A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing the place that is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves. –"The Loss of the Future" an essay from the book The Long-Legged House
I first heard place, its meaning and value, from my friend Rebecca. She speaks of it often. Once I began reading the works of Wendell Berry, I became familiar with the term on a personal and historical level. As he writes from his own geography, and much of that is part of my own original geography, I find myself meandering down old roads and haunts with Mr. Berry in his prose, poetry, and essays. Until these dear literary companions taught me otherwise, place was not something I gave much mind to.
I see it now. I can’t un-see it.
My grandmothers’ houses were less than a mile apart. In a little rural town, the legs of the distance from Nannie’s to Granny and Daddy Hob’s were marked less by street signs and more by Uncle Mose and Aunt Judy’s house, the James’s house, Uncle Keith and Aunt Mary Lee’s, the Stanley’s toward the end of the street, then a cut across a field toward Monroe Lake. Each part of the trail, each house, and the houses in between, make a place.
Nannie’s house, down from the Baptist church, was a tiny aluminum-sided white house with a screened porch. I never thought of it as tiny, but I’ve driven by there in recent years; it seems that it shrunk with time. Small in reality and large in my memory, it was a place of belonging.
I sat with Nannie on the front porch, she in a woven lawn chair and me on the swing, as she did word searches and kept tally marks of the cars that drove by. We sat on her couch when she taught me to knit and crochet. She let me be her roommate on the weekends for a few years, and we slept back to back in her bed. I’d listen to her breathing as I drifted off to sleep, and I prayed she’d not die in her sleep since she was a very grandmotherly grandmother, older and grey-haired. She made me cinnamon toast for breakfast or a snack, and sometimes we’d eat on t.v. trays in the living room. I’d get the one laminated place mat—my favorite because it had purple flowers on it—from the bottom of the buffet.
We didn’t eat on t.v. trays at Granny’s house. I didn’t room with Granny and Daddy Hob, not in the same way I shared Nannie’s house, but their home holds the same weight. That place—a small, ranch style house, white painted aluminum siding, black shingled roof. A concrete porch the length of the house, adorned with black scrolled, wrought iron supports.
In the day time hours, every day as I far as I knew, whether I could see her in person or not, Granny busied herself with the same routine of chores. She took breaks, and the far-left cushion on the forest green couch belonged to her for her bible reading time. An antique brass lamp illuminated the rotary phone and a growing stack of small notebooks, ministry leaflets, coupons, newspaper clippings. Once Daddy Hob came home for the evening, the same cushion belonged to him, and his attention pertained to the television and the pedestal ashtray beside the table full of Granny’s things.
I had a reserved spot in their home, on the middle couch cushion, in the pink bedroom, and at their long farm table. At that table, I’d watch Daddy Hob tear a slice of white bread and push the pieces into a clear barrel tumbler of milk. He’d eat the soaked bread with a spoon. I tried it once, maybe twice, but I preferred my white bread slices whole and smeared with margarine from a yellow plastic tub. Granny would hold her coffee cup with both hands. She lifted it a scant distance off the table and tap it back down gently, sometimes a one-tap and sometimes a two-tap. She’d listen to Daddy Hob or entertain questions and observations from me or whomever. She’d list what she needed to do dreckly (which I learned in my 30s was her way of saying “directly”), and then she’d say “Wellsir” to no one in particular.
Two homes, among various homes and spaces where I spent my childhood. Place, Mr. Berry calls it. I belonged in them, with the people.
It is no wonder that I often feel so dis-placed. I find it difficult to re-place myself as a moving person. Three moves ago, I knew a location where I felt a similar kind of belonging, a similar kind of rootedness, like I’d known in and around that radius of my origins.
In our little town, and I don’t want to idealize it since I saw it from every angle as I grew up, I experienced home on and in the ground of a geographical space. I knew that the land asked something of me and that I asked something of it. Not in an agricultural sense, because as much as farming is a part of my heritage, I’ll not pretend it’s in my bones. No, I mean in a belonging sense, like sitting at Granny and Daddy Hob’s table, like walking to church with Nannie, like traipsing in the woods with my parents to collect walnuts.
Since maybe my middle school years, after childhood wonder departed and a kind of shadow came with adolescence, I noticed that my roots have been drawn up close. I let them go into the soil, whenever we move and learn a new address, but more like I’m making sure my roots have water and nutrients enough to survive until I get to the next place. I observe the places we live and have lived more like a guest, like the plant starts Mom sends with me; I’m either in a mason jar sitting in a kitchen window, or I’m in a clay pot on the back patio, but not so much in the ground itself.
I think and write a great deal about place. Like the Church, I can't extricate myself from it. Where I came from is as much as part of me as my propensity to sass, as the slight twang that comes out when my speech gets fiery. Yet, here I am, in a home place far from home, and parts of here are now are woven into my being, even if the elements come by way of shallow roots. It's not an easy reality or tension to hold, and I hold it anyway.
I know as well as Wolfe that there is a certain metaphorical sense in which you can’t go home again—that is, the past is lost to the extent that it cannot be lived in again. I knew perfectly well that I could not return home and be a child, or recover the secure pleasures of childhood. But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home—the place, the countryside—was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was no reason I could not go back to it if I wanted to. –"A Native Hill" an essay from the book The Long-Legged House