I wrote this a few years ago but decided to post it today in memory of my grandma, who passed away Sunday evening.
It used to be a chicken coop. That’s how the history always starts, a history that sounds almost like a legend because it has played in my ears for as long as I can remember. The black and white photos along the narrow entry hall verify the unlikely beginnings–showing how the chicken coop evolved into a dance hall. I often stared at the pictures, trying to feel the walls of that coop around me. I usually couldn’t.
The Organ Loft of my childhood was more exotic than the modernized version that exists now. It had dark red, casino-style carpet, with red flocked wallpaper. Small whiskey flasks were always arranged neatly behind the bar. It felt wicked in a wonderful way, all scarlet and dim. And there, at the center of everything, was the organ—the mighty Wurlitzer. Somewhere between blue and purple in color, with gold trim, the organ shimmered under the spotlights. I loved to put my nose up to its lacquered finish and just stare at the glitter. I loved sparkle, and that organ was full of it.
We would go for private concerts, the personal guests of my grandmother, who worked there for years as an organist. I can still feel the rush of air as the organ would breathe to life—a familiar, soft whoosh. Windows surrounded the perimeter of the room and through them you could see the pipe chambers. Rows of square, wooden flute pipes and lines of metal pipes curved up and down with different lengths. The tiniest pipes were smaller than my pinky and slender as a matchstick. The biggest towered like trees. Windows below the pipe chambers showed the trem bellows, shivering up and down. White bulbs lined the windows, blinking and glowing with the music, chasing around the frame.
If you stood on the dance floor and looked above, the percussion ranks were visible in an upper terrace. Xylophones, glockenspiels, cymbals, drums, and whistles all danced together like animated puppets. An old black upright piano sat in the front right corner, also controlled by the organ. Some of Grandma’s best stories involved drunk men and that piano.
Sometimes we would go there to swim. There was a small oval swimming pool and hot tub in the back. We always had everything to ourselves—the bathrooms, the pool, the organ, the dance floor. I thought it was just for us. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much it wasn’t.
It’s strange how a place can be so a part of you and yet so unreal, so untouchable. I have danced on that floor, played those keys, run through those halls. I have touched the pipes and seen the rivers of wire that connect them. My grandma’s picture is on the wall. The organ is in the background of my parents’ wedding photos. I know the feel and the smell of it. And yet I have never experienced it as most people know it. I have never been there for the late parties, the silent movies, the public face. Another person who knows the Loft would not know it as I do, and I would not know it as they do. Perhaps it is best that way, because then it can remain as private as it is in my memory. But I wish that I could somehow mark it as my own—prove that I am a part of it, just as it is a part of me.
Places are difficult that way. Sometimes they stay the same as we change, and revisiting favorite old haunts can be like stepping back in time. Or places can change. I once stood outside my childhood home, knowing that I knew it, and yet fearing that I didn’t anymore, not knowing which reality to embrace.
The reality of the Loft will likely fade for me; it was a part of my grandma’s life more than mine. And yet I know that it used to be a chicken coop. I have played the mighty Wurlitzer. I know its sound. I know its glitter. I can feel the floor under my feet and the rush of air. I have listened, watched, danced. The memories are mine, even if the door is locked.