While the memory of such things can be tricky, I have lived in 14 different places. West coast to east coast. Up and down the Pacific coast. I think this fluidity of movement is a very American thing. I have moved towards opportunities, great, life changing choices. And I have moved away from small disasters. Even if I rested my head there briefly, each of these places has helped mould the person I am today.
I keep 2 pictures of houses on my desk. The photos have always felt like keystones in the bridge of my life. One is a little pink house in Indio, California. It was my home from almost zero to 19 years. The other is a home in Timbo, Arkansas, a place I only saw from a distance. It was my father’s childhood home.
I keep those pictures close as an act of humility. I have been mostly fortunate in my life but like many people I am prone to let my head swell now and again. Those pictures are the ballast to pull me back to the ground.
I was 12 the last time we went to Arkansas on a family trip. My great Papa Cothron led us on a tour of the old family homes. (Still linked to our hillbilly roots, Papa and Mawma are what we call grandparents in the family.) The Blackwoods and the Cothrons lived near each other in the Ozark hills for generations then joined by marriage.
I had my own camera and took that shot of my Dad’s home. Decades later I found the picture and framed it. I had remembered we went to 2 homes, the Blackwood house with the over a creek and up a hill and the Cothron family home on a little piece of bottom land in a hollow. I was sure that porch was on the house in the hollow. It wasn’t.
My Dad came to visit last week and when I put the picture of the front porch in front of him he told me I had mixed-up the two houses up. His hilltop family home was the one I had on my desk. One generation apart. This is how family mythology happens.
My dad was born in a slip of a town called Happy Hollow. Born at home, tended by a doctor who arrived on horseback. The town burned down one night and simply disappeared forever. I think we found a ghostly remnant of the town in an overgrown house foundation.
The picture of that house in Timbo reminds me of stories of surviving the Great Depression with toughness, love and hard work. Dad tells stories of felling trees at the age of 10 with his 2 year older Uncle Jake on the other end of a cross-cut saw. I went to work with my dad at his service station, co-owned by the same uncle Jake, at about the same age as my dad was when he was on the end of that saw. The thing about those stories, sometimes of privation, is that across the generations they are told with a smile and great pride. The family wanted for nothing that they didn’t really need. You simply did what was necessary. I try to hold the lessons of that house close.
The little pink house was our home in the desert. It is where my little brother Mike and I grew up. I took that picture on my first trip back to show my wife where I grew up. There was no fence back then. More trees in the yard. It was the first home Dad and Mom bought. It didn’t seem small but it was. About 1200 square feet. Just big enough for a room each boy and the folks.
My folks who kept expanding the little house. The garage became a pool room with a bench at one end for projects. I remember the pool table was a big draw for my friends. I have never been a game player. Don’t know how to play any card games. A room was added out back for the laundry and a little elbow room when you were at the kitchen table. There was a new patio for the bikes and motorcycles that always had a layer of sand on it from the desert dust storms.
From as soon as I could stand behind a mower, my brother and I had the job of taking care of the lawn and gardens. There was a lot more green in front of the little house then. I hated working out in the desert heat. While I still love the desert as a place, even an attitude, my ultimate move to the Pacific NW was a reaction to my disdain for the heat. One of the strangest features of that front yard was my mom’s love of a dichondra lawn.
Seems in the 50’s and 60’s it was a very Southern California thing to replace your grass with this little broad leaf creeper lawn. It makes absolutely no sense because this is a water loving plant. My folks put in a sprinkler system to keep it alive. The southwest’s relationship with water has always been absurd. Deserts always win in the end. But my mom wanted it, so that is what she got. I think of it mostly as always cool under foot. As kids, we mostly went barefoot with calluses thick enough to walk across an asphalt street on a 110 degree day. Desert kid tough.
Mom also wanted roses and a bougainvillea in the garden at the front of the house. My room window was the one in the middle of the picture. I hated that bougainvillea. It had long spiky thorns that raked back and forth on the wall outside my window. It sounded like the claws of a creature trying to get through that wall. Yea, I could have done just fine without that plant. For the sake of any kids who live there now I was happy to see it gone.
It’s a rare soul who moves through life living in the moment. I have met a few. But most of us spend our time building the picture of who we are on a growing collection of places and moments. The luck of genetic roulette means that some folks spend their lives running away from where they came from. I get that. I am one of those. Survival and growth means cutting the cord sometimes. Other people stick close to their roots. It’s like distance would deprive them of vital nutrients. That too makes sense.
The house on that hill in Arkansas pumped life into my value system. If you are lucky enough to come from hill folks you take pride in the label hillbilly. Besides the strong sense of loyalty and no fear of hard work, you keep a little Scots-Irish chip on your shoulder all the time…don’t mess with me and mine. It’s the edge that will both get you into and out of trouble.
For someone who has always liked to pause to mark beginning and endings, my departure from that little pink house was strange. One fall I loaded up my car and went away to university. In the midst of my finals the folks moved across town. I left my home and came back to a place that would never be home.
Maybe its better that way. The home where I grew up will aways be just that. My childhood and coming of age is contained in a near sacred place uncontaminated with the excitement and pain of becoming an adult. The little house is my own time capsule of memories sealed by the simple act of backing out of the driveway. While I was back in the desert for a time after graduating from college, I always tell people I left for good at the age of 19. I know that every time I look at that picture.