When my father and his twin brother were born in 1915 in Fayetteville, Tennessee, the streets still smelled of horses. Townsmen trotted around in buggies, and mules pulled wagon loads of produce, building materials, and country people into town, their hooves scattering green and golden “road apples.” From infancy the twins were accustomed to the smell of horses drifting with the sheers across the windowsills.
Natural to them also was the smell of wood smoke in the morning. Wood smoke and the smells of coffee and country ham frying drifted with the morning fog that shrouded the outhouse on wet, autumn mornings.
My father and his twin and elder brother grew up in their grandfather’s home. The twins were six-months old the day their mother left her husband for an unmentionable offense. Elva put her five-year-old in the bed of the wagon and then climbed up on the wagon seat with her infant twins in her arms and ordered the black man holding the reins to take her home to her father.
The twins’ grandfather was a trader in livestock and real estate. During the great World War he was a supplier of mules to the army and his sudden wealth purchased a great brick antebellum home fronted with ten white columns. The house contained seventeen rooms, (each eighteen feet square with sixteen-foot high ceilings), eight fireplaces, three broad halls, three winding staircases and three second-story balconies shadowed by tall maple, elm, hackberry ash and Osage orange trees. Behind the house stood a gabled barn with a troughed milking room, a harness and feed room. Also back of the house were an elaborate five-seat outhouse, a buggy shed, a pig pen, (summer rains floated the stench of Granny’s chicken pens into the house), a horse lot, a large fenced garden, fruit trees, a grape arbor, chicken pens, wash pots and clothes lines.
In Grandfather’s extravagantly well-provisioned home, gleaming jars of preserved fruits and vegetables stood rank upon rank in the damp, dark cellar; above the salty black floor of the smoke house hung heavy joints of beef and pork; and the latticed and brick-floored hall off the back kitchen contained a packed, mammoth ice box whose lid had to be raised by means of a pulley. At the end of this hall was the wood and coal room, and also at the rear of the step-down back kitchen, a narrow staircase wound up into the former slave quarters, a sitting room with a fireplace and a bedroom where Aunt Jane, the family’s only servant, lived. Aunt Jane told fortunes with coffee grounds and ghost stories at the children’s birthday parties, and every Sunday she made two little cakes for the twins, making sure the cakes were exactly the same size so the twins wouldn’t kill each other fighting over the larger one.
The world my father and his brothers knew in the first quarter of the twentieth century was a quiet world. The rustling of a bird’s wings as it started from a windowsill by a boy’s head could startle him awake. The twins could lie in tall grass on a summer afternoon and listen to a silence thringing with insects. They could hear, distantly, the mewing of their back screen door, the clap as it swung shut. Walking across the yard at noontime, they could hear chairs being scooted up to the dining table for noonday dinner.
In the afternoon, lying on their stomachs across their beds, lazily clunking their heels together as they turned the pages of picture books, the boys might scarcely notice the trundling wheels of a wagon and the clopping of hooves outside. But the soft puut-puut of an automobile would bring them scrambling to the window to see bright metal swimming through leaf shadows up the street.
The sounds of dusk were the quiet voices of their mother and grandparents drifting from the gloom of the front veranda where Grandfather sat smoking in his shirtsleeves, his white shirtfront glimmering in the soft summer darkness and the aroma of his cigar as deliciously enticing to the twins as the storied spices of Samarqand.
At night after Granny played “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” on her harmonica and the last wavering note had ended, the boys drifted to sleep to the distant, softly reverberant clanggg clanggg clanggg of the courthouse bell tolling the slow hour, time turning slowly as in a dream, with the slow roll of the earth bringing over and around again forever the splendors of springtime, summertime, autumn and crystalline winter.
In springtime the boys filled the sky with soap bubbles. Dipping little pipes in bowls of soapy water, they lifted the pipe stems to their mouths and blew gently and the bubbles drifted high and away over their heads into the flowing sea of the sky to begin their journey around to summer again.
And summertime was Uncle Cornelius, who had been in the Great War and who had TB, taking them to a baseball game and afterwards buying each of them a ten-cent cottonseed baseball. Summertime was big warm horses and cold watermelons and jingling silver jacks, it was “Put a June bug under the dinner plate and watch Granny jump.” In summertime they visited their country cousins. Here were their buckets of sun-warm blackberries and cold creek water on bare, bruised feet. Here, mounted on their Uncle Roger’s farm horses and armed with their own hand-carved wooden pistols, they were Tom Mix and Buck Jones chasing cattle rustlers up the rocky, sun-bright hills of Zane Grey. Or shouting, were chased in turn by hoop snakes out of wild grape and mulberry thickets.
