A Day Back at the Old Home Place
The Gladys Pierce of the sign is my Granny’s sister; the party was last Saturday (it has taken me a while to get this post written up, because it has pictures and I'm not very good with pictures). Granny didn’t make it to her ninetieth birthday, but Aunt Gladys has done herself proud. (That’s pronounced, by the way, “Ain’t Gladys,” because after all this is East Texas).
The original plan was that Sean and Kegan and I would make the four-hour drive up to Springfield (you probably won’t find it on a map but it’s in Anderson County in between Athens and Palestine and Cayuga, a couple or three miles’ worth of cattle pasture west of Bradford). We’d meet my parents there, hang out together a bit, go to Aunt (did you remember to say “Ain’t”?) Gladys’s party, go have some dinner, and then I would drive back home while Sean and Kegan and their grandparents struck out for West Virginia. Then after a few weeks, on the 16th, the boys are going to fly back to Texas – and I was very proud of Sean, by the way, because he’s showing signs of becoming an adult rather than a teenager. The difference between an adolescent and an adult really comes down to one thing, in my mind:
That is, adults think about consequences before they act. Adolescents act, and then are astounded by the consequences, no matter how predictable said consequences might have been. Take an adolescent, equip him with foresight and enough self-discipline to pay attention to it, and you pretty much have an adult right there. (You don’t necessarily have a nice person, because that involves all sorts of things like unselfishness and kindness and gentleness and a servant’s heart and just virtue generally speaking…but you do at least have an adult.)
My point is that as we were pulling out of the driveway, Sean mentioned that he had originally intended to bring the set of nice pocket and utility knives that my parents got him for last Christmas, but then it had occurred to him that he was flying back and wasn’t planning to check any luggage – so he had decided to leave the knives in Texas. And I got a big grin on my face and said something like, “You know, Sean, a year ago you would have figured that out right about the time those knives were getting confiscated by airport security…if you’re not careful you’re gonna grow up.” Very proud of him, I was.
Sean drove most of the way and did very well indeed. It took about three hours before he got tired; so we switched drivers right before we got to Buffalo. We pull into Buffalo, and there we see a billboard that catches my attention:
Now that’s an innovation right there – an urgent care center that doesn’t require appointments. That’s such a relief…you know, I remember that time I cut my arm off in a hay baler, and we called up the urgent care center, and they told us, “Our next available appointment is next Thursday at 11:30; does that work for you?” so we had to put my arm in the freezer to keep until then, and my jump shot has never been quite the same…
But at this urgent care center, you don’t even have to have an appointment. Dude, talk about your competitive advantages…
Okay, I admit, the boys didn’t think it was all that funny either. But I got a big kick out of it, which is all that matters.
About halfway between Buffalo and Palestine I called up my parents to let ’em know we were getting close. We agreed to meet out at the old home place, where Pa and Granny mostly raised their kids and where I spent every Christmas Eve for the first eighteen or nineteen years of my life. I’ve probably mentioned that Granny had a single-wide trailer, and that by the time she died she had something like eighty descendants or spouses thereof including a great-great-grandchild, and that most of us tried to come back to Granny’s for Christmas every year…so it was a full house. But there wasn’t always a single-wide there. I can still remember the old frame house that she had before she got the single-wide; every speck of paint had weathered off the old place long before I was born and about a quarter of the front porch had been turned into a convenient sandbox by simply pulling up the boards when they got too rotten to be safe, and not replacing them. I remember the space underneath the rest of that front porch, which was nice and cool even in the hottest summer because there was no grass under there, only nice cool sand. I remember the one big bedroom where my dad and his siblings had slept, with the tiny little private bedroom right behind it where Pa and Granny produced ’em (I remember once Granny complaining cheerfully, “All Pa had to do was throw his overalls over the foot of the bed, and next thing you know, there I was pregnant again”). I remember the little dining room off of the always-sweaty-hot kitchen, and the little bitty hallway in between the kids’ bedroom and the dining room. I remember the old linoleum and the fact that the floor sloped noticeably down toward the dining room, making it tricky to play marbles inside. I remember the dry cottonwood leaves in the yard year-round, and I remember playing Annie-Over with a tennis ball, and I remember stopping halfway around the house to pick the grass burrs out of my bare feet. I remember the softball games we played in the summertime when we’d all get together for the Fourth of July or something, out in the big cow pasture on the north side of the house where the biggest of the big cottonwood trees was, right next to the mailbox Granny backed over the first time my new-to-the-family mom tried to help teach her new mother-in-law to drive a car. (Granny never did learn, really, and by the time I was old enough to remember anything she had pretty much stopped trying to drive.)
