From Roadways of Memory – Part I

From Roadways of Memory - Part I

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The front section of this vernacular house is a nearly exact replica

in size, style, and setting for the Ab Johnson and Braden houses.

This house has a two-story section at the back; those houses did not.

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Wanderings From the Roadways of Memory

An Essay Into Memory and Vanished Time

James Hart

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Composition Note: The working title of this essay, during composition and afterwards, was originally intended to be “Memorial Days: A Poem Deconstructed,” but on completion, I no longer think that is the best title. I have settled on a title that I hope is more resonant of the essay’s principal themes. What I have done here as a form of creative non-fiction is take an older prose poem of mine entitled “Memorial Days” and break it down line by line with the intention of using each line as a starting point for memory and association to explore what was going on behind my thinking over fifteen years ago that collapsed itself into this poem. Each italicized portion is a line from the poem that determines a theme for the section.

March 8, 2013

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Time eats them all eventually, the houses of my memory gone year by hungry year.

I believe I inhabit a cemetery state of mind, and melancholy is my muse. For as long as I can remember, I have found cemeteries a welcome landscape for a living soul. I may go to leave flowers on family plots as a token of my annual pilgrimage, but so often in my life I have found myself in a cemetery communing with the resident dead with some silent understanding that I never try to define. I walk as if I belong there. It is comforting. I do admit that a barren plot without trees I find less heartening—my family’s forebears are buried in a treeless triangle of acreage, bounded by a junction of two roads and a side lane, known as Ebenezer Cemetery, in Carroll County, west of Bogard, Missouri.

I share my mother’s silent desire that we might rest eternally among the ancient oak trees and rolling slopes of Oak Hill Cemetery in Carrollton, Missouri, where her parents and grandparents rest, but that did not become our reality. She followed my father into the earth of his ancestors on a treeless rise overlooking miles of rural calm, no matter which direction one looks out from Ebenezer. The surrounding countryside is beautiful in late May when green timothy and brome have reached their early maturity and the wind’s endless motion sweeps a sea of long grass over meadows toward a shoreline of trees. White clover carpets our feet wherever we stand looking out. Beauty rises to be found in every prospect, and we need not rely upon Keats and dreams of Grecian urns to know its truth, nor walk with Gray when “the curfew tolls the knell of parting day.”

I began this essay from the devouring jaws of time, recalling then how each year when I make that pilgrimage toward homeland and the haunted heartland of my own making, that like marks on a chart of progress, I notice another house or barn has gone down to its timbered darkness. Sometimes I may recall the farmers’ or families’ names of the people who once lived in the spaces these vanished walls bounded. Sometimes the names have slipped off as well with memory’s easy releases of too much detail after six decades. It always comes to me as a conscious wince, the horizon missing another familiar roofline and chimney, the valley below a hilltop missing another weathervaned barn like a molar fallen from an open jaw. These are my pains of passage because I am as powerless as the next man to halt their decline, decay, and ultimate demise.

Another piece of memory that has vanished is trying to recall a cemetery I visited with my parents on a summer Sunday afternoon before I was twelve years old. I no longer recall what ancestors we were seeking, the name of the plot of ground, or its exact location, except to know we were somewhere in the countryside near Braymer, Missouri. What I do recall of that day was my enjoyment of traipsing around in the tall grasses looking for uncommon monuments, touching lichen lined names on old marble, looking for ornamented tablet surfaces of scrolls or praying hands, and treading upon the whispering dead without feeling as if I were the invader. Yes, I know my thoughts are now today’s peace of mind placing words into a glimmer of time I barely recall the real details from, but what I firmly remember is my sense of happiness at trekking over the grassy land of a cemetery, perfectly at peace, inherently at home, and not regretting missing an afternoon of child’s games with friends or the towered bastions of imagination I had already begun to inhabit in books. Yes, happiness, not melancholy, makes the earliest remembered thread I might pull from a skein of cemetery memories. I use no skulls to mark my memento mori.

Most of them just slowly fold, disappearing into omnivorous earth marked by weedy drives and hollow stands of trees where a barn and asymmetrical emptiness hold the harvest of the years.

Victor Ball, Charlie Vaughn, Ray Braden, Ab Johnson, Ben Forrest, these are men’s names once attached to houses or barns that slowly folded into the earth, a few timbers at a time until they fell or someone burned the remains among dead trees bulldozed up into a pile of brush or made into its own pyre of sweet, consuming fire. Actually, Ben Forrest’s house still stands a sentinel on a rise across the road from a farm belonging to a man named Jones, but his enormous barn, a true cathedral of barn design, is long gone to the willpower of rain, ruin, and slow collapse. The Forrest barn was huge, weathered red, and L-shaped, and in the long wing to the east of its main section, rose a long ascending wooden slope that teams of horses pulling hay wagons could slowly mount into the hayloft overhead. This is the only barn I know of from my youth in this part of mid-Missouri that possessed such an architectural feature built well over one hundred years ago. It is quite a feat to imagine a team of horses pulling a loaded wagon of loose hay up into the loft, and then see the farmer and his sons roll the wagon back down by hand, for there was ample room to work and unload the hay but not to turn the wagon around, and then lead the patient horses back down the wooden slope to the work of sunlight and sky.

