Peggy Cummings was convinced she could drive to her grandparents’ house with her eyes closed.
She was well-aware the roads had changed — it had been 50 years since Granny and Gagie sold the three-story 19th century house, opting for something smaller as they aged — but there was something magical and magnetic about that place. Something unique and unusual that stuck with Peggy and her cousins well into adulthood, when they could never seem to let go of the home on South Prospect Avenue.
A few of them had ventured out to Catonsville before, driving past it for a peek. But never had so many Kirbys — the family surname — been reunited there until that Saturday.
How the 19 of them got there started with the family learning of Peggy’s cancer diagnosis. Distance and time had kept them from being ingrained in each other’s lives as they once were, but when Peggy needed her family, it was like no time had passed.
Around the same time of her diagnosis, cousin Chris dropped his daughter off at a classmate’s house for pre-prom photos only to make a surprising discovery. It was the former home of his grandparents, Joseph Kirby and Lily Mohler, where he, Peggy and the rest of their cousins had spent much of their childhood. In text messages and phone calls, many of the cousins confessed they each had thought of the house in recent years and felt pulled to return.
And so they did.
That morning, Peggy had the navigation system guide her and her husband rather than go by memory like she did when she was younger. Her parents thought nothing of letting her take her 16-year-old self, with a new license, to the house from Richmond, Virginia, for the weekend.
“Well, I don’t like this,” she thought to herself. The navigation had the couple go through what Peggy called the back way, not letting her make a right turn on Prospect but instead going past it. “I don’t like this at all. This is different. I do not like this.”
She had been waiting for that day for a year, tingling with excitement like a child waiting for Christmas. That same thrill had been there each time she visited in her younger years, beginning when she heard the noise of the tires smashing the gravel on the driveway.
But for an instant, she dreaded it, for the first time fearing disappointment — what if it felt nothing like it was when she was little?
The colors, she noticed right away, were different. The outside of the first floor had lost its bright yellow, and the second level was no longer the vivid green that matched the trees. And then, she saw the original front door, and she shrieked, recognizing the woodwork.
Her parents — Jack Cummings, Jr., and the matriarch, Lily Kirby Cummings — were already there with her siblings Mary Mohler Carlson and brother Jack Cummings III — as was Johnny Kirby, her oldest cousin by a few weeks.
Her husband had barely pulled up when she stormed out of the car.
“Johnny! I couldn’t make the right,” she said. “It didn’t used to be that way.”
“That’s how long it has been since you’ve been here,” he said.
And there was cousin Barney, one of the Frank Kirby kids, who held a bouquet of flowers, and cousin Maureen, and Jimmy. And like clockwork, the cousins fell to a familiar rhythm, going from tormenting to hugging one another. Each time, the cousins took her in, her hair falling halfway through her fitted beige blazer, all dressed up, as was the way of the Cummings.
Her mother Lily Kirby Cummings watched her. She was usually stoic, the typical Irish Catholic mother. But that day, there was softness in her gaze.
“It’s a miracle,” she said.
As he waited for the remaining cousins to join them, Peggy’s brother Jack took out an old painting by his aunt Elizabeth, comparing the home on the canvas to the house in front of him now. The driveway still traveled the front yard in a loop, but no longer extended to the back. The side stairs on the left of the house had been torn down. It looked the same and it didn’t, at the same time.
Like the theater director he is, he began to organize his 18 relatives to go in. Peggy looked at the front door, which had a wooden sign that read “Happy Halloween. Enter if you dare.”
“I wanna go in from the kitchen. Can we do that?” Peggy asked, because they never used the front door.
Her brother hesitated, furrowing his eyebrows, not quite sure at first what to do.
Peggy gave him one look; she did not care. Make it happen.
“Nevermind,” he said.
He reemerged from the side of the house, opening a fence that didn’t used to be there. He waved the group onward.
“God it looks different,” Peggy said.
“I was gonna say, there used to be a house back there,” Maureen agreed. The driveway used to travel up to the carriage house.
There also used to be far more trees besides the lone willow, enough to block the neighbors’ homes. The yard once had a baseball field, and during the war the family had a victory garden and chickens. The porch to the kitchen was new, too.
The kitchen — it looked so much smaller than the cousins remembered and entirely different to Lily. Peggy and her mom walked ahead gesticulating where Ally, who worked for the family for many years, used to make fried chicken in pork grease, permeating the room with the smell of bacon. They noticed where the pantry used to be, and the 6-foot table that used to sit underneath the window, covered by candies, cookies and baked goods. The sweets were all fair game to the kids, no matter what their mothers and fathers had to say — even the Berger cookies, Granny’s favorite.
“Anything you want, pal,” Gagie used to say when the kids asked for sweets. “Anything you want.”
Where there is now a washing machine and dryer, there once were two refrigerators for beer, cans and cans of the cheapest kind, often National Bohemian. A doorway now cuts through the room that had Granny and Gagie’s chairs — his a dark club chair, hers a maroon with textured fabric with little diamonds — in front of a bookcase. He used to reach back to the shelf without looking and pull a novel to read out loud to Peggy, nevermind how age appropriate the work may or may not have been. Gagie would work on her needlepoint.
