River House

Kaley Cole

© Copyright 2023 by Kaley Cole

Photo by Neža Dolmo on Unsplash
Photo by Neža Dolmo on Unsplash
I wanted a house to die in,” my grandma told me one summer as we were sitting at the kitchen table, discussing renovations to her two-story house in Dunnellon, Florida. “One with enough rooms for the family to mourn alone or come together,” she elaborated. And, with its high wood-lined ceilings and museum-like rooms full of mismatched antiques, the house was certainly large enough to accommodate her five children and nine grandchildren. But, it was the stunning view from the back porch of the spring-fed Rainbow River that made it a beautiful and dramatic backdrop.

As I am the oldest grandchild, I continued the family tradition of naming my grandma -- and I chose “Doey.” I have a faint memory which might be true or just a product of my adult need for reason; I was about two and my grandma had just arrived. I was sitting on the scratchy, floral loveseat. She sat down beside me and arranged her “satchels” and tried to teach me to say “grandma.” Even then, I was easily distracted and had become fixated on our black lab’s tail that, at the excitement of a visitor, was whirling faster than the ceiling fan in August. Pointing, I kept trying to say “doggie,” but it must have come out as “Doey.” Turning me back to face her, my grandma repeated her carefully chosen title but I responded with “Doey.” Accepting my babblings as fate, she turned to me and said “Doey.” I nodded sagely in reply and from that moment on, she was Doey to family, future grandchildren, and to the random assortment of friends that my cousins and I brought to the River House.

The downstairs portion of her home has always reminded me of a medieval castle with its green walls and gold, easel-framed mirror; the floors are made of raised, dark stone, the foyer leads to the game room, office, and craft room. With its 50s checkered, diner-style floors, broken slot machine, billiards table, and long-abandoned plastic toys, the game room is half children’s nursery and home casino. But, the game room belonged almost exclusively to the cousins.

I entered the room, stiff from the five-hour drive, followed by my sisters and was instantly engulfed in a bear hug; Kaleb, whose name is way too similar to mine, is a year younger than me and the second oldest of the grandchildren. Tall and husky with an ivory fish hook hung around his neck, Kaleb was the quintessential outdoorsman who drove his boat to high school and on the weekends, could usually be found repairing Doey’s dock. Madison, the third oldest, yelled “hi” to us from her station at the ancient computer, where she was playing Oregon Trail. Her pale skin and red hair spoke in equal measures to her introverted nature and quick temper. “Look what I brought!” I said as I pulled a deck of Cards Against Humanity from my bag. We all sprawled across the floor as Kaleb dealt the deck. The other cousins who made up our usual set joined us from upstairs. Continuing the name redundancies that began with Kaleb and me, the two middle cousins are both named Morgan. Captain Morgan was already holding a beer that he had swiped from the porch. At fourteen, he was gangly and insisted on speaking in an affected feminine voice. He snickered as he read over his cards. Beside him his younger brother Seth chucked all his cards into the pile to increase his chances of winning. My sister rolled her eyes at him, but Seth has been a sulky teenager since he was two. Girl Morgan hadn’t joined our game but was texting on the old, yellow sofa. I was surprised to notice that she had started wearing makeup and straightening her hair. Kaleb collected our cards and in his movie narrator voice, began reading each pairing until he finally got to my card which read, “Taming a grizzly bear and making her your wife.” We all collapse in laughter. From the computer, Madison called,

I died of dysentery!”, gesturing to her character on the screen which only made us laugh harder. From under the pool table, Seth pulled out one of Doey’s old guitars and began to strum.

Doey was part of two folk and blues bands: Green Grass Revival and South Wind for which she sang and played the standup bass which is quite a bit taller than her. Back then, she was Sandy or Mama J and while her five children were asleep at home, she would play at bars and music festivals until 2:00 a.m.

I saw her play for the first time, when I was eighteen, at the White Springs Music Festival. It was oppressively hot, even for summer in Florida, and my aunt and I sought meager shade under the oak trees that stood to the left of the stage. My dad held the bass for her as she slowly ascended the stage. She was wearing her usual uniform: denim shirt, black pants, and dark sunglasses. Her hair is a mass of fluffy, dyed brown curls and bangs. The other band members sat beside her on the stage; all in varying degrees of graying and balding. After a long prelude of introductions, they began to play. Doey’s voice was wispy, but in it, you could still discern the singer that she had been. She sang my favorite song-the one that I had played on their CD on the drive up.