But the old house was falling down, and so finally the kids got Granny a trailer house, and we tore down the old frame house (though we left the old one-and-a-half-storey barn standing, with all the old farm equipment that my dad every so often tried to explain to me, with relatively little success since I myself had never seen a mule hitched up to a walk-behind plow like my dad had grown up walking behind). The trailer house wasn’t going to be big enough for Christmases, though, especially not for the part where we all crammed ourselves into the big bedroom like sardines and sang one Christmas carol after another from memory, with one of Uncle Reuben’s boys setting the key (I think it was usually Phillip who led the carols). And there wasn’t any room in the single-wide really big enough to set up a domino table for the obligatory games of forty-two, either.
So we all went down there one week in the summertime – I must have been seven or eight, which means I was plenty old enough by Oklahoma standards to have learned to use construction tools and to know a little something about plumbing and to have started helping my dad replace all the electrical wiring in our own elderly house back in Oklahoma. And we all built a back room for Granny, tacked on to the back door of her trailer house. That was where we kept the Christmas tree, and that’s where we played forty-two, and that’s where we sang Christmas carols, and that’s where (on an old black-and-white TV with terrible reception) I saw The Great Race for the first time and nearly did permanent damage to my abdominal muscles from laughing way too hard for way too long.
There was a well behind the house, though by the time I came along there was running water in the house thanks to an electric pump, and so I’ve never seen the old well with the cover off and never drawn water out of a well by hand:
Down the road about a quarter-mile or so was a tiny little spring-fed branch.
The branch never had very much water in it – but it also never ran dry. Or, more precisely, it ran dry exactly twice. The first time it ran dry, Pa (my grandpa) hiked up the stream to figure out why the spring had run dry, and discovered that his neighbor up the way had put a dam acrost it. So Pa dug a nice wide channel through the middle of the dam, and then our cattle had water again. About a week later it went dry again, and Pa hiked back upstream, and the neighbor had fixed the dam back up. So Pa tore it back down again.
After that, the branch never ran dry.
’Course, there was the time when the water in the branch started tasting kinda funny. For several days it tasted worse and worse every day. Finally Pa and Reuben hiked upstream, and found the dead cow that was lying in the middle of the branch, and moved the corpse out of the branch bed up into the pasture. Pretty soon the water was back to tasting normal.
At any rate, that little branch wound through a corner of the old farm, and over the years it had kind of cut a little valley into the pastureland that made it too much trouble to run a brushhog or hay baler in there; and so that corner of the farm had been let to run wild. And my dad talked to his brothers and sisters, and decided that pretty little corner of the property would be a right nice place to retire to eventually. After that, every time my parents and sister and I came down to Granny’s house, we’d bring our tools with us and work on clearing that land out. There was lots of clearing to do, and we had to do it in little chunks because of course we lived a couple hundred miles away; but bit by bit the briars were replaced with grass and the trees that had been overwhelmed with brambles and wild grapevines straightened up and grew tall and strong and that corner of the farm started to turn into the prettiest little two- or three-acre little homesite you could expect to see...
Well. I went off to New Jersey to go to college, and Granny died while I was at Princeton (Pa had died in ’64 or ’65, after my parents got married but before I was born). And the family sold Granny’s single-wide, though my uncle S.D. held onto the land, and the folks who bought the single-wide came and hauled it away. And my parents discovered West Virginia and stopped talking about retiring to Texas, and I married a girl who didn’t like my side of the family very much anyhow...and eventually I got to realizing that years had gone by without my setting foot on the old place.
