FAMILIES Home Away from Home

Once a tie between generations has been broken, mending it can be a painful process.

It’s not so far after all. It’s really only a little over 500 miles and that’s nothing on good roads. We’ll have to go more often, we promise ourselves as we load up the car for our annual summer trek to Mississippi.

But it’s complicated. My husband and I both teach summer school. We have a week here, a few days there between semesters, disparate bits of time that we must match up with the children’s schedules of camp and summer parties and tennis tournaments.

The children, as I persist in calling them at 16 and 13, are impatient with adults who want to drag them from Dallas, in the height of summer pleasure. To go to Mississippi, four of us, in a Subaru. We should at least fly. The 16-year-old is grouchy with a summer cold and an ugly fever blister; she hates to leave her boyfriend. The 13-year-old is surly; he had to ask his archrival to fill in for him at doubles in the Junior Invitational. “Why can’t they come here?” she whines, while he kicks the cat and slings his tennis racquet and mutters strange adolescent curses.

We leave home after dark for the cool. My vocabulary becomes confused: We are leaving home, but we are going Home. At last I settle on “Mother’s,” and unwarily become a child again. I am going to Mother’s.

We arrive for breakfast, a noisy breakfast unwanted after a night of riding but which my mother longs to cook and which we must eat. My parents are smiling but confused at this eruption of people into their quiet lives, of tall grand-children who don’t know to say “ma’am” and “sir,” of a daughter who has been shy and aloof with them for 20 years, of a son-in-law who is not the father of the grandchildren. They love us all but they don’t understand, they are confused by these Dallas lives. My mother looks like a little good witch with her flyaway gray hair and her faded robe; my father blinks slowly behind his glasses, like a tired old owl in the morning light.

The reading in my old bedroom at Mother’s house: six National Geographics from May to October, 1975; H. G. Wells’s Outline of History, from the Ole Miss library, checked out till March 22, 1971; The Winthrop Woman, by Anya Seton; Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy; The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn; and McCalls for February 1976, in which Betty Ford tells “the full story of her surgery and its aftermath.”

I read Betty Ford with interest once again, as I have for the past two trips back home. Carter’s election, Jerry’s step-down, and Betty’s hospitalization for alcoholism and drug abuse have not penetrated this bedroom.

Here Jude remains obscure, H.G. Wells hides from history, The Boys of Summer do not fade.

Through long habit I am my mother’s ideal listener, a skill that requires no effort from me. I listen well. I sit and listen at the kitchen table while she cooks, on the window seat .while she sews. The others leave, to look for tennis courts and boyfriends and who knows what, but I stay. Like a child I follow her from room to room, always listening, her talk and my thoughts weaving together in an easy counterpoint as calming as a lullaby, as orderly as Bach.

My mother is quilting a Dutch Doll quilt for her oldest granddaughter’s hope chest as she talks. I listen and sew. I am mending a Flower Basket quilt she has just given me which my father’s mother made and gave to her on her wedding day, January 1, 1933. My grandmother was 61, younger than my mother is now, when she put in these stiches. She lived for another quarter century. I remember her, little and quick in move-ment, witty and dry in speech. Her stitches are small and fine. Beside them mine sprawl and slouch. I slow down, take pains, and learn her seam, which my mother calls the blind stitch. I have an affinity for this blind stitch.

Sometimes her seam is broken and I must carefully tie it in with mine, reaching back through time to that long-ago winter before I was born. I gather our two fragile threads together in a knot, tight and satisfying and meant to hold.

On Sunday, June 18, Father’s Day, my brother drives in from his late-sleeping wife and baby in the country, and he and I go with my father to church. The three of us, all dressed up, tiptoe through the pallets on the sun porch where the tall, loose-limbed grandchildren sprawl, sleeping off “Saturday Night Live.” My father grumbles a bit, makes a noise or two accidentally on purpose. He does not approve of this laxity on the Lord’s Day. These children have not been brought up well.

Together we cross the lawn under the giant live oak, cross the asphalt, enter the Baptist church across the street. My father is happy again. He smiles proudly, a father confirmed on Father’s Day by the presence of his children.

We arrange ourselves in a pew. I speak and nod to everyone who speaks and nods to me, though I don’t know who they are. My brother and I nudge each other, giggle like children, sing loudly and off-key (it runs in the family) from the same hymnal, write each other notes. My father looks distant and a little pained, as 1 often look at my profane children, but he is really pleased, I can tell.

The sextet offers Special Music. The collection plate is passed, into which I must put a card announcing that I am a “Visitor – Mr. Reid’s daughter.” Then the preacher, Brother Scott, speaks.

It is nothing new: “Kicking God Out of Church.” I have heard it many times before. In fact, it is one of the reasons I left home, for my own calling in the world outside. But as I listen – to the soft Southern voice, the hard Baptist line, the promise of Heaven, the threat of Hell – Brother Scott hits a note I hear.

“We are the people of the Book and the blood,” he says, and liking its sound he repeats it, “We are the people of the Book and the blood.”

The Book and the blood. It surprises me that 1 have tears to hide.

My grandmother’s house sits all by itself on top of a red clay hill which rises steeply half a mile from the county road and is covered in summer with honeysuckle, wild grapes, rosebushes, and huge shady oak trees. In winter the hill is almost bare, the house seems startlingly close to the road, and the long driveway at the side has deep mud gulleys and gulches. When I was a child, we sometimes had to leave our car in the ditch, my parents, my brother, and I, and walk the last curve on foot, summoning my five uncles to lay down boards and gunny sacks and help pull us out.

