The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Last Visit

By James Manley © 1989

Issue: October, 1989

The other day I drove out to see the family house. It's a crumbling brick facade now, a dark red, two-story building stooped and sagging in the center of a weed-cluttered lot. Most people probably view it as an eyesore on the landscape, but I see a tried and true friend when I visit that grand old house.

During my school years I owned a part of it, a lofty upstairs room I joyously shared with large wall posters of Johnny Mack Brown and The Durango Kid, and later, glamour beauties Jane Russell and Brigitte Bardot. It wasn't the neatest room in the house, thanks to my collection of rocks, glassed spiders, wall banners, comic books, records, miniature space rockets, baseball paraphernalia, and miscellaneous doo-dads of monumental importance, but it was easily the most comfortably place in all the universe.

A room of similar size belonged to my sister, who made it her life's work to never let me forget she was two years older than I was. Sis kept her room neat as a pin, primarily to justify snickering at me, and she could spend hours in it primping for a date. In fact, her seventeenth summer was one of my most puzzling experiences, especially those times I spent sitting on the couch trying to make conversation with some boy daffy enough to wait for her to come bouncing down the stairs so he could whisk her off somewhere and squander money on her. Of course, all that was before Dora Lee Huddleston came to one of Sis's slumber parties in a fuzzy pink sweater and a Lana Turner hairdo, and I began to realize that now and then ugly ducklings do turn into beautiful swans.

The downstairs bedroom was sort of semi-forbidden. It belonged to Mom and Dad, and Sis and I rarely ventured there. A majestic room with hand-woven rugs on a polished wooden floor, it always smelled of window cleaner and freshly laundered linen. We nicknamed it "The Zoo" because five generations of our family were displayed in dozens of pictures and tintypes hanging on the walls. My favorite was an 8x10 of my double great-grandmother sitting on the open seat of a Conestoga wagon in a flower print dress with a Sharp's buffalo rifle lying across her lap. Mom had a few pieces of that gun in a mahogany hope chest in one of her closets, back behind a cluster of crisply starched dresses and a rack of highly polished shoes.

The kitchen was just about everybody's favorite place. There was fried chicken every Sunday, fresh milk and baked cookies on Saturday evenings, and personal breakfasts on school days, which usually meant Amos and Andy's Cream of Wheat for Sis and The Lone Ranger's Cheerios for me. Dad was a pancake man, and Mom favored French toast. But always without exception, there were at least two different flavors of homemade marmalade on the table and a big batch of oven brown biscuits so light and fluffy the President of the United States would have made them a national treasure if ever he had eaten one. Even today, a warm wind riding up out of the past can water my eyes with the pungent smells that once filled that comfortable little kitchen.

The living room was the centerpiece of all our lives, and to say the least, it certainly was lived in. Mom's cats thought they owned it. My dog was pretty sure he didn't. And many's the evening we shared it together, each of us comfortably secure in our personal, staked-out areas: Dad relaxed in his big chair, his face completely hidden while he read the newspaper; Mom sitting on the couch, sewing or knitting; Sis sprawled out on the floor on her stomach, silently mewling over some duck-tailed heartthrob in the latest movie magazine; and me sitting cross-legged on the other end of the couch, deeply engrossed in a Superman comic book while surreptitiously munching on a smuggled biscuit.

But come seven o'clock, we all gravitated to the big Philco and stared hypnotically at the glowing orange dial while Red Skeleton tickled us with his buffoonery, "Inner Sanctum" goose-pimpled our spines, and "Your Hit Parade" got Mom and Dad to smiling affectionately at one another.

But it took all the rooms to make that place a house, just as it took everyone in the house to make us all a family. And somehow, even in the mist of all my growing up, I understood that bonds were being tied. Perhaps that's why, in my wandering years, I discovered that all roads eventually led to that house. In fact, there were times when I could hear it calling, pulling me back for one more look at the home that built a man.

Sure, today it's an empty two-story building, a futureless shell hollowed out by progress and neglect. Businessmen say it's a blot on the horizon, an inanimate obstacle in the way of a concrete parking lot, and maybe that's true. But once upon a time that marvelous old house was alive, brimming with laughter and warmth and comfort. It had a great big heart and long, long arms - arms that were always open to me.