So last Saturday as the boys and I drove down the familiar old one-lane road, still so narrow that the whole road was shaded over because the branches of the trees on the right intertwined over our heads with the branches of the trees on the left, I was as excited as a child. I would’ve asked the boys, “What did the monkey say when he got his tail caught in the lawn mower?” except that (a) they don’t know that that was always the traditional question my dad asked when we coming up on the last corner before you could see Granny’s house, and (b) they don’t know that the correct answer is, “It won’t be long now.” The boys listened politely as I pointed out S.D. and Polly’s house (though I don’t know that anybody’s living there now, what with S.D. having died several years back and Polly having recently decided, in her late seventies, that she still has plenty of life left in her to go off and marry her eighty-something-year-old third cousin who always did get along well with her at family reunions). And they nodded dutifully when I pointed out the spot where I broke my jaw in an otherwise extremely minor car accident back in ’69, thanks to fact that I was in the back seat not only without a seatbelt, but actually standing up so I could get a better look at the view out of the windshield. Then we pulled up to where Granny’s house used to be, and I got out of the car, and the boys rather gratefully went back to reading their books.
The first order of business, I felt strongly, was to make use of the extremely spacious restroom facilities – one of the nicer things about the country is that the restrooms are, literally, as big as the whole outdoors. No standing in line with your legs crossed waitin’ for a stall to come free out in those parts.
Then, to explore just a little bit – not exploring the land, you understand; I could still probably walk around the whole place blindfolded. I mean exploring memories.
That little back room is still there, though it’s (a) in much worse shape than it used to be, and also apparently (b) way smaller than it was when I helped build it.
I spread the second and third strands of the barbed-wire fence apart with my hands to make a gap big enough for my body and stepped through – haven’t done that in a long time and the last time I did it I don’t remember being quite so creaky. But no blood was drawn or clothing ripped, which is all that’s important when you’re crawling through a barbed-wire fence. (For the citified illiterates among my Gentle Readers, I feel I should specify that the adjective “barbed-wire” is pronounced “bob-wire,” which is actually how I spelled it until third-grade or so. My vocabulary in my youth was impressive but somewhat randomly acquired, being drawn in more or less equal measure from my redneck acquaintances and from my incessant reading; so it took me a while to realize that “barbed wire” on the printed page and “bob-wire” in conversation with the local ranchers were the same thing, and even longer to figure out that “rondayvoo” and “rendezvous” were actually the same word rather than synonyms – after all, the only French I heard spoken out loud before the age of ten was the kind of French that would get me a switchin’ if I was the one speakin’ it out loud.)
I peeked into the old spare room; looks like Aunt Polly is using it for storage these days. I can remember helping hang the old brown side door, though – if memory serves (though I’m not certain of this point) we recycled the side door from Pa and Granny’s old side bedroom in the old house, which would make that door about fifty years older than the room itself.
I don’t know how we all fit in there; it’s no wonder we filled the room with our a capella harmonies when we were all singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” or “Silent Night.” We must have been packed in most uncomfortably; but then maybe we had different standards of comfort. I don’t suppose I really know one way or t’other, but I can tell you this: I have few memories happier than the memories of those Christmas carols in that room.
I stepped back outside and walked out to where the barn used to be. I wish the barn had stayed up, and Granny had stayed alive, long enough for my kids to have known that shrewd and stubborn and inexpressibly lovable little old lady, and to have played in that barn. I’d like to have those memories to share with them. But the only way you can tell now where the barn was is from the fact that the hay still doesn’t grow very well there; so my cousin David, it seems, keeps the site brushhogged but not cultivated.
I must have stood for five minutes listening to the – no, not to the silence, because an East Texas hay pasture is never silent. There’s the wind, and birds in the trees along the fence rows, and you can hear the bumblebees buzzing and every so often the whirr of a grasshopper, and from the pasture on the next hill maybe half a mile away you can hear the murmur of cattle grumbling placidly about the heat and the flies. And if you’re slipping back thirty years or so in your memories to a rocking chair on a front porch in the peace of an early summertime evening, you can hear the other kids giggling and arguing out in the side yard, and you can hear the lazy drawl of your Aunt Globie making her leisurely way through the story she’s telling to Aunt Arlene, and you can hear simultaneous roars of delighted triumph and good-natured frustration coming from inside the house where your Uncle Reuben just pulled the last trump out of S.D.’s hand because he knew, and S.D. impotently knew Reuben knew, exactly where that trump was.
