Tonight, STORYTIME PRESENTS features johnnygunn with a poignant story starting with the refuges we are sometimes lucky enough to have in childhood and how they can make a big difference in our lives. Most of you here know johnny from his fine comments and lively participation. johnnygunn has written some fine diaries on a wide range of topics here at dKos and THIS is one of my favorites. :::Warning::: it is full of wonderful pictures and takes a little while to load, but is well worth the wait!
We’ve had a wonderful early spring out here in Wyoming after one of our colder winters in years. The first of March had a high of 15 degrees with a 40 mph north wind. On Tuesday it was 75. Yep, I love living in Wyoming. Although I won’t say, "Never", it sure would be hard for me to move back east – even though I lived in North Carolina for many years. There is, however, one time of year that I miss the South - in spring.
You see, we don’t have very many azaleas out here in Wyoming, or dogwoods, or rhododendrons. But North Carolina is just covered with them – from Murphy to Manteo. Our house was halfway in between – in Winston-Salem. In late March and early April you could not go down Hawthorne Road without having your eyes put out by the dazzling azaleas – deep reds, pinks, whites. My father always loved azaleas. Our house on Buena Vista was up on a rise. Each year he added more azalea beds until the yard was a blanket of color every spring.
It’s been nearly ten years since I have been there. I find myself thinking about those changes of direction in life – some expected, some wrenching, others so slow that you never notice until you realize a person or a place is now gone from your life. Such was the case with my grandmother’s house.
For me, my grandmother’s house was always a refuge. Like any good Southern family, we had our share of alcohol and mental illness. Plus, we moved all over the place. So my grandmother’s house always felt safe. It was a little white clapboard house on Ensley Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama. Middle-class neighborhood at one time – struggling by the time I came along.
The houses were close together. On the north side, next to Mary’s house, there was an odor of mouldering leaves that I can smell even I as write this. They had widened Ensley Avenue a number of years back and had installed a retaining wall in front that was 5 or 6 feet high. All of us grandchildren would stand on the edge, pumping our arms, pleading with passing trucks to blow their airhorns. Then we would squeal in delight when they did. I guess it is illegal now for truckers to blow their horns inside city limits, but it is a loss for little kids none-the-less.
We spent almost every summer at our grandmother’s house. Hot, Alabama summers. With just a big standing fan in the living room and window fans in the bedrooms upstairs. But we made up for it with delicious iced tea and fresh tomatoes. And oatmeal cookies that my grandmother would bake in her ancient gas stove that gave my mother the willies. We also saw the searing racism of a working-poor, white neighborhood in the waning days of Jim Crow.
The summer when I turned sixteen, I decided to light out on my own and ran away. I had been dropped off at an older cousin’s house in Tennessee and was miserable. (She still hasn’t quite forgiven me.) So, I hitchhiked up to Kentucky. When my folks finally tracked me down, I promised to take the bus down to Birmingham to Gram’s house.
By now, my grandmother was ninety. The bus got in at three in the morning. I had no more than a dime for the phone. I called my grandmother and she told me to take a taxi. When I got to her house she came running down the stairs from the porch and engulfed me in a giant hug. Most of the time, there were always other family members at my grandmother’s house. But for a week or so, I had my grandmother all to myself. Nothing mattered to my grandmother except the fact that I was safe.
I did not know it then, but I would never spend another summer at my grandmother’s house. High school, college. I got busy. My grandmother became too frail. My Mom and Dad moved her into their house in North Carolina. Fifteen years ago, after my father’s funeral, my brother and I went back to Ensley Avenue. It was dark. The neighborhood was now African American. We walked up the other side of the street. A black guy stopped us and asked what we were up to. We told him that we had spent many summers in that house across the street. And he smiled.
Eight years ago, when my mother’s Alzheimer’s finally reached that certain point, we moved her from North Carolina to Kentucky. Fortunately, we were able to find a house very much like her old one just a few blocks from my brother’s house. We had to lie. My sister took her to my aunt’s house. And the rest of us moved everything to the new house in five days. My aunt – the only one of us who isn’t certifiably crazy – acknowledged that it had to be done, but she felt she was betraying her baby sister.
