LONGLEAF STORIES

full circle in the hundred acre wood

A gently undulating road, or even a boring, straight interstate highway can be beautiful, especially when you are finding your way home.

Sometimes when a terrible event happens, the fresh child part of our mind thinks if only we could go back to the same place and retrace our steps, maybe the outcome would be different.

The adult that acts from the ancient, reptilian sector of our complicated brain knows better.

And yet.

For the first time in several years, Buck and I left our home near Pensacola, Florida for a week in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Driving through Atlanta, neither of us spoke our thoughts as we approached the city, but the anxiety was palpable. The last time we traversed this route, rain was pouring down like it was end times when my cell phone rang and the shaky voice of our son-in-law told us Buck’s flaxen-haired youngest son, only 45, was dead. I think it was a minor miracle that Buck didn’t wreck the car. Darryl, a building contractor, had eaten a sandwich while sitting in a lawn chair on a concrete patio, smoked a cigarette and fallen over with a heart attack, dead before he hit the ground, insofar as the med techs were able to tell. It was an otherwise perfect day in early October of 2005. We turned the car around and returned home. It had been exactly sixty days since Buck’s first wife and Darryl’s natural mother died of a stroke at 66. We were literally in the middle of building our new home. Buck later said, “I can’t live long enough to get over this.”

On this trip, a beautiful day in June, our breathing eased and the atmosphere in the car lightened once we were on the mountain side of Atlanta and headed to our beloved Western North Carolina, where we  lived 7 months out of 12 between 1997 and 2004.

We immersed ourselves in the luxuriant mountains. Full immersion, not a sprinkle. We communed in the cool air with owls and dear friends who shared the velvet night shot through with fireflies and shooting stars.

At the Beaverdam Methodist Church on Sunday morning we were wrapped in a virtual handmade shawl knitted from the sterling character of the souls there, our old Beaverdam and Rice Cove friends. Our Episcopalian reserve melted. Raised as Baptists, it was thin anyway. Our three years gone were erased, and we picked up as though conversations had been interrupted instead by mere seconds.

Buck and I visited with the folks who sold us the land on which we built our home in Rice Cove and who became the best kind of friends to us. I can’t say exactly why we needed to be in their presence. But we did. Jack and Aileen are gentle, wise, caring and Good (capital “G” fully intended). We spent time at their home twice and also saw them at church on Sunday.

During our second visit, which took place on Thursday afternoon, Jack and Aileen drove us over to The Rice Home Place in the Cove. It was built in 1926 and is the home Jack knew as a child. Jack’s late brother, Howard, lived alone in the home until his death about two years ago. He bequeathed the old home place to Jack and Aileen’s grown daughters. The daughters, all of whom have families, jobs and homes in other states, have taken the gift to heart. They and the rest of the clan had scrubbed, torn out walls, put on a new roof, added a deck, planted flowers, installed new appliances, polished wood, hung pictures and essentially done a heart transplant to breathe new life into the tired old cottage.

When Jack turned the key in the lock and opened the door, Buck, Aileen and I stepped in first. There was a clean, sunshine smell. A multi-layered patina of love reflected off polished surfaces in every space and weakened my knees. I couldn’t stop touching things: the big blue rooster on the dining table, the comfortable window seat, the carefully placed paintings and photographs. It sang to me, all of it. These women know something about being sisters. They and their families had hit just the right notes to preserve the integrity of this space and yet infuse it with new warmth, energy, style, grace and promise.

Howard’s gift set in motion a sequence of events whose ripples will be far-reaching in their effect upon the family and the Cove. The loving action of this childless man has created a generational legacy. And the families are migrating now, like flocks of birds, longing to return to Rice Cove from wherever in the world they may have gotten off to. The Rice Home Place will provide a touchstone not only for these sisters, but for generations as well as spin-off friends and fellow travelers. It has already begun. A group of boy scouts camped on the property this week on their way to hike part of the Appalachian Trail. A gathering of fiddlers may be coming for a retreat. The natural generosity of the Rice family spills onto others like spring water.