What you don’t hear, is cars and radios. Or, as Kegan might have put it back when he was five or six, you hear not-cars and not-radios.
And not-cars and not-radios, dear hearts, are some of the nicest-sounding things on earth.
Well, eventually I heard the sound of a car coming down the road from the direction of my Aunt Sue’s house, where my parents had been visiting, and after thirty seconds more or so I saw my parents’ car coming around the corner down the road, and I headed back towards the fence. We said our howdies and exchanged hugs, and stood there in the summer heat. I said something about enjoying the peaceful not-quite-silence of the countryside, and Mom said, “It’s even nicer when there’s the sound of running water,” and I said, “Well, when we first got here we had that sound too for a minute or two,” which left Mom trying to decide whether or not it was worth going to the effort to thwack me in that heat. Then we drove down to The Property, which is what we still call the two acres that Pop and Mom will never retire to. (That may be the first time I’ve ever driven down to The Property from Granny’s house rather than walking unless there were tools to be hauled; I am getting old.)
Mostly I stood around listening while Pop and Mom told the boys stories. Mom showed the boys the trees that we un-buried from beneath mountains of brambles and vines, discovering them hidden under there when they were shorter than Pop.
Pop told about finding the tree that was bent over so far by the weight of the brambles that its top was nearly touching the ground. He decided to try to save it, though, and so we straightened it up and roped it to one of the neighboring trees, and then after a few more trips we took the rope off. He showed the boys what the tree looks like now – straight as an arrow and probably sixty or seventy feet tall.
Then Mom told the boys about how we found a dogwood tree and decided to try to save it. We very carefully trimmed all the underbrush out from around it and chainsawed out the smaller little trees to give it some space, and then Mom stepped back to admire the little dogwood...which is when Pop glanced over his shoulder, saw the little tree standing there, and said, “Whoops, missed one!” -- rrrroowwrrrrr thwack!
We walked on down to where the little branch crosses under the one-lane road. When I was a kid there was a wooden bridge there; but the wooden bridge is gone and now there’s just a big tinhorn passing under the road. I stood back and just looked at those tall, wiry boys of mine standing there with my parents and listened to’em swapping stories.
Pop told about the time S.D. and Pa were going across that old bridge with a team of mules pulling the wagon, and neither S.D. nor Pa nor the mules were paying close enough attention...and suddenly the left-hand mule lost his balance and fell off the side of the bridge. To make matters worse, the trace-chain fell in the crack between two of the old railroad ties that had been used to make the bridge, and got stuck – leaving the mule hanging in mid-air with the trace-chain wedged in the crack. So S.D. climbed down into the bed of the branch and squatted down and worked himself under that eight-hundred-pound mule, and then he took a deep breath and straightened himself up with the mule on his shoulders, and Pa unhooked the trace-chain right fast, and S.D. squatted down until the mule’s feet could touch the ground and then crawled out from under the mule’s belly. Then he led the mule back up onto the road, and they hitched the team back up and went on back home.
By now it was comin’ up on 2:00, which was when Aunt Gladys’s party was due to start. But I had a huge problem – I had very stupidly not bothered to put my sunglasses on for the drive up until we were just a few miles from Springfield, and as a direct and entirely predictable result I was now fighting a raging migraine...and I was four hours of solitary driving from home. I talked it over with my parents and decided that, as unhappy I was about having to change plans, I had better try to get home as fast as I could. And it wasn’t a totally unmixed blessing; obviously my parents would have liked to have had dinner with me, but at least this way they could strike out for West Virginia sooner (and, in the event, they managed to drive straight through all the way to West Virginia, thus saving the hotel bills; so it worked out fine for them).
I said good-bye to the four of them and headed out. It was obvious within a few miles that I couldn’t really drive; so I stopped in at the general store at Montalba and bought a cup of instant-lunch ramen noodles. Montalba is of course a very small town and therefore the general store runs by small-town rules; the proprietress went into the back and put a cup of hot water in the microwave and heated it up for me, and then I sat in the very back corner of the store as far from the windows as possible and ate my ramen noodles there in the air conditioning. But the store was closing at 3:00; and so I got back out and tried it again. This time I made it onto I-45 and got about ten miles or so south of Buffalo; but at that point I gave up and pulled off at the nearest exit and parked myself under a shade tree. I leaned back the front seat and rolled down the windows and went gratefully to sleep.
