Going Down Home Timeline

May 2018 Third trip Down Home

July 2015 Second trip Down Home

October 2014 First trip Down Home

July 2013 to October 2014 Online research and interviews

July 2013 23andme results received

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

plantation houses

There is the process of going home, and the process of letting go of the idea of ever being able to go home again.  The letting go is easier when the house becomes less desirable -- through ruin, redesign or reputation. 
The first time I wrote about my childhood home was in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments in 2011.  A year later, I saw the house for the first time since it was sold in the fall of 2004, five months after my mother died.  It was occupied in 2012, but leased.  The buyer who purchased it from my mother’s estate had moved away. 
This month I saw it again -- once in late afternoon light, a second time in morning rain. Ten years after buying it, and making surprising, large structural changes in some parts of the property and almost no changes in others, the owner has put it on the market.
The lawn looked parched and the unoccupied house, lifeless.  The 35 online photos posted by the realtor showcase an empty house where first floor period decorating has been cobbled together with a finished attic that looks like an Ikea ad.  The only change that appeals to me is the use of a warm cocoa paint in the foyer, oddly similar to the original shade my mother chose for the entire downstairs in 1952.
The house that was so long Home to me was not a plantation house.  No crops were grown in the subdivision.  It was a make-believe post-war plantation house, one that incorporated white columns to suggest a storied past.  Now it has that, and the stories are sad.
Yesterday I read Derek Walcott’s poem, “Ruins of a Great House.” 
It seems that the original crops were limes, he writes, Grown in the silt that clogs the river’s skirt;/ The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone/The river flows, obliterating hurt.”
Decay overtakes institutions that were once powerful, in St. Lucia and in small towns in western Pennsylvania.  My childhood home has not fallen into physical ruin, and its institutional power was limited to a small, nuclear family. 
But there is some familiar sense of the tragic attached to that empty house.  My parents’ dreams were the original crop, grown in fertile discontent and escapism. 
The original house reflected my mother’s Southern roots, her fantasy attachment to a lifestyle she had never lived down home in Washington County, North Carolina.  (Well, maybe there had been a few imperious rakes.)
The house is a clash of dreams: built to evoke plantation on three lots in the North; altered by its current owner to insert modernity where it seems least needed; designed and redesigned for hospitality, but uninhabited, ghostly, and a place you don’t go back to. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Home, remembered and revisited

I've been traveling since the last post -- out to Minnesota for a week for my daughter's wedding, then back home to Philadelphia.

There is never just one home.  My daughter grew up in Wisconsin, which was once Home.  Then I moved back to Pennsylvania, my home state, and even though she remained in the Midwest, she referred to her visits to Philly as "coming home."

She has been comfortably at home in St. Paul and Minneapolis, but soon Home will be an apartment with her new husband in a new city.  Only two hours away from me, now there will be weekends when she visits.  She will probably call it Going Home to visit Mom.

I was only a few months old when my mother took me down home for the first time. That's my grandfather, Ben Snell, holding me, the second born of his grandchildren.

The last time I'd go down home to the farm on Mill Pond Road, I'd be 18, a college freshman who was trying to carry an impossible academic load, partying too much, caught between grandiose, manic ideas about what I could accomplish and the gravitational pull of freedom.  There is no picture from that visit.

In the 17 years in between, there were visits to the farm in tandem with Outer Banks beach vacations.  To me, they were visits to relatives, but not a homecoming, even though I'd been going there since infancy.

The house where I grew up in western Pennsylvania was sold in 2004.  The house in the picture above was torn down long before that.  They are places that no longer exist as they were, except in pictures and, less reliably, in memory.  They are no longer Home.

I'm not sure what I'll find when I travel to North Carolina.  Landscapes that may or may not look familiar.  Graves.  Documents.  People who know things I don't know.

This week I learned that there is a 93 year-old relative with a sharp memory still living in the area that was my mother's Down Home.  I am hoping that bits of my family history reside in her mind, that somewhere in that trip, there will be a kind of homecoming of memory.