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The Vestibule
Welcome to life's waiting room

By Kathleen Franklin
Sunday, May 3, 2009

The steps are brown and rise to the front entrance of the old, three-story brick house in the heart of "fashionable, historic" Georgetown. Each nick and gouge in the soft brownstone recalls a dropped roller skate, a fumbled piece of furniture being dragged in or out, the wheels of the old metal shopping caddy that my grandmother (in hat and gloves, up until the end) carted to and from the bakers and cobblers and dry-goods stores that once lined the avenues. Those shops are all gone now, replaced by bistros serving something called "microgreens," which are consumed by tourists who walk briskly past the steps, full of purpose and lattes.

In my mind's eye, I conjure up long, hot afternoons of boredom, running my hands around and through the elaborately curlicued black wrought-iron grillwork that held up the railings. The black paint on the wrought iron was always peeling. Now the railings have been repainted so many times that their ornamental grooves have become mere depressions, vague suggestions of the details that once captured the builder's fancy. At the top of the steps, the very top, there is the vestibule.

I never hear that word anymore. Everybody I know has a "mud room," which certainly does not sound as elegant or as desirable as "the vestibule." The double doors facing the street open into this little room, which has a 12-foot ceiling and green tile halfway up the wall.

How many people have stood here, waiting for rain to let up, waiting for the carriage (and then, just a few years later, the automobile) to be brought around? Four generations of women. First, in 1908, there was my great-grandmother, the chubby-cheeked woman in the long black skirt and the white shirtwaist and the graceful up-do and the sensible shoes; she stood there in the vestibule and hollered at the moving-men who hauled in the heavy Victorian furniture amid the noisy chaos of five children and a mongrel dog.

Then, in 1911, my great-grandmother's daughter (that would be my grandmother) stood in there, an 11-year-old girl, waiting for her father to come home from work; in 1918, she stood on tiptoe in the vestibule and kissed her brother goodbye as he left for Italy, where he'd die from burns four months later in the Great War.

In 1931, she happily brought her baby girl home, through the vestibule, and then that child (my mother) would stand there in 1936, watching them carry her father down the steps, dead at 39 from appendicitis. She descended those same steps in 1952 on the arm of her first husband, the handsome Navy pilot who would desert her. Then, in 1957, she stepped more hopefully through the vestibule on the arm of her second husband, a smart, skinny young man from Alabama.

That man, bless his heart, would live there with her for a half a century. He would walk her down the steps to go to her mother's funeral in 1993. He would nurse and curse her through her final years, when her mind was pockmarked by alcohol and dementia, until she was finally carried out through the vestibule in 2008, exactly 100 years after her own mother passed through, skipping and singing, in the other direction, for the very first time.

And here I am now -- the great-granddaughter, still grieving the loss of my mother and, imminently or not (because who knows, in this economy?), the loss of a house.

Here I am in 1968, ditching my books and my Catholic school cardigan in the vestibule so I can run back down the steps to play. Here I am in the vestibule in 1978, gathering sufficient wits to find the keyhole of the immense, wooden front door at 3 a.m. after a night of partying at the university. In 1981, I sashay optimistically through the vestibule in my mother's wedding dress, down the steps to marry my college sweetheart, who would desert me, just as my mother had been deserted. And, later, throughout the 1990s, as a mother myself, married to a steadier man from Indiana, I pass through the vestibule with my two little boys, to whom actual spoken references to the vestibule now mean nothing except dimly lit days of visiting grandparents in a house that always seemed to smell funny.

Realtors and furniture appraisers and contractors come and go through the vestibule, oblivious to the ghosts that still hover there, hellbent on their own agendas for this "diamond in the rough." My father, the skinny young man from Alabama, is tired. The house is, like a lot of us who have lived there, big and old and hard to maintain. The kitchen ceiling plaster has fallen onto the top of the refrigerator. The second-floor sink won't drain. My father has a new hip and his freedom, and he wants to buy a condo in the suburbs where it is quiet, and maybe a little place in Florida for the winter. Where there aren't any vestibules.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.

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