Lines: A Southern Journal
I Wonder as I Wander
I had been away for many years. On this vacation day I planned to visit one of my ancestral homes. It was a beautiful Southern colonial my great-grandfather built. During my childhood, my great uncle restored it to its original beauty, and some of my fondest memories are about Christmas dinner here. These dinners occurred during my early years and were anticipated with an excitement second only to a visit from Santa Claus. It was here that I was introduced to the value of beauty in one’s life. The home was elegant and decorated with an eye to detail. The food served was both old South delicious and presented in an interesting and artistic way. One item on the menu each year was a large serving plate filled with a round molded ring of mashed potatoes with the center filled with green peas, mushrooms, and pearl onions. It’s amazing what our brain sifts through and stores as a permanent memory and not just an inconsequential detail.
As I turned on the road leading to this house, I once more felt the stirring of excitement from my youth. I watched for the fence posts that were always painted white with the top foot or so painted red. That was my signal, as a child, that we were getting close. I always thought of this as a matchstick fence, though matches had the colors switched. The fence ran beside the road for about a mile before you could see the house sitting up on a hill with a working fountain in the front yard. That fountain was another example of incorporating things into the environment for no reason other than their beauty.
I began to drive by the property but the matchstick fence was now weathered and gray. That was disappointing, but not really surprising. The property had long since been sold out of the family and I had been told it was not well cared for. I knew as I approached a certain curve in the road that the house would pop into view the moment I came out of that curve. My heart raced in anticipation.
I rounded the curve and my heart stopped. Before me stood four chimneys, a smokehouse, a corncrib, and a broken fountain. The house was no longer there. Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my cheeks. The home with windows tall enough to walk through in the summer and the red glass around the side entrance and the water bubbling from the top of the fountain in front of the long porches was no more. There was, instead, the rubble left by a fire. I gasped with my unexpected reaction to this discovery. I never thought of myself as sentimental about hanging on to the past. My reaction to this loss of a place stunned me.
I drove up the now rutted driveway and parked my car in the back, where my father had always parked. For a while I simply sat crying. I remembered the lattice work around the back porch. I remembered the separate kitchen which was not in use during my lifetime, but was necessary in another lifetime to prevent fires. I remembered that the bathroom added in the twentieth century was at the end of that lattice work porch and did not connect to the inside of the house—only to the porch.
I stepped out of the car and stood looking up the hill behind what once was a house. On top of that hill, a cistern from the early days had been turned into a swimming pool by my uncle. It seemed like such a luxury to me. Walking in that direction, I discovered the cistern was now filled with leaves and rubble.
I trudged back down to the site of the now absent house. Shrubs and flowers that I remembered still thrived. There were the ant-filled peonies, roses, irises, and a bed of tulips and daffodils. Forsythia, hawthorn, and lilac bushes were still there. Wandering around the entire area, memories flooded my head and my heart. The tears finally stopped and my head took over.
I wondered about many things. What is it that makes us need a physical structure to call home? A place to call the “Homeplace” or the “Walter Place.” Maybe the ability to see, touch, smell, and hear the hauntings in a place is needed to feel as if we really exist as part of a greater family. There is a visceral reaction to entering a place where our ancestors lived and loved and grew and learned. Some aspect of the physical structure—a slight smell, a beautiful flower blooming, old and crumbling wallpaper—draws us back to our heritage. Even if we do not know our heritage, we are drawn into the essence of the rooms and find ourselves wondering. Who slept in this room? How did they earn a living? What made them laugh? What made them cry? What did they fight about? In what ways am I like the people who lived here? What was their gift to me? For this place, I had the answers to those questions, but I still longed for the physical place called home.
There were other days and discoveries like this first dreadful loss of place. As each important house of my youth was destroyed, there was a sense of loss, as if a part of me was somehow gone. Or perhaps it was the fear that a part of me never really existed. One home was covered by a man-made lake. One was torn down to make room for a rural fire station. Two burned to the ground and one was simply allowed to implode from neglect. Could my family story be similarly destroyed? Who in future generations would know and remember my family story once the buildings were gone? And, most importantly, did it really matter?
I believe it matters. It matters as one matures and grows and wants to know how she came to be the person she is. It is said that “home is where the heart is” and that is true. But home is also the physical structure in which life is lived. It is harder to absorb and remember things of the past without a place to remind us of the details. We need visual images of life as it was lived in previous generations. The location, shape and style of the home, the look (or lack) of landscaping, the colors chosen to decorate the interior all tell us something about our ancestors. The stories told around the fire and the dinner table are more real when tied to a place. Such a physical structure helps enlighten us and inspire us with the truth of our ancestry and our heritage. Or so it seems to me.
Judith Walter is a resident of Franklin, Tennessee, where she is active in the Williamson County Council for the Written Word and participates in their critique group. She has been published in Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, the Lebanon Democrat, professional newsletters, and "Mature Lifestyles", as well as opinion pieces in several newspapers. She writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2010