On summer nights the boys captured fireflies in glass jars and took the jars to bed with them and long after they slept, their faces glowed in the slow, signaling lights of the fireflies.
Autumn was the torch-lit dramas of the Redpath Chautauqua, it was minstrels and banjos and gypsy wagons pulled by white horses. There was something about autumn that was like the quickness of a gypsy with a knife, or the way the bullwhip artist could clip a dime from your fingers at ten paces. Autumn quickened in the twins a savage eagerness to drop a bird on the wing with a slingshot, to bust Halloween pumpkins. Autumn was a cob fight; you slit the cob down one side, stuffed it with sandstone rocks and slung it, and oh the deep joy of seeing it wing swift and sure to the mark. Autumn was the flashing of great military bands, it was acrobats and pedicyclers and the thunder of the William F. Cody Wild West Exposition. And it was making Indian headdresses out of the turkey feathers that fell in the basement of the Foster Produce Company on Thanksgiving Eve as the fingers of the turkey pickers moved faster than black sorcery over the birds, the Negroes puffing at the feathers stuck to their blood-splattered faces and the clamor of the betting growing louder and louder until abruptly it ceased. And the feathers slowly settled, weaving this way and that as the black men stood quietly picking them off their clothes.
And then the marvel, the spinning joy of Christmas with its exotic scent of tangerines and cloves, the luxury of store-bought candy sticks and great red apples wrapped in tissue paper, the glittering majesty of Grandfather’s eighteen-foot Christmas tree and finally, the miracle of Christmas morning and a Palomino pony conjured, with love, by Santa Claus. Christmas was an hysteria, it was unbearably wonderful with red spit devils, sparklers, Roman candles, skyrockets and tiny Chinese firecrackers and then it was over. And snow falling softly. And sleds and bells. Mumma wrapped them up tight as sausages in sweaters and coats and boots and hats and mufflers and gloves and they staggered through the snow to Grandfather’s bonfire where they roasted wieners and apples on sticks. The skins of the apples wrinkled up and the juice ran out and dripped into the fire and smelled like candy. Roasted marshmallows gave them sticky mustaches that looked real because of the black ashes. There was a lot of good eating in the wintertime: roasted chestnuts, dusty, cluster raisins, greased and twisted sticks of molasses candy, snow ice cream.
Wintertime was a very fine time for it was playing tiddlywinks or Logomquez before the fire with snow batting the windows like kittens’ paws, or it was sitting on Grandfather’s lap and listening to the wonderful Atwater-Kent radio with earphones on.
And finally, it was waking to the sound of snow sifting against the windowpane. Easing from under heavy covers, my father tiptoed to the window one night and kneeling on the broad window seat, he eased the window up inch by inch until he had the iced night full in his face. He stretched out his arms, palms lifted to the gossamer touch of floating ice crystals. He listened to the perfect, muffling silence of the snow, the snow falling weightlessly over the stars glittering in the branches of the trees, the flakes drifting softly, silently through the depths of his eyes and into his heart, falling there nearly fifty years later, when he remembered the poem,
“Backward, turn backward, oh time in your flight, make me a child again just for tonight…”
Over a century has passed since my father was born. Snow doesn’t fall as much as it used to in that part of Tennessee, and mornings don’t smell like wood smoke anymore. Children don’t wake now to the neighing of horses or climb trees for sun-warm peaches. They have to be helmeted to ride bicycles and food comes from the frigid aisles of “super” markets. In fact, Grandfather’s great antebellum home was razed in the early 1950’s to make room for a Piggly Wiggly.
The old Piggly Wiggly has since been replaced with a Dollar General store.
Time, some say, is illusory. Some theorists in quantum mechanics postulate that the house is still there. Solid brick walls a foot and a half thick with floors of yellow poplar eighteen feet square in each of seventeen rooms, three broad halls, three winding staircases and ten white columns rearing like a phalanx of soldiers across the front porch. Some theorists in quantum physics say that if you could peel back layers of time as you turn the pages of a book, you would find the boy again, kneeling at the window, his small palms and face lifted.
They are saying, I think, that I would find my father again, a living boy at the window, his eyes filled with snow and stars.