banished to the forgotten

Grandma's House Burned to the Ground Before Thanksgiving - Photo by Tom Poland

All burned houses look alike, a jumble of ashes, blackened metal, and charred wood. If you know the house that burned, however, you see ghosts. Just before Thanksgiving, my sister called—Grandmother’s home had burned to the ground. A flood of memories washed over me, like a time-lapse film where clouds stream overhead, dreamy and surreal.

Ironic that it burned two days before Thanksgiving for that’s when my better holiday memories took form. So, the afternoon of Turkey Day I drove to see it. I barely recognized the house where I spent many boyhood days and nights. Room by room, I visited the house I loved as a boy. When I spotted the tub, I had a reference point, a way to rebuild the home in my mind. I spotted the charred doorframe where Grandmom Poland measured my height with a No. 2 Phoenix Oil lead pencil.

Understand, reader, we’re going back to the 1950s here. There’s the kitchen where Grandmom kept a jar of water in the refrigerator come summer. There’s the corner where she churned butter. Come mornings she’d toast “white bread” and slather it with homemade butter and strawberry jam. The sink once held channel cats and blue cats Granddad caught in then-young Clarks Hill Lake. Fallen kings, their tails hung to the floor. Beyond the kitchen was the storage area where Granddad stacked dark-green zigzagged watermelons.

Especially memorable was the dining room where Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were feasts. We had turkey, roast beef, fried chicken, and ham. The table groaned beneath those meats, surrounded by about twenty side dishes. I especially remember melted marshmallows over creamy sweet potatoes. Sweet potato soufflé? I’m not sure a chef would agree. Grandmom made two kinds of dressing: traditional and oyster. Ambrosia, pies, cakes, and Neapolitan ice cream were staples.

In the living room I saw my first artificial Christmas tree, a glittering silver tree that changed colors as a translucent red, blue, yellow, and green disc revolved before a spotlight. Out back along the roofline hung amber cane poles we fished with in Granddad’s ponds. There stood the chimney where a stove burned cherry red when Granddad stoked it with sour-smelling oak. There’s the small bath where cakes of Ivory Soap floated in the tub, a miracle! I recall the powder Grandmom kept there, and once in a rare while I inhale a similar fragrance on a woman and am transported to that bathroom. Seeing that old tub, twisted and split by fire, hurt. There’s the bedroom where Grandmom broke my fever by piling quilts on top of me. These memories and more came to me amidst cinders and plumes of smoke. I walked through the ashes, leaving footprints. Last visit. I could go on but it would only sadden me. Now a forklift and a truck will cart my childhood farm home off to the landfill.

I have a ritual. Each year I drive to my mother’s home place. It burned in 1964. I retrace steps I took in the 1950s and early 1960s and do my best to remember forgotten times and people. Last Friday I found the exact spot where the smokehouse stood. For a shimmering moment I saw the geraniums, yucca plants, and sandy yard in a burst of boyhood sunshine. I saw Mom and Dad, just kids then, and my cousins and me getting into mischief.

Now I have another ruin to add to my ritual.

Our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and parents pass on and all we can cling to are their gravesites, memories, photographs, and possessions. When a house burns, all you have left are air and space, and you can’t cling to those. Now I know what I’m writing won’t interest young folks. They’re more concerned about movies, songs, and fashions. Besides, they intend to live forever. Grow older, however, and you see how time and change conspire to do us in. When a house burns to the ground, it makes a statement: “The day is coming when no one will know that, once upon a time, I stood here.” Nor will anyone know that you made memories in that house. And more than that, they won’t give a rip cause you’ll be gone, too. Time will erase your footprints, and the ashes will wash into the sea, and the landfill will swallow what’s left, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we end up banished to the Land of the Forgotten. For now, however, we remember. It’s all that’s left.


Image Credit: Photo by Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].

  1. Tom,

    I just read your wistful article and wanted to share a quote that recently jarred me. I also allow my memory to roam about over the past in search of something that endures. I’m still trying to accept Lightman’s thoughts, no matter how true they may be:

    “I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone.”–Alan Lightman, “The Accidental Universe”

    1. Lightman is correct but that doesn’t stop me from revisiting the past. Thanks for the comment.

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