Monday, July 20, 2009

The More Things Change

The week before last (was it really that long ago?) we visited my extended family in Arkansas. My dad and his brother grew up in a small town in the Ozarks, but when they were teenagers, my grandfather took another church in a larger town. However, my grandparents retired to their hometown, and a few years after that, my uncle decided to open an optometry practice where he'd been raised. So for a while all of our family on my dad's side were conveniently located in one place (so much easier for the holidays!), although now as we"kids" get older, some scattering has occurred.

One of my cousins (I have four on this side) just finished optometry school and has become a partner in his dad's practice. He and his wife also decided to buy and renovate my late grandparents' house. This is not the house my dad and uncle grew up in--that was sold when they moved away as teenagers--but the house my grandparents bought when they moved back to retire. I have a few memories of the house they lived in before this one, but the bulk of the memories, the house I associate with visiting my grandparents, is the cream-colored brick house that sits solidly on the square that surrounds the town park.

While my husband worked on staining the new cabinets he'd built, I walked through the house, noticing all the things that are different and the ones that can't be changed. Like the layout of the house: it is all length, one room after another, across the wide lot. I used to think it was the biggest house in the world because it took a while to get through every room, even when we were running. When I ran through the living room, I always jumped to brush my hand against the crystal on the chandelier. So I remembered the layout perfectly, remembered what used to be in each room. That wasn't too hard to do because my grandmother hardly ever changed anything. I never remember them getting a new piece of furniture, for example. When I visited before Mamaw died, the guest bathroom even had the same peach-colored, plastic-wrapped cake of soap from the '80s on the back of the toilet.

All of that was gone now, of course. The house has been rewired, re-sheetrocked, and the carpet and linoleum have been pulled up to reveal beautiful oak floors. (The man who built the house owned a lumberyard, and all the wood is gorgeous.) Twenty years ago, my grandmother had (reluctantly) decided to redo the carpet and when the installer pulled up the old carpet and revealed the hardwood, he asked if she wanted to put the new carpet in after all. But since she'd already paid for the carpet, and the hardwood floors would have to be refinished, she told him to cover them up. Now the floors will be appreciated once again. Along with the new cabinets and bathroom fixtures, and the walls painted a soft green instead of plain white or dark-paneled, the house already hardly resembled its former self.

The biggest change I noticed, however, was outside the house. In the spring, a tornado ripped through the town, cutting a three-mile-wide swath of destruction as it went. Thankfully for my family, the house was untouched, but all of the trees around it were knocked down. There is a hole in the front yard at least six feet wide where the largest maple was uprooted. Then other trees I knew well have left gaping holes in my memory. One of them had an outstretched branch that was perfect for hanging upside down by my knees. Another let me get up on top of the shed, and (no one ever found this out, or I wouldn't have been allowed to do it), if I put a milk carton as a bottom step to reach up to the dogwood's branches, I could get on top of the house and survey the town from the rooftop, queen of all I surveyed.

And now those trees are gone. As my grandparents are gone, and my childhood with them.

It was hard to be sad for long, though, when my aunt took us to the swimming hole where we'd often gone as children. It's fed by a mountain spring, so the water is icy cold and so clear you can see straight down to the bottom. My father learned to swim there, and my grandfather also swam there as a boy. Papaw usually built a fire on the bank to cook fried potatoes to go with our fried chicken or hot dogs. No food has ever tasted better. We didn't do that--although a blackened circle showed someone else had recently--but ate sandwiches, strawberries, and cookies before letting the kids get back in the water.

Big Fork was almost exactly like I remembered it. It's a little shallower--my dad and uncle used to dive off some tall rocks (a "cliff" to me, at the time) into the deepest part, but now it's been filled in a little--to discourage diving, my aunt thought, although a teenage boy did dive off a lower rock on the bank, and he was fine. We paddled around in the water and waded up the creek. Tennis shoes are helpful since many of the rocks are slick with moss (I remembered tennis shoes for the kids but forgot mine). The girls found a small dead fish and had to be strongly persuaded to let it go downstream. The three-year-old boys, not surprisingly, threw a lot of rocks in the water. It was so hot that the cold water felt delicious. I was amazed that so little had changed, that it had not become overcrowded, with a parking lot and trash all around. (A Port-a-Potty would have been nice, though.)

As we drove away, I promised that we would come back next summer. It's comforting to know that my children have experienced part of our family's past, and that some things haven't changed.



  1. The effort of showing kids how things once were, and that such things meant so much despite of their simplicity, is just amazing....

  2. It's hard to see things of your childhood slipping away. It's good to hold your memories so tightly that you keep the childhood itself. I often wonder about people with dementia who lose their memories - I think that would be hard.

  3. I dread the day that I return to my mother's parents' house and it's no longer the way it's been since they moved in, back in the mid-1950s. The house is old, and creaky; it smells like mildew from the basement that should really have a dehumidifier running around the clock. Their main living room wall is made up of a giant picture of a mountainside, with flowers and snow-capped mountains. The carpet is still orange shag.

    It's the house I visited year after year, and despite how outdated it's become (has always been?) I don't know that I'll be able to reconcile any changes that happen to it if and when my grandfather no longer lives there and another family member moves in.

    I understand your emotions completely. This is a beautiful post.

  4. This is a wonderful post.

    I had a hard time after my grandparents moved into assisted living. Their home was always my summer escape, and to see other people living in it, playing in MY park, throwing rocks into MY stream was hard. But, I have the memories and they are wonderful.