A couple of days ago I went back to my hometown to visit my cousin, who’s recovering from surgery. She and her husband live a few miles outside town. Afterward, I figured I’d drive around a bit, since I hadn’t done that for several years. So I took vegetables from my garden, a casserole, biscuits, homemade jam, and a few other items, and headed that way. Although there had only been a half inch of rain overnight, the creek at the edge of town was full and threatening to spill over its banks, like it often did when I lived there. My cousins and I talked, laughed, caught up on our families, and enjoyed each other’s company. They gave me a big bag full of mysteries, their favorite genre, to read. While we were talking about books, my cousin mentioned the title of the book she had finished the day before, Where the Crawdads Sing, which I had also just read. And we both hated the ending! We laughed, and remarked about great minds thinking alike.
She was tired after a few hours, so I bid my adieu with hugs all around, and headed back to town. On Facebook a few weeks ago, someone posted a video made by a young man whose father claimed my hometown as his, too. The video, taken by a drone, offered a brief, birds’ eye view of my childhood town. I enjoyed it, though I wondered why there was footage of ‘the hill’, the south end of town, the square, churches, railroad, and some of the farm and swampland surrounding it, but nothing from the north side of town, where I grew up.
began my tour with a slow drive around the cemetery at the top of the
hill, where many of my family members are buried. I walked around,
then weeded and cleaned up debris around my family’s graves,
thinking about my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins
who are buried there. I blotted a tear or two while memories tumbled
over and over in my mind. Then I continued my tour.
Beside the cemetery is the old high school, flanked on the other side by my elementary school. The elementary school was pretty new when I attended, and it clearly had had some additions, but it still appeared to be weathering the years well. Past the elementary school, ‘the hill’ had many lovely homes, more than when Mom and Dad lived there. They sold the house where I grew up and moved up to Allison Avenue in 1978. I drove past that house, their dream house, the beautiful home they both treasured, and lost when the bank, of which Dad was once a board member, foreclosed on his business and their house, all thanks to a close family member.
brick house where my aunt and uncle lived, the original ‘house on
the hill’, looked to have weathered the years well. It had been
enlarged, with a new porch replacing the tiny one that used to front
the house. My uncle’s prized rose garden, which held more than 120
varieties when I was a child, was gone. Those roses required a lot of
care and time, so I imagine the new owner long ago gave up and plowed
down the hill, past my old church, the First Church of Christ, at the
bottom of the hill, I turned left to see that part of town. The south
side of town was still picturesque, and reminded me of a classic
small town, on lots with decent sized trees, complete with neatly
mowed yards, and flowers flourishing around most of the houses; all
places with families living and caring for them. A few houses even
had those used-to-be-requisite picket fences.
The town square was home to a mixture of small businesses: including a restaurant, some sort of sporting goods store, a hardware store, and a drug store, along with a small museum, the VFW, and the post office. There was still a gas station on the corner. The bank, sedate and secure-looking with its façade of Briar Hill stone, was still located on Main Street beside the gas station. I parked and made a quick stop into the local grocery across the street from the bank. Some of my FB friends occasionally post some of the store’s specials, and I figured out from the postings that the store was struggling to stay open. But, what an eye-opener inside; it looked like the photos on television of store shelves right before a hurricane, or a store in a third world country. The shelves were mostly empty. Four packages of ice cream were the only inhabitants of the large ice cream freezer. Random other shelves held a half- dozen boxes of jello, five loaves of bread, and a produce section that I can only describe as sad. I bought my water and told the cashier to keep the change.
I got back in the car and turned the corner to Railroad Street, to drive past the buildings where my Dad had his business. He worked there for 55 years. He bought a portion of the business after my uncle died, and owned it for eighteen years before his death in 1989. I fought back tears as I drove past. He was so proud of that business. Everything was always kept neat and painted, a place for everything and everything in its place. On Wednesday, the weeds in the empty lot next to two of the buildings, where Dad stored some of the used farm equipment he had for sale, were taller than the building on the left. That building now houses some kind of auction business; thriving apparently it was not. A man wearing a wife-beater and dirty jeans sat on the step outside the auction house, idly smoking a cigarette. Another man wearing a white t-shirt and faded, gray carpenter pants came out of the door, inching his way around the smoking guy, trying not to spill the large, overfilled trash bag he was carrying. After he finished his task, by dumping the bag on the ground next to smoking man, he looked up and I found myself staring at him. He was five ten or so, with several days’ growth of beard. I nodded at him, and at the other fellow, who had looked toward me by then as well, and kept driving, albeit slowly. The building right beside it was for sale with a phone number taped to the front door. Both buildings apparently have not had much care for years. The paint was peeling, and the windows so filthy that I could not even have peered inside; though I imagine doing so could have been even more frightening. I kept thinking of a line in aTodd Snider song: “Stuck between hope and doubt, it’s too much to think about.”
