I see a lot of abandoned homes in the hinterlands. Way more than I should. Awnings fallen off. Gutters rotting. Roofs caving in. You can tell no one gives a damn about them. What, I wonder, condemned them to abandonment? Economics gone south? Bad family blood? No will? Foreclosures on places nobody wants? Not worth the money it’d take to bring them up to code?
Whatever the cause, there they sit, sad and unkempt, with feral shrubbery and invasive vines choking what pride remains from them. Who will tell their story?
I like to write about old home places, which are in no way comparable to abandoned homes. You’ve seen old home places. You’re driving a back road and you go by what I call ruins. I have in mind those places where you can tell a hand once tended a yard and you can tell by how the trees grow that, yes, once upon a time a home nestled among these trees. You can spot old home places 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 stately piles of rocks where a foundation once rested. These little heaps of rocks, standing amid weeds and pines amount to cairns, a mound of stones heaped up as a memorial, and memorials they became.
A few years back, my column, “Old Home Places,” prompted a woman to write me. “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.”
When her aunt and uncle passed away, the house was torn down and a Singer Sewing Machine plant sprung up where cows once grazed. That fate did not befall my mother’s home place. No, her old home suffered a fate harsher than a sewing machine factory. The back-story is one of lives turned upside down.
There comes a day when some of us feel compelled to revisit tragedy. I drove to my mother’s home place in eastern Georgia on a May morning when the trees are so green they blind you. I wanted to see if the aforementioned profusions of butter-colored jonquils still bunched up there. Going there, I knew, would be bittersweet. The place was “burned down” as they say way back in 1964. All the laughter and love that lived there was no more. The family members that gathered there—close to fifty—number ten now. Back in ’64 when bad blood spurted forth, they scattered like a covey of south Georgia quail. Unlike quail, many never again congregated.
My grandparent’s tin-roofed home sat just off the Elberton Highway, about a mile west of the South Carolina line as the crow flies. It was a handsome home with a symmetrical architecture whose style eludes me. It was white, wooden, had two chimneys, a front porch with six simple columns, and a screened porch in the back. I had many adventures there. Later, all grown and a writer, the vicinity surrounding that home, I discovered, had outfitted me with great stories and a sense of place.
As I drove to the old home place, I passed the Chennault Place where the Confederate gold train was robbed and then the road to Danburg before arriving at Mom’s old community, Beulah. Passing Beulah Baptist Church I glanced over to where my grandparents lie in rest. Just beyond the church I rounded a familiar long-and-sweeping curve. Down on the right, the old home place had surrendered to woods. Nature had quietly used half a century to reclaim what was hers.
A steel cattle gate and heavy cables barred entrance to the driveway that grass, weeds, and trees had long overtaken. Atop the gate was a black-and-red plastic sign, the kind you buy at hardware stores: “Absolutely No Trespassing.” Sold long ago, the home place no longer belongs to the family. Easing between two strands of cable, I trespassed into childhood.
Granddad’s old store, its asbestos shingles covered by tin, still stood. About 100 paces to the northeast was the old well where I once cranked a windlass to haul up buckets of water. We’d sip water from a newfangled aluminum ladle. A fiberglass well house covered the well. Progress. I saw no jonquils. Too late, perhaps. A bitter disappointment.
All these years later, no trees had claimed the home place proper, a show of respect of some mighty and natural kind as far as I’m concerned. The chimneys and rock columns were gone. Bulldozed and hauled off by the new owner. A fine cover of vetch covered the ground where the old home had stood. In the air some three to four feet above that square of vetch is where I spent many a boyhood day and night. Up front and center, at the front door next to a portrait of Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, Uncle Carroll, who could never catch a break, told me how men used an old crank telephone to catch fish. Many years later, on his birthday, eating his favorite meal of fried fish, he suffered an aneurysm and died at my mother’s table. “It’s stuffy in here,” he said, and then he pitched forward vomiting blood.
Near the old stove a few feet north, Uncle Donald handed me a shard of aluminum from a fighter jet that crashed nearby in the 1950s. Holding it felt magical, powerful, but scary too. What happened to the pilot? And it was in the front bedroom to the right where, pressed like a leaf, I slept beneath thick quilts on a feather mattress winter nights.
Behind me, to the west by the highway, once stood a mighty oak. Granddad would tie a giant stalk of bamboo 60 feet tall to it. That bamboo stalk seemed as tall as the Empire State Building. With a copper wire running up its length, it served as an antenna for his old radio. I want to say he listened to the Grand Old Opry via that wire but I just don’t know.
Just beyond the well stood the smokehouse. It was a dark, sweet-smelling place where, peeking through cracks, I could see motes of dust floating in shafts of sunlight. A crab apple tree stood to the right of the smokehouse and far to the right of it, the outhouse, the first one I used. There, my cousins Larry and Ronnie and I, miscreants all, poked girls in their rear with long cane poles. Shrieking and screaming, they bolted from the double seater.