“Somebody said, “That's a strange tattoo

You have on the side of your head”

I said, “That's the mark left by the number nine coal

Little more and I'd a been dead”

Oh, I love the rumble and I love the dark

I love the cool of the slate”

On the drive back to the hotel, my dad said, “this will probably be the last time she plays.”

What makes you say that?” Yes, she had seemed exhausted by each set but delighted as she visited with friends that she hadn’t seen in over a year.

It’s getting too hard for her and it’s so hot this time of year. I worry that she will fall and hurt herself or have a stroke.” For the next few years, they kept inviting South Wind back to perform, but recently, I haven’t asked her about playing at White Springs. I don’t want to force her to admit if she has given it up. While a couple of the cousins play the guitar, none of her five children and nine grandchildren have inherited Doey’s talent and enduring musical drive.

While the downstairs is like a fortress, the upstairs is bright with vaulted ceilings and old wood floors that make it impossible to walk quietly. The main room is big enough to fit my parents’ entire house comfortably. Doey’s knick knacks are better arranged up here. She has curio cabinets full of scrimshaw and fine china. Since I moved to Tallahassee for graduate school, I see her more than the usual Thanksgiving and Christmas; it is easier to make the drive to Dunnellon than to my parents’ home in South Florida.

During my first semester of grad school, there was a hurricane headed for North Florida, so I fled to the River House. Doey was sitting at her usual spot at the head of the table by the picture window when I arrived. I bent and she kissed my cheek with her papery lips.

How are you Miss Kaley?” she asked and gripped my small, cold hand in a surprisingly tight grip. We began a game of gin rummy and she asked me about my graduate courses as I dealt the cards. I am always startled by her memory for literature, especially her ability to quote lines of verse. “Mark Twain was an absolutely brilliant man and so clever,” she said when we began discussing our favorite authors. “You know he predicted his own death. He said ‘I was born on Haley’s comet and I will die when it comes back around’- and he did! What a way to go.” She seemed cavalier in discussing her own mortality, but my dad told me that during the last family meeting, she cried as she tried to plan for her eventual passing; she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be buried or cremated. “I don’t want a funeral.” She told me as she took a card from the deck. “I want a ‘celebration of life’ like they do in New Orleans with the big bands and good food; I don’t want y’all to cry; I want everyone to laugh and tell stories about the good times. And, I want a black, Southern preacher.” Breaking from her reverie she turned to me, fixed me in her stare, and said, “It is you and your sister’s job to keep this family together when I am gone.” Her words startled me with their weight and directness.

Later, I asked my sister, Brooke, about Doey’s injunction. She laughed and said,

Oh, yeah, she’s told me that before. You know that’s just Doey being dramatic.” But, her words lingered with me; I knew that I could never be half the matriarch that she is. Even then, the family was starting to drift apart; Kaleb had moved to the Keys, Madison was living with her mom. Morgan and Seth couldn’t keep a car together let alone a family. Perhaps my Dad could keep the older generation together as he had looked after his younger siblings when Doey was playing with the band, but even he would probably not be able to bridge the rifts that were forming between Doey’s children that would likely grow deeper after her passing and the selling of the River House.

We changed the locks when your great grandmother died,” my dad confided in me on our evening walk when I was home for Christmas. We continued walking around the block, passing houses outlined in Christmas lights with the dog pulling at the leash in the lead. “It was not just to keep out looters,” he continues, “but mainly the family.”

Why”, I asked, startled.

When Doey passes, they will take everything with any possible value,” my Dad elaborated. As the lawyer in the family, Doey had placed him in charge of her will. It is hard to reconcile the idea of my aunts and uncles who I usually see drinking and laughing at Christmas time seizing every last tiffany lamp and miniscule figurine and it will be up to my dad to try to keep the peace and everyone together.

