Being back home after being gone for months really puts things into perspective for me. My hometown of Chattanooga is a charming, quant river town nestled in the mountains of Southeastern Tennessee. There is no place like it on earth for me but it is after all simply a location. The sights, sounds, and smells of a place remain the same and are a familiar charm, but it’s the people that really make it a home to come back to. Like a hollow shell with no substance, a location is just a place, neutral and indifferent. It’s the people in your life, the family, friends, and loved ones who infuse a place with meaning, purpose, and color, and whose memories you can draw back upon for nourishment.
Being alone in a faraway city for months, you can lose sight of what’s important while chasing the allure of new places and adventure. I have felt caught up in the charm of travel and reconnecting with nature, but reconnecting with the people I love has shown me that they really are the foundation for my life. Distance has the advantage of granting us new perspective of our circumstance, like panning back and seeing the bigger picture where before there may have just been indistinct shapes and colors. A larger, coherent picture forms that shows me what’s truly important and I can’t help but feel grateful.
I am reminded of the importance of love. All of these other things I am chasing in new places are secondary to love. Nothing else even comes close. I acknowledged this simple truth this week as I visited with people I love, who I have formed bonds with over the years through blood, love, and sheer serendipity. While I am intoxicated by the allure of travel, I know that none of this means anything at all without a foundation of love and people to call home. I am filled with a newfound appreciation for the people in my life after being away. Their warm touch and their cherished smiles have a new light about them and I know how fortunate I am, even to have a single person say I love you.
This is going to sounds cheesy, but the family got together this Sunday and after talking and eating, we got together in my grandmother’s den to watch old home footage and reminisce. We went through a series of old birthday footage from when my cousins and I were kids and we snickered and laughed as we basked in the nostalgia of what seemed like a simpler time. Then we came to some footage that struck me with a profound sense of nostalgia but also curious fascination.
Back in the mid-90s, when my great grandmother (1905-2004) was still alive, my uncle had walked through her old home and recorded each room for us to remember. My late great-grandmother was also in the footage, and would occasionally walk through the house and talk about meaningful memories and her antique pieces of furniture that she had collected over several decades. Her old home was on the corner of a neighborhood in a small town in East Tennessee called Sweetwater. If you ever imagined a classic, Americana neighborhood of the 1950s, this was it. The home and the neighborhood seemed out of place in the modern world. Like some ethereal relic from a lost age. My great-grandmother’s home exemplified a classic, Southern, warm pie cooling in the window charm. It stood as a physical ode to a simpler time perhaps, or a different time for sure.
My late great-grandfather had purchased the home in 1917. He married my great-grandmother and moved her in in the late 1920s. When my uncle recorded the footage of the home in the mid-90s, my great-grandmother had lived in that house for nearly 70 years! It’s crazy to think about. I remember visiting with her when I was younger and going through the house guided by the curiosity of a young child. I found the house fascinating! The creaky steep steps leading down to the cold basement with all the funny smells, the plethora of delicious foods being prepared in the kitchen, the abundance of colors and textures from the collection of antique chairs, couches, and lamps, the old black and white photos peppering the walls, the high top beds in the guest bedrooms which were always made and seamless and with step stools at the bases, and the natural light illuminating the dining room.
I remember the sounds sitting on the front porch as a child. The chirping of birds, the gentle breeze of a Sunday afternoon, the occasional sound of a car passing, the church bells ringing in the distance, even my great-grandmother gossiping about the neighbors and their audacity to have not washed their curtains this month. My grand-mother was a classy woman. My great-grandfather owned several clothing stores and lavished my great-grandmother with the finest dresses, jewelry, and furniture. They acquired many precious antiques throughout the years, adding to the character and charm of the home. She was kind and charming but with a classy, Southern bite to her, not short of gossiping about the town, neighbors, and fellow church members.
Again though, she was a product of her time and environment and a relic of the past. I found my great-grandmother and her home fascinating as a child because her and her home were so different from anything else I had experienced. Now as an adult, I find her and her home fascinating in new ways as I age, even though she is no longer with us. As that generation has died off, I find myself longing to go back, to ask her questions that no one alive today would truly know the answers to. It seems like visiting with her as a child was like opening up a time capsule and yet being too young to understand the significance behind each item. It’s funny how when we are children, we don’t quite grasp the significance of these older people in our lives, from another age, another world. By the time we wise up and understand the wealth of the people we were exposed to from a young age, who we bonded through love and hospitality, they are gone from this world.
As we were watching the footage of the house, I was filled with a fascination at the memory and the significance of it all, but also a subtle sadness came over me. Her home was sold after her death and the furniture and possessions dispersed among family members. While the house still stands and is lived in by a new family, it will never be the same. It is no longer her home and it is no longer our home.
The charm and character of her old-fashioned hospitality, sensibilities, and decor filled me with nostalgia. I just thought of the history of a life fully lived in that space, raising children, facing challenges, laughing, crying, cooking, cleaning, talking, gossiping, hoping, dreaming, arguing, and loving. All the intricacies and intimacies of a life lived in a particular time and place, now only in our memories. The space of that home when she was there encapsulated all the detail of her life and her family. She loved every inch of that house, it was like an extension of herself. The love and care she showed to her family was reflected in every corner of that home and it was uniquely ours. It was our space in a particular period in time. The space of the house remains but the life, color, and people that grew up in it are no more, passed on. Now a new family lives there and will perhaps use that space to fill it with their character, personality, and love and will make memories of their own. But for a time it was our place and it meant something different to each of us, and it was undeniably and unequivocally special in our hearts.
For me it was a classically charming respite and a curious adventure for me as a kid exploring the home, the neighborhood, and the small town of Sweetwater. It was a reflection of a charmed and gentle, rural life, of a time of simplicity and engagement with one another, with family, with church, and with the local community. It was a reflection of hardship, of resilience, of perseverance, hard work, and most of all love. The home for me meant gatherings of family every Thanksgiving and having the most elaborate, delicious, and carefully prepared meals full of color and flavor shared by the bonds of love. It was quiet evenings on the porch or the living room listening to the older family members tell stories of the past. There was never another place like it, and while I am sad that it is no more, I am thankful for getting to experience the past like nobody else and to have felt loved by people from another time and place entirely. I wish I could talk to her one more time, I would have so many questions. She was precious in her own way and is no longer here.
It makes me think about how precious everyone in my life is at this moment. Their time will come too, as will mine, and it’s important to make the most of our brief time together because it’s hard to fully grasp what you have in the moment. For me, it has historically only been the pain and recollection of the memories of people who have passed that has caused me to fully understand who they were and what they meant. I can carry that perspective with me to the people in my life right now and see the beauty of each and every person bonded to me through love. You never know when the opportunity will be gone and we are left with only memories. The treasure is not just in memories, the treasure is right here right now, wherever we happen to be, with the people we love. ❤
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