By Wesley Harris
I take a highway to work past the old homeplace where my father grew up. Memories of visits to my granddaddy and grandma spur a longing for the house and barn and animals and family of my youth.
It was a real country house. Small, simple. Clapboard painted white, a front porch its one and only amenity.
It possessed running water of a sort—at a spring in the woods behind the house. More conveniently, I could pull up a bucket of water from the well or scoop a glassful from a rain barrel. The barrels sat along the edge of the house to catch rain dripping off the tin roof. Grandma said drink from the well and leave the rain barrels for washing clothes and bathing. It was a long time before I realized we sat in the dark around the fireplace because there was no electricity.
Since the two-seater outhouse lacked lights or heat, I did not linger. It was a little scary to sit in the dark, foul outhouse on a wooden seat and despite the known horrors below, I couldn’t help but peer down the hole.
With an abundance of tall flowers and oversized shrubs, the yard encouraged jungle adventures. No need to fantasize about dangerous animals. Bees and wasps and dragonflies and nameless insects buzzed and hummed around the flowers. And my head. The thought of painful stings terrified me as much as being attacked by the arrogant rooster patrolling the yard.
Chickens—red, white, yellow, and speckled—ran loose everywhere. When a chicken flew down out of a tree, I ran like a rabbit evading a hungry hawk. The chickens fought one another, squawking and stirring up dust. I stayed away from them.
The feed store gave Granddaddy a calendar each year. The current calendar and last year’s and the year before adorned the bedroom wall. Each month pictured a different breed of chicken. I studied the calendars and examined the yard chickens to find those matching the pictures. Granddaddy had many chickens, but he did not have all the chickens on the calendars.
I enjoyed gathering eggs even though the chickens made me nervous. I ventured from tree to bush to wooden box looking for eggs to place in my tin bucket. Just like Easter except all the eggs were brown or white. If a hen sat on her nest guarding her eggs, I left her alone.
Flowers covered the yard, a colorful display of God’s creation, substituting for the lack of grass picked clean by the chickens. Zinnias, daylilies, daffodils, chrysanthemums, and giant towering sunflowers. Some bloomed in the spring and some in the summer. I liked the four-o’clocks because they worked like a timepiece, opening and closing at different times of the day. It was easy to collect the four-o’clock seeds and replant them at home.
A huge pear tree commanded one corner of the front yard. Daddy parked our car under the tree so my brother and I could climb up and reach the pears. Even when plenty of pears littered the ground, it was more fun to pick our own off the tree. My brothers and I always ate too many.
Tin lard buckets containing pepper plants stood everywhere. Grandma made pepper sauce to flavor peas and turnip greens and everything else she and Granddaddy ate. Food came from the garden, not a store. I used my share of pepper sauce, too, and acquired a taste for a spicy condiment on most everything I eat.
The garden was always fun. Rows and rows of corn plants stretched tall toward the sky. Daddy said some of it was sweet corn for eating and some was called field corn. The field corn was for Nell the horse and the cows.
“Wanna go bust a melon?” Dad would ask and off to the garden we trekked. The watermelons covered much of the garden because of their long trailing vines. Dad and I tried growing watermelons in our little garden at home, but they never turned out as good as Granddaddy’s. Dad said the soil was different and our garden was too shady.
We ate watermelon in the garden. Dad thumped melon after melon with his finger until he found the right one. I thumped them too, but I could not tell one from another.
Sometimes I spotted jagged holes in the watermelons, right down to the middle, with red juice oozing out. Dad said crows had been eating them.
After Dad found the best watermelon, he snapped it off the vine, lifted it off the ground, and dropped it to break it open. No knives, no spoons, just use your hands to scoop out the red stuff. The heart of the melon, right in the middle, was the best. If we ate all the middle and wanted some more, we broke open another one because there plenty of melons and the heart is the best. When we finished, we left the remainder on the ground, hoping the lazy crows ate the leftovers rather than ruin another on the vine.
Granddaddy almost never went to the garden with us. I guess he spent enough time there as it was. While we explored, he rested in one of his three favorite places. In the winter, he used a rocking chair by the bedroom fireplace. In good weather, he was on the porch in another rocking chair. On lazy summer days, he reclined on a feather bed in the screened-in breezeway running down the middle of the house.
Throughout my childhood, I thought Granddaddy’s horse was named Nail. What a strange name for a horse, I thought. I had never known anyone named Nell so only the word ‘nail’ was familiar. Nell pulled the plow in Granddaddy’s garden. Dad plowed sometimes while I watched. I could tell it was hard work. For Dad, I mean. He had to keep the plow headed straight and be careful not to plow up the plants. Nell knew when to turn and start down the next row. Now and then Dad bent over and picked up a rock, inspected it a moment, and tossed it out of the garden. He said he found many arrowheads when he plowed as a boy. I followed behind him looking for arrowheads in the freshly turned earth. I never found any, but he gave me some he had found many years earlier.
I wish I had spent more time at the little spring bubbling up at the bottom of a woody hill behind the garden. It was a quiet cool place, even in summer. You could not see the garden, or the pasture, or the barn, or the house from the spring. The water was cold and sweet and more fun to drink than water from the well or the barrel. A little dam had been built around the spring to create a pool. The water rushed out of the ground and spilled over the rocks, running out of sight into the woods.
The old homeplace belongs to another family now. The only landmarks I recognize as I pass are two towering oaks that once shaded the front yard and daffodils that pop out every spring. The house was torn down in the early 70s, and Dad salvaged wood to build a barn for my 4-H livestock projects. The door to the only closet in the house was added to the barn. Now the door serves as a rustic coffee table in my den, reminding me of that simple old house, loving grandparents, and childhood memories.