Saturday, April 17, 2010

Family memories around the old house...

The first time I remember seeing the house, I was barely into the double-digits. The house stood back on the edge of some woods that dropped down into the swampy creek known as the Lower Little River. It was nearly a mile from a paved highway. We followed the two tracks that ran beside my great-granddaddy’s bee hives and his house with the large magnolias out front, and the smoke house and corn crib and chicken coop out back. Then we took the right fork at Henry’s place, distinguishable by rusting tractor trailers and heavy equipment and other junk he’d collected. Although my grandmother would never say anything negative about him, I could tell she didn’t appreciate his collections. At the tobacco barns, we took the left fork, riding through a young growth pine forest that had once been fields. We stopped before the house where grandma showed us kids the press they used to squeeze the juice out of sugar cane. The long pole onto which Old Dan, the mule, was tied and walked in circles to turn the press was broken and rotted. The huge caldron where the squeezing was boiled down into syrup was long gone. From there, we walked over to the house, with its inviting front porch shaded by a beaten down magnolia.

The front porch faced the two-track road through the sand and an overgrown field out front. There was a small utility porch off the back. As far as I know, at the time no one had lived in the house for nearly a quarter of a century. The first thing my grandma saw was that someone had stripped the copper electrical writing out of the house. It was odd to think about electricity running into a house without indoor plumbing, but then the house was nearing the end of its original purpose when the REA finally strung power lines through these parts.

Inside the house, on this my first visit, I was overwhelmed by the sweet scent of cured tobacco. Bits of crumbly golden leaves were left in the corners and in the cracks of the heart pine flooring. The man working my great-grandfather’s allotment was utilizing the old place as a pack-house, storing cured tobacco inside as it was graded and bundled for market. But it was early summer, not quite time for puttin’ in tobacco and the house stood empty except for one room that was filled with tobacco sticks. In a few weeks, these would be taken out to the barns where tobacco leaves would be tied to them and they’d then be hanged in a heated born for curing. These sticks also made great sticks to tie up tomato plants and for growing string beans.

In the sittin’ room was a large fireplace with a heart-pine mantel; the floor in front of the hearth was brick. I loved the fireplace and dreamed of a day that I could rescue the mantel and put it in a house of my own. Over against the wall was an old pump organ which had probably not been played since my great-great grandma’s death, four years before my birth. I’ve been back to that house many times since, and at some point, the old organ went missing. The last time that I was there, six or eight years ago, someone had stripped the mantel and a tree was growing through the bedroom floor. Half the roof had caved in and the only things left in the house, as relics, were a few tobacco sticks. Tobacco no longer grew on my great-granddaddy’s land since the government buyout of tobacco allotments.

I didn’t get to visit the house last week, when I was in North Carolina. But I did get to visit it viscously as my grandma talked about her granddaddy (my great-great granddaddy whose death was long before my birth). This has become common in our visits of recent years, her talking about her granddaddy. Sitting around the kitchen table, my daughter and I listened intently as she told of loving to stay with her grandparents and to lie during winter before the large hearth, watching the fire reflect off the brick and listen to it crackle. She also told about her grandmother decorating it at Christmas, with a large cedar tree and holly branches.

My great, great granddaddy, James Duncan McKenzie was born in May 1862, the opening year of the Civil War. As my Grandma spoke, I did the math in my head and realized my daughter was hearing about people who were born almost 140 years before her and that if she lives into her early eighties, through my grandmother, would have connections to over two hundred years of history. And then, if my daughter sits around such a table with her granddaughter, another hundred years or more will be added to the cycle of births and deaths.

James Duncan McKenzie married Mary Eliza McDonald in the 1880s. Their first son, my great-granddaddy was a strong man that I was lucky enough to know. In his 70s, he was still spitting wood for my great-grandma’s wood stove. He’d place a log upright and swing, spitting it in two and then split the halves into quarters. Every few logs split, he’d take a break and allow me the time to gather up the wood and stack it. Great-grandma, who died when I was eight, didn’t like the gas range and refused to let go of her wood burning range.

Although their first son, my great-grandfather, would live a long life, many of their other children would struggle and die young. In a world without electricity, my grandma as a young girl would go to her grandparent’s home and take turns fanning Uncle Harrison. He was gassed in the First World War, in the trenches in France, and although he lived for another twenty years, never recovered and constantly fought bouts of pneumonia. My grandma also remembers the death of Aunt Molly. She was seven and they sent her out into the fields to get her dad. He was plowing with Old Dan, the mule. Her father unhooked the mule from the plow. Leaving the plow in furrow where he stopped, he handed my grandma, just a young girl at the time, the reins and had her lead Old Dan back to the barn while he cut through the woods to this house I described.

