“Life is a beautiful, painful and mysterious process of becoming. In the end we lose everything that we ever thought we had, everything except how we were changed by it.” – Chani Nicholas
I was five when my mother’s father, my Papa, took an early retirement from his graveyard shifts at the South Louisiana plastic factory for a new, more bucolic, life in the ancient Ozark Mountains of Missouri. My grandparents decided their souls were more valuable than money and so they sold the brick house with the beehives. Papa packed his television, easy chair, and metal roll top desk that locked with a tiny key, while my Gran packed her oil paints, stained glass, and cast iron skillets. They bought a new place and learned to make or grow almost everything they needed in order to live without an income.
The new farm was deep in a valley and included a hundred and twenty acres, two creeks, a cow pond, a hundred-year-old barn, and a two-story rock house that would see a quarter century of loving restorations and handmade revisions. I would spend every summer of my school years there, and some of my more difficult adult years as well.
Out the barnyard, a repurposed whisky barrel collected fresh spring water piped from a little cave across the dusty road. When I was still small enough, I would sit right in it and pour cool water over my head between drinks. That water tasted like Sweet Clover, Honeysuckle, and Delicate Queen Anne’s Lace.
Buzzing with massive wasp nests, the hayloft smelled of feathers and motor oil. I had to step carefully over the soft, or missing, floor planks to the opening, where I could squat, stealthy as an owl, and survey the property below. The chickens and guinea hens pecking the ground, Gran coming out the back door, screen slamming behind her, to hang laundry on the line or dump buckets of vegetable scraps into the compost pile at the side of the great garden. I could see all the way up the hill where a handful of cows grazed lazily, tails whipping to swat flies among tangles of blackberry bushes and tall nettles.
Mornings were spent weeding the garden rows and snacking on freshly-picked lettuce leaves, asparagus, corn kernels, or sugar snap peas bursting inside their tiny green pods, followed by long afternoons nestled into the warm rocks in the creek bed on the other side of the house, feet in the cold stream, hands holding and turning over those stones, looking for fossils or arrowheads, rubbing their soft sides on my lips, and, sometimes, slipping them into my mouth to taste the salty minerals of the prehistoric mountain summit.
We ran to the windows every time a car drove by.
On Sundays, we went to the Holy Family Catholic Church, always first to arrive, where we sat stiff – fanning our faces on hard pews while the priest delivered mass to the meager crowds. I felt a little guilty for taking the communion without going to confession, but not enough to stop me. I liked the taste of those little wafters, and besides, keeping my sins private, held close to my heart as counsel, was more satisfying. When I would complain about going, Gran would tell me it wouldn’t last forever. “Nothing ever came to stay,” she said.
For the rest of the day I would be singing Amazing Grace.
Dinner by the television was chicken fried chicken, mashed potatoes, turnips and onions, okra, sweet corn, cold milk over hot cornbread, and lemon icebox pie. After the nightly news I’d bury my face into my papa’s chest fur while me and Gran watched our favorite, Murder She Wrote, because we both loved a good mystery.
Before bed, Papa would turn up the fans and open the windows wide to let in the cool air along with the calls of crickets, frogs, Whip-Poor-Wills, and, every seven years, the cicadas. When you stare long enough at a spinning fan the blades seem to change directions. Cicadas are louder than lamplight.
Sometimes we got back out of bed when the night was dark as pitch to see a galaxy of fireflies lighting up the fields.
My two baby girl cousins, Sarah and Grace, were born and grew up during those years, all of us snuggling into the same hammock to read, piling on top of our Papa, hiding in the barn. My own boy took his very first steps on the grass by the whisky barrel.
It was in that house that I learned how to shop the shed before the store, how sometimes you have to sit quietly and consult with the trees before solutions to impossible problems will present themselves. It’s where I learned to fill a blank canvas with bold color and then translate that to words on a page, that you can’t run away from washing the dishes. The dishes will always be there when you get back.
As a family, that house was our soft landing, our interim, our hearth-fire, and our respite. No matter how many of us converged, how much or how little we carried with us, we were always warm, we were always fed. “Nothing ever came to stay.” Gran would remind us.
A decade has passed since my grandparents left that farm, weary of the work it takes to maintain so much property, the driving required to get to church, the store, the doctor. They moved to town. While we missed the house, knowing it was there was comforting. I didn’t realize just how comforting until last week when we got the news that the old farmhouse was on fire, burning to the ground.
My heart fell hard. Like a lead clock. Like a door slamming shut so some larger, more adult, part of me could be pushed to the front lines of my own sense of safety. I faced this inheritance flooded by the memories of thick walls, cool floors, rocks, smells and sounds of a stability that no longer lived outside of us. Our whole family grieved.
Here, I kept doing the dishes, pushing words around blank pages, and consulting with the trees in order to remember that all of the security, all of the joy, all of the things built and rebuilt, birthed, and believed in that house would still be here, in me, in us, in our collective memories as a family. And they are ours to keep, they are our children’s to keep. While we’re here, anyway.
Turns out, nothing ever came to stay. Not even us.
Here’s to us. Here’s to you. Here’s to looking out. Here’s to remembering we aren’t alone.