The second largest room in the house is formally referred to as the craft room, but I have always insisted on calling it “the crap room” for its vault of clutter. The room has bright yellow floors and white walls, but every possible surface is covered: wrapping paper, pens, papers, fancy teacups with saucers, a leather purse shaped like a saddle, a collection of compasses, an array of glass bottles, and the occasional dead cockroach. In the corner, there is a closet-the ghost of Christmases past full of gifts long forgotten: puzzles, games with addressed tags still taped to them and, inexplicably, a bowl of glitter- her dragon’s hoard of unnecessary things. When I visit, I like to escape the bustle of relatives and hide out in this room, listening to an audio book and wandering between the mismatched tables, examining antique glass medicine bottles and old dusty portraits forever waiting to be hung. As I lift each object, I replay Doey’s explanation:

That tiny glass bottle was used to hold a single dose of a laxative.” When I’d laughed, she sighed and said, “Well, that’s how they stored medicine back then.” At the white desk in the corner topped with little cubbies, I hear her museum guide voice declare, “And this desk was used in the signing of the Panama Canal.” Her collection of frog figurines reminds me that she studied biology at the University of Florida when it first became co-ed and how she can identify the river frogs’ species by their croak.

For me, this room is the very essence of Doey with its combination of the quirky and the beautiful. But, when I enter the craft room lately, all I can think of is some of my aunts and uncles bursting through the doors and snatching every last antique teacup. The past few times that I’ve visited the River House, I have found the doors to the office and crap room locked.

I arrived at the River House, fleeing yet another blooming hurricane.The foyer was oddly quiet; I assumed that Doey must be napping upstairs and went to dump my duffle in the office only to find that door was locked. “Hello,” I called while wandering in the game room next door.

Hey,” Kaleb called from the sofa. I hugged him tightly. It had been over a year since I’d last seen him.

Why are the office and craft room doors locked? I know the aunts usually use them to wrap presents in, but it is nowhere near Christmas. Don’t tell me they’ve started this early.”

No,” he said, lowering his voice. Despite living hours away and his general air of being above it all, Kaleb loved family gossip.“Now, Doey didn’t say this outright but I heard that ‘someone’ was snooping through Doey’s records and wrote himself a check.” I instantly knew which of the uncles Kaleb was referring to. Still, I couldn’t imagine Doey’s own son treating her this way.

Where is everyone else?” I asked, looking around at the quiet and abnormally clean room.

Well, Madison is with her mom and Morgan just got her driver’s license. His salacious tone returning, he continued. “Morgan and Seth’s girlfriends hate each other, so the boys don’t speak to each other now.”

That’s ridiculous!” I didn’t believe Kaleb then; assuming that he was exaggerating, but over the next two years I would see the magnitude of the rift; how the brothers came at separate times to visit Doey and would hear reports of their fighting. The family that Doey was so desperate to keep together was drifting apart.

Christmas was smaller that year.; Kaleb could not get enough time off and stayed in the Keys. His father joined him and Morgan had opted to spend the day with his girlfriend. Doey delighted in the tradition and theatrics of the holidays. Her collection of silver bells was arranged atop the piano. A pirate Santa winked from the bar and the fireplace was hung with the stockings that she embroidered for each of the grandchildren. Christmas at the River House was a production. On Christmas morning, the Christmas tree was obscured with sheets to hide what Santa had brought. Either out of a sense of tradition or nostalgia, Doey had put up the sheets this year even though all of the cousins were too old to have large toys under the tree.

My aunt called us over for prayer and we held hands and a hush fell as Doey moved to the head of the circle and with tears running down her cheeks she recited her father’s words:

Behind the bread is the flour,

Behind the flour is the mill,

Behind the mill are the sun and the rain,

And behind it all is God’s will.

I felt my mom and cousin squeeze my hands as we chorused, “amen.” One by one, everyone broke from the circle; the adults to serve breakfast and the younger cousins to open their stockings.

That afternoon, I stepped outside onto the porch, the fans whirled above me and the sky was that intense shade of blue that forces you to squint. Doey sat in a deck chair looking out over the river. Surprisingly, as it was Christmas Day, a lot of people were tubing down the river. They passed on yellow inflatable tubes and, occasionally, a mattress, calling, “Merry Christmas.” A blue heron flew over the water to perch on a piling. “I heard you all laughing downstairs. It’s my favorite sound.” She said as I looked out through the screen. I had just been visiting with my cousins. Over by the neighbor’s house, a frog croaked. Looking out over the river she continued, “I miss when you were all little and would play before everyone could drive and you were all trapped here.” Her voice was scratchy: she was recovering from a cold and though she had done a good job hiding it, laughing delightedly as she watched us open gifts, I could tell that the holidays had taken a toll on her. “Me too,” I said and sat down beside her and together, we watched the river flow by.


A  native Floridian, Kaley calls Oviedo home. She is passionate about reading and writing and teaches high school English. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling abroad and hiking with her guide dog.  

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