At some point I fell in love with the fog that rises up on this hill. Then I fell in love with it again and yet again. The fog rises from the water along the bay where I am from so that many mornings you couldn't see a car a foot from you. Everything shrouded, moving as if we were each of us a ship sailing though open waters.
This house up on this hill, the same. It's the odd thing that has hooked and attached me to Tennessee. The Gulf Coast salt water girl in me realizing, ahhh, the fog, the wind. Like sisters of familiarity that wrap me close and help me to remember who I am. Not so far from things I've known.
Along the Gulf the wind is a constant on most days. Some light, some heavier but a constant that is not realized until it stops in the dead of summer. In dog days with heat lightning and a stillness that will weight down the steps of the youngest, strongest man. Otherwise it's constant. It has taken me awhile to understand my happiest days are when the wind hits the house on this hill with such force we take sail. It whistles and moans and the house breathes and we move along at the breakneck speed of nothing. But something in it sounds like the familiarity of home and it settles my soul in its whining.
This year in a desperate attempt to save Mom's Florida plants - great palms and rose bushes and gardenias and all manner of things I have no name for that were not planted in the ground (she the green thumb, mine the black) I had a friend nail up thick visquine around the porch. So thick it blocks the view. My favorite thing - gone. So now when we look out the living room windows we see a haze of plastic instead of trees etched against the sky, rolling off into the air, the ridge beyond. My mother finds it comforting I think. A flatlander at heart. It's a simply lovely grey and is more grounding. She has the most beautiful views from her bedroom windows. She keeps the curtains closed. This is a life-long battle of mine that I should soon forget, give up, it's over. Let's keep it cozy, she would say while I scream for light. Air. Freedom.
I would do good to live at sea.
The plastic. It had to be reinforced around the little porch top to bottom and to the side. It's where I'd made rescue Kevin's bed, blankets upon blankets by the chairs. A heating pad for freezing nights. His food bowls. Out of the cold and wind. He eyes the plastic suspiciously. I sat with him on the porch floor, my back against the wall as the great wind rolled up the hill and slammed into that visquine and filled it like a mighty sail, released it and then slammed and filled it up again. He rolled his eyes at me. It's ok boy, I said. We're just like a ship at sea. His doubt etched deep into his eyes. When I'm not there he sneaks down the stairs to the leaves on the side of the house, hunkered down into the certainty of the ground of Tennessee. No boats life for he.
The last two nights the coyotes have came calling. Down the hill in the direction of the old farm. It started up low and then quickly grew and then it seemed a hundred of them howling and calling. I rose from my Nyquil slumber having been hit with this dystopian wildfire flu that assails the country and hung my head out the window. I'm not much a party to screens for this reason. I fight those blasted bugs just because I long to lean, to see the moon, the branches etched against the ground in that strange light of night that remains a wonder - after all these years. Me still child like hanging out beneath the stars. And there they sang and then Kevin joined in but his song is a deeper one - a low lament because it sings, I am alone and I am alone, because that's the only song he knew before I brought him home.
He has other words, bear growls and grumbles that he uses when I pet him, stroke his fur. But these are different, these are at once, thank you and don't leave me and what took you so long to find me and you don't know the trouble I've seen and I've been so alone.
Because unlike Big Dog Titan who would wake and bark from inside the house when the coyotes started it up, he never had a human to wrap an arm around his big shoulder, pat his head and say, There, there boy, it'll be alright. It's just coyotes singing and soon the morning light. Now, let's go back to bed.
Tomorrow the meadow goes to auction, all one hundred seventeen acres of it. And I think the coyotes know. I think they sing a song of mourning, of moving on. Of change to come. Surely they feel it in their bones. They'll be searching for higher ground. Somewhere safe to live in shadow.
Like most of us. That song. That lament. Searching for home. For someone to say - there, there, it will be alright. Soon, so, very soon - morning light.
The sun is still lazing it's way through these Tennessee hills. Hasn't broken ground yet. The birds don't care. They are singing as if Spring has sprung. An old rooster crows from down in the little valley and it bounces right up to us. I thought I heard a donkey but that could be wishful thinking. They are good for something and good company. Donkeys stuffed and otherwise have been my friends.
Rescue Kevin says he doesn't need to come inside to shake off the midnight cold today. He is fine thank you in the drive waiting for the sunrise and I should join him. He takes a bone and digs a hole, hides, hides, hides, it with his nose shoveling dirt and leaves and rocks to nestle it. No other dogs can walk around the yard because he growls when they draw close to bones buried for a year. It's like an easter egg hunt but not.
