On this eve of Thanksgiving 2011 I'm probably up to my eyebrows in flour, rolling out pie dough, or some other kitchen task. So instead of getting creative or ambitious I decided to share a story. Yes, it may come as a surprise I write something other than romance novels and speculative fiction but this is one of my heartwarming, folksy little stories just right for a Thanksgiving read.
"The Home Place" was inspired by an abandoned old house that lay in a hollow not far from where I used to live in the country here in the Ozarks. Old home places fascinate me because I can always imagine the life lived there and listen for the ghosts.
The story originally appeared in VOICES: An Anthology of Short Stories, Vol. 1 from High Hills Press in April 2008.
The Home Place
By Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Weeds stretch toward the sky, tall above the brown-eyed Susans and daisies but she can still see the Osage orange trees her great-grandfather planted to mark his fencerow. Even now, ninety years and more later, she knows where the line that divided the dooryard from Papa’s cornfield lay. On the ground among the brown crisp leaves, Osage oranges dot the remnants of her mother’s bluegrass and the place where Myrtle and her sister Muriel played house is covered with grape vines that have strayed far from the arbor. No sound but the gentle whisper of the wind echoes in this hollow, this valley and although the world outside transformed, this place, allowing for neglect and gradual fading away, has not changed at all.
“Was it always so quiet?” Tiffany, clad in blue jeans that are too tight, sits on the stone rail of the porch and perches like a bird. In this old place, she is a tropical bird among woodland wrens, out of her native element.
“Is it quiet?” Myrtle says, swallowing her mirth. She knows how silent this place must seem to this child of malls, of highways and main drags, stereos and televisions. It was not quiet, though, as she recalls. Fifteen children, even on a forty-acre farm in a remote valley in an Ozark wood where rocks rose from the ground with more certainty than did the corn, made plenty of sound. So did the stock; mules that bellowed and horses that nickered and the old milk cow, Betsy Sue that bawled each evening if someone was not quick to milk. Her mother’s voice had echoed off the three sides of the narrow valley as she called her children to supper, to chores, to bed or to prayer.
Papa’s voice had been raised as he urged his mules to work or shouted for a helping hand.
In those days, in the land of long ago, the forest had been alive with creatures. Wild turkeys made strange sounds that she could still duplicate after decades and coyotes yipped in the night air.
“It’s too quiet for me.” Tiff said, as she jumps down onto the porch floor with a toss of her blonde ponytail. “I don’t like it here. It feels haunted.”
Myrtle sighs. The young were so foolish, so filled with self-importance and a sense of superiority. Although she did not believe in the creeping, crawling loathsome things that too many movies depicted, haints were real and she had seen them. She feels them now but they are nothing to fear; the shades of her family and of her young self filled the air between the house and the sky with power.
“We carried the water from yon spring.” Myrtle says, with one finger extending toward the water that seeped from the rocks at the back of the valley. “Papa made the holding pond with rocks and we’d bring the water up for my mother in buckets.
Horror widens the young woman’s eyes. “No running water? Please, Granny! I suppose you’ll tell me that you didn’t have electric lights either. I don’t believe you. It’s not like you lived here in the 1800’s or something!”
Little they teach in the public schools, she thinks. “No we used lamps to light our way and went to bed with the chickens. It was my job to clean the glass chimneys on the lamps and make them shine. I hate to tell you this; Tiffy, but most country people didn’t have electric lights until after World War II.”
“Didn’t you mind?”
“Didn’t know different, child. Let’s go into the house so I can show it to you.”
Tiffany frowned. “Is it safe?”
“Safe enough.” Young people now didn’t want to take risks; they lived their lives creeping around with fear with a vocabulary filled with can’t, won’t, might. “My grandfather made those floors sturdy.”
Without further discussion, Myrtle steadies herself with her stick to enter the open doorway. The heavy black walnut door was gone, who knew where so she walks into the big room where her family had eaten, played, and worked. Although the floors groan under her tread, she has no fear because this is home; this is the place where her life began. All she knows, all she believes has roots here in these dust-filled rooms.
Although dust tickles her nose and irritates her throat, Myrtle feels the past so close it can be touched. She shuts both eyes like a child waiting for a surprise and a memory movie plays.
She is six, maybe, and she spins in the center of this sturdy floor to show off the new dress that Mama had made. Bright flames dance in the hearth and she can smell the reek of coal oil, the fuel that burns in the tall glass lamp on the center of the table. Her mother is washing dishes in a dishpan, hands coated with lye soap and two of her older sisters help. One rinses the dishes, the other dries. They are Beth and Florence; three years from now, Beth will drown in a flood tide creek on her way home from the neighbor’s and one day Florence will marry the school teacher man, moving to town, then away to California.
Papa sits near the fire, his work worn hands outstretched to feel the warmth with his hound, Bateman, curled on the rag rug on the floor. Both man and dog doze. In the corner, her little brothers, Neddy and Charley, fuss over blocks and a top that doesn’t spin right. Muriel sits at the large round table that dominates the room, her burnished copper head bent over a book. Four babies are not yet born but she knows that they will come; one sleeps in the cradle between the fireplace and the table. At two months old, William is not yet nicknamed Billy Boy. There were once two other babies, Rose who lived just an hour after birth and a boy born dead lie in the little graveyard beneath the cedars down by the creek. George and Stanley, now fifteen and sixteen, are out finishing chores.
Stanley has just one year left of school but George quit two years back and works the farm.
“Granny?” Tiff’s voice cuts into her reverie and the images fade.
“I’m remembering.” How many evenings had the family spent in similar occupation, she wonders now? More than she could ever count. So many moments and they each compress into memories. There must be so many small things that she has forgotten but it doesn’t seem possible.
