Life Marked By Stones
It’s gone and I’m beyond distressed. Fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, tsunamis, floods . . . houses get ruined, destroyed, daily. Rubble squats where once stood a home, a place that wrapped its walled arms around people and kept them safe, secure, and warm. Those walled arms allowed them to slumber, ceiling overhead, the dark kept outside where it belongs.
Homes vanish at nature’s whim, the carelessness of humans, or by choice, to make way for something else. Those something elses can and do take the form of offices, stores, shopping centers, resorts, playgrounds. Those something elses take the form of highways on which we partake in the dance of travel, of movement, of getting where we want to be, where we think we should be, and where we think we must be.
Vivid pictures of that home had slipped across the miles and years of memory and into my expectations. A white house on a corner lot—brick fireplace on the east side. A bay window in the dining room, also facing east. Brick steps leading to the front door were embraced on each side by tall azalea bushes whose color blazed bright every spring. Five-foot-tall elephant ears once dwarfed the children in their shadows. Old-growth heirloom camellias, a hydrangea bush that blushed blue before summer’s heat dried its blossoms. Camphor trees with roots once dug for sassafras tea in the years ignorant of its toxins. Wood floors, polished to a reflective sheen. A swinging door gave passage from the kitchen to the dining room. An arch opened the living room to the dining room. An extra room off the kitchen and dining room had its windows long ago closed in. Its wall became shelves for hundreds of books. Windows throughout the house had separate panes of glass held in by wood painted bright white to mark the sections that let in light. A single bathroom for a family of six. A pile of leaves behind the garage composted and fed the abundance of worms just beneath the soil’s edge. A single-car garage on the side of the house stored a push mower with rotating blades, clippers for the azalea bushes, paint, tools, the things that make up a life—a home.
In the days preceding my journey there, I imagined pulling up and marveling at the yard and how small it would seem through adult eyes as opposed to child memories. I would have been courteous to the current occupants and grateful for any time they allowed me to observe and maybe even step upon and touch the ground on which my child feet once walked.
Possibility figured in my imagination—perhaps once again those wood floors would hold me up as I walked into the door, perhaps my eyes would look through the bay window and see as an adult as well as a child.
Google Maps could not find the location when I requested directions from my Central Florida home to those brick steps three hours north of me. I hadn’t lived there for fifty years. Maybe my memory had failed me on the exact address. The street was there and that was enough for me.
We exited I-95 and wound our way toward the neighborhood and nothing was familiar. The house on the first corner held no recognition for us. Once several blocks long, the street was short—only three blocks.
West of where the house and street should have been were massive piles of rubble—the remains of my childhood home. Stunned into mute grief, we continued to drive in the neighborhood. We found the cemetery we once used as a shortcut on our way to school. I scanned the grounds through the locked gates, and as I turned away for a moment, I saw a young man on the street. I called out to him, we spoke at length, and he confirmed what I already knew. Eighteen months earlier, the DOT razed the west end of the neighborhood for an I-95 exit.
So recent, yet so long ago. Time didn’t matter because gone is gone. I turned again to the cemetery. Entering a locked cemetery absent malicious intent didn’t seem wrong to me. I climbed through an open area in the fence. I explored the area alone, with reverence, respect, and silence. It was and is still a cemetery for Black people. In the years it was our path to school, the burial ground was overgrown and untended. It now has a sturdy fence and the locked gate discourages vandals. Grass grows around the graves. A paved road provides access. Flowers adorn many areas, and new graves are interspersed with old—some dating from the 1800s. New headstones stand near cracked and broken markers, some with dim letters that appear to have been etched by hand into unyielding stone.
|Do the old-growth live oaks miss the feet of children playing at their roots?|
I took that path to learning and I continue to learn. Part of what I’ve learned since my feet stepped on those grounds and since I was awed by the azalea bushes in the spring is gratitude. I am grateful for the years I spent in that house. I’m grateful that the cemetery is well tended, that the souls there rest undisturbed. I wonder, however, if the feet of children are missed by the ground and the old-growth oaks towering above miss the shenanigans and laughter.
What remains of my life on that street and all my childhood memories is a cemetery. As I processed the initial, stabbing grief of losing the home I knew and loved, I instead stepped lightly around another place of grief and loss and love.