circled back to Main Street and headed north. Across from the
Methodist Church, an old lady sat on her porch, knitting. One of
several cats with her on the porch jumped on her lap as I drove past.
She responded by shooing it off and waving her cane wildly in the air
to emphasize her point. The cats scattered; then placidly resettled
themselves. Just north of the church the landscape began to change.
At first it was just that the houses did not seem to have been cared
for with the kindness given to the houses south of the square. But
each block brought more weeds and neglected houses. My grandmother’s
house, the last house on the west side of Main Street, and across the
street from ours, didn’t look too bad. The paint was peeling a bit,
and the yard could have used a mowing, but flowers still flowed from
baskets hung across the front porch, just like when my grandma lived
there. Along the north side of the porch, blue morning glories still
climbed the trellis, also like when my grandma lived there. The brick
house directly across the street from Grandma’s had deteriorated
substantially. The roof was crudely patched in a few places, some of
the bricks were missing, and the yard was filled with children’s
plastic toys and trash. Directly across the little side street, which
never had a name, was the house I grew up in on North Main Street.
I cried. It was much worse than I anticipated, so much more dilapidated than the last time I saw it a few years ago. The beige house with sagging, mud-brown shutters, situated at the side of the double lot, had a scruffy yard that looked as though it hadn’t been mowed for weeks. The house was rundown and completely unremarkable. Compared to the well-kept, homey places on the south side of town, I thought it looked lonely, made worse by the five rusted-out vehicles sitting in the driveway and in the yard.
The garage, which at one time was a small barn that occupied a corner of the original farm back in the late 1800s, was in poor shape. The windows on the bottom floor were boarded up with weathered plywood. The sole window in the attic no longer held any glass. How many times did I sit up there reading? It was one of my secret hiding places. I used to hustle up there during my sibling’s unhinged rages, to escape the shouting. The paint had peeled on the garage, revealing a half-brown, half dark-green exterior. How many times did I repaint it during the summers? The garage doors were bolted shut, but it looked as if they could never be opened anyway. They were partially buckling, and the bottom of the doors seemed to have some sort of green mildew or mold making a slow crawl up the rotting boards. The side of the garage, facing the alley, still held our basketball backboard, minus rim and net. I thought about the hours I spent standing out there attempting to shoot baskets. For some reason, I thought of the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a raw November day and I remember spending part of the afternoon standing out there, feeling sad, thinking about our country and our loss, and shooting baskets. Weirdly, I can still remember how silent the neighborhood was, and how that ball sounded that cold, dreary day, the different sounds the ball made bouncing on the little pad of blacktop, against the backboard, and the wall.
was always proud of the fact that we lived on a double lot. We always
had room for the neighborhood baseball, football, and badminton
games. But a couple days ago, that double lot did not seem nearly so
expansive. The garden Mom tended to so lovingly was only a rough
patch of weedy grass. I suspected it hadn’t been a garden for
years. The swing was long gone from the sagging front porch. The flat
rocks that I gathered the summer I was ten, and carefully placed in
just the right spots under the large pine tree that stands sentinel
beside the front porch, so that I could have a place to sit under
that tree, were surprisingly still there, no longer neatly stacked,
but scattered and tumbling every which way. Behind that tree at the
side of the house away from the side street, was a privacy fence, in
roughly the same condition and color as the shutters. I found myself
wondering why they needed that bedraggled-looking privacy fence. Were
the neighbors that nosy?
I drove around the block slowly several more times. Memories of my life in that house came flooding back. My parents got married in 1934 and that house was my grandparents’ wedding gift to them. My Mom’s parents bought each of their three daughters a house when they got married. I always thought, then and now, what a gift! A house!
parents added the family room, a bathroom, and closet at the front of
the house before I was born. The family room was paneled in varnished
pine, all the rage in the 1950’s. The closet was lined in cedar and
I remember it always smelled like mothballs. It was where we kept our
out-of-season clothes and Dad’s rifles and guns. He hunted when he
was young, but after he came home from the war he never hunted again.