Quite naturally, my thoughts turned to Longleaf, to our new piney woods home where we have built upon our own alluring spot. I began to realize that we, too, and the children and grandchildren, are drawn to this place which has so much mysterious sustenance for us all, bound up in tragedy and joy.

Suddenly it hit me. That’s what we came for; what we needed to see and to learn. From the Rices of Rice Cove to the Westmarks of Longleaf: this vision of yet another way Home, a gathering up, a healing, a renewal of the dream.

And just like that, I knew it was time to go to our home, our own special sanctuary in this world, and build upon what had been started there.

Early Friday morning we descended through the clouds, temperatures rising with the miles. The road uncoiled its humps and dropped us gently near the lap of the Gulf of Mexico some nine hours later.

Back home, phone calls were hastily made to let the kids know we returned two days early. Before going to bed, we put photos of Darryl back out with the rest of the family. It hurt to look at him and know he would never be among us again. We held hands for a long moment, just taking it in.

And Sunday night, everyone shared in bringing a meal to Longleaf. We gathered around the old mahogany trestle table. We kicked back and told stories. We let go and laughed out loud, rested in this feeling and gathered our strength.

Then son Richard and his wife Sharon, daughter Adele and her husband Richard, and Buck and I walked upstairs together, out onto the second floor deck. The six of us drifted as one to the wrought iron railing overlooking the swimming pool, where the young kids were laughing, splashing and playing games. Darkness was all around them, but there, in the iridescent colored pool lights, they looked like silvery mythical versions of themselves. We caught our collective breaths at the beauty of their essence.

Home. How sweet it is. Home.

 

Note: This is Part 2 of my edited notes from a road trip in June of 2007 that never made it into the blog archives. Part 1, Beautiful is the Crooked, was the previous post. 

Beautiful is the crooked, and thrilling the high and winding, the roads where so many people live  with their driveways looking like dangerous playground slides, the narrow one-way roads that turn into washboard gravel with a turnaround place hard to find.

A few rows of corn, plump bouquets of sage colored cabbage, and jungle green onion tops stuck into narrow wedges of folded mountainside appear around every curve.

This is the horse country of Cataloochee in Western North Carolina. Not the bluegrass of Kentucky or Ocala with their white fences and long gentle hills, but a place where the horses are two by two, for steep-sloped trail riding.

A lot of people live on this road from Jonathan Cove to Cove Creek to Sutton Town and Medford Hannah. Little spurs run off with names like Warwick Loop, Serenity and Hoot ‘n Holler. Rich folks with recent construction perch on the side of newly bought mountainside, pasture and classical rushing stream, side by side with house trailers complete with granny, babies and all the young ‘uns plus lolling yard dogs who seem to sit on the porch all the live long day and watch traffic go by. Bright flowers disguise rusty-can planters. The folks on the porch waved at our car. We waved back.

The inevitable missionary Baptist church at the crossroads had a message posted with changeable letters. This season’s billboard to passers-by said, “Faith is the postage stamp on our prayers.” I noticed it when we took a road with a sign that read “Cataloochee Valley ten miles.” The first five miles had a few button hooks and hair pins, but was a good asphalt road. Then it turned to loose gravel and narrowed into a series of corkscrews. We had groceries in the car. This side excursion had been a whim. Buck got lucky and found a place to turn around. Heading back down, I noticed the church had the same words on the reserve side of the sign. “Faith is the postage stamp on our prayers.”

I suspect many of the most fervent prayers are pleas for faith itself. The sign suggests that without faith up front those prayers all end up in the dead letter department.

There had been enough rain to send forth spiky lavender-blue hosta blooms, and the bright brass pot yellow of naturalized day lilies in the cool air was a flatlander’s summer daydream. I could hear water falling off the small bridge of the driveway of our rental, the Emerald Gate Farm. It dropped into the talkative stream and my eye followed its trail into ponds where  ducks preened, sunned and slept.

In the shadows, I saw a red fox cross the road and slip into the woods.

Birdsong echoed off the forested ridges. The acoustics were so pure and sharp we might as well have been in a recording studio.

Miles away, a hound bayed.

