Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Home Place

My Grandmother spent her entire life in the house where she was born. Her children say she was born, married and died in the same room. This was the same room where my mother and her siblings were born, and in which one sister and a brother died. That ramshackle, tin-roofed house never saw a coat of paint, sat on a patch of bare red clay that was regularly swept clean instead of mowed. The house was surrounded by cotton fields, fruit orchards and sharecropper’s shanty’s; one of which was my home during part of my young life.

My earliest memories are about that farm and now I often think about the way it shaped the lives and character of the people who lived there for more than a century. It continues to reverberate in my life to this very day. The last time I visited the house that is always referred to in our family as "the home place", the front porch was propped on concrete blocks, daylight could be seen through the floorboards and wind rustled curtains. Laundry was done in a wringer washer on the back porch while cats napped under the steps. Aunt Florence, dressed in a flour sack dress and bib apron, was still placing pans full of large fluffy biscuits in the oven each morning by dawn; and a good day would end with the family gathered on the porch with the scratchy sounds of the "Opery" playing on an old Zenith radio in the background. If we were lucky, on a clear Saturday night, we could pick up the sounds of a baseball game as far away as St. Louis, we children waited to turn the crank on the ice cream churn, tossed cigarette butts occasionally sent blazing red streaks flying through the air and the women swapped the latest recipe or gossip from town.

The home place has long been torn down and the old farm subdivided, but the legacy of the place continues to live in the lives of those who once called it home. My mother left her family and moved to Missouri with her husband and four small children more than fifty years ago. For decades I have gone with her back to the southland to visit her family. Last week my dear husband traveled with my eighty-two year old mother and me to the wedding of a first cousin and met all my Alabama kinfolk. The poor man had no inkling of what was in store for him.

Traveling through places with names like Waverly Hall, China Grove, Camp Gray Loop and Pine Level; to meet people known by names like Uncle Brother, Aunt Sister, Aunt Tump, Uncle Dink, Eddy Barr, and Sally Jill would be a lot for anyone. But, hearing stories about how marriage made one cousin’s wife his own step sister or the feud that has lasted for sixty years with no end in sight; I thought would do him in for sure.

However, my Frank is a real trooper and he faired better on this trip than I did. Truth be told, I found the trip somewhat disheartening. So many of the familiar things I associate with the South, and always gave me a warm feeling while connecting the area and the people with my mother’s upbringing and my inborn sense of family, seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate.

Gone are visits with very prim and genteel southern ladies. Great Aunts in ruffled collars with linen hankies tucked up their sleeve and smelling of Jasmine who served fig jam made from the trees growing in their yards, at tables set with translucent porcelain cups and silver tea pots. This was the first trip where shop keepers and service personnel all seemed to have lost their distinctly southern way of speaking; due in part I suspect, to television’s influence diluting regional speech patterns. Once small and charming towns are losing their historic charisma as they quadruple in size and city limit signs move miles in all directions. Fields that once held endless rows of white cotton or expanses of peanut plants are now filling up with fast food franchises and tanning salons. Stately old homes are losing their charming colors, character and beauty behind layers of vinyl siding. Verandas and lovely wraparound porches are falling into disuse as that wonderfully southern habit of lazy evenings visiting over icy tumblers of sweet tea is replaced by the harried schedules of modern households. But, the most disheartening part of this trip was the realization that the southern half of my family is slowly slipping away from not only the northern branch but from each other.

As often happens in families, once the parents are gone the children tend to lose frequent contact with each other. It is also regrettable that so many extended families are separated by the death of the senior siblings. Divorce is separating parents from adult children that have taken the other parent’s side in the divorce or refuse to accept a new spouse. Unfortunately, I see these things happening in my family and feel sad that I can do very little to change any of it.

And finally, I fear that due to my advancing age, financial or health concerns, future visits to my southern roots and family may be curtailed, causing a loss of my sense of self and family unity. I fear that before long, the memories of a young girl playing with her brothers under a cottonwood tree while their mother becomes a decreasing figure working her way to the far end of a cotton field; cousins huddled whispering secrets in the shade of a pecan grove or counting the many doors in a large stately house before stepping through the parlor window onto the veranda for sugar cookies and lemonade with Miz Thersey will be all that is left of the south of my youth.

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