Where Laughter & Love Once Lived
Now and then some mission takes me off the beaten path into a land known as The Past. I’ll see cotton fields, old country stores, and here and there a lonely sight, an old home place that’s fallen apart board by board, brick by brick.
Last fall while on assignment I stumbled across an abandoned farm hidden by mobs of kudzu. It had a small pen and nearby a dusty, cracked mule collar hung on a stable wall. The home and farm were left behind by the times, quaint times when a farmer might go to town Saturdays to shop for a mule. Now all those farmers and their way of life are gone.
I don’t have to be on an assignment, however, to come upon the homes of yesteryear. I see them a lot out in the country and they always lift and lower my spirits.
I can’t speak for you but there’s something strangely comforting and upsetting about an old home place that yields a mixed bag of emotions. People lived there. People laughed there, and people loved there but now no one remains. And I realize, too, that meanness lived in some old home places too. Maybe that’s why no one saved the place. No one cared if it rots in Hell.
Still, you get a sense of life’s mysteries when you walk the grounds of a vanquished home; you get clues but few answers. Like archeological digs, old home places leave a record of sorts. Like Stonehenge, it’s obvious these homes were forsaken but what caused them to be abandoned? What happened to their inhabitants? What forces swept them away?
You’ve seen them. You’re driving along and you go by what I call recent ruins. I have in mind those places where you can tell a hand tended a yard and you can tell by how the trees grow that, yes, once upon a time a home nestled among these trees. But now little remains.
Back in my college days, a group of us went out into the county one Sunday afternoon to look for old home places. Our goal was finding rare, antique bottles in hard-to-find trash piles where people once tossed out refuse. We found a few bottles, cobalt blue, but what I remember most were the old home places themselves. They were a curious mix of man-altered landscapes being reclaimed by kudzu, pines, vines, weeds, and fields.
We found artifacts. Old heart pine lasts. Leather lasts longer than you think. And copper utensils and tools with their green patina are a delight. Old home places. They’re here and there. Look for them.
You can spot them in the spring by the golden profusions of jonquils that grow in a disorderly way. You can spot them by the little chimneys that stand like monuments to the lives they once warmed. You can spot them by the little Pisa-Tower-like piles of rocks where a foundation once rested. These little heaps of rocks, surviving amid weeds and pines amount to cairns, a word, I learned, that means a mound of rough stones built as a memorial. That is precisely what they have become: memorials to an old home place that suffered a tragic fate: abandonment.
Here, north of a city Sherman rode through, I drive by an abandoned home place a lot. A mile from my house stands a new Publix. People throng there. Some, as they leave, if they’ll ease off their hectic pace, will spot an old home place on a small hill just beyond the parking lot of a dollar store (inflation’s dime store). You can tell by the trees’ spacing that a home once stood among them. More telling is a large prickly pear cactus, planted there with care by a homeowner long gone.
I plan to walk the site someday to see what, exactly remains. Perhaps I’ll find remnants of toys, an abandoned tool rusted and useless. A cracked, weed-infested sidewalk will betray where friends, family, and guests once trod. A lightning-scarred tree might suggest the home burned. Old home places tell us a lot if we but open our eyes.
A decade or so ago I explored my mother’s old home place where she grew up. It burned back in 1964. I found enameled pots, the kind your grandmother cooked in, and dippers that once cupped cold water from a wooden bucket raised from a hand-dug well. The well was right near the smokehouse, gone also. Looking at the brambles that had overtaken it, the smells of youth came back … that satisfying, pungent, salty, smoky fragrance that makes you hungry for bacon.
A few scattered bricks and rocks told me where the foundation had stood. Shards of glass littered the ground where windows once looked out upon a more prosperous time. I know what happened here but I must keep it a secret.
Other forlorn homes baffle me. I know nothing about them except that they have joined the ranks of recent ruins. What happened to the family members over the years? Where did they go? And just what circumstances transpired here? Why did they leave? It’s a hell of a commentary on our society that we let homes fall apart. Why?
There’s a documentary series on the History Channel, “Life After People,” where scientists speculate about what Earth will be like when people no longer exist. It especially examines what might happen to the structures men build. Skyscrapers, dams, and things like the Statue of Liberty. You have seen the show.
You don’t need a TV series to imagine what might happen to your home should no one ever again take interest in it. Stand back and envision the place many decades later … travel into a future when no one cuts the grass, when no one provides sorely needed maintenance.
Just a summer’s worth of uncut grass reveals how quickly nature reclaims what is hers. Let a few years go by without maintenance on trim, shutters, windows, doors, and the roof and soon you have trouble. But no one lets a home go without care forever … do they?
Well, yes, they do. For whatever reason they turn their back on hallways and rooms that once hosted happiness, places where joy and laughter once lived. No doubt there were dogs and cats in those rooms, too, for what is a home without pets. All gone. Nothing left.
Not long ago I heard from a childhood friend who moved about as far as you can and still live in the continental United States. He and I once played horseshoes with shoes made by an old blacksmith who lived across the Augusta Highway from my home. The home of that old blacksmith, Cap Dunn, itself was long ago abandoned but every spring joyous masses of jonquils remind all that, yes, people once lived here.
My boyhood horseshoe competitor drove cross-country to see once again his Lincoln County home. He was eager to show his wife where he grew up. I see him in his RV coming cross the plains describing it to her; I see him headed to that one home we can never replace. What he saw was a shock. The home, dilapidated and nothing like he remembered saddened him. He didn’t bother to stop.
Maybe that’s how old home places come to be. Perhaps it starts when the children move away. The subsequent owners take less and less care of another person’s memory, and then one day the place becomes uninhabitable, and no one wants to buy it. No doubt it falls off the tax roll in the ultimate abandonment.
The years roll on and the roses, jonquils, and shrubs keep growing, hoping that someday someone who once cared for them might return but they never do, and then one day a storm or a bulldozer puts the sad place out of its misery.
I suppose the lure of easy money motivates some to sell old home places, and the desire to bring in new industries does in a few as well. A friend of mine recently shared a fond memory from her childhood, that time of life when everything is new and everything is big.
“When I was a child, my uncle and aunt had a dairy farm in Anderson, South Carolina. The home was a huge white house with a screened porch on two sides where we would run around. The house was right next to the dairy; a barbed wire fence kept the cows out of the yard. I remember waking up from a nap one day and looking out the window and seeing cows at the fence. They looked so sweet that I decided to go outside and visit them. Was I ever surprised when I got outside and saw how large they were!”
That surprise, at least, was a good one. The old farmhouse is no more. Her aunt and uncle died and the house was torn down. A Singer Sewing Machine plant sits where cows once grazed. And my friend? She clings to memories of that house, running around the property and playing softball on the side yard. But now people pull shifts at the plant. Progress I suppose.
Two Sundays ago my Mom asked me to be sure to take care of the place when she “is gone” as she put it. I assured her we will. How about you? Do you have grandparents? Aging parents? A home you’re to inherit? What about your home? What will the deal be?
So, again, I ask you to walk outside and look at your home and yard. Imagine 100 years have lapsed. Is your home still a home? Is it an old home place with relics of the foundation here and there? Or does a shiny new factory devoid of family life occupy the site, a local source of “bread and butter” people brag about. What might your home’s fate be?
Time will tell won’t it?