Cheryl Hughes: Markers
Recently, I interviewed a memoirist. I asked her, when she returned to the place where she was born, was she thankful that the house was no longer there. She said, “Yes.” I understood. Once, I took my children to the site of Taylorsville Dam. I said, “Look to the right. That’s where our house stood.”
My youngest daughter said, “I’m sorry the place where you grew up is under water.”
“Good riddance,” I thought, but didn’t say. At the time, I questioned if I would always feel that way. The short answer is “yes.”
I’ve spent a few days of my life traveling back to places where I lived as a child. I think I’ve done so in order to see if my interpretations of the areas were accurate. At the age of twenty-two, I went back to Webster, in Breckinridge County, to meet a grandmother I had been separated from for 16 years. She still lived in the old brown shingled house I remember being removed from at four years old. I wanted to see the red clay bank behind the house, the one from which I removed bits of red clay and added to water to make red color. I wanted to see the old store down the road, where we would occasionally get treats. Both places were still there, although the store had long ago closed. I cried on the return trip, because of what I had lost and could never get back.
A few years after my grandmother passed, and after the property sold, I returned once more. The house had been torn down. There was a flat area where it had stood, the clay bank still there. “There’s nothing to see here. Move along,” it seemed to say, so I did, turning around in what had been the driveway. I didn’t look for the old store. I was afraid it had been torn down, as well, and I couldn’t bear seeing an empty spot where it had once stood.
About two years ago, I went back to see if the house on Markwell Lane in Mt. Washington was still there. It was, but it didn’t look the way I remembered it. By that time, I expected as much. Land changes hands and hands change land. I had learned that much from going back. The big tree in the front yard was gone, as well as the smoke house behind the fence. I smiled to myself as I remembered something I did on the day we moved. I was ten years old. I walked over to the fence that separated our yard from a vacant field. An old tire lay there. I spotted an iron hitch that had been part of a toy tractor lying nearby. I picked up the hitch and tossed it into the tire in order to mark my place. “I’ll be back,” I whispered. In my child’s mind, I saw the old tire as a permanent marker. It had lain in the same spot the whole time I lived there. It was as permanent to my mind as the 12 stones of Gilgal Joshua and the children of Israel set up in remembrance of crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land.
In the movie “Forrest Gump,” Jenny and Forrest, as adults, are walking down a dirt road talking and remembering their childhoods. They turn a corner and Jenny stops suddenly. In front of her is the small frame house where she grew up with a cruel, abusive father. Jenny stoops down, picks up a rock and throws it at the house, screaming, “Why did you do that to me!” She continues throwing rocks until there are no more rocks to throw. She drops to the ground, sobbing. “Sometimes, there aren’t enough rocks,” Forrest narrates. Later in the film, Forrest has the house bulldozed to the ground.
A few weeks ago, my granddaughter told me she wanted to see her old house in Rochester. It was the first house in which she and her mom and stepdad lived after Natalie married Scott, and she and Sabria moved out of our house. (They currently live in Plano, in Warren County.) I will take her back there to her “old house,” even though I know it won’t be what she is expecting. New people live there. They have changed the house to suit their tastes. Even the landscaping has changed.
Sabria likes to play the game Tour Guide with me. We climb into the golf cart and she takes me for a ride around our house, while she points out places of interest. “On your right is the tree house my Papa built for me, the one the windstorm blew down. On your left are the flowers my Gee planted. We are now passing the swing set I had as a little girl, and down the hill is the bird house Papa and I built together and painted.”
Someday, it won’t be a game. Garey and I will be gone, and our house and property will become the marker of a past life for our children and granddaughter. We are doing the best we can to make sure it marks the place where good things happened. It is the best thing we can leave them—good memories.