When I recall Ab Johnson, I remember two impressions years apart from one another: a slim, gray taciturn man in a black pickup truck, and the first ruined house that I loved for its weathered truths.  Ab was gone from the neighborhood before I got out of grade school at Bogard, so if he died or moved away I don’t recall, and I’m not sure anyone of my generation who still lives nearby could tell me now. The elders who might remember him, well, they’ve followed Ab on the same path to the past that is lost to us living now. Among my earliest childhood memories then are the “Nutman” and Ab. I could not swear to you if Ab’s truck was a Ford or a Chevrolet, but it was a black and rusted remnant from the 1940’s with ample rounded fenders and it was still out on the road after 1960. From time to time, Ab in his truck rattled up the gravel driveway and stopped under the elm tree between the house and the barn. I don’t believe he ever stopped to talk to my father unless he first noted that our 1953 Ford truck was also parked in its spot under the elm, and then he’d stop, knowing my father was at home.  I don’t remember the sound of the man’s voice at all; I just recall how quietly he muttered his conversations to my dad—usually a request for help he needed, or maybe he’d offer to help us with hay or harvest. In my earliest years, I know my father often shared work with neighbors of a similar age who helped each other out when needed. Later, he started to hire teenage sons of neighbors to work, and eventually my brother Donald and I were old enough that we became his work crew and he allowed us to hire out to neighbors as well. But in those early years Ab motoring past our house in his decrepit truck was a fixture of the neighborhood, so by the time I was an older teenager and would go hunting up in the hills north of our farm, I remember the shock I felt when I happened onto Ab’s house in a clearing in the woods for the first time.

By the time I would go walking up in the hills to get away and think or to hunt in the fall and winter in the late 1960’s, Ab Johnson’s house was already well advanced in ruin. The two township gravel roads that led to his place in a clearing were no longer maintained, the house sat back in an open space surrounded by woods on all four sides, and the road that ran past the entrance to the yard was overgrown in grass and weeds—only a ghost of gravel remaining in the turf that increased with the seasons. The house itself—the vernacular Civil War era frame house with two rooms down, two rooms up, a center chimney, and stairs tucked into a corner closet somewhere—sat crooked and leaning, weathered dark, dark gray, almost charcoal in color, so long ago had it seen its last paint. Not a flake remained. The door was fallen in onto the floor, the windows were empty of glass in the sashes, and the floor had up-heaved itself in ripples of boards and rotted joists settled into the earth, and several broken places exposed the openings of dens dug by ground hogs that made their homes underneath it. This house looked as if it had advanced for fifty years or more into its slow consummation with the soil, yet Ab had last lived there within the earlier of my first twenty years on earth.  As a young man, I realized looking in on the ruined house in that first visit that Ab must have lived in poverty, perhaps in his ancestors’ home, but that his house had declined as his life had declined—into a cascade of wreckage that eventually fell down and disappeared, just as Ab disappeared from our daily details, and then from our memories, and then . . . the “rest is silence.” Somehow, it’s a sadly fitting end for a taciturn man whose name I hold onto for a few moments today, because no amount of recall will let me remember Ab Johnson’s face. It has eroded from my memory with the same finality as his pioneer house I once loved because it gave me a view into the ruins of time more real to me than any book could ever make me see.

That other shadow man from the past, the “Nutman,” lived at Tina, Missouri, and would go driving around the neighborhoods in the autumn, inquiring at farms if we had any “wahnuts” he could pick up, and which I assume he later sold somewhere. The Nutman was thought by us to be a little “crazy,” and I clearly recall my mother kept handy in the kitchen her longest butcher knife with at least a 10-inch blade on it which she would have in hand if he showed up at our door while my father was away working. My mother could fearlessly drive runaway bulls back to a neighbor’s pasture, if need be, but this poor soul was one man she did not trust when home alone with two small boys. I don’t know that I ever knew the man’s real name, and I have no memory of his eventual fate, but I do remember glimmers of this man at our kitchen door from time to time: he possessed one roving, spastic eye that he could not control and one normal eye fixed on whomever he faced, he was overweight and shirtless in blue overalls in the summer, with close cropped dark hair, and he generally needed a shave for two or three days’ worth of stubble. Memory claims that he probably smelled potently unwashed, but I will not swear to that. But among the remnants of childhood that left their indelible shadows on my imagination—the Nutman lives, and my mother still wields her wicked knife.

Sometimes they fall to predatory storms, scavengers nosing their bony remains.