Ka-boom!!! I shot straight up in my seat; whatever dream I had been having was instantly obliterated by the sound, apparently, of a bomb exploding twenty or so yards from my car. By the time I got my head swiveled around, the two cars at the intersection had both come to a stop, their fronts ends both mangled so that it was instantly obvious they wouldn’t be repaired, and the doors were opening. I called 9-1-1 on my BlackBerry as I sprinted across the grass and roadway, hearing the woman in the little red car keening in panic as the young men who had been in the other car tried to help her get out and her husband tried to get the car shut down while the mingled gas and oil drained out onto the ground. “I need my wheelchair!” she kept saying over and over; and so I checked in the trunk and found the wheelchair and got it out and helped her into it, and then maneuvered her off the roadway and onto the side.
I won’t go into unpleasant and tedious details, other than to say that nobody was seriously hurt and the ambulance wound up leaving empty. But we were there for about an hour before everybody was cleared to go. And while I was there I got to looking at one of the eight or nine teenaged boys who were standing around (three or four had been in the accident and then there were a couple of other cars in their group that had been traveling with them). This one kid’s shirt caught my attention: “Yuga Hoops.” Now that sounded suspiciously like a short version of “Cayuga Hoops;” and so I walked up to one gentleman who looked about my age and asked him, “Are you fellas from Cayuga?”
“Yeah,” he answered, “we’re coming back from a basketball tournament.”
I grinned. “I thought maybe you were...my dad played for the Cayuga state championship teams back in the ’fifties.”
This got his attention. “Really? Who was your dad?”
A delighted and surprised grin spread across his face. “So you’re S.D.’s...” he paused to work it out.
“I’m S.D.’s nephew.”
“Really!?! I’m Wiley Jenkins’s son. I bought my grandparents’ old house across the street from S.D. a few years ago and we’ve been fixing it up.”
I started laughing. “Well, I was just up past your house a couple of hours ago – you known Aunt Gladys is turning a hundred...”
“Yeah, I saw that. That’s pretty great.”
“Yep, so I was going up for the party and went out to see the old place.”
“Wow!” He paused reflectively and I thought, Uh-oh, he’s gonna say it...
He shook his head. “It’s a small world, ain’t it?” Yep, he said it.
I just grinned. “Well, it’s nice to meetcha.”
“You, too!” We shook hands. “Tell your dad howdy.”
“I’ll do that.”
And after the Cayuga folks left, I called up my dad, whose best friend throughout his childhood and basketball-playing high school career was Harry Jenkins.
“Hey, Pop, I just met Harry Jenkins’s nephew.”
“Yeah, a bunch of Cayuga high school players were in a wreck right next to where I was sleeping in my car, and Wiley Jenkins’s boy was riding along in the next car behind ’em; so we got to talking while we were standing around after the wreck and figured out who each other was.”
“Really??. [delightedly] Well, I’ll be!” (In my father’s very Baptist arsenal of astonished interjections, the phrase, “Well, I’ll be!” is complete as it stands, sans predicate adjective.)
The couple in the red car, by the way, had been on their way home from Dallas, headed for their apartment in Conroe, which was an hour or so away. They didn’t have any relatives nearby; so I offered to give them a ride back.
James and Becky were pretty simple, straightforward country folk – not much education and not much money, but very kind and gentle and affectionate with each other, and very polite and courteous to me, thought clearly very perturbed about what they were going to do for a car since their only car was obviously totaled and they had only been able to afford liability insurance. They spent quite a bit of time on the way home calling around relatives asking things like, “Hey, do you know if Roy still has that old Buick?...Do you know how much he wants for it?...I know it needs a fuel pump, but maybe I can come over and see if I can get it running...” I liked ’em, and there was one point in particular that sticks in my mind.
James was calling up his cousin to let him know what had just happened. The cousin answers, and James sails into the conversation thusly:
“Hey, J.J, this is Possum...”
And I’m sittin’ there grinning to myself, “Man, these are my kind of folks...”
So, in the end an eventful day.
But at least by the time the wreck woke me up, my migraine was gone. And I had good company for most of the ride home...