Grandma's room was at the bottom of the stairs.

On the inside of the door the big, soft robe she wore every morning hung on a hook. She had a big feather bed, and the cat and I both loved to curl up on it and nap. The room smelled a little like lilac powder and a little like mothballs, but most of all it smelled like Grandma. It had been hers for over forty years, since she and Grandpa had moved in after they were married. She chose the room because of the lilac bush outside the window - the bush that was now several substantial trees that kept all sunlight from entering, except for the bits that could sneak in when the trees were bare in winter. The faded Victorian print wall paper was covered with photographs of three generations. On her dressing table was my Grandfathers picture from the First World War, and on her nightstand a radio, a prayer book, a water glass and a vase that was always full of lilacs in springtime.

For as long as I could remember, Grandma was the sun whose gravity kept our family together. Charlie could remember when my mother was alive, and shared her power, but my memory of mother was cloudy, and, I think, half-imagined: I was only three when she died. Grandma took us several times a year to her grave near the church in town. She definitely had the greatest influence over what went on in the house, and in the lives of those who lived in it. Much more than my father, her only son, who was quiet and strong but always seemed uncertain of how to handle his children, as if filling in for a missing player in a game for which he didn't know the rules. "His children" were my brothers, Charles and Peter, who were four years older and three years younger than I, respectively, and myself. For most of the time I was growing up we had two dogs, Red, a big golden retriever, and Cass, an exceptionally good-natured black lab my father took duck hunting. There were always several cats around, but the inside of the house was the exclusive domain of Boo, a sleek black stray that turned up as a kitten and seemed to keep getting bigger over the years. We lived on a farm that had once been far more productive; now, there were only three acres of cornfield in use, and Dad worked as chief mechanic at a garage in town. Our nearest neighbors were a ten-minute walk away, so the three of us and the friends and relatives who came and went roamed about in what seemed to us a vast territory in our play. That wasn't a problem for Grandma, who would use the whistle Dad used to call the dogs on hunting trips when she wanted us home.

Grandma wasn't my only mother figure, though; my Aunt Mary, mother's sister, felt a particular responsibility for me, whom she saw as growing up in a wild house of men, with Grandma questionable as a civilized influence. As a result she periodically summoned me for visits at her house, which was a hive of femininity. Aunt Mary was "prim and proper", a woman who'd grown up thoroughly in town, and took care that her four daughters followed her example. Still, I had fun at her house. My cousin Jane was the same age as me and shared the same enthusiasms. I envied her her little sister, Priscilla, who seemed to me (though certainly not to the ever-exposed Jane) a living doll, and she envied me for my brothers. And I was usually in awe of her older sisters.

But it was Grandma that I cried for my first day of school, Grandma I told my secretest fears, Grandma whose bed I crept to when scared in the night. It was she that whipped us for our misbehavior, more fearsomely with her tongue than anyone could have done with a switch . And it was Grandma who taught me to hold a pencil, to tie my shoes, to say my prayers and to love the world and the people and creatures it nurtured. And of course, to make corn relish and apple pie. When I was alone in the house, no place was more inviting than the room at the bottom of the stairs.

"His word burned like a lamp."