Yesterday as I was walking in the neighborhood, I smelled someone’s dinner cooking, and it took me back to Mama’s candied sweet potatoes, and it hit me that I will never have those again. I certainly cannot make them, and even if I tried, they would not taste like hers.
I could hold fast to and dwell on all those things I won’t ever have again … and I tend to do that … but amidst all the regrets, I do have one sweet thing that I hold close.
As the old century turned into the new and the millennium changed over, too, I felt a need to connect to the past, to know my roots, from whence I came. So I took up genealogy. Mama got right into it with me, and though we lived in separate states, we talked on the phone for hours every day and we e-mailed all day long. We started with the Hardy family, and with the Internet it was fairly easy to connect with “cousins” all over the country who were already networking and researching. We all put our heads and talents and knowledge together. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.
My great grandmother was Nellie Abercrombie Hardy. Her tombstone and other documents listed my great grandfather’s wife as L.P. Hardy. I began to wonder if he had been married twice, and Mama and I set out on a search for just who the heck L.P. was. We turned up a Louisiana P. Hardy, and we were baffled, and we nicknamed her “Louisiana Purchase.” We spent hours and weeks laughing and looking, then Mama drove over to L.P.’s home county seat and discovered the middle name of Penelope, thus Nellie.
There were other things. Church minutes told us that Louisiana Penelope’s father, my great great grandfather Abercrombie, got “dog drunk” and kicked out of the church. My other great great grandfather, who founded the church, had a sister who got pregnant by a Choctaw Indian, and also got kicked out of the church — it took us a few years to prove that she had really been pregnant and had a child and that there was another branch of family we never knew anything about. Oddly enough, as each scandal unfolded, I would faintly remember that my grandmother had told me these things when I was a little girl, as we walked the family land and went to the family cemetery. I was searching weeks and months and years for things that were deep in my brain … if I had only listened more, appreciated more of the resource I had. At the end of 2000, I put together a 121-page Kinko’s bound book full of genealogy and family stories.
Then Mama and I moved on to her family, the Mahaffeys and Boones. We traced them back to our Revolutionary ancestors. We learned Moses Mahaffey was a Scots-Irish distiller and his sons were in the Whiskey Rebellion. My great great great grandfather fought on the Ohio frontier with Mad Anthony Wayne, then got a land grant and settled in Adams County, Ohio. We learned our connection to Daniel Boone, and how my 4th great grandfather went to Kentucky with his cousin Daniel and together they founded the town of Maysville, where my grandmother Anna Bell Boone was born one hundred years later. My mother ordered dozens of historical documents — even ordered and paid for same one twice, on occasion. We worked long and hard until Dad was upset at all the attention Mama was giving to this, and my sister was sick and tired of the Boones … because that’s all Mama and I talked about.
In July 2001, Mama, my sister, and I took a trip to Maysville and then across the river to Adams County, where we walked on old family earth and visited the church our ancestors built. At the end of that year, I put together another 300-page book on the Boone/Mahaffey family, full of historical documents, pictures, and family stories.
I would not trade this experience and these years working so closely with Mama for anything in this whole wide world.
Every Valentine’s Day, the love of my life brought home a dozen red roses and a beautiful card with lots of red and a perfectly matched verse on it. He spent a lot of time picking out cards. It was a sweet day to appreciate the warmth, joy, and energy of a happy relationship.
Now, it is my least favorite day. The roses pictured are from February 14, 2008. He died four months later.
This was my last bouquet.
It involves a road trip and a GPS. I’d wanted my own Global Positioning System badly and planned to buy myself one for Christmas, but then I heard about a couple somewhere in a mountainous region who used one to travel and got stranded on a logging road for a few days. It seems these little instruments pick up every trail and cow path.
Last night we went to Neil’s for dinner — barbecued pulled pork, potato salad, slaw, cornmeal muffins, and baked beans. Susie baked brownies … with canned icing, which is out of character for her. The challenging part of going to Neil’s is getting to Neil’s.
Neil lives way out in the country from the town of Columbia. We didn’t have his address, we didn’t get directions, we’d been there before, we thought we were homing pigeons and could just strike out and arrive an hour later at Neil’s front door. We gathered at Colleen’s house in south Franklin — all five of us — to travel in her Ford SUV, champagne-colored. Currie was the designated driver; Susie, Colleen, and Chance took the back seat; and I was shotgun.
“We don’t have directions,” I said as we readied to leave the warmth of Colleen’s kitchen for the cold of the night. I’ve been the navigator on all our road trips since we went to the Lost State Writers Conference in east Tennessee, then an Ohio conference, then to Oxford, Mississippi several years ago.
Colleen pulled out her GPS, I mentioned the name of the road where Neil lives, and she began programming. As we buckled up (Chance’s favorite part) and headed out, I named the GPS “Katherine” after me.
We began to roll amidst laughter over Chance’s pink drink picture on Facebook and “New York Susie” copying my Southern accent. Katherine tried to take us toward the interstate, but because of heavy rush hour traffic, we chose to route ourselves toward Columbia Pike. “Sigh,” Katherine said. “Recalculating.” Katherine did a good job of getting us to Columbia, but it all went downhill after that.
“Turn left,” Katherine said. We did and it looked familiar . . . or like any other highway on a dark Friday night. We were headed in the right direction, when Katherine said, “Turn right.”
