It was mid-afternoon when I left Harkers Island. Driving south, parallel to the coast, I go through Beaufort and by the state port at Morehead City, through Jacksonville, passing the tattoo parlors and topless bars that line the highway which skirts Camp Lejeune, then down Highway 17 to Wilmington. When we first moved to the coast, this was a two-lane road. Then, about the time I got my driver’s license, they updated the road to a three-lane highway, the center being a passing lane shared by each side. There were some head-on wrecks and at the time, my dad wondered if it had been designed by an Undertaker. Today, it’s four-lanes and mostly a divided highway with cars speeding in both directions. That’s not the only changes. Gone are the old rusty tin shacks where, in years passed, you could buy fresh shrimp, oysters or collard greens. Gone are the little gas stations at crossroads, with their Coca-Cola chest coolers and screen doors advertising Sunbeam Bread. Now, multi-colored convenient stores with shaded gas pumps dot the highway. Also gone are the large sections of forest. The pines that exist are now in plantations, which grow a hybrid version instead of the traditional long-leaf pines. The remaining long-leafs now stand sentinel around colonial-styled homes. The few ancient live oaks left, with their beards of Spanish moss, serve as decorations for entrances to housing developments. There’s been a lot of change since I was a kid.
I stop and pick up some barbeque for dinner, along with cole slaw and hushpuppies, and arrive home a little after dark. I relieve my brother and for the next three days am responsible for Mom. It’s a role that I’m not use to and I immediately find out that no only will I have to take care of her, I will also have to watch over her dog that appears to have the runs. The little mutt (he’s actually some special bred) is named Prince… He doesn’t look like a Prince, but the last dog my parents have had (a collie) was named Prince and my father thought that keeping a dog of the same name would help my mom. But when I ask Mom about the other Prince, she doesn’t remember the dog even though at the time he’d gotten out of the fenced backyard and was struck by a car in front of their house, my mother called me balling over the phone. I cleaned up the dog’s mess, washed my hands, and then we ate dinner.
The next morning we’d planned to go to Pinehurst to see my grandmother (father’s side), who still lives by herself and also to give my mother a chance to see her sister. Getting ready was a challenge as I tried to make sure my mom had everything she needed for the overnight stay. I asked her to get a change of clothes; she came back with a dressy suit. I told her that we weren’t going formal, so she came back with a sweatshirt. I told her that was probably too hot. She came back with a blouse that seemed more appropriate. I sent her back for slacks. It was weird realizing that she wasn’t quite sure what was going on, and I felt like I was dealing with my daughter when she was about five or six.
We loaded up the car, putting the dog in his carrier, and I drove the familiar way, through town and across the river and up along the south banks of the Cape Fear, through Brunswick, Columbus, Bladen, Robinson, Hoke and finally Moore County. Most of this use to be tobacco and peanut country, but every time I make the trip, there are fewer and fewer curing barns and those are the newer bulk barns. Much of the tobacco land is now planted in cotton (or in corn by farmers hoping to cash in on the ethanol boom). Along the way, I was hoping to find some boiled peanuts, which are only available during and right after the harvest. After making several stops, I finally found an old gas station in the town of Dublin that had a few bags left in their drink cooker. Boiled peanuts are wonderful and I brought a three pound bag, heating up a few in their microwave to eat on the drive.
We got to my grandma’s early in the afternoon. She’d fixed dinner: pork chops, cornbread, collard greens, homemade apple sauce, three-bean salad (my grandmother forgot that I’m the one who hates green beans) and left-over pumpkin pie. It was all very good after I picked the green beans out of my salad. We spent the night at grandma’s, watching antique shows on TV before bed.
I offered to make breakfast the next morning. Grandma agreed, and then started showing me where things were at. She got out eggs and sausage and canned biscuits from the refrigerator.
“What?” I asked, “Canned biscuits?”
“They’re pretty good,” my grandmother insisted.
I refused to have anything to do with it. “I’ll make biscuits,” I volunteer, thinking that breakfast at grandmas had to have homemade biscuits.
“When did you learn how to make biscuits?” my grandmother asked.
“I learned from you, when I was about 14,” I told her.
“We’ll that’s good, ‘cause I don’t make ‘em from scratch anymore.”
So I got busy and made a pan of biscuits, fixed eggs, sausage, grits and coffee. We had us a real southern breakfast.
Later that morning, I walked down behind her house to Joe’s Fork, a small creek. When I was a kid, the beavers had dammed up the creek in several places, creating nice ponds for fishing. I love this country—the Sandhills. Tall long-leaf pines, interspersed with blackjack oaks, their leaves looking like mittens for a giant. (see photo) There’s American holly and red cedar and growing high in the trees along the creek are clumps of mistletoe. I couldn’t find any beaver, but was surprised to see a golf course maybe 100 feet from the creek on the other side. I’m sure the ground-keepers kept the beavers out of the creek, as the last thing they’d want would be an unexpected water trap.
We later visited my aunt and cousin, then drove back to Wilmington. The next day we drove out to the beach and did a bit of shopping. My sister came down to take over, and on Thursday morning she and my mom dropped me off at the airport.
It was good to be back in the South and back home for a few days. But every time I go I get a sense of loss. I’m sure this is heightened by my mothers deteriorating condition.
Other stories from this trip: Catchin' BluesCamping on Cape Lookout