What I found on the day I visited was a less imposing house with the beautiful beveled windows and a cement porch with three steps leading up to it, flanked by two modest round white supports and a heavy, important oak door.
On which I knocked. An older woman came to the door and when I explained who I was and that I'd largely grown up in her house, she was most gracious and invited me to come in, look around. What luck! On the left of the entry were the drawing rooms, divided by high pocket doors, which still slid silently closed as smoothly as if made yesterday. To the right, another set of stairs I'd remembered as steep and threatening seemed so tame. Upstairs I was aghast to see that the heavy porcelain claw-foot bathtub had been replaced with a shower and countertop of turquoise Formica. Another room had a wall covered with a woven fabric, peeling just a bit, and a zebra print rug on the floor. Okay, enough of the house. I had to see the playhouse.
Unbelievably, it was still standing. The owner couldn't find the key, but the windows were open, and when I stuck my head in it was like Marcel Proust's famous bite of the "petites madeleines." The musty smell instantly took me back in time and there I was with my brother Brian, reading stacks and stacks of Big Little Books or playing school with my grandmother's companion, Kate Frazier.