Then there was the day in Scranton, a few weeks ago, where the temperature plunged to an inhuman 7 degrees, taking with it the wind chill, which didn’t stop until it reached minus 4, producing a burning sensation to the skin. Now, walking to the truck stop required crossing the path of a steam vent protruding from the side of the building, which you would think would provide a moment’s relief from the cold. But on that morning, the steam turned immediately to ice crystals, which felt like needles blasting against our faces as we entered and exited the building. That was the moment when I thought to myself for, oh, about the hundredth time that morning, that I didn’t really belong there and considered how very grateful I would be to get back home at some point before I was too old to find my way. After all, my last request to go home had bequeathed one trip to New York, complete with a deer to collide with my truck.
But good things come to those who wait (for lack of other viable options), and so it has been my happy fortune to spend the last few days back home in Louisiana. This trip, however, has been a trip down memory lane as well, a lane which ran circuitously into the woods not far from Fort Polk, Louisiana. As a child, my parents and I would travel the winding, narrow little dirt roads that led to my great-great-grandparents’ home in Pitkin. There, five generations of the family would gather and bask in the warm bonhomie of tradition and humor, while we kids sat listening to stories of days gone by.
I can remember sitting in the swing on the front porch, my feet not quite able to touch the ground yet, while my Dad, my grandfather, great-grandfather, my uncle, and and my great-great grandfather told their stories and the stories of their grandparents. The food was good enough to be considered a banned substance by today’s nanny state, yet my great-great-grandparents lived happily into their 90s. They were married 70 years. Most of those folks are gone now, but Grandaddy and Grandmother’s home and property remain in the family even as we keep their memory alive for our children and grandchildren.
Some might feel at home in the frenzied pace of urban life, but I prefer the quiet peace of being grounded to this place, and the lasting connection of loved ones living and departed. Why, if you look at the very walls inside their home, handprints adorn the walls where Grandmother would leave her cooking to hold the boards in place to assist Grandaddy in building the house. My uncle explains that the cooking materials on her hands stained the wood, leaving the handprints.
It’s a respectable amount of acreage at “The Farm,” and the family has labored every generation since to maintain it as a retreat of sorts. Cattle have been kept there, barns have been raised, gardens tended, and fish caught. There’s a tree out front, from whose trunk a large branch once hung precariously following an ice storm. I must have been 19 or 20 when my grandfather suggested we go saw that limb down before it fell of its own accord and hurt something or someone. With a long rope tied to my belt, I climbed to the top of a ladder we had leaned against the tree, and then shimmied up the tree trunk, up beyond the power lines, using broken limbs for footholds, and continued still higher until I reached the broken limb. Then, throwing the rope over the base of that limb, I lowered the rope back down to my grandfather, who attached an extension cord and an electric chainsaw to the rope. Pulling the saw and cord up to my position, I gave the signal to my grandfather, who plugged in the extension cord. Then, with as much care as I could muster, I began sawing off the limb.
The trick was to saw it almost to the point that it would fall off, but not quite all the way, the idea being to break off the last piece by pushing it away from the tree rather than have it swing back and knock me off with it. At the slightest bit of trouble, or when I needed a quick rest, Grandaddy would unplug the extension cord to prevent me from accidentally sawing off a limb of my own. I guess I should have been nervous, and if I had the slightest bit of common sense, I wouldn’t have even been up there. But it was exhilarating. Well, it worked out fine and the tree limb fell harmlessly away.
A few days ago, standing at the base of the tree, the memories were as vivid as the day of the adventure. Then, looking further across the field, I see a scene from only a few years ago, when one of my cousins loaded the next generation of kids into a little cart and pulled them around the property with a small tractor. My nephew, Ryan, was a little fellow back then, and as they set out on their adventure, he stood up and yelled, “All for One, and Good for Nothing!” It’s good to be home.
Leaving The Farm, my mother and I set out for Baton Rouge to visit with my aunt and uncle, and my cousins. My uncle retired from teaching at LSU, as did one of my cousins, while another is still employed on campus. By Saturday, Memory Lane had taken us from The Farm to the LSU campus. Mike the Tiger was fast asleep. The stately oaks and gorgeous magnolias frame the roadways and pathways in intricate and haunting beauty. Unlike so many things, Tiger Stadium remains as imposing now as it did when I was in kindergarten.
And speaking of kindergarten, I visited the old University Presbyterian Preschool I attended as a child. I hadn’t set foot on the property since the age of 5, and I was afraid they might have leveled the place and conducted an exorcism there for good measure after I left. This was the building where, as an ill-tempered little fellow, I had delivered a roundhouse to the chops of one teacher (it’s a long story), threatened another after she brought us in from recess too early (by my reckoning at least), and bashed my buddy Sam in the head after he kept stealing my blocks (he required stitches). I didn’t start fights, but I tended to finish them.
There, in the old playground, was the Snot Tree, so named because the kid with the perpetual runny nose used to wipe his nose with his bare hands before climbing it, leaving the rest of us to climb through his trail of mucus. There was the sand box where the little short kid we called “Itsy,” (he said his name was Buck, but we had our doubts) would throw sand on the rest of us. And still standing off to the right, was the old swing set. It appears to have shrunk considerably since I last saw it … leaving me to squat down to take a picture from the perspective of a four year-old child. How proud I was to shimmy up that side pole, climb up onto the crossbar and survey the world. Now it’s suitable for an armrest.
But as wondrous as it was to see all these things after 46 years, it was positively chilling to look into the old sanctuary. I remembered it as a dark place (the windows might have been stained glass back then), with walls painted Doctor’s Office Green. We were made to sit in very uncomfortable pews, while a very stern looking man in a robe of sorts stood up in a pulpit. The fluorescent light over his notes illuminating his face from the ground up created a very disturbing image, and I didn’t much like it. Renovations are underway in the sanctuary .. but for now, at least, the place looks exactly as it did all those years ago, and it gave me a chill to see it again.
Memory Lane has now landed me back in Lake Charles for a day of rest before setting out on the road again tomorrow. I’ve no idea which direction the truck and I will be headed, but I go with a head full of memories renewed, and a heart full of gratitude for time spent with loved ones. It’s been a time to renew relationships, a time to resurrect memories of loved ones passed away, and a time to ground the spirit and soul in the things that matter. It’s been so very good to be home.