From Roadways of Memory – Part III

From Roadways of Memory - Part III

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Though not truly the same style, the scale and presence of this

house will serve to illustrate the Smithpeter House, 1905.

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Wanderings From the Roadways of Memory

An Essay Into Memory and Vanished Time

James Hart

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iii

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Out of touch with generations, my fingertips trace their vanishing names eroding the older stones, victims of discerning water and digestive weather.

Throughout this odyssey of the mind roving over the countryside of the dead, I’ve alluded to cemeteries and the deaths of houses and barns remembered and admired in my youth. Among the cemeteries of Carroll County, I’ve described my feelings for Ebenezer and Oak Hill, but another burial ground I admire for its serenity lies at the top of a hill reached by a steep, curving gravel road. Braden Cemetery, surrounded by woods, holds some of the earliest settlers of the neighborhood at rest there, principally ancestors of Ray Braden’s family, and it lies no more than a mile east through the woods and clearings from the site of Ab Johnson’s house.  Among the tombstones there visitors will find a half dozen or so primitive slabs of limestone dug up from the earth long ago by practical men who needed to mark their loved ones’ graves, but they either had no money or no resource for purchasing cut and polished white marble. The shapers of these stones placed them vertically in the earth after having used something sharp, a chisel point or a hand-forged nail, to laboriously scratch into them the names and dates they bear. Seeing them over a hundred and fifty years after they were made, one can barely make out any of their details with the aid of penetrating sunlight and close peering and touching to discern the letters under lichens. These names and numbers, at the hands of time and ungenerous weather, now bear the mystery of ancient runes more than the names of men and women who once armed themselves with axes and hammers and needles and thread to forge a life from the frontier that lay before them. I could never return to visit Braden Cemetery without searching out these special stones to ponder their connection to the primitive imperative that bonds the human in us to the silent afterlife with the same assurance that first led Paleolithic men to bury their dead with ritual and ceremony.

My parents’ names more newly hewn will someday feed the cravings of a distant wind.

Though I belong to the landscape of the living, my spirit often dwells in shadows and in a glimmer land that is something like a mirage rising from a noonday roadway crossed with imaginary flickers seen from the corner of one’s eye. In moments of deep peace and restful silence I can be roused suddenly by the assurance I’ve heard my mother’s voice calling out to me from the corridors of time. I’ve never actually felt I was “hearing things” as a signal of some kind of mental disturbance needing professional advice, but yet I’ve felt the calm assurance of that voice multiple times in my life and it gives me peace and connection to something unseen, and it eases the rigors of sorrow better than any other restorative I could name.

I find in these thoughts the same bountiful guidance I receive from reading this noble poem by Emily Dickenson:

 
There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons – 
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes – 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are – 

None may teach it – Any – 
'Tis the Seal Despair – 
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air – 

When it comes, the Landscape listens – 
Shadows – hold their breath – 
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

I feel reasonably assured that Emily inhabited the same shadowscapes and glimmerfields that house my spirit with a calm fortitude that I can not explain. How does one who endures without the traditional founts of faith begin to explain to anyone else the stony stamina that arises from pure intangible nuance and dreamscape? But like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thrived on strong imagination wedded to resolute intuition, I believe I place as much faith in my airborne specters of a truth unseen as he placed in his benevolent Over-Soul. When I consider that my father has been gone from my life for nearly thirty-five years—now over half of my life—and my mother’s passing occurred twenty-three years ago, I should be able to consider these losses with some objectivity. But, truthfully, that is one of my failings; and if I say that “melancholy is my muse,” then my parents have become my guardians of memory, my mentors of loneliness, my shamans of my own shadow land. We humans place our faith in many forms of unseen trustees of truth, and I believe my rather abstract appreciation of my parents’ role in my life is as reassuring for me as placing faith in a holy man who died on a cross is sustaining for all true believing Christians. And a revelation to me is the awareness that when I set out to write this piece about finding solace in cemeteries and abandoned houses, I had no clear sense of where might my destination lay or how my roads of imagination might diverge into a yellow wood of time regained.

My sons endure their strange pilgrimage across the countryside of the dead, requesting favorite family stories to help the car move more quickly along the miles as I tell myself I serve the replenished past for them.

The bonds I hold in my soul for the old Smithpeter house where I grew up are two-fold. One is the spirit of the house itself, which I admired as a youth because I knew it was unique in our neighborhood. No other house within a five-mile radius was commensurate in size or style; in fact, it takes little imagination to see that my present home in Brookfield, Missouri, was purchased by my wife and me because of its general similarities of style and layout (for me at least) to my childhood home. With one exception—the Brookfield house is larger and has more rooms. The other bond is the knowledge that my father James M. Hart bought the house and farm for his home in 1955 because he had lived in the Smithpeter house as a youth himself, from the time that he was sixteen until age twenty-two (about 1926 to 1932), and so for him it was as close as he could get to living on a “home place” because his father Robert Thomas Hart never owned a farm of his own. From the time of my father’s birth in a large farmhouse northeast of Norborne, Missouri, that I recall being driven past once as a child, until he bought a house in Carrollton for his parents to live in when he went to serve in World War II, Robert Hart’s family had moved from one rental arrangement to another, living on a variety of farms for about thirty years. The time in the Smithpeter house may have been one of their longest stays in one place, but I can’t state that as an absolute fact. What I do know is that any family stories from my father’s youth regarding his relationships with his four siblings are associated with that house—perhaps because it was so easy for him to point to locations in the house while telling stories at the kitchen table or from his favorite chair in the living room.