Over New Year’s, we managed to pack everything up, load the rental moving van, drive through snow, and unpack everything. I stayed up all night so that when my sister and mother arrived on Friday evening, everything was in place. Appliances in the same spot on the kitchen counters. Paintings on the walls. Her bedroom just off to the right at the top of the stairs – baby blue – bed made with her favorite spread. She was visibly upset at first, but within a few weeks had settled in almost as if this had always been her home.
The next May, we went back to North Carolina to clean out the old house. During my mother’s childhood, she and my grandmother had had to flee out the back window from my violent, alcoholic grandfather. The house that had been, for me, a refuge was only a way-station for her before she went off to college, to work, to the Pacific in World War II. After she and my father got married they moved all over the world. Only after they moved to North Carolina and my father retired did she ever have a place that was her own.
So four of us came down from Kentucky – my brother, my sister-in-law, a friend of my brother’s, and I. The latter years of my mother’s Alzheimer’s, pets, and five months being closed up made the house rather unappealing. All the easy stuff had been done in December. There was still another moving van to pack, oodles of stuff to take to the dump, cleaning, and repairs to be done. My brother and sister-in-law were both exhausted caring for my mother up in Kentucky and not happy to be there.
Everything was a struggle. But my brother’s friend, Jeff, was unflappable. Although it was not the original plan, Jeff asked me whether we should just send the two of them back to Kentucky with the moving van as soon as possible. I agreed. As the van pulled away, we waved, smiled at each other, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
It was a good week. Sure, it was hard for me to take so many things to Goodwill or the dump, but Jeff would always ask what this had been or why my Mom had saved that. Every nail jar in the basement. All the childhood memoirs on the top shelves of closets. We had to rip out filthy pet-stained carpet, sand the floors, and paint. But we did it at a relaxed pace – stopping for a walk in the park or Chinese for dinner.
One day, we were in the basement removing a nasty, old toilet in a closet and capping the pipe when my neighbor Mary came over. She said, "That’s odd. I’ve got a toilet all by itself in my basement, too. Why would anyone put a toilet down there?" Mary was originally from Connecticut. I reminded her about the South’s past – white people, black people, and bathrooms.
When we had finished repairing the house and the realtor had given her final, reluctant approval, we were ready to drive the van back to Kentucky. Jeff paused. He said, "Walk with me through the house once more." An empty house holds many stories. Jeff was kind enough to allow me to experience them one last time.
I have been told that houses are just brick and wood and mortar; yet, I cannot completely accept that fact. I have this bad habit of going into abandoned houses on my bicycle trips across the country. Every house has its story. Even though the house may have been empty for years and vandalized by partygoers, there are almost always clues. A stack of magazines from the 1950s. A grocery list. Hooks on the wall next to where the stove had been. In one house in eastern North Carolina we found a bunch of old letters. "Dear Mama, I am enjoying college up here in the mountains. ... There are not as many negroes up here, but white people treat them better."
Who shut the door for the last time? When did it become apparent that no one would ever live there again? Why doesn’t someone tear these long-abandoned houses down? Unless there is something more than brick and wood and mortar.
So Jeff and I walked through the house once more. In a sunny, small room off from the living room my mother had taught piano to a generation of children. In the den, my father had watched the stock tickers on TV every afternoon, listening to the same unpracticed piano pieces - over and over and over. But his investments gave my mother the care she needed after he passed away. The bedroom upstairs where my grandmother had spent her last years. The other bedroom upstairs where I had spent two awkward years after I had run away.
We walked around outside one last time. The sidewalk leading down to Buena Vista. The huge oaks. I know now that the people who bought the house tore out the azalea gardens. But on that day there were a few, last flowers on the azaleas. And the rhododendrons were getting ready to bloom.