Time to Smell the Flowers
I have not been to my grandfather’s house in over twenty years. After his death, the property was sold and the house was torn down. Technology trampled the delicate wildflowers that had grown enduringly on my grandfather’s estate. Nurtured by intentional neglect, these flowers shot their roots, along with mine, deep into the soil. They had survived everything from hardy winds to hearty wars, and the reward for their perseverance was careless extermination. In the place where those flowers had eternally flourished, something else now grows. My generation recklessly pulled up those flowers by their roots to harvest a new crop. Restaurants and movie theaters now disguise the land that once revealed the essence of nature’s history. Erased and nearly forgotten are the blossoms that lived so that I might breathe their sweet scent. Erased but not forgotten is the story they tell.
I don’t remember the first time I laid eyes on the farm house, or the railroad tracks that stretched across its front yard. I do, however, remember the feeling of simplicity I would get by going there. It was as if time stood still the very moment I arrived. Popie had long ago taken his college diploma and World War II veteran status and gone home. He left the “modern” world behind and returned to the house he grew up in. He returned to Virginia. He found pleasure in simple life and defied technological advancements. Life in Popie’s world was uncomplicated, and he was insistent on keeping it that way.
The plush green fields behind the house were not marred by electrical wires or cable lines. Popie had no need for electricity. The roosters served as his alarm clock, and most of his cooking was done on a wood-burning stove. He always said that electricity was for people with too much time on their hands. Popie was always busy.
His days were endlessly filled with repairs to the house. The paint seemed to chip for no other reason than to provide him with a chore. This endless round always kept him busy.
It was a grand old house, as big and fascinating as the imagination of any eight-year-old. From the end of the long dirt driveway that led up to the house, one could imagine the history that surrounded it. Wars had been fought in its backyard. Enemies, once brothers, fought for their freedom as the Civil War trod across its vast acreage. Battle lines had been drawn down by the railroad tracks that wound past its front door, and people had been bought and sold only a few miles down the road. This land had served many purposes throughout history, and the American flag that hung proudly from the porch served as a gentle reminder of my heritage.
The house, so deeply rooted in tradition, grew with the countryside, as if it, too, had been planted at the same time the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley came into existence. It sat, as unassuming as the Potomac River, neither disturbing nature’s delicate balance. The air, so often filled with the scent of cherry wood burning in the stove, began to assume the rich aroma, and the grass never grew tall enough to draw attention to itself.
The surrounding woods were heavily inhabited by wild game which, in generations past, provided food for my relatives. The interior, although not pretty to look at, made no excuses for its modesty. To a stranger’s eye, the house would appear messy or cluttered. Mounds of mail covered the dining room table from end to end, some of it dated back as far as ten years. Dark corners provided a home to spiders, and field mice could be heard as they scratched along the hallways that led to the many bedrooms. The mice were as welcome as the deer that gingerly plucked the berries off the bushes just outside the windows. My grandfather peacefully coexisted with the critters that scurried about during the night.
Plainly displayed on the walls were photographs of relatives, including a Rebel field doctor and my fifth-generation grandmother, Teeney Weeney Granga, both of whom have long since left the physical world. (When Teeny Weeney first settled in America in the early 1800’s, her British accent combined with her Southern drawl and left her descendants pronouncing her name Granga, instead of Grandma. Unfortunately, the name stuck.) The ornate frames that held these pictures proudly displayed the craftsmanship that was so important to my grandfather. Although the dust gathered on many frames throughout the house, it did not land on these particular pictures. (Popie used to tell me that Teeney was allergic to dust so it was afraid to land on her picture!)
Rifles stood in the corners of many rooms. Hunting was second nature, something Popie did instead of grocery shopping. There were no animal hides displayed, though. He believed it was done for survival, not for decoration.
By far, the largest room in the house was the kitchen. In the center, sat a wooden table with four heavy chairs around it. In the middle of the table stood an old pickling jar with freshly cut daisies. I oftened wondered if they were there all the time or just on my special visits. The cabinets were heavily lined with large amounts of stewed, pickled, and preserved foods. The river provided the main course on any given evening.
