My Piece of the South
I want to tell you a love story. It's about a husband and a wife, the wish they held for their daughter, and the home that they all loved as much as each other. My father, Allan, one of 10 children, started out life unimaginably poor on a hardscrabble piece of ground in West Tennessee. My mother's beginnings were equally meager, growing up in the shadow of the Smokies in East Tennessee.
They met during World War II, when my father was building the bomb in Oak Ridge, and my mother, Emily Kay, was working in retail in Knoxville. She was exquisitely poised and beautiful. He was elegant and movie star handsome. Their attraction was instant.
During the war, my mother moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to represent the Revlon line at an exclusive women's dress shop. My father, smitten, followed her there. They lived in separate rooming houses downtown. In 1947, they married, and shortly afterward, began looking for an apartment. On a Sunday drive, they meandered through Cherokee Park, laid out in 1891 by the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted. At the "poor end of the street," as my mother liked to say, they happened upon a stunning 5,000-square-foot Southern brick Colonial that had just been constructed.
The home's architect, Edgar Archer, had designed and built a number of government and commercial buildings throughout the state. The Alta Vista Road property, his private residence, was his crowning achievement. He fashioned a stained glass fan over the door, installed copper gutters and downspouts, and filled the home with Italianate tile and chandeliers to please his wife, Marguerite, who hailed from the old country. As a final touch, he added a pink marble fireplace in the basement.
To my mother, the house represented everything she had ever aspired to in life, or ever would. It was the stuff of fantasy.
"I'm going to live there one day," she said, pointing to the home that was wildly beyond any budget that she and her new husband could ever hope to have. My father never forgot it, and 16 years later, the day Archer's widow put the house on the market, my father bought it.
It was his ultimate Valentine to my mother. He tilled four brick-lined rose beds in the sprawling, manicured back lawn (nearly 2 acres) so he might present her with fresh flowers on summer mornings.
And there was another reason he bought it. I had just turned 13 and was intent on building a career as a journalist and biographer.
"I wanted this house," he later told me, "because I thought it would prepare you for anything you wanted to do, anywhere in this world."
In time, we all flourished at Rabbit's Run, so named for the plethora of bunnies that populate the property. My parents loved it so much that they hoped they would die there. After that, the house would go to me. My older sister, Gale, was grown, married, living in Massachusetts, and had never lived in the house. She had no interest in sweating out the steamy Southern summers. Rabbit's Run, then, was my legacy. My way to honor my family. My piece of the South.
And while my parents both had intense pride in our home, we all felt as if we were merely guardians of a fine property that somehow we had been chosen to enjoy, but above all, take care of and preserve to the best of our ability.
Working with a contractor, my father, a real estate agent and appraiser, designed a grand new porch and facade for the house, bringing Corinthian columns in from Pittsburgh by train. He also designed a wooden railing and boxes for the sunporch roof; planted hollies on each side to frame his creation; and, with a helper, built a large toolshed at the back of the property.
"It takes a heap o'livin' in a house t' make it home," poet Edgar A. Guest mused. And together, we did just that, gathering in the living room each Christmas; meeting in the kitchen where my mother made iron skillet cornbread every night; gazing at the back lawn, where my father took neighbor kids on wagon rides; and fixing up the basement where my rock-and-roll band threatened the foundation and rattled my mother upstairs.
It was here, too, that we celebrated birthdays with banana pudding, helped each other through disappointments and illnesses, and mourned the dogs and cats now buried in the yard. We all cried when my father, mowing the lawn, accidentally ran over a rabbit's nest and had tears streaming down his face as he carried a tiny bunny into the house in a vain attempt to save it.
Yet as my parents aged, the house and yard were not well maintained. One evening, seeing what a burden the house had become for them, I went to my father, sitting in his olive leather chair in the den.
"Pop, why don't you sell this house? You've had it 40 years now."
His face became a sorrowful mask. "It would kill your mother to lose this house."
I went to Mom. "No, sir!" she said emphatically. "It would kill your father to lose this house."
Later that night, Pop came into the kitchen, where I sat hunched over my laptop. He stood at the sink and drew a tepid glass of water. "Alanna," he said, turning to me. "This will always be your home."
In 2005, my father passed away at age 88 of cancer. That morning, EMS came to transport him to the hospital. Just as they shut the ambulance doors, he waved good-bye to Rabbit's Run. And broke my heart.
Mom followed five years later, after a fall at 86. I brought her home from the hospital so she could die at home as she wished. I climbed on the bed and held her as she breathed her last, and I dauntingly thought of my inheritance: "Now the house falls to me. It is my honor to protect it."
And so I am knee-deep in repairs. I have replaced the roof, waterproofed the basement, painted the exterior, cut down the leaning trees, re-bricked the sidewalk, and (after thieves stole the copper downspouts) put in a sophisticated security system. And with the help of a remarkable father-son team, Danny and Evan Riggs, replaced the rotted exterior wood (without getting new windows) and reconstructed the ornate wooden fence on the side porch.
But there is still so much to be done. In the kitchen, where sad brown linoleum peels from the floor, the year is 1963. In the basement, my drum set yearns to be played, the radon measures off the charts, and the plaster cracks and groans. There is no central air. Bats live behind the shutters. The termites have leveled my father's toolshed. And only one of his romantic roses comes up each spring.
My well-meaning friends pummel me to sell, mostly because I have nearly exhausted my funds. They do not understand that living here, albeit with full restoration, is my dream, too, and not just my parents'. I make myself sick with worry. About the bills. About letting my parents down. About giving up my home, my corner of the Southland.
I am often out of town for work, and when I come back to the house, it is with both relief and dread. Sometimes I think I smell my mother's vegetable soup simmering on the stove, or the perfume from ancient bottles on her dressing table. My father's leather work boots poke out from his closet. I tear up at the sight of the "Get Milk" note in his handwriting. I finger the frayed collar of our last pet, and blow the dust off the bed where I once felt safe and free of adult worries. Long-dead relatives peer out from tarnished silver frames.
I remember visiting my favorite aunt in the nursing home after Mom died. "Oh, Alanna," she said, "promise me you won't sell the house."
But now, six years after Mom's death, it does increasingly feel more like a house than a home.
John Ed Pearce, the late writer I was proud to call a friend, once pondered this subject. "Home is part place, part memory," he wrote. "We leave bits of our lives in it, and when it goes, a part of us goes with it."
Recently, on vacation in the piney Northwoods of Wisconsin, I made up my mind to put it on the market. My sister is now widowed and disabled and needs her inheritance too. I am wrong to deny her.
At the airport gate, on the second leg of my flight home, I recognized our next-door neighbor of long ago. "How are you?" she asked. "And the house? I know you're still in it, because your dad told me it would always stay in the family."
I sank, then swelled with pride.
That night, I used my father's key, worn smooth. I pushed open the front door, and a vague, musty smell rose up to greet me. On the side porch, I saw my mother beating me at Scrabble; in the room over the garage, I found my father practicing classical guitar; in the garage (where my sled still hangs), I saw my sister, home for a visit at the time, as she puttied and sanded the big wooden doors; and in the dining room, I found my 14-year-old self curled up on the floor, poring through Bruce Catton's Civil War tomes and tracing the face of Lincoln.
I heard my father's voice. "Did you remember to turn on the back lights?"
I walked outside and achingly took another look.
"How," I asked myself, "can I ever give this up?"