Last night I dreamed of things that could have been. After all this time. But I was tired the night before, had cried a little at carrying on but carrying on we must. Realizing we get tired of our burdens but then we are only human and that a little rest, a little tea and all will be well. Or better. Or different. Or all of these things. I woke and looked out at the dark and went back to covers. Now the sun is promising to rise on a new day.
A sign went up down the road on a large piece of land. It will be sold at auction soon. The sign said in just one tract. It is the most beautiful little meadow that meanders along Little Marrowbone creek, a ridge rises up behind it and in the middle against the hill, a tiny, white house sits silent like a chapel. Although I can't see it from the hill this is my view, the air that rises up above it. Down in the valley is that meadow and that house. For years hay was baled and rolled and before that cattle roamed freely. Beautiful, majestic.
Once Big Dog Titan loped off and went missing. For a day and then a night and I was beside myself with worry bordering heartbreak panic. Then a phone call reached me at work where I'd been writing a million dollar grant for Nashville State and the phone rings. A woman asks -
Are you missing a dog?
I say, Yes, I am, I am.
And she says -
I think I have him. Is he real big, and white?
And I tell her, Yes, he is. And she says -
I'm sorry but he is so big I was afraid to reach under that big mouth to read his tag. We locked him up in the goat pen but this morning we saw he was friendly.
Friendly was an understatement.
She said we live in a little, white house. There's cows out front but just come through the gate and then on down the path they won't hurt you.
I told her I knew her place and passed it everyday and I'd be right there.
My Big Dog! Oh, happy, happy, joy, joy!
I stopped to open the gate and drove in and closed it behind me so the cows didn't get out. Then I drove across that field up to the little, tiny house nestled up against the ridge. A grandmother's house. A great-grandmothers house. From times gone by when people didn't need so much of everything.
The door was opened but the screen shut and there stood Big Dog, in the tiny house now. The woman met me at the door.
Well, I can see he's yours. (This after a Titan hug as only he could do) Then, come sit down. I am 74 and this is my mother she is 93 and it was just the two of us here so we didn't know what to do. That's when I locked him in the pen.
'But he ain't nothin' but a baby,' her Mama said. "And he likes chicken.'
When I figured out this morning he was friendly I brought him in.
'He likes collards, too,' her Mama said, "And Biscuits."
Big Dog took up half the little kitchen, was bigger than the Mama.
She smiled at him and said again, "He ain't nothin' but a baby."
After some time the cows were gone. The field was empty but every year it would be baled for hay. A truck would be parked and I wondered. About the woman, about the mother. Big Dog passed away last year and I think of him every time I drive pass that spot. (You can click to read his eulogy.) I need to stop and take a picture. Because things will change now. Someone will buy that tract and like everything else around here begin to dig up the ground, plow it under, pour concrete. It will be houses upon houses or multiple apartments. People will move into them. The noises down my hill that rise up from the valley will be different. And in due time that will be okay.
They will be good people with children who will play in their yards and whose voices I might hear until dark. Then they will go in at night and turn out their lights, maybe say a prayer or be thankful at least they have a roof, a place to lay their heads. They will grow up and grow old but they will never know they live on holy ground where once upon a time there had been cows and a little white house and an old, woman who'd fed a BIG White Dog biscuits from her table while they waited for his human to come carry him home.
On the backside of Father's Day I have to write about what was heavy on my heart yesterday. It was father's day and this is a photo of my father better known as my Daddy and my sons who knew him as Pawpaw. He sits on his boat which after 22 years in the Army (including twelve years in Airborne) was the best place to be. Those cocky little kids on the boat were the best present I ever gave him.
All of our growing up years on Panama City Beach were spent making weekly pilgrimages a stones throw back up in the woods to Holmes creek. This eight acre little spread was down on the water lined with Cypress. The creek was filled with fish, nested by long legged herons and swamped enough to hold a few alligators. It was the beating of my Daddy's heart. And, now - it's gone.
This property has been in the family for generations. My great-grandaddy pulled the ferry across the creek with his old horse, Maude. Back then the creek was just slightly wider and cars would ferry on and ferry off. Years later my daddy as a young man would be one of the first on the crew that built the first bridge that went across. My young years were spent exploring the creek and like every kid and cousin for miles around hanging out under the bridge was a part of that ritual into adulthood. We read the names scratched underneath. Who hearted who. Years of graduation. Simple things. No F-bombs. Nothing crude, lewd or something you'd find in a bar at 2 am. Just kids being kids. The ground underneath the bridge was filled with piles of sandbags filled with cement that had solidified into a thing of it's own. This mound. Which is where we sat listening to the rare car coming a long way off and then thump, thump, thump as they slowly crossed the bridge checking the water.