My wife Denise knows the nearly physical pain I endured for a few seasons as the last remnants of my boyhood home marked the yard where Cora Smithpeter built her dream home in 1905. Within a year or two after my father’s death, my mother had sold our farm and moved to a house in Carrollton, and just in time to avoid an episode that I’m sure would have been her death. I think it was in the early summer of 1982, but some months after she had left the place, the neighborhood was hit by a tornado. When I drove down there later to see the damage, the region looked like a ragged war zone: as if treetops had been twisted, savaged, and shredded by cannon bombardment—the hail storm afterwards—and it took those surviving trees three or four years to heal the signs of their near destruction. The house (large, plain Queen Anne style, eight rooms, two stories and a kitchen wing) had been set slightly askew on its foundation, but it stood; the barn had been flattened into a heap inviting fire. One minor detail I have always remembered from this visit: the weathervane on the  lightning rod from the center of the barn roof was nowhere to be found. Had a neighbor retrieved it first, or the wind carried it into the fields, I never knew. Every window had imploded into the house—shards of glass littered floors everywhere. And I will never forget the mosaic stains of shredded bluegrass stems and pear tree leaves plastered across the wall tiles in the bathroom we had made from the old kitchen pantry. Every room on the western side of the house, the direction from which the storm hit, looked as if the wind had clawed loose surfaces of turf and flung them after the windows’ vanished glass. Why I said this event would have marked my mother’s death is my assurance that she probably would have thought she could sit out the storm in the bay window of our dining room on the west side of the house. She and I so often had sat in rocking chairs there and admired lightning and other shows of nature over the years. By the time my mother might have made herself go outside to seek shelter in the root cellar a few paces south of the kitchen door . . . well, I can see no happy ending here. To be swept up by the arms of the wind and set down somewhere distant like a battered doll, or to be sliced by flying glass when those three windows in the bay descended into the room . . . neither of those scenarios, to recall Shakespeare, is a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”

So from the ruined house Ted Lock, the man who had bought the farm from my mother, began a salvage operation and took out doors, Victorian woodwork and baseboards, and the cherry wood staircase from which my mother and I had scraped by hand with pocket knives all the old, blackened, alligatored varnish on it when I was fourteen. That was my first true labor of love, because I led my mother into helping me restore the staircase—not the other way around. The staircase was unlike any other I have seen in a rural farmhouse. It was Cora Smithpeter’s singular ode to grandness—that staircase. How she built the house was overall modest for its large size and style and country placement, but the staircase hall was a triumph of millwork—newel post, hand rails, spindles, rising in two turns and landings, and a large landing the length of the hallway overhead, ending at a window under a truncated tower—all in native cherry wood. After we scraped it and varnished it anew, that clean wood had such a reddened glow that I can see in my memory, along with the ghost of its treads going up the exposed hallway’s plaster wall after the house was half torn down and stood that way on the landscape for several years, causing me the admitted anguish that I alluded to earlier. In time pounding rains prised loose remnants of my mother’s pink stained hall wallpaper that bubbled and fluttered in the wind, waving in jocular gestures at passersby in their cars.

I remember taking my sons when they were very young to poke about the ruins of the house once or twice, and we brought home a few unclaimed ornaments from the door and window woodwork, which I still have around here somewhere. The corner pieces above each door and window in the kitchen had the older molded circular bulls’ eye design, but the larger front rooms and bedrooms upstairs had rectangular pieces with piecrust cuts along the top and an incised daisy shape on a stem rising from between two leaf fronds arcing to right and left of it. Other than the attempted grandeur of the staircase, these woodwork ornaments were the house’s only other Victorian detail that one might call “frilly,” or my wife would say—“silly for woodwork.” But Denise is the one who mentioned in passing to Glaphy O’Neal, the mother of the farm’s owner at that time, at a funeral visitation for a neighbor if she would ask her son to burn the remains of the house instead of letting them slowly rot and fall a few timbers at a time. By that time it was a mournful, broken wreck: the living room’s outer walls gone, revealing the exposed hallway wall with the ghost stairs ascending to the sky where no floor remained, and beyond that the floors of the bedrooms my brother and I slept in were open to the sky—no walls up there to contain a thing, and the empty boxes of my parents’ bedroom and the dining room below them. By that time it looked as if a giant child’s hand had deconstructed a toy house one block at a time, casting away a few, and leaving a few blocks stacked haphazardly to buffet whatever the wind had left to throw its way. In truth, I will share that the only other comfort from this memory would have been the gift of tossing a lit match onto the accelerants of straw and gasoline I might have used if I’d been allowed to do the burning myself. Because, like Nathaniel Hawthorne who loved to see a good blaze in Salem or Concord, there is in me the spirit of a pyromaniac who has played with fire, as a child, and to my great fortune, I ignited no discord with my father when I used to set tiny fires in pretend houses made of piled up sticks and bricks behind the tractor shed at the end of our vegetable garden. Yes, my sons reading this now, I did this, and I am not ashamed.

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