Gales of children’s laughter were the afternoon hand bell choir. They might have been playing across the street  or a mile away up or down the twisty road. Their voices echoes and reverberated. It was a sound like no other: a sound  sealed in memory, a strand of perfect young hair in a locket for all time.

 

These journal notes are from a drive Buck and I took when we were visiting Maggie Valley and Waynesville, North Carolina in June of 2007. They might have made it into a short-lived blog called “The Way Home,” but never into the master archive. 

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I’m always optimistic in the morning when I can imagine the day will be cooler, but the truth is that  while July is the peak of summer around here, August is even hotter, cooking us down to Fall; so hot that growing things steam in their tall stalks, long tendrils curling up over themselves, their ends drier than my lengthening hair, turning into singed light brown replicas of themselves.

My bare feet burn on asphalt and seek shade. Better to bathe in the ant-filled dirt, feet emerging cooler from the soothing soil and hotter from insect bites.

Cottontails have become brave (or listless), only half-heartedly hopping away from the dog. Maybe they sense even her Labrador retriever genes cannot surge past the oppressive heat and humidity? She jumps slightly at bunny sightings, but too eagerly awaits my “No!” command.

Even the cement pond feels like a warm bath in a hot room.

Every five years or so our church publishes a photo directory of the membership. My husband, Buck, and I reluctantly signed up for the sitting. We had dragged our feet on it long enough that we thought we had missed it altogether, but then someone from the church called to let us know that an additional “make up” time had been scheduled. So, yesterday afternoon, dressed in our Sunday best, we drove in from the country to the beautiful old Episcopal Church downtown to have our likenesses struck.

A sign-in table was set up just outside the parish hall, but no one was there. We opened the double doors, peeked into the cool dark room, and were spotted instantly by the circuit riding picture seller. She greeted us with a salesman’s aggressive bonhomie, and then sat down at the sign-in table to enter our names in the book. Outfitted in tan Capri pants, high heels, and knit top, her faux leather jacket was an orange-tan color that made me think of what Velveeta fudge might look like.

When she sat, the top of her head was on display to us, gray roots visible through the frosted short layers. Her shiny peach-colored fingernails ended in long points, and seemed to make it difficult for her to efficiently grasp the pen she used to write in our names. She tore the completed form off the pad with a flourish and stepped briskly into the darkened room, high heels clicking on the wooden floor.

Buck and I followed her. She disappeared, but a youngish man materialized out of the gloom. His black rat tail thin mustache and quick movements called to mind a sleek, anxious ferret. He swiftly guided us to a corner of the room where a screen, stools, lights, and camera were in readiness. In this business, time is money, and he only took about twenty seconds to issue instructions to us: “You sit here; you, there. Shoulders back!”

He moved behind the tripod-supported camera: “Look here. Say ‘let me outta here!’” Then we were blinded by a bright flash.

This process was repeated several times in slightly different poses. Each time, just at the point of snapping a shot, the photographer would fire a staccato machine gun volley of words instructing us to say something allegedly “cute” – presumably to elicit a smile.

Problem was, he was in such a hurry that neither Buck nor I could react in time, so that in one shot Buck was frowning with the effort of concentrating to hear what the photographer was saying, while in the same picture I had a pleasant half-smile, but with my eyebrows arched halfway up my forehead, clearly trying to understand what was expected at that precise moment. The next picture had our expressions reversed. What we ended up with was a halfway acceptable picture of Buck looking solemn and slightly hostile and me over-smiling like a horse trying out for a tooth whitener commercial.

Once this quickie sitting was completed, the photo-ferret motioned us to a folding table in another part of the room. It was set up with a lap top computer and a large, flat-paneled monitor. Each end of the table was anchored by a display of some truly ugly generic family photos. Three metal folding chairs had been placed in front of the table.

Buck and I just stood there, wondering what came next. We didn’t have to wait long. The sharp tap-tap-tap of high heels announced her return. She hailed us by our first names as though we were long-lost friends, and gestured for us to take a seat. Buck sat to my right in front of the computer monitor; the picture seller to my left, ready to download our photos onto the screen, launch into her sales pitch, and take our credit card number.