When my sons were young boys, I told them some of these memories along with stories of my own childhood while we were driving down to Bogard and Carrollton for our annual Memorial Day visits—and it is this habit of being that first led me to write the poem that I’m using for the structure of this essay. When I look back into memory, I realize some of the stories I remember hearing did occur at other houses in other rooms; but some of them were indelibly linked to my memories of Elmwood, for this is the name my mother Alene Wagaman Hart gave the house one summer when she had been inspired by reading some novel about southern plantation life. Whose book it was I can’t recall now, but my mother liked the “fancy” of Elmwood well enough to put it on some stationery and address labels that she used throughout my youth. One tale involved my uncle Charles Hart, the youngest of the five who was ten years old when they moved to the house, and a prank he played on his older brothers. I can’t recall what Charles was “getting even” for, but he decided on his way up to bed earlier than his brothers to dribble molasses up the stair treads so that they would mess up their socks when they came up later in the dark. During their time in the house it did not yet have electricity, so the boys probably were in the habit of scooting up the stairs in the dark very quickly to get to bed. When I lived in that house we often did not heat the upstairs, although it was possible with a small coal-oil heater in the central hall, but in those days I’m sure my father and his brothers slept in cold rooms. I never knew if the molasses story was a summer or winter story, but I do recall many times my father and uncles erupting in laughter at re-telling the story—mostly for the sake of recalling the “skinning” Charles got from his father as punishment for such wasteful foolishness. For modern readers who don’t know what homemade “blackstrap molasses” looks like, well suffice it to say that it would be no easy clean-up in a house without hot running water and with only the aid of candles or kerosene lamp to cast some light on the offending mess.

Looking back on how protective my father always was of his younger sister Gladys, one story surprises me. This happened in the kitchen around their kitchen table which stood in the same corner of the room that our table occupied thirty years later, the only difference being that when they lived in the house, there was no doorway in that corner passing into the room north of it that we used for a formal dining room. There was, however, a window in that corner looking out onto what had become a covered porch between the pantry and the larger block of the house. Again, I am unsure what exact behaviors led to the remembered event, but Gladys had been teasing her older brother James up to a point where he was suddenly tired of it, and he reached out carelessly to shove her away from his chair with his elbow, and she lost her balance backwards and came within inches of falling through that closed window. It was my father’s quick wit and firm grasp of her dress front and snapping her back upright that saved her from falling through the window and being cut up by the glass. I think the point of this story, from Gladys’s telling it over the years, was to demonstrate that no matter what a little “shit” she might have been at times, her big brother always loved her and looked out for her. And that part is true—my father dropped out of school after the ninth or tenth grade in order to go to work and help his father support the family, but most especially to help make the money that paid school tuition for Gladys and Charles to graduate from high school at Bogard. As a teenager going to school there, I remember killing time in the big upstairs hallway where class pictures dating from the 1920’s to the present time were on display on the walls and in both stairwells up to the top floor. Memory fails me at the moment if Cecil and Vercil were in any pictures—they may have graduated somewhere else. Gladys and Charles were in class pictures. James was not. When he was an old man, his not graduating from high school was probably my father’s severest regret—yet he also felt some pride that he had made it possible for his younger sister and brother to finish school. Over the years I heard them both repeatedly praise my father with sincere and genuine words spoken to me for what he had done for them; and if they did feel a bit of shared guilt—we did not dwell on that.

One more tale I’ll share is Gladys’s story involving a “play party,” a violin, and the wickedness of dancing. It also shows the moral character of my grandmother, Lovie Glenora Bowles Hart, who was called Nora, and who died when I was twelve years old. I don’t believe a birthday was involved, but for whatever the cause, Gladys had talked her mother into allowing her to have what she called a play party and to invite some young friends to the house for a party on a Saturday night. My grandmother must have outlined to her what behaviors and entertainments would be acceptable, and which games would not. Parlor games, yes. Card games, no. Music and singing, yes. Dancing, no, no, and again, no. One thing I remember hearing told about my grandparents Robert and Nora is that one was Baptist and one was Methodist, although sadly now, I do not know which one observed which faith. But Nora was staunch in her beliefs and dancing was the devil’s own wickedness, to hear Gladys remember this story.  So the friends were invited and assembled at the house and the party was successfully underway—in the kitchen. My grandparents and any other adults that were present were in one of the two front parlors of the house, and they were out of hearing was my aunt’s assumption.

Now to understand how the young people thought they might sneak in some dancing—because one young wag had brought along his violin or “fiddle,” my aunt’s word, and one thing led to another with the grownups out of the room—one needs to see the configuration of the rooms in those days and how it differed by the 1960’s when we lived there. The one door in the northeast part of the wall of the kitchen led into the dining room on the east side of the house (the room my parents used for their bedroom downstairs), and west of that through a doorway was one parlor (which we used for a dining room when my parents put another door in the north kitchen wall to connect the two rooms), and to the north of this room, through a pair of sliding pocket doors, was the room that would have been the best parlor (my parents’ living room) which had a door to the hallway and the front door onto the front porch facing the road. Both parlors had large angled window bays across the end that let in abundant light and air, and they gave the house part of its distinctive external character. With the grownups in that far front parlor, and two rooms intervening with no connecting door to see or hear through it directly, the young folks thought they could strike up some fiddle music and have a few dances. Not for long. Nora soon appeared at the door to the kitchen, brows knit, lips tight with disapproval, and announced in her firm, quiet voice, “We’ll have no dancing in this house, young lady, or this party ends now.” And so the younger set returned to their tamer games, Nora returned to her parlor, and the last strains of violin music chased the threat of wickedness into the night’s quiet air.

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