Checking the water has been a part of that ritual of growing up. Is it high? Getting higher? Reaching flood level? Is it low? Are the fish biting? If they are - what's biting? Catfish, shellcrackers, mullet? What you usin' to catch'em?
When I was a little girl this tiny place was an actual working farm-ish. There were plenty of chickens, a big pig that always had little pigs back in the pen, a horse named Maude (still alive) and a barn we called the corn crib. There were barn cats which meant barn kittens that were beautiful and ferrel and meant to be mouser's not cuddle cats. ON more than one occasion we caught one and took it home to our house where they learned not all cats are born to be barn cats. It's where my sister had a little horse, where old Maude went wild one day with me riding her bareback, where family reunions were held down by the water but where ever day was a reunion. It's where Memaw worked hard and then watched her stories then we would all take a nap with the box fans in the window cooling us in the heat of the day.
Our Memaw cooked three meals a day the old fashioned way. That means with a stove. Her's being gas and an oven that turned out seven layer peanut butter cakes that we would fight for. The supper meant fried chicken and peas, fresh corn, and cornbread. Or fish caught that day from the multitude of folks that paid to launch their boats. When my great-grandaddy was alive he had a few boats he rented out for the day. The last chore of the evening of his was to bail those boats out and pull them to the shore.
My Daddy was raised here, in this place. My sister and I also. My sons, her children. My grandchildren have visited, played in the creek, listened to the stories. All of them. Of the Christmases past and of old lying Uncle Eddie Lewis and of so many silly wonderful simple days.
I once asked my Daddy where of all the places he'd been in his Army days was the best of all of them. Without hesitation he said - right here - with a grin that was his trademark. He was serious. If a person can be a place itself then Daddy was the creek.
As we got older a slew of teenage friends went with us spring, summer, fall to paddle the creek. Kids swam near the bank and we hang out in this paradise that we took for granted because it always had been and therefore always would be.
When Daddy died there was a comfort in knowing that as long as we had the creek, we had him. That somehow having the creek tied us to the past of every good thing. It was our north star and our touchstone. Our taproot. it tethered us to our lives and to each other.
But times, they do change. Old people die. Sometimes way too soon and too young. The Corn crib barn fell to ruin eventually. There hadn't been a hog in the hog-pen for twenty, maybe thirty years. Maude died finally before Grandaddy Skipper. Memaw passed away. The little house that had housed a multitude and fed an army every week got older and tired like people do. Even though it was propped up and nailed and had a new tin roof, it still leaked and sagged. It was ready I think to give up the ghost.
We have a few photos that all belong in a big immortal album but they are yet to be collected. Of us growing up and then our children posing down by the water or running across the sandy yard in a game of something born straight out of imagination. The photos that are missing are ones that are still in my heart. The time my sister and I were on the boat with Daddy, fishing just there at the edge of the bank on a quiet summer day. The dragonflies flitting at the waters edge. The wind stirring the surface so that I'd lift up my pole, check my hook, plop the red cork back down. Daddy would say - It's just the wind, not a bite - but I couldn't tell the difference. I was more aware of the song of the cicadas, the sun on my shoulders, the sound of my mother a lullybye softly as rocked one of the baby's to sleep, the melody but not the words lilting and finding their way to our ears.
I once told my mom we could tear it down and build something new. Maybe just put a little trailer there. She said that she wouldn't even want to be there anymore without the house there. It wouldn't feel the same.
Last night I dreamed of I was driving in storms, lost and trying desperately to find my way home. I finally pulled over and asked someone to help me. "I have to get to North Florida," I told them. When I woke I understood. My crush and longing from yesterday filtering into my dreams.
The creek was sold last week to a lovely family. Word is they are distant relatives, that somehow if this is actually possible their people owned the creek before our people did and then the families married and so on. I hope this is true. It helps take the sting out of the heartbreak.
It was time. It had to be done. But as much as my sister and I, my sons, my niece and nephew and kept a stiff upper lip - I'm afraid we've come undone. At least for Daddy Day. Maybe this week we'll all get back on track. I hope so. There's things to be done.
As a writer I know that all our memories have not disappeared but will now cross over into the place of myth. Where the power of story grows stronger with each passing year. Nothing can take away this from us. Our stories are ours to tell and tell well. It's the way legend's are born and men like my Daddy live forever.
Once upon a time there once was a Creek - and that story is never-ending.
But if you happen to be out for a drive in North Florida and find that you've wandered your way back up in the woods, turn down Miller's Ferry Road and drive till you come to a bridge - you'll know the one. When you cross please do us a favor, slow down to a crawl, roll down your window and check the water. Honk the horn twice to let folks know you've arrived. That you are crossing that bridge, making your way home.
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