She began by explaining the “sweetheart set”, a three photo package, including one of Buck and me together, one of him alone and one of me alone. They would be digitally touched up to remove those pesky character lines, the final product printed onto a mat surface several inches thick —  kind of like composite sawdust —  and then fitted into three semi-gold-painted-ersatz-substance oval frames, just like the generic samples displayed on the table.  All of this could be ours for the bargain price of $285, and that included a “complimentary” 8×10 portrait, which was a copy of the picture that would be appearing in the church directory.

We wanted to be nice, but that price called for more talk. Especially since the pictures were, well, maybe gruesome is too strong a word, but neither of us was eager to have ourselves immortalized with those expressions.

I began to squirm. The picture seller realized things were going badly. She moved to her first fall-back package. And the next. And the next. Finally, Buck and I realized she was almost to her end game.

Backing away from the screen, I looked more carefully at this woman.

Her accent wasn’t northwest Florida. It was more Tennessee or maybe Arkansas. I couldn’t quite place it. She looked tired. She tried one or more gambit on the “sweetheart” grouping. “Don’t you have children that you would like to give a set of these pictures to?”

“Well, we do have children,” Buck said, “but they live right here and we see each other frequently.”

“Any grandchildren? Wouldn’t you want them to enjoy these pictures?”

“Oh, yes, we have grandchildren,” I said, “but we’re together often and also share e-mail photos all the time.”

“Oh,” she said, her voice drooping. But then, she looked up gamely, and said, “I have two grandchildren. With my travel schedule, we don’t see each other very often, but when we do, it is quality time, I assure you, quality time.”

I was no longer interested in the screen or those silly pictures.

“Do you travel around with the photographer, taking picture orders?” I asked.

Her back straightened. “Three hundred nights last year, each one in a different motel.” We looked at one another directly. “And, you know, we travel by car. I put 60,000 miles on my car just last year, going between the panhandle of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas.”

Buck took it all in. Taking out his credit card, we bought a middle of the road package of those awful photos. Completed the transaction. Took our leave.

Buck and I had sort of planned to go out to dinner somewhere in town. But our mood had shifted. We held hands walking out to the car, and drove north toward home, stopping at our favorite little neighborhood Chinese restaurant for some take-out. The owner, Phoebe, oohed and ahhed over how well we cleaned up. “You look so nice,” she smiled. “I never see you all dressed up before.”

Arriving home with our paper dinner boxes, we hugged our chocolate Labrador retriever,  put on our soft clothes, and read our fortune cookies aloud to each other. We felt stunned almost speechless by the munificent gifts of shared love, comfort and ease in which, unearned, we daily bask.

Buck and I drank a toast to the Circuit Riding Picture Seller and the photographer. We made a wish that they would find a comfortable bed at the end of each day, customers who will buy their pictures, and a bonus at year’s end.

Note:  This was originally posted in a now-defunct first blog effort in January of 2004.  I just found a hard copy of it and wanted to include it here. That hard working woman with her thin, nasal twang has remained in my memory now for more than a decade. I thought of her again recently when Buck and I met with another nice woman doing what I think of as a difficult job: selling burial plots and monuments from a funeral home. Why we were there is a story for a different day, one I’ll tell soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our monsoon season has ended. Early mornings are no longer steam baths, but rather semi-tropical breezes and an invitation to linger outdoors.

The full moon setting at 6:30 this morning was a stunner. Lou and I sat for a while on the circular asphalt drive, awestruck. Hyperbole alert! I was awestruck. While I rhapsodized over the moon, Lou investigated (as only a Labrador retriever can) a spot on the ground where two doves had been hanging out until we showed up.

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Bending over to pick up the morning mullet wrapper at the old farm gate, I nearly missed these pale pretty morning glories twining through the jungle of vegetation. I jog-walked and half skipped all the way home, my pre-caffeinated steps light and eager for the day.

I’m so pleased to have my essay, Child of Small Waters, published today by the good folks at the online magazine, Nature Writing. You can read it here. While there, look around and read some wonderful essays and poems, and consider submitting your own. I know many of you are fine nature writers and photographers, and you’ll find a warm reception there.

 

 

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