“Mother, would you like to go to Little Rock for a little trip?” I asked.
She didn’t have to think long.
“I would love to visit all the places I lived in Little Rock one last time,” she said, her eyes shining happy at the thought. She spent the next few minutes remembering her past and calculating a list. We chose a date.
Driving up from Houston on an appropriately cold, almost Thanksgiving holiday end of the week, the plan was to spend two nights, me driving and her reminiscing.
Four hours north of Houston, I stopped the truck and took a picture of a Black Gum.
“You and your brother love trees,” Mother said. “I don’t know where you got that love from, your Dad and I didn’t have as much interest in them as you two do,” she finished.
I shifted in my seat, propped my foot up against the window, like my dad used to do, and considered why I like trees. It kept me from getting sleepy in the warm cab.
I don’t know why I like them. Maybe it’s the influence of my brother. Maybe it’s because they can be so majestic. They make me consider how small I am.
We got to Little Rock much earlier than I expected.
“Where do we go first, Mother?” I asked.
She looked at her list.
“Let’s go in order. Find Roosevelt Road. We lived near the cemetery,” she said, trying to recall the roads, the turns, and the memories. “I used to steal flowers off the graves and take them to my mother. I thought she didn’t know where they came from.”
I was surprised to realize that between the ages of six and sixteen her life was spent in part of this building, a tiny corner of it, shared with three siblings, a mother who was manic depressive, and an illiterate, somewhat oppressive father.
Always trying to make things better, I had heard the stories about the bed she made for herself out of empty crates. The front piece stated that the building was completed in 1926. Odd how substantial it remained. It was born from an era of residences above shopfronts and I could not quite reconcile it’s presence some distance from the city or an active street. It was an odd, interesting building.
“Let’s go to Oak Hill,” Mother stated, tucking herself among the two dogs who she lives to love, after she had taken pictures from every angle.
Oak Hill Place, a cul de sac of 17 houses, was lower middle class when we lived there. It was less than that now. My mother and father had done their best to make the little house attractive and homey. It had not fared well in the intervening years since my Mother had sold it. Random, numerous clothes hung under the carport, faded and weathered from a garage sale ended too many months ago. The screened in porch was camouflaged by white lattice stark against the brown asbestos siding and the Arkansas stone base fashioned by Dad was hidden beneath weeds. Gone were all the flowers and trees and an old garden swing. There was no welcoming sidewalk and a sloped handicapped ramp covered the few stairs to the front storm door. It was like the occupants had stripped the place of everything that had any beauty.
“Get out of the truck and let’s take some pictures,” she asked, wrapping the wrist band of her camera around her slender wrist.
For many reasons, ‘no’.
She canvassed the place, invading the privacy of the home owner to my mind.
She came back to the car and requested: “Go knock on the door and ask them if we can come inside.”
There isn’t much I refuse Mother.
“You aren’t as brave as you like to think you are. You are a chicken.”
Marching up to the storm door that looked as uninviting as anything I can imagine, she knocked. Within seconds, she poked her head out of the storm door and motioned me in.
To say that we lived in a 1000 square foot house might be overly generous. The tiny living room of the house where I spent most of my first 21 years was beyond depressing. Gone were the stained glass windows that my then new husband Silent Bob had created when he first learned the craft. The house was piled with things, a few categorized and displayed, but most just stacked, waiting for a better day I guess. Mother was exploring ever nook and cranny with permission from the current occupant. The woman was large, and even with her back to me, before she could turn to face me, I knew she was sick. I don’t know when her heart quit circulating the lymph in her body but it now pooled in her legs. It was so extensive that her skin could not hold it and besides leaking from her ankles and upper legs, it pooled in her torso. She turned to look at me and one side of her face sagged heavy, her scalp showing pink through the sparse hair that grew there. As depressed as I was by what I was seeing, Mother was joyous. And she was sharing that joy. She was reliving the joy by being in the home that she had nurtured her family. As I watched I saw that same love envelope the woman who lived there now.
Despite the condition of my childhood home, the memories made there were not contingent upon the state of the house or the current tenancy. The love that had grown there was cemented in my Mother’s memories and in those of us who had been blessed enough to receive it. It had sprouted and grown in a hundred different directions since our days there. Love is like that, tangible in some situations, a bit miraculous in it’s ability to infect. It was spilling out and around us, to dusty floors and sick, misshapen bodies, like the house held the memory of who we were as a family.
“It was so tiny,” she said, when we were back in the truck. “It never seemed that small when we lived there.”
Traveling east, out of the neighborhood and across the freeway, we stopped at the tupelo swamp. In dreams that never make sense, my unconscious brings me here repeatedly. These trees were here before I was. Before there was a freeway, my Dad taught me how to bow hunt on the edge of this swamp. Or he tried to. I love the tupelo. It is a long lived, water tree that is found only in clean water. It indicates a healthy environment. I like to think of it as the liver of an aquatic ecosystem.
“What’d you say. The liver of what?!” Mother says, clearly wondering if she wants to know.
A ways from the swamp and next to the railroad track, we could see my Great grandmother’s rock home. I was surprised how big it was. Still sturdy and pretty, the rocks tinged red with iron were square on their foundation. She was Methodist and according to many sources, an amazing woman. She built this house. As in she built the house. She might have had a bit of help from whoever her current husband was.
“That’s the little room your Great grandmother made for you, she said, pointing to a little sun porch on the east side of the house. “You lived there the first nine months of your life. She made you yellow curtains. She taught me to make bean sandwiches.”
“Let’s go to the hump yard,” I said, navigating the truck back onto the main road. Once across rails imbedded in the road, within 15 minutes we’d entered the rail yard. Slowly, we threaded our way through lines of box cars. I rolled down the window and across the wind came the low whine and rumble of a hundred diesel engines at idle.
After my dad died and for many years after, I came here on my own. If he’d still switched this yard I would have recognized his gait and legs under a boxcar. I missed him less here.
There are places where the memory and efforts of those we love are written on our heart in such bold marks, that the place itself has the power to ease the ache of missing.
At the far end, where containers were piggybacked on rail cars, was a low flat building, with little to commend it. It is only worth describing for one reason. I met Silent Bob there.
“We have one place left to go,” Mother said, looking over her list, as I headed north. “The park. You think you can find it?”
The park was not unlike the farm. It was a place that my Mother and Brother Neil had purchased before they both moved out of Arkansas. They fenced and planted trees and rose bushes. They brought guests and barbequed and thought about life. It was when my oldest was only a young tow headed three year old.
“Jake came up here with us,” Mother said, the light shining in her eyes again, and as we walked through a gentle rain to the crest of Billy Goat Mountain. She told me about Jake’s visit. He’d flown on the airplane himself. He’d shot a gun. He’d made a swing. He’d driven a truck in the lap of the owner.
“What do you think of it,’ she asked quietly.
“I feel close to Jake here,” I answered. “Let’s get a bit of that old rose you planted. It will do nice at the farm.”
We talked some on the way back. We were quiet some. The old rose cutting, wrapped and rained on in the truck bed will bloom this coming spring.
“Did you see that big old cedar tree on Oak Hill? It was huge. Not so pretty as I remember it,” I said, about an hour outside of Houston.
“There you go again with those trees!” She said. Mother likes for us to share everything and is a bit disappointed when we don’t.
“Can you go back home, Mother?” I asked.
She smiled and shook her head yes.
Sure you can.
Because home has never been a place.
The only value of the place is that it can remind you of the ones who are your home and always will be.
And there’s trees to appreciate along the way.