So his guns were stored at the back of that closet. The only time he
ever took out a rifle or two was when he used to take me or my
brother out somewhere in the country to shoot empty aerosol paint
cans. I know, I know, that’s a terrible, extremely non-ecological
thing to do, and I would never do it today. But it sure was fun
spending the time shooting with my Dad in 1959.
the kitchen of that house Mom and I baked scads of chocolate chip
cookies. We danced together to my records in the family room and we
talked about everything. Dad and I spent hours in the living room
talking about politics.
During my slow circles around that block I kept thinking about my life in that house when I was a child. I remembered the pocket doors between two of the rooms downstairs and how fascinated I was by those doors. The doors just went into the wall! I thought about the first step right above the landing going up the stairs that you had to avoid if you were trying to listen to discussions downstairs. My brother’s room was at the top of the stairs. I always avoided it at all costs. Mom and Dad’s room was the first door on the right. We didn’t have any heat upstairs and they always kept that door closed. That room was freezing in the winter. But Dad liked it that way, said he slept better, snuggled under his electric blanket. My room was at the other end of the short hall. It looked out over the front yard. I could look out at what I referred to as my tree-house, a few boards nailed together and tacked onto a large low-hanging limb of the tree beside the garage. I could look out at the garden, Mom’s flowers, my swing-set, and the concrete link-log fireplace, composed of aggregate cement, and painted a dull, matte red. It went together just like Lincoln Logs and I remember how excited Dad was when we got it, though Mom wasn’t. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to cook outside if they didn’t have to. It didn’t get used often, though occasionally Dad and I would grill a few hamburgers or toast some marshmallows.
I thought about sticky summer evenings spent catching lightning bugs and playing flashlight tag with the neighbors. I remembered chasing my little dog, Dottie, around and around that house. I chased her and she chased me until one or both of us were too tired to continue our game. I thought about the summer I graduated high school, 1969, and the great flood that July. I thought about spending the remainder of that summer sleeping on an air mattress in the sun room of my aunt and uncle’s house, and working at my uncle’s business, cleaning hundreds and hundreds of muddy machine parts.
That house has not been my house for fifty years now, and Wednesday it seemed the sort of place where the future could never be better than a weak recycling of the past. I had seen enough. It was time to go back to Skinner Road, to the home and life I have today. The ache that began pulling at my head when I started my little tour had progressed to a dull pounding. Stopping before I turned onto the bridge to head out of town, I reached into my purse to search for something to ease the pain, but all I came up with were two baby aspirins stuck together at the bottom of the bottle. I figured those aspirins would be like throwing a fistful of sand into a passing wave, but since it was all I had, I gulped them down with a sip of water.
I enjoyed growing up in my hometown, population around 800 in the 50’s and 60’s. I loved my hiding places: in the attic of the garage, under the bridge that crossed the creek, and my very favorite, up on the hill where my aunt and uncle lived. There was a spot up there, behind their garage, a fold nestled between two hills, where the meadow grass grew tall, and I spent many a lazy summer day of my childhood reading, staring at the clouds, and daydreaming. I loved school and most of my teachers, all my friends and classmates. I loved sledding down my uncle and aunt’s hill, the best in town, which nobody but me and my brother were ever supposed to use, but we all did. I loved going to the movie theater, and then running home in the dark with my friend Loretta after we saw a scary one. I loved small-town trick-or-treating, going to Brownie meetings, and playing with my Barbie dolls and my dog. I loved spending cold winter days drawing detailed pictures of buildings during my I-want-to-be-an-architect-when-I-grow-up phase. I loved going to the bookmobile once a week during the summer, and reading everything I could get my hands on. I remember 4-H, Church Camp, and piano lessons, though none of them fondly, and I recall the joy of playing my trumpet for hours. Years later my Mom would say that for awhile, she never thought I would get any better, though was so relieved when I finally did because I was pretty horrible and the sounds were painful to hear for quite some time. Though she never, ever said anything negative at the time. My parents were the best; kind, loving, and always supportive.
is a well-known saying that ‘you can’t go home again.’ And
that’s sure true, especially when the home you wistfully remember
no longer exists, though I know for certain that once upon a time, it