In the Memory House
In 1938 my mother spent a summer in a Quaker work camp near Dayton, Tennessee, an area that was still hard hit by the Depression. She became friendly with two local girls, who invited her back to their parents' home, a board shack with snakes under the front porch and holes in the floorboards. The father worked for the TVA, barely making a living, and his wife looked poorly, but they baked a cake for my mother, dressed up as best they could, and were proud to have her over. It was a white cake, and my mother still remembers the small red ants that covered the icing like jimmies on an ice cream cone. She smiled, took a great big bite, and as she often told me when I was a kid, "the ants were small, so they didn't taste like much." But she was touched by their kindness and, in many ways, it was the best piece of cake she ever had. It is her fondest memory, a house of memory in rural Tennessee.
For me, the memory house sits right up by the old dirt road in our town, heading up to an almost impassable track over the mountain, where the old-timers claim they could see "forty smokes" on a cold autumn morning. Today, there are just a few houses remaining, the rest surviving only as overgrown cellar holes. In that memory house lives a bachelor farmer. Like most old-time Vermont homes, you enter through a porch, filled with an old freezer and a cupboard. You wend your way back through the kitchen, down a short hallway, and then into a dark living room, where he sits in an old green armchair, surrounded by a calendar from the local lumber company, the obligatory mounted buck, a woodstove, and a large print of a red barn in the early morning with a pair of workhorses being groomed outside.
One afternoon last summer, I stopped by with my oldest daughter, Whitney, and we found ourselves in the back room of that farmhouse facing its owner, Charlie Bentley. As hunting season was coming up, we got to talking about deer, and he asked, "Do you remember the story about the Hayes brothers?" Well, I allowed as how I didn't, so he started in. One summer night, Chester and Claude Hayes went out to jack a deer. On the way home, as they drove past the old Hoyt farm in their horse-drawn cart, they propped the doe up between them to fool nearsighted Charlie Randall, who always peeked out the window to see who was passing. The next day, they ran into Charlie, who asked, with a grin on his face (his eyesight was a whole lot better than he let on), "Who was that sittin' up in the cart last night?" Chester Hayes replied, "Just a local girl." Charlie shot back, "Well, kinda ugly, wasn't she?"
Well, once the conversation got started, we swapped stories about pigs getting out, the taste of Marie's baking powder biscuits, the time my father ditched both our cars in a snowbank after an ice storm, and my first day working for Charlie back in 1961, when I was asked to bring in a cow and her young newborn calf. I got chased under more barbed wire fences that day than I care to remember, the old cow taking after me like a bull in a ring. It is curious that as we grow older, we remember the ordinary more fondly than the extraordinary. A slice of cake, a story about jacking deer, pigs running down the town road. Vermont stories are hard to tell to strangers because they are, at their best, ordinary tales, warmed by a deep affection for daily life. The memory of a good biscuit makes more of an impression than winning first prize at the horse draw at the Washington County fair. Such memories remind us of the curious joy of existence, a celebration of the common rather than the uncommon.
As we started to leave, Charlie showed me a dusty black-and-white photo of Dixie, the high-strung collie that used to stand beside him in his old green Ford pickup. I instantly remembered summer evenings, Charlie and I driving back from the barn after milking, with Dixie, one leg on my thigh, nervously dripping saliva onto the dark green seat, the smell of manure on my boots, the baling twine, pliers, and a can of Bag Balm sitting up on the dashboard. I was ten years old again, Dixie's hot breath in my ear, sitting high up in the cab of an old pickup. It is this simple memory, the window rolled down, the day's work done, looking forward to supper, that will grow in time, like my mom's piece of cake in a board shack in 1938. And when I am sometimes disappointed with the world, I imagine our children when they are grown, stopping to take a bite of a just-baked biscuit and remembering a warm summer afternoon, work done, heading home to our supper table. Then I smile, hopeful that my wife and I have filled each of them with enough homemade biscuits to nourish them long after the two of us are just a young couple in an old photograph on the wall of their memory house.