Friday, September 15, 2017

Abandoned Rural America: The Landscape Has Never Been So Quiet

Abandoned, the rural landscape has never been so quiet.

Abandoned Rural America, a gallery exhibit and outreach program, opens with a reception at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, September 16, in the Museum Gallery at Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village in Tifton.

Lulu, Queenie, and Belle by Artist Elizabeth Collins Hanes

A swift rhythm is played out by my hands, a cadence known only to those who have strung tobacco. To many, the meter and rhythm of stringing is the only poetry they've ever known.

The exhibit by Georgia artists from across the state includes all manner of art. Paintings, photography, drawings, pottery, 3-D objects will fill the museum with the failing heartbeat of the past. Viewed together, the works of art present compelling and silent imagery of an abandoned way of life, arousing memory, enchantment, desolation, regret, yearning, loss, neglect, and the passage of time. 

Ask me about my childhood, and I will tell you to walk to the edge of the woods, a choir of crickets chirping from every direction, a hot humid breeze brushing through your hair, your feet bare and callused. Stand there, unmoving, and watch the dance of ten thousand fireflies blinking on and off in the darkness. Inhale the scent of cured tobacco, freshly plowed southern soil, burning leaves, and honeysuckle. Swallow the taste of blackberries, picked straight from the bushes, and lick your teeth, the after-taste still sweet in your mouth.

Artists will participate in a gallery talk, give tours, and answer questions about their work.
"Deep in the Valley"
Egg tempera by Artist Pete Muzyka
"They've Just Up and Left" by Artist Karen Strelecki

This land pulses with life. It breathes in me; it breathes around me; it breathes in spite of me.
When I walk on this land, I am walking on the heartbeat of the past
and the future. And that’s only one of the reasons I am a farmer.

Several local artists will present their work on rural Wiregrass Georgia as guests of Abandoned Rural America.

I’ve loved this land more than a man can love anything outside his family.

Quilt: "A Woman's Hands" by Artist Kathy Williams

“Swamp Daisies,” one of the Abandoned Rural America musical partners, will be featured in the opening reception.

The scent of honeysuckle takes me back in time and lays me down near a barn. I pick
a blossom, touch the trumpet to my nose, and inhale. With sticky filthy fingers, I pinch
 the base of its delicate well then lick the drop of nectar. The sweet liquid makes me thirst
 for more, and I reach for another and another, the same hands that reach
for tobacco as I string.

Written word, video, and music will also be included in the unique display.

My grandmother came from Arabi, Georgia, from baking biscuits, gathering eggs, 
hand stitched quilts made with scraps, and from vegetable canning in mason jars.
My mother came from Eldorado, from milking the cows, from hoeing the garden,
sweeping a dirt yard. She came from country houses, shelling peas, 
and making pear preserves.
My father came from Berrien County, from plowed fields, from dirt
roads, harvest seasons, cotton fields, and tobacco barns.

Although the exhibit runs through January 17, 2018, the opening reception at 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 16, will be a special treat, an unveiling you won’t want to miss.

While digging for these words, ploughed
under the ground for generations, dirt
spilled from me and I went
to a place I had never known
and listened to haunting voices
I had never heard
and unearthed life
I never knew existed,
buried beneath
the sacred Southern soil.

Curator and GMA Assistant Director Polly Huff says, “The exhibition is dedicated to the American small family farmer, to their dedication to the land, and to their craft that has fed countless people.” 

I know this place like I know the calluses on my hands. 
~~ Dogwood Blues, by Brenda Sutton Rose

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Hopping Trains (for Daddy)

My father the year he jumped the train, years before he met my mother.

This couple would become my parents. I believe they had not yet married when this was taken.

My father hopped a train when he a teenager in Berrien County. Without telling a soul of his plans, without telling his mother or father or brothers or sisters, he drove the tractor from the field where he'd been working, parked it near the train tracks, and waited. When the time was perfect, when the train was pulling away, he hopped it, leaving everything he knew for places he'd never been. It was the beginning of a journey he would carry with him throughout his life.

I sometimes walk the tracks with the camera in my hands and imagine I see my father as he must have been that summer day when he hopped the train, the way must have been in his youth, long before he married my mother. With the sun in my eyes, I imagine I see him near the tracks, in the distance, a lifetime away from me. 