My grandmother spent the first six months of her life living with her grandparents, at this house, as her mother battled illness, perhaps influenza as that was epidemic at the time. In time, her grandparents would take more children, some related, some not, and raise them in this house. Grandma looks back with fondness on their hard lives and how they never complained, but were always grateful and willing to share what they had with others. The last I saw of it, the house was no longer salvageable and, I’m sure, will be reduced to a heap of rotten wood and rusty bent tin before my daughter is a mother.


  1. I wish I had such histories of my ancestors. My grandmosther kept it a secret that she was Native American until days before her death. She never spoke of her mother's people. I can't find a birth certificate and don't even know where to start looking for records.

  2. There's No Place Like Home!

    Hey, Tat would make a good movie Line!

    Good memories Bro!


  3. I can't wait for my daughter to be old enough to absorb some of our family lore. I just hope she doesn't see me as an old fuddy duddy for being interested in such a thing.

  4. Sage: Powerful memories. Thanks for the good word while I am away! :)

  5. Jen, sorry to hear about the secrets on my mother's mother side. it would be intersting to know about such history. We're well researched going back, thanks to my brother and sister. I don't worry as much about genelogy, but do like to collect the stories.

    John, NC ain't Kansas! You can tell that the way the two battle it out in basketball! :)

    Ed, she will, at times. At other times, she'll be interested. I'll have to write about walking along the rocks south of Fort Fisher and my daughter asking more and more questions about the battle there.

    THanks Michael, come back soon!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing these nice memories, Sage. Sounds a bit like 'gone with the wind'...

    Leni (from the south of the ash cloud!)

  7. Hard to fathom in this break neck pace world we live in that 65% of the population still lived this way little more than 80 years ago.

  8. Having electricity before plumbing was the normal course during those times. My dad remembered the first electric lights at their place when he was in High School, which allowed him to study his Latin into the wee hours.

    Another great post, BTW.


  9. A deep, rich heritage belongs to you. I think mine were Dutch horse thieves who immigrated because they were bad at it in the Netherlands!

  10. Leni, I am so glad you don't have to breath that volcano ash... does south Sandwich have any volcanoes?

    Walking Man, things have changed, haven't they!

    Randall, a fews ago I received a book by a Georgia writer titled "The Year the Lights Came On." It was set in rural Georgia and dealt with the changes that electricity brought to folks--a good novel.

    Buffalo, mine Scotish ancestors got beat by the English in the 1740s and high-tailed it to the new world

  11. From your post, I almost feel as though I've been there with you, Sage. Very nicely told. You make me want to talk about my great grandparent's home (I think I already have). I'll have to locate the photo of it.

  12. I love lines like "Henry's place." That makes me miss home.

    As my Grandma spoke, I did the math in my head and realized my daughter was hearing about people who were born almost 140 years before her and that if she lives into her early eighties, through my grandmother, would have connections to over two hundred years of history. And then, if my daughter sits around such a table with her granddaughter, another hundred years or more will be added to the cycle of births and deaths.

    You're all so very lucky. I hope your daughter gets a lot of time with her great-grandmother.

  13. lovely story.

    When you write allotment can you explain what the term means down your way. Here it means a small area in or just outside a town or city where veggies are grown. It's that sort of blitz spirit of WW2.

  14. Thanks Kenju. I didn't note this here, but from this house, in one direction (about a mile away) was my great-great-great grandparents home and then my great grandparents was in the other direction.

    TC, when I was her age, I talked to my great grandparents about their grandparents and wish I had written it down... these would have been folks alive and well at the time of the Civil War and even earlier.

    Vince, a tobacco allotment was how much the govt allowed you to produce under the price support system. It was a way of controlling production and keeping small farms in business. The allotment was tied to the land, so those who retired would "rent" their allotment out to another farmer. The system was dismantled 20 or so years ago (I don't exactly remember when, but it was when I wasn't making it back to NC very often and when I did, one of the things I noticed was there wasn't much tobacco growing.)

  15. Sage .... BTW another great article. I'm finding great joy in reading about your family, and discovering stories about my own ... keep it up!

  16. I really enjoyed this one. It must be awesome to be so connected, or at least feel that way at times.
    So many of us do not have those memories or relationships. (BTW I think your spell checker means vicariously, rather than viscously)

    I hope you do get back to the cabin again- maybe to salvage a piece of wood, a nail, even that tobacco... put it in a frame or something to reflect fondly upon.