Tracy Chiles McGhee
I’m cruising in the back seat of my uncle’s brand new sleek, gold Cadillac. The new car scent is competing with the waft of my aunt’s Calvin Klein Obsession perfume and the perfume is winning—just a little spritz on the left, then the right side of the neck, and then on the left wrist before rubbing both wrists together and that’s all it takes to set sail and dominate an enclosed space. We are the lead car in a caravan of three cars filled with descendants of Robert and Lydia Johnson. We had gathered in Little Rock, Arkansas for our annual Johnson family reunion and now we are on the tail end of our three-hour journey southeastward to a small town (really small) called Mt. Holly, Arkansas. Slowly but surely, we’re making our way down a well-traveled road to the house where most of us were raised—my mother, six aunts, one uncle, and me. Thank goodness my uncle has got the air conditioner on full blast since this is a hot and steamy day in Razorback country.
The last time I was in these parts, I was eleven years old. Back then, on a day like today, you might have found me dressed in a rainbow-colored halter top and cut-off jean shorts swinging my dusty bare feet over the edge of our concrete porch, slurping on a grape Popsicle and daydreaming about boys, distant places, and if I dared—both. Now a young woman, I’m a tad more sophisticated—a private school Cali girl turned spirited Georgetown University student turned budding D.C. lawyer. No matter. I’ve still got country girl sensibilities, although no one would know since my southern accent and vernacular have long since been diluted. Stern reminders of proper grammar and diction, as well as immersions into various cultures on both coasts have blended into my composition and created multiple layers. It is on that very first layer, closest to my heart, where “y'all” naturally rolls off my tongue instead of “you.” Of course, it doesn’t take long before I pick the cadence of my people right back up. Yes, a return down South to the exact place I took root was long overdue and I am more excited than ever to be nearing our destination. The plan is to visit the old house and then go to the cemetery, which is located just a quarter mile away. My grandparents are buried there, along with countless others in both marked and unmarked, tended and untended graves.
I’m peering out the window and the memories are flooding in. I really want to roll down these tinted windows to get a better three-dimensional, full color view as we ease on down memory lane, but I wouldn’t dare let this arctic gust out and that scorching, tropical-like heat in. WOW! To the right, there’s Union A.M.E., the church we attended before we joined New Jerusalem Baptist Church in a nearby town. Mt. Holly only had one “Black” church and one “White” church. I only stepped foot in the "White” church once when I participated in a piano recital. My piano teacher was a member of the church and had made arrangements to have all of her students perform there. I remember being scared out of my mind but I also remember hitting the notes to Lavender’s Blue perfectly and how they all clapped for me at the end—Black and White.
Now look! It’s Miss Tinsey’s house! Oh my goodness! It’s still the same. Nothing has changed, except maybe the great big satellite dish protruding from the rooftop. Ha! I bet Miss Tinsey was the first to get this outside look of the world. She always made the long walk to her house worth it with the goodies she had. After all, she was the much revered and sought after Candy Lady. My twin aunts (only three years older) and I would pick honeysuckle on the way there and then buy Snickers and Butterfingers once we arrived. Afterwards, we’d play with the steady flow of foster children that she and her husband, “Son Cat” took in and Joyce, whom they adopted. We’d sometimes stay overnight, which meant taking another bus route to and from school. That was exciting. Plus Joyce had Atari so we could play video games until we were forced to take a break to eat. She also had a whole lot more records than we did, but we both had the full Jackson Five collection. Ah…what memories!
We keep moving along down the road, and me, back in time. Just a little ways more, we turn left and climb a slight hill that was once made of the red clay my mother craved and ate when she was a little girl. I’m told she was teased about that, but she just couldn’t help it. We now know that unusual craving is called pica which is caused by iron deficiency. I would later suffer the same condition in high school, but flour was my poison. I’d even take it for lunch in a Glad sandwich bag.
I know this route well. Once down the hill, we will take an immediate left and see the narrow, graveled road that leads to our humble yet well-kept home that sits back from the main road on its own hill. Man, I can’t wait to walk through that door! Can’t wait to get inside all those memories and wrap myself in all that love within those walls. But after we turn, the car slows down even more, just when I think it should speed up. The road is unbelievably overgrown and way shorter than I remember and then…and then I try to focus through frantic, searching eyes. I do not see my house. I fight for air and start to hyperventilate! No! This cannot be happening! It’s GONE. My house is gone. There is no structure. No remains. No crumbling roof. No white siding. No black-trimmed windows. No concrete porch. No straw chairs. No door. Nothing left but shrubs and weeds and trees. The car stops and I jump out and fall to the ground where I vomit. I hear someone say I thought you knew and another explain something about how the house had to be razed because it was too difficult to maintain from a distance and how it had become a haven for squatters, drug addicts, and low-lives. I don’t want to hear it. What cruelty! This is not right. No one warned me that my house had been murdered. I feel betrayed. Soft voices and strong hands try to console me but I am deaf and numb. I should have never come back to this barren, forsaken place. The sight of this shrunken-in piece of land has robbed me of my memories, and I do not have the strength to get up from this cold, bitter, homeless ground. The tears flow. I sob.
Time stands still, that is, until I feel the weight of a breeze on my shoulders. This strikes me as a very familiar sensation. I’m suddenly moved to look over to the right, and that’s when I’m faced with the towering oak tree that stands in front of where my house once stood. But oh how I remember this tree. When we played tag, it was the base to seek safety. This is the tree where we were guaranteed to find at least one baby blue Easter egg tucked away at the trunk if you were fast enough to make it there first. When we played hide-and-go-seek, behind this tree, is where the seekers stood, pressed their arms and face to the bark, closed their eyes, and counted to ten. Ready or not, here I come! This is the tree that shielded us from the harsh sun, where birds built their nests, and squirrels played and then dined well on the acorns it bore. This is the tree that bears witness to our Johnson family legacy and keeps watch through seasons and more seasons even though we and our house are now gone. This is the tree. This is the tree. This. Is. The. Tree. I wipe my tears and slowly rise and stand before the mighty oak to take in its majesty. I take a deep breath. I am home, and I am okay.
Now we can continue down the road to embrace our ancestors and reminisce and break bread. They are expecting us and will be overjoyed to see us. I hug the tree tightly and then head back to the car where the air is still cool and heavy with fragrance and a new car scent that refuses to be engulfed.
Born in Chicago, Illinois and raised in both Arkansas and California, Tracy
Chiles McGhee is the author of the blog "Passionate Self by Tracy”
(www.passionateself.wordpress.com). Her works have appeared in a variety of
publications such as Planetary Stories: Black Earth Institute, BOMB Magazine,
Texarkana Community Journal, Nashville News, Coloring Book: An Eclectic
Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multi-cultural Writers, and Slow Trains
Tracy Chiles McGhee