Wearing jeans and a tee-shirt, short sleeves rolled up to make them even shorter, he's watching the train, his father's tractor abandoned nearby. I can make out the smile on his face, the thick, curly auburn hair, a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of his tee shirt. There he is, anticipating the jump, his amber eyes taking everything in, choosing a level length of ground for his run. He's a ghost, but he's my ghost. I see him, right down the tracks from me. He takes the last draw on a cigarette and tosses the butt. If only I could reach out and touch his hand, his arm. If only I could travel in time and watch my father on this one particular day of his life.

Satisfied with the location, he now stands still and waits for the perfect time to make his move. There's an art to hopping trains. The timing must be perfect, the jump done before the train gains too much speed. The upper body must be strong. There must be nothing to trip on. 

I watch him. The train is moving, rumbling forward, clanging over the tracks, headed toward the future. Burdened with nothing but the clothes he's wearing, the cigarettes in his pocket, and a few bucks in his wallet, he runs, his lean body moving faster and faster with the grace and confidence of youth, his tanned face beaming with excitement, the train whistle shrilling through the air, a sense of invincibility whipping through his heart, and he grabs, pulling himself up with arms muscled from farm labor, and lands in a train car. He laughs.

I blink and the image is gone.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Exploring the Past

I think that's a beer bottle, but I know beside it is a snake.

A memorial for somebody who must have been killed in an accident
on this back road.
looking ahead

I grabbed my camera and three of us loaded into the GMC: me, my sister and my niece. They were visiting from Illinois and my niece had her camera with her. An amazing photographer, she wanted to get some photos of her mother and me exploring the countryside in search of places related to our history.

Hunting for an old house my sister and I knew from family stories, we rode South down winding roads until we found the place. My mother had once shown me the house, but several years had passed since our visit, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to find it again.

We found it without much difficulty. The property was free of “No Trespassing” signs and the house was not boarded up.  Probably 110 years old or more, the structure hid behind waist-high weeds and grass. A field that would burst into acres of white cotton come September reached to the edge of the yard.  Knowing the house was packed full of secrets, knowing our mother had leaked some of those secrets to us, my sister and I went quiet for several minutes. Emotional with knowledge, I imagined children laughing, a mother cooking for her family, a husband and children eating at the kitchen table. I imagined children arguing, children crying, children working. My sister and I discussed the tragedy of my mother losing her best friend, her older brother, inside the house. 

I decided to go inside, by way of the front door. As I started through the overgrowth, my sister said, “Watch for snakes.”  

And I did. We’d grown up in the country, picking blackberries near areas where rattlesnakes had been spotted and killed. We’d worked in tobacco and fished and swam in ponds near cottonmouth moccasins. My siblings and I had grown up with our feet bare in southern soil.
barbed wire

Pushing back weeds and grass, I watched the ground, careful not to step on a snake.  When I neared the porch I spotted a long, thick rope, half under the house, the other half spread before me. Stretched near an old bottle of some kind, the fat rope was lifted at one end and frozen in place. And then it hit me: snake. I took a step back. “Oh my gosh. It’s a snake," I called.

My sister edged closer for a look. I told her, “It's so still it must be dead. It would curl up if it wasn’t dead.” 

Standing behind me, but still close enough to see, she said, “Get back. That thing is alive. This house is probably filled with snakes.”

“But the snake isn’t moving at all. It's dead.”

“Then maybe it's shed its skin. Is that snake skin?”

“Maybe. But I still can’t understand why its head is raised like that. It appears to be posing for us. Darn. It looks alive, but there's no way.” 

My sister backed out, far from the porch and out of the tall weeds. Wanting pictures, I called to my niece to come take a look and bring me the camera.  She eased toward me, handed me the camera, took a quick peep at the snake, and ran back, afraid it would attack.  

In spite of all the activity, the snake didn’t budge, confirming it was dead. I took several pictures of it, my camera click, click, clicking. “It’s got to be dead or it would move at the sound of the camera clicking.”

My sister again warned me to get out of the high weeds, telling me again there were more snakes.

I wanted to enter the house, yet to pull myself onto the porch I'd need to climb over the dead snake. The front steps had been removed and I really didn’t want to get near a snake, dead or alive. I'd have to wade through even thicker growth to enter the porch from another location. Neither option sounded reasonable to me. I was afraid there might be more snakes, living snakes, snakes that would curl up and bite. After deciding not to climb onto the porch, I snapped several photos of the snake skin and retreated to the rear of the house. I'd explore in a safer place.

a cardinal
The three of us looked inside the house through a large opening where the back door had once been. Rot was eating the house alive. The floor had caved in places, making it impossible for me to enter the house through the back door. My niece took photos while my sister and I searched for remnants of the past. With visions of the snake haunting me, I was mindful of where I placed my feet.

