Down home, where they know you by name and treat you like family,
Down home, where a man’s good word and a handshake are all you need.
Folks know when you’re fallin’ on hard times you can fall back on
Those of us raised up—down home. (Alabama, 1985)
When my grandmother died, it was April, and the lilacs were in full bloom. I think back on those lilacs now, realizing that they, like the women in whose lives they played such a part, define homeplace for me. I realize that I cling to them, the flowering, decadently-scented lilac that stands at the doorway like the angel at the Garden of Eden, and the women of Big Mama’s. But the angel armed with flaming sword was placed at the Garden’s entrance by God to keep people out, so homeplace, even as it beckons, has its own fiery barriers. I can no more cross the threshold of home guarded by the lilac than Adam and Eve could get past God’s messenger. And yet, just as the searchers have sought the now mythic Eden, Southerners, like me, spend an endless quest yearning for homeplace, trying to go home.
It was around my grandmother’s table that I first learned about homeplace, as she and her 5 remaining daughters, the sisters, recollected the old hard days and made plans to go back. In the same way that bell hooks (1990) contends, “houses belonged to women” (p. 41), for me, home is made by them. On Sundays, over coffee and caramel cake, they lovingly described the house and place where six babies were born. I learned that the old homeplace was a location of enshrined desire. And it is within nostalgia, a yearning for home, that desire and homeplace ideology intersect.
Daddy’s people did not like Mother’s people. My father’s father had finally left the farm, got factory work, and moved inside the town limits. When his son, my father, fell in love with a girl from “the mountain,” it appeared to them like a step backward. My mother’s home was a place of noise and music and laughter and hard liquor—everything that Daddy’s fundamentalist Christian mores denounced as sinful. The pact was made: when they married, she would disavow that lifestyle, stay away from home. I knew very little of my maternal family until I was 12 years old and my mother could not stay away any longer. She took me with her to Sunday coffee at Big Mama’s.
By the time I met them, Big Mama had left her job at the local truck stop, and the sisters had divorced the wild young men who drank and played music on Saturday nights. I returned to a Sunday afternoon matriarchy that had resigned itself to calm. Now the sisters and their daughters returned to sit around the same table, now cluttered with chipped coffee cups rather than bottles of Jack Daniels. Big Mama’s house was not quiet or orderly. The old house creaked and heaved with determination as it enveloped the lives it cradled, including, again, Mother’s, and now, mine.
Some images never leave us. When Big Mama got sick in 1983, the sisters rallied. Nobody was taking care of their mother except them, and they stayed with her around the clock for a year. On a Sunday very different from those spent around the table, I saw death still in the claiming. Big Mama had no appetite and was drinking only a little milk. Mother was at her bedside trying to get her to eat yogurt. I could not bear to go into the dark bedroom, witnessing the scene instead from the next room, as close as I could get but not nearly as far away as I longed to be. My mother coaxed her mother to eat, tiny spoonful by tiny spoonful, cooing to her as she had to my own baby, to me as an infant. She tenderly spoke words of love to her mother, words devoid of joy, words sickeningly rich with heartache. I had never felt so low and empty and sick, and I never have since.
After she died, I was wracked with remorse because I missed so many years. I loved her, and I treasure the time I spent with her. But regret and guilt are old friends who call often; there would be no moving forward. Then I dreamt my dream. She and I were alone in the darkness, and I, grown and helpless, was sitting in her lap. She enveloped me in an old string quilt, soft and comfortable with age. Her words and her body soothed me; I knew that I had known her. And my heart and mind rested easy.
When the sisters finally made the pilgrimage back home, some 50 years after leaving it, they carried with them buckets and tools. They came for artifacts, tangible memories. Each collected cuttings from foliage that remained, now overgrown with scrub bushes and weeds. My mother and her four sisters cut through the wild vines and tall weeds to re-claim their mama’s garden and take it home with them—old plants: mock orange, iris, forsythia (yellow bells), and lilac. Since then, wherever Mother has lived, wherever I have lived, we have dug up a piece of those plants, with good roots so they will live. “They won’t ever even know they’ve been moved,” she tells me. I do this because wherever I live, it comforts me to know there is a lilac by my door.
This piece was adapted from an academic paper published as Whitlock, R.U. (2006). Season of lilacs: Nostalgia of place and homeplace(s) of
difference. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education. Fall-Winter 2005.