Friday, March 11, 2016

A Trek into the Old Country

Fallen camellia in the clover
Amber Leigh Williams

At the end of February, I travelled upstate with my family. The purpose of the visit was to spend some much-needed quality time with my father and grandmother. We gained that and so much more.

Both my grandmother and my father grew up in a tiny town in north Alabama. My grandmother was the youngest of nine children. In 1923, her parents moved their burgeoning family into a small white house behind the local church. There were two bedrooms, two porches, and an outhouse. Today both porches have been enclosed. The sleeping porch (named so because it was where the children slept in the hot summers before air-conditioning) is now an additional bedroom. A bathroom has blessedly been added and the outhouse was converted into a garage.

My daughter sitting by the front door
I love everything about this house. It’s a treasure trove of memories. There have been weddings and wakes here. Babies have been born here—my grandmother included. (She was born during the Christmas season. When the carolers began to sing solemnly outside the house in celebration of her birth, one of her older sisters, sick with fever, thought it was the angels calling her home.) Nowadays you can see the history in the black and white photographs framed throughout the rooms, the block kitchen table, the trinkets lovingly collected by various members of my grandmother’s family, a retro space heater in one of the bedrooms, the original door frames, parts of an old quilting loom above the bed in the sleeping porch… I could go on and on.
I was worried how my three-year-old would adjust to the place. In my mind, it seemed like rooms full of “no-no’s.” I could practically hear myself and my husband barking “Don’t touch that” nonstop. Our little guy has no memory of the house. His only visit was for a Christmas get-together a mere month after his birth. “It’s going to be a long weekend,” the hub warned. However, when we arrived, our son took off running through the camellia bushes, tagging anyone who would chase him. He found the fallen fig tree and spent much of the time navigating the maze of barren, twisty branches. He was fascinated by the glass jars on the shelves in the garage that held everything from metal bolts to shirt buttons. Once inside the house, the little guy wandered the rooms with a wondrous expression. When he found my favorite room, the front porch, he breathed, “Wow, amaaaazing!” There he found a pink couch that was just his size and settled down to watch Little Einsteins on the hub’s phone while we ate lunch in the dining room.

Front Porch
My nine-month-old daughter ate at the table with the adults. She sat in the vintage wooden highchair. My grandmother told us how her and all eight of her older siblings sat in the highchair. With each new baby, her parents painted it a different color. When it came time for her to use it, she peeled the paint off, uncovering each layer of color. My father and his brother ate in this chair. My sister, my cousins and I ate in this chair. And now my children eat in this chair.

The hub and our son by "The Hendon" bush
In the center of the table, there was a plate filled with camellia blossoms, one from each bush in the garden. Each grow a different shade/pattern. My grandmother named them off. She told the story of how her mother would send her out with a name. If she didn’t come back with the right camellia, her mother would send her back to the garden to find the correct one. While chasing our son around the garden, the hub picked a white camellia off the bush farthest from the house and tucked it behind my ear. My grandmother informed me that this particular camellia bush was tended closely by her brother, Hendon, yet never bloomed until he died. The family tried to have the camellia named after him. It unfortunately was already named something else. However, the family still refers to it as “The Hendon.” Soon upon returning home, I pressed the bloom into a book.

My son in the fig tree

After lunch, we took a jaunt into the country to The Warrior Farm. Amidst curvy red dirt lanes, hiking hills, and the forestation my father has personally cultivated there over the last five years is the ol’ Williams Homeplace. This is where his father, my grandfather, was born and raised. We donned cowboy boots and hiked up the hill. We passed an abandoned deer stand and walked through a meadow, dodging thorned berry vines, following deer tracks. Through a narrow path in the woods, we saw signs of inhabitance—the roof of a well, a bicycle frame, an old-fashioned car hood, barbed wire still attached to rough-hewn posts and then the barn. It is still in surprisingly good shape…though I did feel a little leery about letting my son walk underneath the rafters. He pointed out a gourd and became distressingly interested in a hanging board with exposed, rusty nails. The hub circled the building and found a long feeding trough and the frame of an old-model truck beaten by weather and time.
The barn with trough
Whatever remained of the house has been lost in the thicket. My sister told us how she and my father have searched for signs of it on previous visits without much luck. The hub placed our son on his shoulders and the two went traipsing into the thicket in search. I snapped pictures of them circling a thick pecan tree with a hand-fashioned ladder reaching into the lower boughs. As they disappeared, my father called to me. He had found what we were looking for—early spring blossoms.
The hub and son gone a'huntin' through the thicket...
A decade ago, he took my sister and me to my great-grandmother’s old homeplace. There on top of another hill we not only found a chimney but a sea of daffodil leaves poking through the earth. It was winter and very cold but we spent an hour digging up a row of bulbs on the fringes to take home and plant in our yards. When the hub and I moved from our first home to our current one eight years ago, the bulbs didn’t transplant well and I lost them. Here at the Williams Homeplace, the sweet-smelling jonquils were already blooming in short, sunny bursts. The daffodils had only just begun to poke their leaves through the ground. I took a shovel and carved several out of the red Alabama clay. I got my hands dirty, separating roots and bulbs. My father placed them in a plastic bag. The bulbs rode home with us the next day.

Daffodil growing through the chimney bricks
Almost as soon as I had finished wiping my hands, I heard the hub’s voice from a fair distance. “Here it is!” he said. My sister and I made our way through the undergrowth, careful not to run afoul of hidden barbed wire or poison ivy. When we found the hub, he told me to crouch down with my camera. To one side was a pile of stone. To the other was a pile of red bricks. “This is where the chimney fell,” he explained, bridging the line between the two pilings. I snapped pictures and got closer to the bricks where one lone daffodil was reaching out of the top. I snapped more pictures, as many as I could before losing the afternoon light, and we carried the kiddies back down the hill to the four-by-four vehicles that got us there.

View of the bell tower

 I didn’t expect the visit to be quite so emotional, but it was in the most positive sense of the word. It’s been difficult to make the trip in recent years with our children so young. But the moments made it worth it. Like hearing my son gasp in delight as the clock tower, visible from the camellia bushes, chimed the hour as we prepared to leave the following day. Or taking a walk with my grandmother to snip rosemary from the neighboring fence line. Watching the hub collect four-leaf clovers with my sister and son. My father and I cracking open scattered pecans. As we loaded our car for the trip home, I eyed the rare Japanese magnolia in the next yard and wished one of the fat, pink blossoms would drop so that I could press it, too, into a book. I inhaled deeply, locking the scents and the memories deep. When my children are a bit older, I can’t wait to go back so that they can make memories of their own in the place where time seems to stand still and nostalgia takes on a new life.


Di said...

that was lovely!

Amber Leigh Williams said...

Thank you, Di!

Mary Preston said...

Such much history, so many memories. My family are practically gypsies. We have never taken root like that.

Amber Leigh Williams said...

Mary, my husband's family too has this gypsy-esque history. Even baby photos of him are hard to come by....

bn100 said...

looks fun

Anonymous said...

I have similar memories of spending time on my grandmother's farm. The front porch on her house was the coolest place in the summer.

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