The living room, was the second largest room, and my personal favorite. It was the room that my grandfather also preferred, and therefore, the one that he spent most of his time in. The crackles and snaps of the fire kept him company as he dozed in his old, heavy wicker rocker. It was in this chair that he would sit and write me long letters and enjoy great novels. The morning would always find him with his eyeglasses draped over a Hemingway novel or a book of poetry that had caught his attention the evening before. A mooned path in the wooden floor led the familiar way to his chair, leaving the rest of the room almost untouched. At the foot of the fireplace, a spittoon was placed, but never used. It represented one of the only decorations in the house.
A small room off the kitchen was left almost completely alone. At one time it was used for family gatherings but now it was only used for storage. The tomb-like room was never entered. If I did, by mistake, find myself near it, the hairs on the back of my neck would always stand up. I never fully understood the rooms past, but I did know that it was clearly none of my business.
The end of the day would lead me to any one of the five bedrooms in the house. All five were simply furnished with wooden poster beds with feather mattresses and laden with heavy quilts that would not only keep me warm, but stop me from falling out of bed. Fireplaces kept two of the bedrooms warm in the winter. The others were supplied with additional quilts. A large wooden chair appeared to grow out of the walls of the room I slept in. It was a peculiar chair, with a high back, hooks on both sides, and claw-shaped feet. (Upon my grandfather’s death, my father tried to take this chair up North, but it fell off the top of the car and shattered in pieces on the highway. Gone forever was the odd chair, and its claw-shaped feet.) Miscellaneous ancestral pictures hung on the walls throughout the five rooms. Aside from the chair in my room, all the other rooms were “decorated” identically. The unlocked doors did not stop me from sleeping. I was always so exhausted from the day’s adventure that sleep was always only a few thoughts away.
Excited by the sunrise, the roosters would wake up the house with their incessant cock-a-doodling. The smell of bacon and eggs would fill the house and escape into the field advising the chickens of their duty and making the pigs a little nervous.
The hunting dogs would line up at the screen door for a taste of Popie’s breakfast. By the time we were done eating, the few animals that still lived on the farm needed to be fed. The sheep ate first. I learned this the year I fed the other animals first. This greatly upset the sheep. They waited for me but as I approached them, delicately offering them their breakfast, they moved in. They did not care about the bucket of food, they only cared about the buttons on my sweater. After hundreds of laps around the barnyard, they tackled me. Covered in food, dirt and whatever else, I gave in to them. One by one, they ate the buttons of my sweater and left me there. Exhausted and buttonless I went back to the kitchen to find my family in hysterics over the episode. From that day on, I always remembered to feed the sheep first.
With the smell of breakfast beginning to fade, we would venture a few hundred yards out the back door to the Potomac River to catch dinner. Many future nights would find me in front of my own stove trying to duplicate the taste of the Blue Point crabs we had caught on that river. On very rare occasions I could come close, but mine never tasted as good as those we caught years before.
In the years close to his death, Popie did give in slightly to modernization and allowed electricity and telephone lines to be installed. One evening found him speaking to a telemarketer on the phone, instead of reading a great novel in front of the fireplace. During this phone conversation, he became tangled up in the telephone cord and fell down the stairs to his death. Technology had finally won a battle that Popie had long avoided. He had passed on his heritage, his wisdom, and finally his spirit so that I might live. The transitional plane that we co-existed on briefly, vanished, leaving me inevitably alone.
I have not been back to Widewater, Virginia in over twenty years. Time has long since marched over the land that had been carefully preserved for hundreds of years, leaving in its wake a mall and a Texaco gas station. Near the gas station and behind the mall, is a place where no daisies grow. The air is clouded with exhaust and the deer have been pushed back far into the woods. My generation, Generation X, is no doubt partly responsible for this massacre. We have failed to acknowledge the past, and probably would not take the time to smell the flowers that cannot grow in the now sterile soil.
Christine Brooks is a freelance writer who enjoys traveling the world to find inspiration, peace, and the perfect wave. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family and very opinionated dog, Harley. Her work has been published in several venues, and her second book, Letters to M, with a forward written by Malachy McCourt, is forthcoming.