As I looked around, other memories flooded over me. Here, in the main room above the vetch Grandmom Walker showed me her Indian Head pennies and Indian doll faces she’d found as a girl. I shot my cousins with the peashooters I cut from the lush bamboo on the property. Bamboo was the only grass allowed, and “allowed” is being kind. Mom says they fought it like the dickens. My grandparents swept their yard, and buried in that clean, sandy soil was an old millstone, one half protruding above ground—a small arch of granite.
Come summer, Granddad fashioned a lattice of hemp and grew kudzu across his front porch, a green shield against the western sun. Not far away, rippled and riffled Anthony Shoals, the place where mom and her family unwound after getting the crops in. Mom said it was where farming families vacationed after they “laid by.” They’d take watermelons, cantaloupes, a flour sack of homemade biscuits, and live chickens to be slaughtered and fried. They hauled everything there in a wagon pulled by two mules.
Come winter evenings, we grandkids shivered with fear around the old wood stove as our great aunt spun stories about the “white thing,” a rare albino panther, no doubt, that spooked the men’s horses. We heard stories, too, about the drowned ghost towns of Lisbon and Petersburg. During the telling, a cousin would sneak off to use the jar beneath a bed in the back bedroom. The home had no plumbing and even better, no TV. Stories were all we needed.
Walking through the vetch, more memories flew up like butterflies. How fun it was to see the colored candies in Granddad’s store, and when no one was looking, snatch a handful of Mary Janes. Near Granddad’s minnow tank grew a yucca. My cousins and I would slice off the sharp-pointed leaves with our Barlow pocketknives and spear minnows. Had Granddad caught us, I probably wouldn’t be here today. Times were tough and he needed every penny he could make for reasons obvious and not so obvious.
Walking the grounds, I could find no artifacts from the old home place. Even the old millstone was gone. Many years ago I had scavenged a white enamel pot from underbrush and given it to Mom, a memorial of sorts. The latest owner had trucked all evidence of human life off. Only memories and a few photographs escaped the bulldozer and trucks. The saddest thing is a lot of my relatives wrote this place off forever. Abandoned. I’ve never heard of anyone, save me, who went back more than once.
My grandfather, they allege, gave all his money to a younger woman for sexual favors. She lived up around that big curve back in the woods. One of my aunts called her Jezebel. One day when my grandfather’s daughters all depart to the hereafter I will tell this tale of mercenary passion in detail but for now only this much needs to be said. It was alleged in court back in ’64 that Granddad sold his timber, sold his topsoil for money for “that woman” and when all that money played out, it was alleged that he burnt a barn and then the house he was renting to a son whose family lost all their possessions. That son never spoke to his father again nor did he attend his funeral in 1989. Finally, Granddad burnt his own home, so they say, to get insurance money for his lover.
Most affairs end in disaster and this one was no exception. The fallout was thick and heavy. He and my grandmother divorced in their sixties after having raised eight of nine children. One died in infancy. A trial took place and he was acquitted. All this hubbub humiliated Mom and she wanted to move out of the county but never did.
For the rest of his life most of Granddad’s children shunned him. He became a paternal pariah. Toward the end when there wasn’t much point in holding a grudge, a few accepted him into their homes, my mother included. By then he was an old man.
He had a stroke in 1989. I remember standing by his hospital bed. He spoke gibberish, his oxygen-starved mind muddled. I made out only one word in his nonsensical stream-of-consciousness. “Imelda.” The name of his youngest child. He died days later.
I don’t know if he was guilty or innocent of arson but I am sure he had his way with Jezebel and that I understand. It must be said that in his era burning a place for insurance was common. Arson forensics weren’t so hot back then. Certainly not as hot as fire and men and women’s passions.
I know that some of Granddad’s children never went back to the old home place. They killed their past. I will always go back. My time there shaped me in ways known and unknown. I can’t speak for you but I feel we owe places long gone that shaped us our time now and then. For certain that place laid its hand on me. When I go back, I see a young girl hauling up water from the well in a wooden bucket. She’s wearing a summer dress made from a flour sack, and for the rest of her life she’ll recall that life was hard and that she grew up poor. That girl would become my mother.
In the end, we borrow places. Nature has Mom’s old home place now, not the Leviathan, the industrial beast that came down South to sire Singer Sewing plants and more, and for that I’m grateful. The isolation of northern Lincoln County turned the old home place into a haven of sorts. It’s peaceful and beautiful in its own way. Mostly deer hunters and fishermen frequent the region. Businessmen and developers leave it be, as they say in these parts. No money to be had.
For me, just two mysteries remain. Was Granddad guilty? And what, pray tell, became of the unkillable bamboo on the old home place. I found nary a trace of it.
As for the uninformed who round that big sweeping curve as they head downhill to the free-running remnants of the Broad River, well, they know nothing of the history of my family. They see woods and think it’s always been that way.