“I don’t remember this highway,” I said. Colleen fumbled for her phone in her purse, called Information and got Neil’s number, and punched it in. She handed the phone to me. Neil advised us to turn left at the BP, go until we got to Fountain Creek, and then turn left on Old Lewisburg Highway in a quarter of a mile. I watched Katherine’s screen as he talked and she seemed to be leading us the same way.
We drove east on Highway 50. I leaned forward holding Katherine in my hand and looked out the front window, straining to find Fountain Creek. “Turn left,” Katherine said. “I didn’t see Fountain Creek,” I answered. “In point four miles turn left,” she said again. “I see it, I see the sign,” Currie said and put on her blinker. I saw the green sign ahead and to our left. “But Neil said the road wasn’t well marked,” I said. “Turn left,” Katherine said. So what do you do when you have the choice of knowledgeable human advice or computer advice? You go with the computer and so we turned left and proceeded to drive five miles.
My phone rang. It was my son. “Where are you?” he said. “We’re deep in the country — a narrow road with nothing else around, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, lost, I think.” “Turn around and run if you hear banjo music,” he replied. Susie started humming that familiar deliverance tune.
We passed a primitive church and a house with a big white teepee in its yard. A rabbit ran in front of the car.
“Turn right!” Katherine said. “It’s DIRT!” I said. “We are on a dirt road, y’all!” We drove through a tunnel of thick scrub trees on a one-lane dirt road filled with deep holes and gashes cut across it. A fox or a baby deer crossed in front of us; we couldn’t tell which one it was.
“Turn right!” Katherine said. Uh oh. There was no right. It looked like a road used to be there and someone had backhoed a mound of earth across it a long time ago because it was filled with dead dried weeds and brush and saplings. Come to find out later a bridge had washed out and they closed the road.
By this time, we had all surmised we were lost and going farther and farther the wrong way. So we turned Katherine off, turned around and went all the way back to Highway 50. Let’s go back the way we came and see if we missed something. Meanwhile, Chance took out his IPhone and said we were going farther away from Old Lewsiburg Highway. I vote we go back the other way. [Unison] So Currie made a U-turn and we headed east. After a few miles there was a big green sign: FOUNTAIN CREEK. “Okay, a quarter of a mile, turn left,” I said. Whew. Sure enough, there was road.
Somehow we were unsuredly able to complete the journey from memory and arrived at Neil’s front door, tired and hungry, with a wilderness story to tell. After a warm meal, some Trivia Pursuit, and me lying on the couch under a thick blanket with my feet burrowed against Colleen’s thigh, fighting sleep, we headed back out into the cold starry night. This time on the interstate.
And that is what really happened, and it is why I will stick with my big red Gazatteer atlas books and not get a GPS.
The sun is up. (This is the title line of the book I taught both children to read when they were four.) Rooftops are white, as are cars parked in driveways. The past few days snowflakes have poured down and then danced around. I catch myself watching out the window. I don’t linger long…too much to do, too much on my mind, too much up in the air… life is like the snowflakes bobbing around and up and down. Mostly down. And I’m reminded of Robert Frost and a poem that always gives me a pinch in the chest. Because we should all allow ourselves the time to stop and stand still and watch and take in, for all of life can go by and leave us empty if we don’t.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
by Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I am finally understanding myself after all these years. I came up in a safe world, the prosperous post-war years, a small town where everyone knew me, a church whose members fit my first pair of shoes and helped cut ivy for my wedding. No parents in the world were more stable than Ray and Lucille Hardy. In my home there was structure, there was a schedule, there was security.
My parents bought a little house after the war, and now that they are both deceased, I own that home. My father’s ancestors bought land in Kemper County in 1850. They are all gone now, and I own a parcel of that land, too. I hold in my possession things that are old and treasured, things that gave life and shelter, things that reflect stability and security.
No wonder I have a hard time with change. With letting go of old things. When I left my daddy’s home and entered young adulthood, life gave me change. Every few years, I moved, jobs changed, houses changed, children came, children left. Then a gnawing feeling in my gut grew stronger. I wanted to put down some roots. I wanted to stay somewhere for a long time, for the rest of my life. I wanted what my parents had. I wanted stability and security.
My husband and I bought our newly built house in 1995. This week marks the 15th anniversary — I’ve lived here longer than any other place, except at 807 Deering, the house I grew up in.
I am finally realizing, however, that life is not made of stability. Life is dynamic. It is filled with choices. I can make changes any time I choose to. Most of the time, I choose not to. But then there are those changes that come unexpectedly, that just flat knock you off your feet and pull the ground out from under you. You have no choice. They slam you, and you’re into this whirlwind, and you’re caught up for the ride of your life. You grope for solid ground to fix your feet on, and it’s not there.
There is no such thing as security. People are torn away from you, jobs, even houses that have fit around you and sheltered you. You can plan, you can surround yourself with what you need to make it, you can have everything worked out for the rest of your life, and it is guaranteed that all of this will be ripped away, too. In all likelihood, the best laid plans will not follow the intended track.
So you plan, but you know it won’t last and so you plan for it not to last. You leave room for change. You learn to hop, so when the ground is pulled out from under you, you’re already used to unstable footing. You learn to put one foot and then the other one on thin air because that is where life is. You learn that all you have is inside you and that nothing is under you. But you never really learn that because it is so against your grain, so you just do it without any surety and you hope that one foot or maybe two will land on something.
Maybe that is faith. Is it?
You learn a textbook definition of faith in Sunday School. But you don’t know what faith is until you are out there and there is nobody with you and nothing under you.
“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and head and heart is an artist.”
Francis of Assisi