But in my mind the house always stands in summer brightness, surrounded by day lilies and bridal wreath, by zinnias, jonquils, and iris in season. As the four of us drive toward it now, detouring 200 miles on our way home from Mother’s, I describe it to the children, who have never seen it to remember. Though I have been warned to expect changes I know exactly how it looks.

The house is old and white, an ante-bellum farmhouse, country comfortable. Hidden behind white wooden grillwork on the ground floor are the dirt-floored slave quarters, now inhabited only by old clothes and tires, a worn-out sewing machine, lumber, fruit jars, and a century of dust for children to play in. The main floor is way off the ground, a veranda on three sides with wooden railings all around. You can sit on the railing if you’re not queasy at heights as I am, or on the creaky porch swing, or on my aunts’ rockers unless they want them which they always do, or on countless slat-bottom chairs to lean back against the walls and balance at an angle. Only the swing is easy to manage, and it’s quickly taken, so I usually sit on the steps, well over in the middle.

“What steps?” says my son.

Oh, the 24 wide front steps at the front of the house leading to the parlor door. I know there are 24 because they’re so hard to climb when you’re young, so high and scary.

“Steps scary?” he scoffs. He is an escalator child.

But not as scary as what the uncles used to do on Sunday afternoons after the mule and nigger stories and the watermelon cutting. That was the scariest thing in the world. One uncle would stand on the veranda and another uncle would stand in the yard, and they’d throw the children, one by one, high in the air screaming with pleasure down to the arms of the uncle below, while the next child clamored, “Me, me!” hanging on the pants legs of the uncle above, and I tried to slip off to the privy.

“What’s a mule and nigger story?” says my daughter, forgetting to be aloof.

Mule and nigger stories are what uncles tell on Sunday afternoons from right after dinner till almost dark.

Mule stories: My Uncle Tom Earl had a mule who wouldn’t ever leave the field after plowing. He’d just sulk and stand. Uncle Tom would have to get in front of him and make faces that got the mule upset enough to chase him, a little way at a time, over and over, all the way back to the barn.

My second cousin Raspberry Ligon got so mad at the mule for this habit that he called my Uncle Tom Earl’s mule a son of a bitch, and my Uncle Tom Earl whipped him and whipped him with tears in his eyes for calling his mule a son of a bitch.

“Those are dumb,” my son says. “Are the nigger stories any better?”

“No, they’re worse,” I say. “I think they have to be told by an uncle to be any good anyway.”

As we talk, we have left the four-lane highway and the hills rise low and green on either side of the two-lane road. We passed Bruce two miles back and 1 feel my stomach turning.

“Slow down, honey,” I say. I sit forward on my seat like a child. “We’re almost there. Watch for the courthouse. You’ll want to turn left on the square in front of the courthouse and go down the steep hill by Miss Ola’s store.” My voice is high and excited. I make an effort to lower it, to sit back, to be cool.

The children sit up, interested. They have not seen me like this. Together we watch for our first sight of the white courthouse, with its hitching posts off the big square.

“There it is!” my son announces, pleased. “You found it, Mom, right on schedule.”

I swallow, hard. “Now turn left, slowly, it’s a nasty curve, always was,” I say, more confident.

We turn left, away from the setting sun, onto the gravel road, wagon-wide. We are moving backward in time, to my beginnings. The trees arch over our way. We shut off the air-conditioner and the radio, open the windows. In the dusk of the trees the doves call, a lonely sound I remember. No cars pass or meet us.

“Wait, don’t go so fast,” I say. “I can’t be sure – I can’t think. It all looks like something I dreamed. I believe you’ll find the drive just past this curve, but I don’t know for sure. Please go slow.” I strain my eyes to see.

“Here,” my husband says, “this must be the driveway. In a minute – calm down. We’ve found it.” We inch up the dusty driveway, almost covered by vines and grass, a place gone back to nature.

Where is the house?

It’s not here, not at the top of the hill, not where I left it.

“Farther back, I guess,” I say. “After all, I was a child and I can’t be sure. It must be farther back from the road, in those young pines.”

We get out, the four of us, and we walk to the top of the hill, walk over the whole hilltop covered by orderly rows of young pine trees. It’s gone, the house is gone – the wide veranda with its 24 steps, the swing, the quarters underneath, the parlor beyond. Where it should be there is nothing, nothing anywhere but the young pine trees and a sign: “Mississippi Reforestation Site. No Smoking.”

Something in me breaks and spills, and I slip down on my knees into the thin grass, sobbing like the child I was, still am. The children don’t know what to do with this weird mother, I realize, but I don’t care. I cry till I’m empty.

They come to me then, my husband with a weathered board and a fireplace brick, the children with downcast eyes and silence. I don’t care. They are nothing to me, these strangers. I have been abandoned, have lost a whole world.

We get in the car in silence, ride in silence down the driveway, up the gravel road, down the two-lane highway past Bruce.

When we are on four lanes again and driving fast, with the air-conditioner roaring and the radio up, I turn and look at the two huddled close together in the tiny back seat, quiet with their own thoughts, drowsy under the Dutch Doll quilt.

“Go to sleep,” I say. “I’m okay.Maybe when you wake up, we’ll behome.”


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