Recently, while going through some old memory sticks I came across this photo of an abandoned old house I saved many years ago. It had been posted on Flicker by Pat Henson. I hope he won't mind my using it here. While a bit more aged and weathered it looks like the “home place” of my memory. In fact, Mr. Henson listed the location of this house as being near Ozark, Alabama which happens to be in the same county where my home place used to stand.
The photo reminded me of the last trip I made to the land of my mother’s birth. Last December hubby and I drove my 90 year old mother to Alabama for the celebration of her sister’s 97th birthday. That car trip prompted conversations about my husband's first trip south. It was shortly after our wedding so I was a new bride traveling to the wedding of a cousin with my new husband and my mother. It was the first time my husband would meet all my Alabama kinfolk. The poor man had no inkling of what was in store for him.
We traveled through places with names like Waverly Hall, China Grove, Camp Gray Loop and Pine Level; to meet people with names like Uncle Brother, Aunt Sister, Aunt Tump, Uncle Dink, Bubba and Sally Jill. If that weren't enough, hearing stories about how marriage made one cousin’s wife his step sister or a family feud that lasted sixty years with no end in sight; I thought would do him in for sure.
However, my hubby is a trooper and he fared better on that trip than I did. Truth be told, I found the trip somewhat disheartening. We have made that same trip eight more times since then and my sense of dread has grown with each one. So many of the familiar things I associate with the South, things that always give me a warm feeling while connecting the area and the people with my mother’s upbringing and my sense of family, seemed to be disappearing at an alarming rate.
My earliest memories are of the old house that stood on the family farm. The farm had been in my mother’s family since well before the civil war. It was where my mother was born and we call it “the home place”. The house is long gone and the old farm subdivided, but the legacy of the place continues to live in the lives of those who once called it home.
I’ve been told that my great-great-great grandfather had a hundred slaves who tended the fields and cared for the large house. The place was never a grand old plantation but at one time it was a rather impressive farm. Hard times had changed the “home place” by the last time I set eyes on it.
My Grandmother spent her entire life on that farm. Her children say she was born, married and died in the same room. This was the room where my mother and her siblings were born, and in which one sister and a brother died. That ramshackle, tin-roofed house hadn’t seen a coat of paint in decades, sat on a patch of bare red clay that was swept clean instead of being mowed. The house was surrounded by cotton fields, fruit orchards and sharecropper’s shanties; one of which was my home during part of my young life.
I often think about that farm and how it shaped the lives and characters of the people who lived there for more than a century. It continues to reverberate in our lives to this very day. The last time I visited, the front porch was propped on concrete blocks, daylight could be seen through the floorboards and wind rustled the 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 veranda 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.
My mother left her southern family and moved to Missouri with her husband and four small children more than sixty years ago. For decades, I have gone with her back to the Southland to visit her family. Gone now are visits with very prim and genteel southern ladies. Great Aunts in lacy collars with linen hankies tucked up their sleeve and smelling of Jasmine. Ladies who served fig jam made from the trees growing in their yards, at tables set with translucent porcelain cups and silver tea pots.
This last trip was the first 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. That wonderfully southern habit of lazy evenings visiting over icy tumblers of sweet tea is being replaced by the harried schedules of modern households encased in air conditioning. But, the most disheartening part of this last 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 who are cousins, 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 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, health concerns, and the ever growing cost of travel it won’t be long before future visits to my southern roots may have to be curtailed, causing a loss of my sense of self and family unity.
I fear that before long, memories will be all that is left of the South of my youth: a young girl playing with her brothers under a cottonwood tree, my mother working her way down a long row of cotton, cousins close together whispering secrets in the shade of a pecan tree and me counting the many doors in a large stately house before stepping onto the veranda through the parlor window for sugar cookies and lemonade, with Great-Aunt Thersey.