Gone Home Again

My paternal grandparents in South Alabama died a few months apart when I was 8.  My family had never lived any closer to their farm than a four-and-a-half-hour drive, so we saw them maybe a few times a year. As a result, I knew my grandparents not very well for a brief period a long time ago. By all rights, I should barely remember them, so it surprises me how often they still cross my mind.

Or maybe it’s only natural that this fleeting chapter of my life made such a lingering impression. Our worlds were like night and day. I had been raised in the midst of North Alabama’s booming aerospace industry. Nearly everyone I knew there was just like my parents –– young college graduates living in spiffy new ranch houses with banana-seat bicycles in the driveways and pine saplings staked hopefully in the yards. Going from that place of bright youth and endless possibility to my grandparent’s farm was, in some ways, about like riding one of those Apollo rockets
to the moon.

Down on the farm –– in a rural community called Beauregard –– I dug in the rocks with a spoon and inspected with morbid fascination a three-legged dog named Dinky. I watched my grandmother deftly shelling peas from the garden into a metal colander in her lap. I lumbered along atop the old swaybacked mare and fancied myself an expert horsewoman. I slept beside my grandmother in an iron bed on the never-quite-finished second floor. The downstairs had modern plumbing, but upstairs Grandmamma Harris kept an old-fashioned “thunder mug” under the bed for little girls’ middle-of-the-night emergencies. Next to the bed, a tiny door led to a mysterious attic under the eaves. I spent hours there digging through an old pine armoire –– an heirloom that now sits in my house.

Eventually, I also inherited the oak dining table where my grandmother consoled me on her lap the night I inadvertently learned a shocking secret: that she was not really my grandmother. No one had ever thought to tell me that my “real” or biological grandmother had died in that very farmhouse giving birth to my father. Seven years after her death, my grandfather married her sister — my great-aunt, the gentle soul I had always known as Grandmamma Harris. I took the news hard.

Another brutal fact of life was that, at least toward the end of our time together, both of my grandparents had cancer.

My grandfather had struggled with health problems throughout his life, and the farm had never really prospered.

Bottom line: Their life was far from easy. Yet, despite her burdens, my grandmother always found a way to show her grandchild from the city a little bit of happiness. She and my aunts cooked my favorite foods. She walked me down the long dirt driveway to pick blackberries or across the yard to gather pecans. At Christmas, there were store-bought books and toys. And always, she had a waxed paper sleeve of what she called “soda crackers” waiting when our family pulled into the yard –– not so I could eat them but so I could feed them, one by one, to the farm’s gluttonous billy goat. For the grand finale –– the part I was waiting to see –– he polished off the wrapper.

My grandparents lost their battle with cancer in the winter of 1970-71. Their four children held on to the farm long enough for the younger siblings to finish college at nearby Auburn University (paid for by a wealthy relative with no children of her own). After they graduated and moved on to lives in other places, the farm was sold to a neighbor. My memories of it grew dimmer and dimmer until they seemed like something that had happened to somebody else.

Of course, life had a few more surprises in store. After spending my first 30 years in cities large and small, I surprised myself and everyone else by marrying a Louisiana farmer and moving to Washington Parish. Suddenly, I had a lot more in common with my late grandparents than I ever expected. Now when I looked back, their lives didn’t seem so strange or far away.

Not long after that, a former professor invited me to Auburn to talk to his journalism students. When it was over, I found myself driving toward my grandparents’ farm, compelled by curiosity and, well, what else I wasn’t sure. I figured I would talk to whomever I found there, maybe ask to look around. I imagined them inviting me in for a glass of tea, eager to hear about their farm’s past and the people who’d come before.

That wasn’t exactly how it turned out.

At the top of the driveway where Grandmamma Harris and I once picked blackberries was a cluster of 10 or 15 mailboxes. Beyond that was a dingy trailer park with junked cars and broken toys strewn about. It was a hot afternoon, and nobody was stirring. I saw a front door standing open and leaned inside. It was dark and stifling. Two hard-looking women were busily packing up babies for an outing. I introduced myself as the granddaughter of the property’s former owner and tried asking a few questions, but they were in a hurry and obviously not interested.

On the way out of the trailer park, I noticed a big pile of gray splintering lumber in a thicket of shoulder-high weeds.

  It took a second for it to sink in that I was looking at the ruins of my grandparents’ barn.

I drove back to the farmhouse, perhaps hoping for a friendlier reception. I parked in the backyard and was sitting there thinking of what to say when, out of nowhere, a snarling, barking Doberman pinscher came lunging at my window. If it was some sort of sign or message I was looking for, I got it. With my heart pounding, I cranked the engine and backed out. I did not belong there anymore. The place and the people I knew were long-gone, never to return. I could not rewrite the story’s ending.

I’ve never been back again, but I still find myself trying to connect the dots between that farm and this one, between my grandparents’ lives and mine. How could I not? My memories of that Alabama farm will always be my first and only point of reference for this farm.

My father turned 70 last September, and we threw a big surprise party for him in Birmingham. During the party I was summoned to a table on the far edge of the room to say hello to my cousins –– the daughters of my dad’s younger brother. I had not seen them since they were small and had never really known the younger ones at all. Now
here they were, four beautiful young women.

I was startled by how much they resembled relatives back in Beauregard –– the unmistakable curve of a smile, that familiar shade of hair, a certain shy expression. There was no denying that these were Grandmamma Harris’ “real” granddaughters. Yet, ironically, none of them had ever known her or the farm. Both were long-gone before these granddaughters were born.

As we chatted, I sensed that their motivation in attending my dad’s birthday party might go beyond their obvious affection for their uncle. Perhaps –– like me on that sweltering afternoon in Beauregard and without even knowing it –– they were seeking something more.

We resolved to keep in touch, and, in true modern fashion, my sisters and I went home and friended all of them on Facebook. We all got together again during the holidays at my parents’ house in Birmingham. Afterward, Erica, who is 19 and looks so much like various faces from my childhood that I have to stop myself from staring, posted a message on my Facebook wall: “I hope we get to see everyone again really soon! Love you!”

To my surprise, I felt the slightest tightness in my throat when I posted back, “Love you, too.”

At that moment, I understood what it was I had gone looking for that day in Beauregard. It wasn’t the barn or the farmhouse or the blackberries or the goat. It wasn’t anything that gets sick and dies or rots down in neglect or grows up in weeds or just slowly fades away with the passing years. It was that enduring bond of family
that tells us who we are and where we came from, no matter who we become or how far away we go.

My grandparents and their farm are gone, but maybe it’s not too late for a happy ending, after all.

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