December 31, 2002, as the oldest grandchild and therefore more loved than deserved, I took my grandmother, Cescile Turner Harris, to visit the house she grew up in. We took her car; I drove, she navigated. We moved down a labyrinth of Nash County, NC roads that cut through the very heart of tobacco country. The old ways stretched out before us. Wooden, shingle-covered tobacco barns wrapped in kudzu collapsed eternally behind sturdy brick houses built during the 50s boom-time. Beside these were the aluminum bulk barns, technological wonder of my childhood, long, industrial, no fear of late-night gas fire, no dizzying wooden rafters, they even smell different. We cruised these old roads like poling through a system of blackwater tributaries; the Tar River, baptismal of generations of Harris and Turner ancestors, flowed constantly to our right - bridge - to our left.
She showed me the schoolhouse, abandoned, unlabelled and broken-windowed. There was a small highway plaque indicating the site of this old school. We wound slowly down one last road, passing a string of barns where the men, migrants from so far north or south they seemed foreign in the Thirties, during the Depression which is never named, would leer at the schoolgirls walking home from school, already warned by parents and preachers, already buzzing with alert to potential of evil, as if passing the home of a particularly vicious dog.
We pulled into the driveway, which recklessly ran the edge of an empty field. The sky was January gray and cold and since it had rained yesterday, the brutal red clay clung to everything. The house had not been occupied. Years ago, it had housed a giant family, my family, 12 kids and two orphaned cousins, no dad for much of that time. What I didn't realize was that this is the first time my grandmother had been back here in many decades, perhaps longer than my 32 years. She guided me to the windows, pointed out kitchens, fireplaces where this giant family would gather for warmth, bedrooms shared by more kids than some current daycare centers. I tried the front porch; it fell through at my first step. There would be no going in.
We stood in the cold, unwilling to leave. Grandma, knowing instinctually my love for secret places, pointed the way to the hidden path to the Indian graveyard. I wonder when the last time anyone saw that place. She pointed to the creek where the will'o'wisp once fluttered in the ghostly nights and the catamounts once howled. We turned the Oldsmobile around to leave.
That's when I got us stuck. Red clay hates trespass. It grabbed the car by the back tires. I spun and spun, all to no avail. I pushed, I gunned. Nothing. Grandma once again, for the milionth time in my too-short time with her, proved the kindest, most patient woman ever born. She waited while I went next-door, to the house with the pit bulls and the fighting cocks. I flagged down a man on a tractor (just riding around, I guess), who gladly pulled up and dragged us out of the mire. Grandma tried, unsuccessfully, to give him money.
After, we went to the car wash where I destroyed the evidence. Mounds of clay fell from the wheel base, I scrubbed and scrubbed as the light faded. We agreed not to tell anyone, this was our secret; she didn't want anyone to worry, I didn't need the embarrassment. We swore an oath.
Why am I breaking this oath now? Maybe I'm bad with secrets? Maybe I need to occasionally snap out of my self-imposed orphanage and acknowledge a wonderful and rich family life? Because I want to prove I love my grandmother? I love her. I love her. I love her.
Mostly, I'm thinking of Rich and his grandmother's death. It hurts me, makes me want to fix something.
I want to use this family secret to remind myself, remind you that none of this happens without Rich Buchanan's time, patience and vision. I only hope happyrobot makes him as proud as it makes me happy. My wish is that one day, maybe today, a generation of writers;a little younger, a little more talented;are reading these follies, dalliances, scribbles, and confessions and finding a voice of their own, a voice that goes out and changes the whole country. And that Rich will be known as the man that started it all. That would be worth a broken oath, another secret slipped from the never-ending tongue of the Internet.