“Did you use this fireplace?”
“Of course we did! It kept us warm and gave us light.”
Tiffany pokes at gathered dirt in the hearth. “I suppose you’re going to say that you cooked the food on it too.”
Myrtle shakes her head. “Mama had a stove, a wood cook stove and she used it but sometimes she baked corn bread in the ashes of the fire or put soup beans to cook over the fire on a cold day. We made popcorn here too, sometimes.”
“Was it corn bread like you make?”
“Yes, just like, same recipe. Maybe someday you’ll make it too, Tiff.”
Tiffany nodded. For the first time since she had asked the girl to bring her down to the home place she acted interested. “So this whole big room was like a kitchen and dining room and den?”
“I reckon so, honey. We did most of our living in this room here including a bath on Saturday night.”
“But the house is so big! Why didn’t everyone spread out more?”
“We were a family.” That seems so obvious but Myrtle knows things are different now. When she raised her own brood, they still gathered around the dining room table after supper and listened to the radio. They laughed together to hear Gracie Allen and her husband George; sang together to the songs on the Grand Old Opry. By the time, her kids had kids, families parked a television set in the front room and sometimes ate their dinner watching Ricky and Lucy fuss. In her grandson Darren’s house, his wife worked late or went with friends to see a movie. His kids, including Tiffany, took meals catch-as-catch-can and eat together as a family on holidays or birthdays. Each child had his or her own bedroom with stereo, television, and computer. Personal space was an idea learned early but Myrtle thought it wasn’t quite right. Sifting through the social changes that had come since her own childhood was hard but she would try so maybe Tiff could understand. Lord, maybe someday Tiffany would make a real home for her children.
"Families lived and worked together, honey. There was not any television or radio or outside fun. Mama and Papa slept in the room there on the yon side of the stairs. We children slept upstairs but it was cold up there in the winter, hot in the summer so we didn’t go up till bedtime. We worked a little in the evening, sang, played games, or read books. Mama would read aloud sometimes if she wasn’t too tired.”
Tiffany pauses, one foot on the bottom step. “What kind of games?”
“Word games, question games, things like that. Watch the stairs; some of them were out last time I was here.”
From where she stands, Myrtle can see the gaps in the stairs, holes where rotted boards gave way but the staircase seems sturdy although it could fall with the slightest strain.
“I want to go up and see the bedrooms.”
“Better not. There’s nothing up there any more but dirt and maybe a broken dresser, a few odds and ends.”
Tiffany, young and stubborn, mounts the stairs heedless but Myrtle doesn’t follow. Too many steps, too much risk and there is no need. The rooms up there are as clear in her mind as if she had been up just yesterday. Fact is, she would rather remember them as they were without seeing the decay, dirt, and faded wallpapers. As Tiffany’s feet tromped on the upstairs floors, Myrtle’s mind segued back into memory land again.
Her room had been in the front, overlooking the front fields and the creek. Big pink roses the size of dinner plates had decorated the walls, a replacement for the faded newspapers that had been there before. Muriel, Beth, and Florence had shared the room – the little girls who came later would room in her too. By then, Beth was dead and Florence married.
“Hey, Gran?” Her great-granddaughter’s voice floats down the stairwell and sounds for an eerie moment much like her mother’s did decades ago.
“What is it?”
“Who was Timmy? His name is carved into the window sill in back.”
A rush of remembered sweetness and grief catches Myrtle in the throat and she swallows hard before she replies. “Timmy was one of my brothers. He died in the little boys’ back bedroom when he was three. Stanley carved his name when Timmy was sick with measles.”
“He died of the measles?” Tiffany sounds shocked. “Nobody dies of the measles.”
“They did back then. Come down here before you die if the floor gives in.”
Despite the condition of the stairs, Tiff bounds down them with speed.
“This house is still solid.”
They agree but Myrtle shakes her head. “It would take a lot of work. Maybe it’s better if I let it go, child.”
When the offer for the land had come, Myrtle didn’t believe it could be right. No one would offer so much money for the old home place but her son verified that it was so. Although the land had once been far out in the country, it wasn’t so far now, not in an age of black top roads and SUVS. Some developer wanted to build a gated community on the farm and had already named it “Pumpkin Square”. If she sells, the money will keep her in style for the rest of her life but at past ninety, her needs are few. The money would benefit her children, senior citizens themselves, and the grandchildren more than it would her. Her daughters and two of her three sons urge her to sell but she wanted to return home, to touch base with the land and her memories first. Until she set foot on the property, she had thought she would sell but the sight of the old house had awakened too many memories.
“You can’t!” Tiffany cries, her face dark and eyes brimming with tears. “You can’t sell it! Can’t we fix it up again? I could live here when I get out of college.”
Tears burn Myrtle’s eyes; the child feels it too, the age-old connection of blood and ties to a place. The original plan had wanted the entire property but her oldest son had asked for a second option that would sell off the acres and the woods but not the house. If she sells the land, the money could preserve the house and the thought of Tiffany living her, raising babies here has appeal. More than that, it feels right and Myrtle reaches for her cane so that she can step back out into the sunlight.
“We can do that.” Her voice sounds stronger, feels stronger now. “We can do that, Tiffany, and we will.”
As she leaves the porch, Tiffany takes her arm and supports her down the steps. On the way to where Tiffany parked her Nissan at the gate, she leans on the girl and smiles because the old home place will be home for another generation. Crows call high above the treetops and in the distance, just for a moment, Myrtle thinks she hears the soft, sweet sound of her mother’s voice raised in song.