Monday, July 16, 2007
This Is Home
The past brings about some of the most vivid memories--sometimes memories from your childhood are more memorable than events from the previous week.
I wrote this back in college to describe a childhood memory. This is an account of me visiting the house of my late grandparents after it had been vacant and unoccupied for a year. Something that has always fascinated me is how hard it is to build something, yet how easy and quickly it can be torn down, a concept that applies to all areas of life.
The stale smell of damp, rotted wood and water damage engulfed the dilapidated kitchen as I reminisced about the fresh smell of warm coconut pie that Grandma used to make in this very room. This was her home. The sturdy, one-story house at 26 Albany Road in the small North Carolina country town was built in the 1940s with the bare hands of her husband, Eddie.
The many coats of paint that used to adorn the bricks of this place through three generations are now peeling and fading away like the memories that they witnessed. The overgrown Chinaberry bushes and vines are evidence of its vacancy. The broken doors and windows are evidence of its sporadic occupancy.
“Hand me that board and some nails,” my brother Derek said. Bang! Bang! Bang! The board fits perfectly over the frame of the shattered window. “I can’t believe what they’ve done to this place. This will keep them out for a little while.”
I couldn’t believe it either. Shattered crack valves and bloody needles lined the dining room floor that hosted so many family meals and Thanksgiving dinners. Candied yams and sweet potato pie were my favorite dishes as a child. I remember one particular Thanksgiving when all six of my grandmother’s children and all of their children and even their children crowded into the small, cozy dining room to bless the food that God had prepared for us.
The shiny wooden antique hutch that sat in the far left corner of the tiny room held dated China with gold-plated trim that my grandfather had secured and sent home during World War II. The walls were an off white that were a result of age rather than choice. Jesus peered down on us all as he ate his last supper through the dusty wooden frame that hung from the wall. In retrospect, the black and brown-checkered floors in the dining room were hideous, but served as the perfect spot for me to play “Hopscotch” and “Four Corners” alone. It didn’t take much to please me.
“Eddie! Put that biscuit down! Wait ‘til I serve everybody!” The words silently echoed throughout the dark, empty room that was now a place for neighborhood junkies to continue their never-ending mission. Perhaps I was the only one that heard them. They faded into the darkness.
As my brother and I crept down the rickety hallway that led to the den, we couldn’t believe the damage that was done. Rays of light from a bedroom window seeped in through the blackness and showcased holes that had been knocked into the walls and insects that had made their new homes here.
“Hard to believe all this happened in the course of a year,” I whispered under my breath. One year. After all of the years that my family had spent in this house, it was hard to believe that it had come to this state after one year of being vacant…abandoned.
Disgusted, I left the filthy remnants and went outside to get some fresh air. I hopped off the cement porch and made my way to the old picnic bench in the back that overlooked the overgrown yard and garden. I remember helping my aunt Marlene plant seeds in the garden on hot days at 5 years old.
“Run in your grandma’s house and get me a glass of ice water,” she would say as the sweat rolled down her face and into her gasping, tired mouth. The visible humidity was an ever-changing magnifying glass, as it would liquefy the appearance of the house in the distance. I would leave the garden, run through the dusty pits of sand that were strewn throughout the yard, jump on the porch and run to the old kitchen to fix a nice tall glass of cubed ice and tap water. Exhausted, I would sip the beverage the entire way back until I reached my aunt who had come to expect half of a glass due to this recurring habit. I would smile. She would grin and shake her head.
As the animated memory faded, I looked around at the other adjacent houses in this neglected rural community. Only a few of the original owners of these homes are still alive. Ms. Bell and Mrs. Currie are the only ones left. The other homes were passed down to irresponsible children that were not concerned with their maintenance.
“Brandon?! What are you doing here? I haven’t seen you since you were this tall,” a raspy voice said behind me. I turned around as Johnny approached me from a newly worn path that had been made due to the excessive foot traffic that now made its way through the abandoned property.
“How’s your mom doing? I haven’t seen y’all in God knows how long…” Johnny was skinny. His eyes were bloodshot. Though an athlete in his younger days, the drugs had reduced him to a dangerously low weight.
The small talk continued for a few minutes, which predictably culminated with the question “So are y’all boarding it up?” With both our eyes fixated on the house, I concurred. Silence. “That’s good…it’ll keep them out,” he replied half-enthusiastically. Silence. “Take it easy,” he said as he walked away. I was relieved that my grandmother did not have to see what had become of this town…of its people.
In a stupor, I hung my head and watched the black ants perform their food gathering ritual in the dusty sand. They worked in a smooth, continuous line. They were organized. The line spanned from the bench to the back porch brick steps.
I walked back to the house to continue boarding the gutted entrances with my brother. Millions of memories streamed through my mind as we continued to reseal a chapter of our lives with every hit of the nails.
This is not the place that I remember, nor will it ever be.