It was Bailey’s Farmers Market yesterday, about one o’clock. Buck and I had parked our grocery cart in front of a pile of Sand Mountain tomatoes. He went in search of sweet potatoes, while I made a beeline for the Chilton County peaches, shelled speckled butter beans and other treasures. When I came back, holding aloft a bag of the prettiest tiny crisp Brussels’ sprouts I’ve ever seen, Buck and Doc Bailey, the owner emeritus of Bailey’s, were deep in conversation, catching up like sweet old boys do. Doc has the crinkliest smile, and hops around like a kid, belying his 80-plus years. He was chomping on a huge raw carrot like some six-foot-tall Bugs Bunny. It was all I could do not to say, “What’s up, Doc?”
Apparently, they had been talking about the North Carolina mountains. Soon as I walked up, Buck hit me with, “What’s the name of that big hotel resort in Asheville near our favorite restaurant there?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed an old man and two women who looked like elderly mama and middle-aged daughter sidling closer, clearly listening. I was distracted. Buck said, “C’mon, Twitchy Baby, what the name?”
The trio moved far enough into our circle that Doc and Buck noticed. The short older woman looked up through thick glasses and smiled shyly. “We’re eavesdropping,” she said. “We’re from Asheville.”
“Is it the Biltmore?” her daughter proffered.
“No,” Buck said, “the other one.”
We played geography guessing games for a minute or two until finally, I gave up and consulted Google. “It’s the Grove Park Inn, and our favorite restaurant was —
“The Grovewood Cafe!” Buck and I said in unison. Man, makes you worry when quick response time on memory flies out the window.
Now the woman was free to talk about what she really wanted to. “Do you-uns know where I-40 is on the way to Black Mountain?”
“We do,” I said.
“That used to be our home. Right there where the highway is now. That was our old home place. They took it all for the highway, more than fifty years ago. They took it all.”
The man had been fiddling with his cell phone, and now he brought it around so we could see. He was a humble man, like so many of the North Carolina mountain folk we came to love. “This is the picture my nephew painted from his childhood memory of the old home place before the highway took it.”
Buck and I peered at the small display and saw what looked like a watercolor of a mountain pass, a railroad with a shiny engine speeding on a diagonal and a small dark wooden structure in the right corner of the foreground. His white-haired wife, who looked like her backbone had settled into itself over the years, reached a plump arm upward to point to the tiny cabin. “That was great-granny’s house.”
“Stop,” Buck said, “you’re making me homesick.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Your nephew is really talented.”
“He is,” the daughter said, and all three solemnly nodded their heads.
The woman had something else to say. “Our home was way over here.” She pointed to the picture on the little phone screen again, looked at us with her Orphan Annie eyes wide. “The highway was way up yonder. Why did they need us? They took everything. Our place and lots of others.”
We stood together looking at an artist’s rendering of what was, pondering what might have been, grieving in a way. Then the man said, “Well,” and put away the phone.
“Asheville has a wonderful farmers market,” I said. “It always smells like roasting peanuts.”
The little woman smiled at me. “Oh yes, we used to go there all the time.”
Smiles all around then.
“Well,” she looked around Bailey’s, “This place ain’t the same as Asheville’s, but it’s what we got. And today,” she reached out and touched my arm, “Visitin’ with you-uns was almost like bein’ home again.”
I wish I had asked her how they got to Pensacola and how long they’ve been here. I felt the connection, but wish I had acted on it quickly enough to take their picture and get their names. I wish. I wish.