Long gone are the chairs, but the fireplace, the one Lily and Jack posed in front of for their wedding picture, was still there. It was in that room that he asked Granny if he could marry Lily.
“And what did he say?” Peggy asked, though she knew the answer.
Her father teared up.
“Go ask her mother,” he said.
The same room had a rocking chair, where Gagie prayed the rosary novena. Lily did the same prayer when her daughter Peggy got diagnosed with cancer. She asked for two things: that her daughter receive the right treatment, and that she live to see her grandchildren.
Peggy is now a grandmother to twin boys.
In the next room, Peggy walked over to her cousin Barney, telling him she had the mirror at home that used to hang over a marble pedestal. On more than one occasion, Peggy caught Granny standing in front of that mirror, she told Barney.
“Checking himself out,” Barney said, smiling and nodding.
“And then he would say to the mirror: Damn, you are good-looking,” Peggy said.
The cousins kept going up the winding stairs they once ran down to get to the kitchen for candy, and then back up to one of their uncle’s rooms. One bedroom had a slanted ceiling with a big built-in closet that became their hiding place. In December, the stairs circled around a tall Christmas tree, big enough that it reached the second floor of the home.
One Christmas day, the adults were making cocktails, when all of a sudden they noticed the house was quiet — too quiet.
“We better check in on them,” Peggy’s mother Lily remembers Aunt Elizabeth saying.
They searched all over the house before they heard giggles from one of the rooms on the second floor. The kids sat in a circle, some giggly, some quieter than others, each immersed with their own copy of an adult magazine they found under a bed.
“It was hysterical,” Lily remembered.
The last floor of the home wasn’t off-limits — nothing really was — but the kids, taunted by the older ones, used to think it was haunted with its dark rooms used for storage. That Saturday, most of the cousins climbed up, gave a look to the now well-lit bedrooms and office and quickly headed back. As he reached the final floor, Peggy’s brother Jack remembered the house used to “go on forever.”
“I was right,” he joked.
In her grandparents’ old bedroom, Peggy teared up. Even days later, back in Richmond, she would get emotional thinking about the room. She wasn’t sure why, maybe she saw it as Granny and Gagie’s special, intimate place. She could still picture their bed and which side was whose (Granny slept on the left side), and a smaller, tall bed next to it, where Granny sat with the kids at night to read to them — lot of Grimm’s fairy tales. And when story time was over, they dispersed.
She could picture the dresser, where Granny kept quarters to give to the grandchildren, and could almost smell his aftershave, which Peggy kept calling “Old Bay,” but was actually Bay Rum. Her cousins poked fun of her: Would Granny really want to smell crabby?
The family wandered around the house for an hour. Then slowly, they reconvened by the front door, waiting for the owner of the house to come back out. They gave her a sketch of the house, drawn by Frank Kirby, one of the uncles, and posed for photos.
Lily and Jack, Peggy’s parents, shared a kiss on the steps to the house.
“Not the first time this happened on this porch,” Cousin Jimmy yelled out.
Then they all drove to cousin Barney’s house, who still lived in Catonsville, and again they arrived in waves. The kitchen island had been set with a roast, fried chicken, salad and deviled eggs, all staples from their childhoods. They had plenty of beer and a table with cheese balls, cookies, sugary and colorful baked goods and a bowl of Tootsie pops.
Hours into the afternoon, her sister and brother prodded Peggy to say some words. Peggy usually doesn’t like to make things about her — she didn’t want them to think the world revolved around her — but she needed her family back then.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, she didn’t know how much time they had then, and she began to ask herself what was important in life.
“I very much wanted to go back to Prospect, see Prospect and be with all my cousins,” she said.
Her youngest sister reached out to the cousins to make it happen. Her cousin Barney began to coordinate dates with the current owners of the house.
It had to work out with Peggy’s schedule too, so she could travel down to Clearwater, Florida, for treatment. Before each chemo session — and she has had 24 of them — either Peggy, her sister or her brother messaged the cousin text thread.
“Alright cousins, gear up,” The text usually read. “Here we go.”
She thought everyone grew up like they did, spending a lot of time in each other’s houses. It wasn’t until much later she realized what her family had was special. Gagie and Granny had created a strong familial environment for their children that radiated down generations.
Granny, with his beautiful, bright hair, who had a mischievous look in his eyes. Gagie, with peppered long hair often tied in a bun, red lipstick and just a gentle puff of powder on her nose. Granny, who liked to stir up conversations, and Gagie, who liked to hum and spoil the grandchildren.
Anything could happen on a Sunday supper, but often, they sang Irish songs. Granny liked to sing “Let me call you sweetheart” to Gagie.
That Saturday, Lily asked her brother Mark to lead the song.
Everyone knew the words.
Correction: This story previously misidentified a sibling. The story has been updated to correctly identify Mohler Cummings.