SURPRISINGLY, THE FRIED CHICKEN IS NOT MY DOMINANT MEMORY
* * *
I'm just gonna jump straight into the deep end and tell you something that I believe with everything in me.
I hope it's not controversial. But I need to say it.
Google Maps is a wonder, y'all.
Because for the last ten minutes, I've been wandering up and down the road where I grew up in Myrtlewood, Mississippi. I happen to be sitting in a room off of my kitchen right here in Birmingham, Alabama, mind you, but thanks to my computer and the interwebs and some Wi-Fi hot spot web-based video technology (clearly I am well versed in technical language), I've been standing in front of Mama and Daddy's old house. Looking around. Taking it in. Wondering what happened to all the pine trees that towered over the backyard and provided some shade when I would perform my elaborate gymnastics routines.
(Please know that when I say elaborate, what I really mean is "two front somersaults and a cartwheel.")
For the most part, the house looks like it always has. There's still a front porch that wasn't quite as deep as what Mama had wanted when they built the house back in the early sixties, and I can't help but smile when I see the three newel posts that weren't as substantial as Mama would have liked.
That porch was an ongoing source of frustration—at least twice a year Mama wanted to rip the roof off of it and start over. I think she had visions of a sweeping Southern facade: something that would be Southern Living cover-worthy, something that would easily accommodate four or five full-size rocking chairs. However, Mama and Daddy's construction budget dictated otherwise. And as a child of the Depression, Mama learned early on that there was always a way to do a lot with a little, so she made the best of it. She'd line that porch with her gorgeous asparagus ferns, add a few throw pillows to the deacon's bench, and make sure there was something pretty blooming right by the front door.
It's a Southern woman's unspoken motto, really: When life gives you imperfect porch proportions, accessorize, accessorize, accessorize.
* * *
It was 1963 when my parents found the land where they'd eventually build their house. I don't remember one thing about that time because, well, I wasn't alive, but Sister has filled me in on most of the details. Mama and Daddy paid cash for twelve acres on a dirt road (I know it sounds like I'm writing a country song, but bear with me), and after Daddy decided that he'd work as his own contractor to save on construction costs, they drew up plans for their own little parcel of paradise.
According to Sister, building the house was all manner of lively. Daddy salvaged some bricks from an old house across the road—he and Mama wanted to use them for the fireplace—but unfortunately the gentleman who actually built the fireplace liked to have a beer or nine as he worked. The chimney, which was on the back of the house, ended up being too short, a fact that annoyed Mama to no end since she'd wanted the chimney to be visible from the front yard. There was also an issue with the chimney's craftsmanship: it never drew smoke correctly, so smoke would back up into the den on occasion, and really, what good is a fire in the fireplace if you have to open all the windows to ensure proper ventilation?
Granted, Mama wanted her guests to be warm, but she certainly didn't want them to suffer from smoke inhalation.
In some ways, though, the house was ahead of its time. It was one of the first all-electric houses in the area, and Mama's kitchen featured Coppertone-brown appliances that were all the rage in the sixties and seventies. Since Mama has always loved to decorate, she took charge of the finishes and trims, too. She bedecked the master bath with turquoise and light blue tile and selected a more minimalist black and white tile in the kids' bath. She elected to use a good-quality wood for her closets, baseboards, windows, and door frames, so there wasn't an inch of painted wood anywhere in the house. Once the house was finished and all of her furniture was in place, she'd managed to achieve a bit of Danish flair right there in the piney woods of central Mississippi.
Exactly where you'd expect to find it, right?
* * *
By the time I was old enough to have any awareness at all about where I lived, Mama, Daddy, Sister, and Brother had been in the "new" house for almost a decade. They'd shifted and adjusted to make room for me, so Sister and I shared the master bedroom for a few years while Mama and Daddy took up residence in a smaller bedroom at the front of the house. I thought all five-year-olds got to have a bathroom adjacent to their rooms, and it wasn't until I was much older that I realized how Mama and Daddy had sacrificed their space for us.
Life in the house that my parents built wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. There were tensions and arguments and resentments. Sister and I both would tell you that we cried more tears in that house than we have in any place since (teenage drama is hard, y'all). And—just in case you've forgotten—please let me remind you that MAMA WAS UNHAPPY WITH THE PROPORTIONS OF THE FRONT PORCH.
Real problems. We had 'em.
But we also had something else: stability. Daddy faithfully went to work every morning, and even though he never said a word about it, we all knew that he excelled at his job. Mama stayed home and worked just as hard in our house. The two of them shuttled kids to piano lessons and ball games and dance lessons and cheerleading practices and 4-H meetings. They put three kids through college, paid off their house, and tirelessly served their church and their community.
I don't recall a single time when they lectured us about responsibility.
But they didn't have to.
Their actions preached that sermon just fine.
* * *
When I type in Mama and Daddy's old address on "the Google," as Mama calls it, the street view puts me smack-dab in the middle of an intersection about a mile from the house itself. I've traveled through that intersection thousands of times—to the point that I have all of its options memorized.
