Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Mother's House

It is sometimes cold and remote to refer to families in terms of numbers but here are a few to start with. The Hairston clan emigrated from Scotland by way of Ireland to the United States, settling in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi, running at least nine plantations across that swath of country. Under their ownership were over 5,500 slaves through the course of their run as the most powerful single farming clan in the nation through cotton and tobacco. My mother's grandmother came from this history as well but those numbers are murky. What I do know if from the union of my maternal grandparents came 12 children of which my mother is the fifth, 39 grandchildren of which I am one and 52 great-grandchildren, some of whom themselves are starting families of their own.

Where did all of this start? I have, of course, long known where my maternal family hails from, having traveled to the area since before I could walk. Many are the time and tales of playing with my cousins in the tobacco barn, imagining it to be some great fort on the frontier against enemies, or in abandoned tractors and trucks, believing our young selves to be new rulers of the road. We used to stand on the fence of the hog enclosure in amazement at the great floppy eared beasts as they wallowed in mud, ate anything that landed in their trough, my citified self not quite putting the puzzle together that this noisy, grunting animal would soon be my own dinner come "hog killin' time."

The house I have always known as my grandmother's home was in fact the second one for her family. When it was built in 1952 there was no indoor plumbing while two wooden stoves, one in the front living room and the other in the kitchen served to heat the house. By then, however, my own mother had graduated from high school and moved away to start her own life, leaving me curious but not fully comprehending what her own home must have been like and where it was. She always told me it was just "down the road" but never took me there and I never pressed the matter.

This past April was the occasion of yet another trip "down home" to visit aunts, uncles and cousins in the area. This time, after years of curiosity, it was time to see where my mother was born and raised. And it was just down the road from all that I had ever known as my maternal family home. We turned on to a dirt road beside a small church to the left with what is basically the family cemetery just above it on a small hill to the right hand side. We drove a little further back in to the deep woods to a large clearing.

In the clearing just off to the left were the ruins of a foundation and brick chimney which, my mother explained, was her grandmother's home. Memories flooded back to her of the days spent running back and forth between the two houses along with the hours spent at the edge of the trees , one for each child to rule as their own. My awe and amazement of this woman I had never known now standing before me was growing with every minute. This history I was not aware of. The earliest childhood of any parent is foreign territory to their own children, something beyond both time and comprehension. All flooded back to her with knowing smiles and joy of good times gone by. But where was her house?

"It's over there," she said, pointing just down the hill to the right, maybe two hundred yards off. "Where," I asked. She had told me before that it was no longer standing but that remained an abstract thought in my mind until right then. "There," she said again, "where the tree is." A large tree with a bent branch stood taller than any other around it. Only the foundation remains where the tree is today, growing right up through the middle of the place where my mother was born, the 5th child and third daughter.

I was dumbstruck. No stone foundations or trees growing up through the middle of the plantation houses where my family once worked. Here, in land slowly but surely reclaimed by nature there was a fresh water creek further down the hill, she recounted, that they used to carry water up to their house and her grandmother's. They had to walk the length of the road we had just driven, then walk some two miles further to their elementary school. When they weren't in school they walked up the hill to the main road and at least a mile in the other direction to work the tobacco fields their father sharecropped. Though there was a roof, the stars were visible in good weather while the rains came through at other times. Her house is gone but Mama tells me it was fairly similar to this one, owned by an uncle of hers, abandoned but still in the family today.

We didn't go over to where the house once stood though my mother has returned there before. This was spring time and the grasses were tall, rife with ticks, field mice and cottonmouths down by the creek. I stood along the road in silence, taking it all in. I was overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings at seeing where my mother came in to the world, growing ever more emotional considering how far she has travelled since. What would the lives of her children be had she never left the area?

I can only share my own stories today because she did move away. Thanks, Mama!

Gotta go.

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