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. 

2 thoughts on “And Beautiful Is the Straight

  1. Cheryl aka Shaddy says:

    “The road uncoiled its humps and dropped us gently near the lap of the Gulf of Mexico…”

    “…a virtual handmade shawl knitted from the sterling character of the souls there…”

    You are a master of painting word pictures, Beth.


  2. Wally Jones says:

    So many wonderful phrases in these two essays of home and place. The words have been polished like pebbles in a North Carolina stream bed. Thank you for sharing these memories.


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