Wednesday, December 29, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

My first home coming, November, 1962.
There was a legend about the stone house at 16110 Cantrell Road. As this story goes, it was once a honky-tonk, set out in the country beside the two-lane highway, three miles west of "Devil's Holler" on the outskirts of Little Rock. It was a watering hole where folks could go to grab a beer and settle in with friends. The house was only about 1200 square-feet and built of rocks indigenous to the countryside. My Dad purchased the property in 1952, or there-abouts, paying $11,000 for the home and six acres of land. The property, on the flood plain, had a small creek running through it.
   My mother told an alternate version of the story: The house was brand new when they bought it, no mention of being a juke joint. Of course, I liked the honky-tonk version. I like to imagine the people who visited there, singing songs and telling tales, while downing a pint or two. In my version of the legend, the house was dimly lit, pub-like, with a fire stoked in the hearth and a piano in the corner ready for a tipsy patron to pound out Happy Days Are Here Again or You Are My Sunshine. In my tale, at 2 a.m. when the place closed down for the night, revelers, reeking of beer, hickory smoke and tobacco, stumbled out into the brisk night air, climbed into their Packards and headed to their city homes, singing all the way.
   It doesn't matter which version of the legend is fact. What matters is that the rock house was the place I called home for more than 40 years. My parents resided there until October, 24, 2005, when my Dad had a heart attack and my Mom's dementia aggravated to the point that she held conversations with people and pets who were not there. It's easy to be sentimental now, but the truth was: I hated that house. It was drafty and cold in the winter; stuffy and hot in the summer. The plumbing never worked properly, the shower was a mere trickle. The house had only the one bathroom, and it was tiny even by 1950s standards. Compound the lack of square footage by the addition of four girls, and you can just imagine the fun times we had getting ready for school in the morning.
   One by one, we left this crowded nest and went off to college. I was the last, of course, being the baby by six years. Those last six years in the house, as the youngest-only child, were more tolerable (no offense to my sisters) simply because I had the bathroom all to myself, which gave me too much time to stare into the tarnished mirror over the lavatory, dreaming about what I would do when I graduated from high school as I put hot rollers in my hair, or applied way more make-up than any 16-year-old should wear on near-perfect skin.
My first Holy Communion, with my sister Gretchen
and (now) brother-in-law, Mike, 1971
   When I left for college, I was happy to be shed of that old house. Returning for holiday breaks, I was miserable and counted the hours until I could get back to Memphis. Likewise, that one long, hot summer I spent in Little Rock between freshman and sophomore years felt a prison sentence. My world had expanded and I couldn't fit myself back into the old house again.
   Since then, I've returned to the house a hundred times, but only for brief visits. The last of which was on Monday, and it will be the final one, too.
  When my parents grew too ill to remain in the house— Dad was 89 and Mom, 86, a remarkable feat that they remained independent for so long—my sisters and I removed everything of sentiment or value. The house remained untouched for about a year before thieves and vandals found their way in. They cleaned out what we had left—a form of recycling that's illegal but inevitable when you leave a house standing empty too long. It was disturbing to think of strangers riffling through the maple china cabinet that no one in my family cared to take, tossing out the J.F.K. commemorative plate and the old paper mache fruit before hoisting that piece of furniture out the broken back door. I imagine my Mom's wedding-present linens, stained with time from years of chocolate birthday cakes and holiday cranberry sauce, ended up on a card table at a roadside flea market, perhaps purchased by someone from Michigan or New Mexico, who thought they got a real deal on antique table clothes.
Sisters on the front porch (Dad in b-ground), 1995
   For the next few years, the house decomposed behind the hedge of holly and pine trees that my mother planted as a buffer from the growing traffic of the expanded highway. After all the valuables were taken, there were signs of what she would have called vagrants (most likely average teenagers) who were using the place to get away from their own homes to drink beer and smoke pot. We boarded the house up, but it only served to abate the trespassers temporarily. An empty house is fair game, it seems, and irresistible. By then, Mom had passed away, and it was only after Dad died that we began to talk in earnest about what to do with the old farm.
   Before Christmas, my eldest sister, Gretchen, called to tell me that the house had been razed. We had discussed developing the property last year after Dad passed away, so it wasn't a surprise, but Gretchen wanted to prepare me before I came to Little Rock for Christmas. To be honest, I was relieved. Many nights I lie awake thinking about the people who might break into the old house for nefarious reasons. Let's face it, the house was a meth lab waiting to happen. What if someone overdosed there? Not exactly the lasting legacy you want for your family homestead.

Remnants of my childhood home.
   I was in Little Rock for four days before I found my way out Cantrell Road to see the place. There, where the house once stood—where we celebrated Christmas' and birthdays and yelled and screamed and cried over good news and bad, where we were brought home as babies, and where we so blithely took our leave, one by one, as young adults—was a pile of rocks.
   I expected to see some sign that this had been a home—a copper wire or shard of ceramic plate—but there was nothing but cement and rock and dirt. In effect, the property had been returned to the way it looked more than sixty years ago, before it became our honky-tonk home. And in this moment, it occurred to me that I no longer had a home in Little Rock. In as many times as I left, vowing not to return (and I have not lived in Little Rock since that last fitful summer), I always had a home there—until now.
   Yes, when someone says home, that drafty, cramped stone house, will always come to mind, but home, it seems, is not a location on a map, nor where the heart is as the saying goes. Home is the place where your past is held—and that house held more of my past than any of the other fourteen different places I've dwelled since graduating college. Driving away from 16110 Cantrell Road, I realized that my Past is no longer contained by mortar and stone, but now resides in a renewed understanding of who I am and where I'm going, and in that way, I will always be home.

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