If I go east, I'll pass the Pak-A-Sak (site of many an orange slushie when I was a little girl), the swim club where I spent countless summer days (in this case, "swim club" is really just another way of saying "affordable swimming pool option located on the edge of someone's woods"), and the big Victorian house that belonged to the Yarbroughs and then the Hollands. Sister and Barry's wedding reception was there, as was my bridal luncheon. And if I keep moving past the Hollands' old house, I'll eventually pass the street where my friend Amanda lived, the turn that leads to my elementary school, and the Baptist church where our next-door neighbors were members. I went to VBS at that church from first through sixth grade. That's why I can't look at the steeple without thinking of Bible drills and strawberry Kool-Aid.
If I go north, I'll see every house and landmark I passed on the way to Aunt Choxie and Uncle Joe's or to my high school or to the Winn-Dixie where Mama often sent me to buy some grocery item she'd forgotten. Since that way led to most of my friends' houses, it was the road I traveled more than any other once I started driving. There's not an unfamiliar turn or curve; even now I'm almost certain that you could spin me around ten times, put me in the driver's seat, and I'd be able to drive it blindfolded. That road led to Methodist Youth Fellowship on Sunday nights when I was in high school, and a few years later, I followed it all the way out to Highway 45, where I turned left and drove to Starkville for college. In so many ways it was the path to independence. The fact that it ran straight by my favorite fried chicken place didn't hurt one bit either.
(Sometimes I would visit the drive-thru for a little of that fried chicken before I'd start the journey back to Starkville.)
(It was my little pre-travel secret.)
(Except for the fact that if you'd scrutinized my freshman year weight gain, you would have eventually said, "I believe she's consuming more than her fair share of fried chicken.")
If I click south at that intersection, I'll dead-end at the building where my friend Kimberly and I used to take aerobics classes back when people wore leotards and leg warmers. Turn left, and I'll eventually end up at my friend Ricky's old house, which was where we did a whole lot of laughing and SNL watching in high school. Ricky's house was on the way to one of Myrtlewood's main thoroughfares, which just so happened to be the place where teenagers used to cruise up to the Sonic and back down to McDonald's on Friday and Saturday nights. I hated everything about that particular teenage ritual—mainly because the whole exercise seemed pointless to me: a waste of gas and a waste of time. Mamaw here would have rather stayed home and watched Fantasy Island reruns.
Head west, and well, that's the road that used to take me home. I'll pass the country store where I'd buy a copy of Jackson's Clarion-Ledger in the mornings so I could read whatever Rick Cleveland and Orley Hood had written about life and sports in Mississippi. I'll see the subdivision where the Haleys and the Cades used to live; we carpooled to dance lessons for a year or two, and Mrs. Haley, who had a wonderful, deep, almost-baritone voice, wore so much gardenia perfume that I developed a lifelong aversion to it.
If I continue to click my way down Pine Tree Road, I'll start to see the houses that are etched in my memory not so much for their architecture but because of the families who lived inside them: the Snowdens, the Hursts, the Gwaltneys, the Lloyds, the Saxons, the Walkers, the Bonds. I don't remember a time when I didn't know their names, when I didn't overhear Mama and Daddy talking about this person's mother passing away or that person's sister finding a new job or somebody else's son getting a scholarship to college.
That road spans the gap of most of the joys and heartaches of my childhood; it's a road that was paved with casseroles and pies and progressive dinners, a road with an extensive collection of CorningWare and Pyrex—all carefully labeled with masking tape, a name, and a five-digit telephone number. It's a road where most of the houses had a vegetable garden in the back, where neighbors swapped recipes for squash pickles and bread-and-butter pickles and pickled okra. It's a road where I shelled peas and dodged traffic on my bike and carried on long conversations about everything and nothing over the fence that separated our house from the Easoms'.
It's just a road. But it's so much more. Because it was home.
* * *
I haven't lived in that red brick house in more than twenty-five years; it has probably been five years since I've even driven past it. So I guess I expected that clicking my way down Pine Tree Road on Google Maps—and clicking to see the house where I grew up—would fill me with all sorts of nostalgia. I thought that it would prompt me to think back on all the funny and hard and awkward moments that I associate with my childhood home. I imagined I'd get to the point where the house was front and center on my computer screen, and I'd reflect long and hard about The Mistakes I Made, The Drama I Created, The Times I Cried, The Lessons I Learned.
I thought that, given our history, the house and I would have ourselves a moment. Courtesy of Google and Apple and the worldwide interweb.
But the house and I didn't really have a moment at all. Oh, the house was special—no doubt. It was special because it was ours. It was special because I grew up there. I can see so many lessons just from the way Mama and Daddy took care of those twelve acres; over the course of our time there, they remodeled, they added on, they reroofed, they painted. They raked, they mowed, they tended, they watered, they pruned, and they weeded. They figured out what was broken. They fixed it.
And Lord knows that they planted and they sowed.
But the Google Maps, as it turned out, taught me something that I wasn't really expecting.
The house is significant, yes. But really, it's only part of the story.
Because what flat-out captivates me is the road.