Having been taught to honor my ancestors from earliest memory I grew up inside a treasure box of memorabilia with the insistence I inspect it, and learn the story of things. Surrounded by steamer trunks full of old hand stitched linens and love letters between my grandparents, not to mention WW I medals, morphine kits, civil war fifes, and tattered songbooks, I’ve felt duly supported as a teacher of sorts to honor history and call upon the dead regularly to help me see what I cannot see, make good sense judgments and learn from the gift of solitude and sifting.
When I was a kid, there was a little sharecropper cottage on the farm property that was the repository of generations of stuff no one could bare to throw out. One of my earliest memories takes place there. I sat on the splinted front porch, maybe 300 yards back—and across the field from what was then my grandparents house. A lady in the house who was making doughnuts, put one after the other into my fat little hands as I surveyed the scene. Through the tall field grass, I saw the tops of people’s heads moving around loading cars. Eventually they called me back when it was time to go home. She put one more doughnut in my hand. “Here you go, Honey.” And sent me off.
In the following years, after the lady and her husband moved on, the “little house”, we called it, became the spooky destination for unaccompanied treasure hunts. So long as we stepped around the open well, watched where we walked in the house since some of the floorboards had rotted through, we were welcome to bide our time reading 1905 National Geographic magazines, and set dusty depression glass jars on window sills to see how the light played against the peeling cabbage rose wallpaper. The day I felt brave enough to go back there alone —without siblings or the lure of doughnuts, marked a turning point for me. I actually have a memory of thinking to myself –was I eleven? Twelve? That I needed to try to do something scary by myself. That my curiosity was greater than my fear, and that there must be some sort of pay- off in the trying. That old house, the woods behind it, both full of creepy relics and ghosts, became a proving ground of sorts.
The little house went up in flames when I was a teenager. This was crushing for my Dad, who’d dreamed of shoring the place up, and for my Mother, who suspected her father had set it alight. It was crushing for me, because, like them, I’d taken some kind of ownership of the possibility of what it beheld, what it might become. My grandmothers Masters Thesis in botany burned, her teenage poetry collections, along with Uncle Joes almanacs, his little lead soldiers, mom’s sparkly dance costumes and tap shoes.
We let go in phases.
These days, the big house stands, along with some leaning barns and outbuildings. These structures weigh on me heavily as we contemplate their fate. While there are so many outcomes I’ve learned to hold lightly in this life, the erasure of this ancestral place is one I cannot presently reconcile without aching with grief. Sunday, I stopped back there to check on things after spending time with my mother nearby, in Oxford. The ancient maple creaked in the wind. The fence around the back garden had fallen down on the east side. Pieces of barn roof scattered in the drive. I pushed the fence back into place and fastened it by threading in fallen branches from another tree. I gathered up the roofing and found the patch of morels coming up through the gravel.
Just like my brother had said on the phone with me the day before, these treasures have been coming up in the same place every year as long as he can remember