RALEIGH, N.C. – Ah yes, the old home place.
It was the place in our memory where generations celebrated the happy times and mourned the passing of the elders. It was a place where new stories were told and old ones retold, a place where family bonds grew stronger, where family feuds faded away and where somebody always snatched that last piece of Mama’s coconut cake you wanted.
Maybe yours was a picturesque farm or an old house in a leafy neighborhood. Was there a rope swing? A shady porch where pans of peas were shelled and genealogies debated? Was it one of those sweet settings perfect for family photographs, sentimental movies and Southern Living magazine covers?
I guess that’s what I was looking for when I set out to take pictures of every place I’ve ever lived in North Carolina. It seemed a pleasant way for an old man to spend a few days reliving the past and would make a nice addition to a book I’m working on.
It wasn’t long before my soft-focus memories of yesterday butted heads with today’s high-definition reality.
The first place I remember living was Gold Street Apartments in Wilson. It was hastily built for GIs returning from World War II when speed was more important than durability. No trace of it remains today.
The little white house on Oak Avenue in Wilson is still there, but all I could remember was the little red-haired girl named Kitty who lived next door. In my memory we’re playing on the swings in her backyard, not collecting Social Security and growing old. I hope she’s healthy and happy wherever she is.
The big house on Tarboro Street where my good friend Tootsie and I lived in adjoining apartments near downtown is gone, as is the house on Crawford Street my grandfather built by hand when he was in his 70s. I remember how hard he worked to make the cement blocks, one at a time, in a little hand-operated machine. Now it’s a vacant lot.
Wilson’s Five Points – the neighborhood where I lived, rode bicycles, played army, built forts, played dirt street baseball and stayed out until the street lights came on – is, to put it gently, sadly deteriorating.
A bit of good news from the old neighborhood is that an active new congregation has brought back to life the former Five Points Missionary Baptist Church, where I went to Sunday school, vacation Bible school and Boy Scout Troop 350 meetings. They are making a difference in a neighborhood that needs their help.
I had a few part-time jobs in Wilson. But Fairview Pharmacy is gone, as is the Red and White Supermarket on West Nash Street where I bagged groceries. But – more good news! – Dick’s Hotdog Stand is going strong after 93 years.
Charles L. Coon High School is now an old folks home, the Five Points swimming pool is gone, and so are three of the four movie theaters there were once downtown. The last theater is now an arts center.
Our family also spent several years in Columbus County. Almost nothing is left in Fair Bluff that I remember. Gone is the grocery story my father briefly ran, as is our house that flooded every time the Lumber River got frisky. The Scottie Theater is still there, but it hasn’t shown a film in years, and nobody eats at the cafe my step-grandmother ran.
The farmhouse where we lived in the Cherry Grove community between Fair Bluff and Tabor City is still there, but all the trees I climbed in the yard are gone, along with the tobacco barns we worked in, the big pasture where my cousin Dixie and I herded cattle on horseback, the pig pen, the deep woods, even the dark swamp, all of that is gone to make way for vast open fields where a corporation grows something or other.
I knew we were a family of gypsies, moving from Wilson to Columbus County and back again half a dozen times. I knew we never owned a house, always renting. I knew I changed schools 11 times before I graduated.
It has always been easy to casually say – Oh, I grew up in North Carolina, or, I’m from Wilson, or, we lived in Fair Bluff – but it wasn’t until I tried to touch as many of those childhood landmarks as I could that the impermanence of our wandering life sank in. We may have left a footprint or two along the way, but we sure didn’t leave much of a mark.
I have no nostalgic home place to go back to. Most of the places we stayed when I was a kid are now highways, vacant lots, a park or slums. I wouldn’t spend a night in any of them again if you paid me.
Memories may warm your heart, but reality can be a cold, wet slap in the face.
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