Standing on the covered porch, with that old Oak Tree for shade, awaits a woman who saw two wars, and whose ancestors bloodstain from the civil war lay in the closet in the hall. The tobacco barns off in the fields, as time went on, leaning more and more. Along dusty roads my Dad spent his youth as we drove by those places that defined him, my sister and I riding in the back, with Mom at his side, and this grin on his face like the Cheshire Cat, and you know there are stories I may never see fit to tell in a public fashion, just for their hair-raising truths alone, besides the 57 Chevy’s and moonshine and how he broke his nose.
Stories of a foreign country that reminded me of places I knew, surrounded by other tobacco fields, and backward ways, and front porches beside other once old dusty roads.
It is strange to see the same pickup trucks blow by at speed, gun rack in the back, but these all full of guns, and probably loaded.
Heck, some Wal-Marts you can buy your automatic weapon, the bullets, and a case of beer. And they call us Crazy Canucks. Right.
I come from a long line of stayers in one placers, on both sides of the 49th. Long lines of ancestors streaming back into history, sowing, reaping but rarely leaving.
So there I am as a kid, riding in the back of that silver Oldsmobile mini station wagon, windows down to catch a stray breeze, as we make our way through that trailer park, and Mom saying and that’s the site where your father brought us back to after you were born, in a trailer so small I had to go outside to change my mind. And she gives Dad this look, laughing, and turns her head towards the window, and goes quiet, lost in long ago and far away.
One late fall afternoon after Mom died, the sun streaming through the Norway Spruce that ring the house, cross-legged on those floorboards my ancestors tread, lost in a letter Mom had written Dad, back in those early days. I could almost still smell her scent, lingering, but she never sent, or this was a draft.
She had left him and took me and gone home, and this letter I read was of a young woman whose heart had been broken, who loved the man deeply but would not put up with whatever had brought her home. As I sat there on the floor, tears welling in my eyes at the words of this poor tormented person I never knew existed.
Yet, love him she did, as I read more of that complicated letter. I never doubted the love part, but the complicated part, I had never known existed. The ‘me’ part, that being a Mom first part if need be, and it was.
If not for me, would he have come back?
So these trips back to that place were like a pilgrimage, of a sort. Back there to where I began, and it almost all ended.
But it didn’t. As we would drive into Great Grandma’s driveway, that Tree ahead, and the circling drive, up to that old white clapboard farmhouse, seeing her there in flowered ‘house’ dress with a pale yellow sweater on, her gray hair wrapped up in back, a smile on her face at the sight of us coming towards her.
Hugs, and sweet ice tea, and going back and forth on the porch swing on that hot North Carolina summer day, swirls of dust blowing at the edge of the field off across the drive, past the tobacco barns, a gentle breeze sways the branches of the tree that blocks us from the relentless sun and I’m maybe 9, perhaps 8, and maybe it’s the year my rat sister brought Chicken Pox with her and scratched off the scab on my arm trying to hit me, leaving a scar to this day. Or maybe it was that last time when we were grown, and I am still oblivious to all the truths that I’d learn, that were years away still.
And I didn’t know what damage guns in gun racks would wreak. Where the stark contrast of ideologies began and the sameness of the landscape ended, past fields of cotton and what almost still looked like old slave quarters, a black family on the shady porch, brand new cars in the drive. When I still had no idea that familiarity could wear down those old dusty roads, and racism and division raise its crude and dangerous head, fashioning itself a place with mainstream groups, of black and white sides, and I do wish that someday they can learn how to feed their faith not their fears.
But, no, I knew of none of that back on that old southern porch swing, back and forth, catching a breeze on a hot summer day, in a faraway place. In the long ago south, I hear Grandma’s southern drawl catch a hold of a new story, as we drink her sweet tea, smelling cornbread hot from the oven, butter beans, collards, and the aromas of Smoked Pork of an Uncles wafting out the window, before I knew what that rebel flag meant, and what it said to some, and what it said to others. Before I knew.
It was for me a magical place, full of the devil met at a crossroads one night long ago by my kin, of graveyards of ancestors lost in the woods, of downtrodden houses where they lived, and died by a gun, literally for that old civil war soldier.
And it’s all gone and it never was.
As that divide is widened by those with ulterior motives, back in that land of cotton and tobacco where I was born, and I wish it were not just my childhood fake memories, tying a yellow ribbon round what was really not an Old Oak Tree, but a Maple like what we had back home. But this wasn’t home, and it was, and it still in some ways divides my loyalties, my sense of place.
And before politics and lobbyists and the NRA, before the great black hope was replaced with a useful idiot, and my illusions crushed, I remember that old deserted Governor Mansion we’d make them drive past on the way, and those ancient sisters in town who share a house, and that place we would go to have us some eastern North Carolina barbecue on a paper plate, a side of slaw, and a coke.