The passing of time can sometimes leave a big ‘ole empty spot. Things you miss. Things that used to be and are not any longer.
I don’t mean to imply anything morbid or depressing. But sometimes I am aware of things that have passed on from my life and I find myself wishing I could go back there. Touch. See. Sit. Smell. But “there” does not exist. Thus, the empty spot.
When I was a kid I loved the old home place where my Uncle Clem and my Aunty Mary Eliza lived. Their house was the oldest of any home that belonged to our family in that part of Henry County. And there were six houses all total that some branch of the Chappell clan called home. I could walk or ride my bike to any of them in less than 10 minutes. Across the road or down the old red dirt road just east of us.
Their house sat back off Simpson Mill Road maybe a hundred yards or so, surrounded by huge Water Oaks. I’m sure that there was not much if any insulation in the walls and attic, but under those trees it always seemed like a cool breeze swirled around the front and back porches and through the main hallway. You could see the back door from the front door, like looking down a tunnel. Everybody had screen doors back then to let the breeze in and keep the flies out.
I wish I had a picture of the house other than what’s in my head. Some of the details are fuzzy. As far as I know the wood sided house was never painted. It stood up on field stone pillars about three feet off the ground. A weathered testimony to those who sat and rocked on its porches over the decades. A monument to our family that stood the test of time.
It was a simple, square house with a kitchen built off the back left corner. A full porch all the way across the front. The L-shaped back porch had two doors. One to the main hallway and one to the kitchen. A spigot above the end of the porch, a bucket and a ladle for drinking.
I always felt welcomed in that house. I liked the sound of it. I can almost sense the smell of it now. Wood floors, walls and ceilings. Biscuits and bacon in the kitchen. Coal burning in the pot-bellied stoves or open fireplace grates. Chickens clucking and dogs stirring beneath the floor in the cool shade of the house.
I realize now, that being there then was like having a window to a way of life that was fading away. I was lucky to be able to rub shoulders with a generation whom I consider to be the last generation to live a simple and unadorned life. That house was different than the house I grew up in. We lived in a modern world compared to my Aunt and Uncle, though we lived just down the road.
There was a sense of fullness and completeness and warmth in that house. I don’t really know exactly what that means, except that I liked hanging around there when I could.
Then, life moved on and things changed. Uncle Clem passed on first when I was just a boy of 9 or 10. Aunt Mary Eliza about the time I graduated from college. The house sat empty for a long time. But I would still go back there, even though it stood empty. That place called out to something in me.
I would walk from room to room with my memories in tow. Even with all the furniture gone and the silence deafening, I could stand in the doorway from the kitchen to the back porch and see and hear and smell the life that once occupied the space within those walls.
Over the years, empty turned into run down. Run down turned into abandoned. The last time I was there some of the windows were broken out and a few doors were hanging off the hinges. My cousin had removed a good bit of the beaded tongue & groove pine from the ceiling and walls. The house was slowly dissolving into a state of disrepair from which it would never recover.
Something else about an empty house. If it stands empty long enough, the local critters move in. The undesirables take over. Spider webs across all the windows. Wasp nests in the corners of the hallway. Squirrels and Coons having the run of the attic. A bird nest on a shelf. Leaves scattered across the floor.
But if you shut the door and walk away, that’s what happens. You leave it swept clean, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. No void stays empty forever. An empty house or an empty heart. It doesn’t matter. Either something or someone will move in and make it right again, or something akin to critters will move in to destroy it and drive it into ruin.
To me, it’s a shame that a house that held so much life and so much warmth and so much comfort would lose its place. I know, I know. All the old places cannot be saved, nor would some of them be worth the effort. But I would have liked for that house to have survived.
In time, my cousin, Mary Kate and Johnny, tore the house down. Johnny is gone now, but he labored long and hard to clean that place up. Mostly right by himself with a tractor and rope and chain, he pulled the old house right to the ground. He built a log home back on the very spot, which in a way is a tribute the old house, I think.
I go by from time to time to sit and visit with Mary Kate. The road is paved now, but the long, curved drive up to the house is nearly the same. The feel of the Oaks is familiar. I can sit in her sunroom on the back of her home, and almost imagine that I am sitting on the back porch with Aunt Mary Eliza.
I will never go back to that house again except in my memory of it. Every now and then a room or a color or a chair passes through my mind like a shadow of a cloud that moves across the ground. It is brief, but it brings with it a connection that reminds me of the places and the family who have shaped the man I have become.
I often wonder what my own kids will remember of the house in which I grew up. The rooms. The sounds. The feel of time passing. The smoke from the leak in the wood stove that Dad seemed to ignore. Soon, that house, too, will be gone. Time is catching up.
I know this much. It’s not the wood and brick and walls and roof that make the memories. It is the people who lived there. The memories of chicken frying on the stove in the kitchen. Turning the handle on the ice cream churn sitting on the backporch step. Mama sitting in her chair in the den pealing an orange and offering a slice. The markings on the door frame that recorded the history of growing children.
The last memory of Aunt Mary Eliza I have in my mind is of her standing on the front porch, leaning against the post at the top of the steps and waving to me. I was home from college for a visit. I can see my car in the drive. The house is there. She is there. She and that house are molded into one memory that cannot be separated. It was a special place.
As I think about it, maybe I have it all wrong. This idea of an empty place. Truth is, my memories are full to the brim. And a full memory is indicative of a full life. Those places and that life may one day fade from my mind, but for now I am full.
So, for a while, this old house does exist. There’s a nice breeze. And my cup runneth over.