After exploring the back yard, we stood under a magnificent oak tree, its trunk twisted with age. Who had played under this tree?  Did a tire swing ever hang from its strong arms? How many families had it seen come and go? We discussed the past among ourselves, throwing between us thoughts and ideas and feelings.

We discovered a blooming bush we couldn’t identify, along with weeds and flowers that my sister told us reminded her of Spring. As a child she had loved that particular plant because its colors signaled the arrival of Spring.

I said, “I’m going to climb over the dead snake and go in the house. Or at least get on the porch and see if I can look inside from the front.”  

I traipsed through the overgrowth again and went to where I could see the bottle under the porch. I planned to climb over the bottle and dead snake onto the porch. It took several moments for me to realize something was wrong. “The snake is gone!”

My sister yelled, “Get out of there! Now!”

I backed out carefully, retracing my steps, fearful that I might plop my shoe down on a snake. Spooked by the missing snake, we loaded into the truck, but our day didn't end. We spent hours traveling down dirt roads, searching for forgotten places. 

That night, I dreamed of the house and its multicolored past. The abandoned house had survived numerous winters alone, deep roots of the past sleeping in the soil surrounding it, a past of green leaves and blooming flowers, a past that had witnessed the poverty of the Depression, a past that had witnessed joy and loss.  

Brenda Sutton Rose
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Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Day at the Willacoochee River

April, a few years ago.

My dog's name is Brody. He's part this and part that, pit-bull and boxer. He's my gallivanting partner.

On this day, as we load up for a trip to the country, Brody jumps onto the back seat, over the console and arm rest, and lands on the front seat. I settle in behind the wheel of my car, an SUV I shouldn't be using to explore the countryside, to drive down dirt roads, to push through woods with low-hanging limbs and through brush growing over dirt paths. Even though I know I shouldn't be driving it, this vehicle is the only one I have access to on this particular day. It will have to do. 

I adjust a few nobs on the dashboard and the folksy sound of Lynn Miles fills the air. Tapping out the rhythm of the music on the steering wheel, I leave Tifton. The South has opened up to Spring, and the thrill of rebirth has settled in my joints, soaked into all my senses, and intoxicated me. I sip from the season like it’s a mason jar filled with peach moonshine. Brody sticks his head out the window, and I turn the music up loud. Tongue hanging red and limp from his mouth, his body shaking with excitement as he pants, my dog delights in this ride that takes us into the boonies. He is my buddy.

I park near the Willacoochee River, not far from a country church, behind some of my kin’s land, a place where my family went for picnics and swims in the 1960s, a place where we used to fish, a land and river I instinctively know through faded memories, scents, sounds, and stories told to me by my father, mother, and older siblings. I like to believe that Grandpa Jowers' spirit still lives here.

Brody leaps from the car and looks back at me for permission to explore. I nod, and he is soon chasing smells, rushing from one spot to another. I watch him go, his tail wagging, an essence of joy surrounding him. After several moments, I walk to the water’s edge, crouch down, and dip my hand in the dark river broth. Whispering to reflections of my own face and to the reflections of overhanging branches, I fish for memories. 

Brody waits in the car when I stop at a location too close to
the highway. Later, we go to the river and he jumps out and explores.
If not for Brody's sounds, his body sliding through bushes and brush, I would be knee-deep in silence. The land and water change with each slant of light. Everything here pulses with the rare beauty of the South. The river and the trees are one. Poetry is reflected in the water: trees dripping with green, dripping with birds, dripping with the face of Spanish moss, dripping with the face of a pit bull, dripping with my distorted face. April has settled over this place and colored it in a thousand shades of green. If I believed in ghosts, I would tell you that Monet and van Gogh painted throughout winter in anticipation of this one day. Perhaps I do believe in ghosts. 

Perhaps I do.

I come here for the solitude. I come to soak myself in memories before they evaporate, before they float so far from my memory that I can't catch them. I come so l can write about the days of my childhood and let my children hold those memories in their hands. I come here to be nothing more than a soft shadow beside a familiar river. 

The river

Brody explores this area with great joy, his tail wagging.
Brody died last year. I miss him every day. He took many of my secrets to his grave.

Written by Brenda Sutton Rose

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Finding the Fletcher Graves in the Forest

The raised concrete graves.

This fence surrounds the graves.

In my house this morning, my husband and I drag from the bed while the sun still sleeps. We have plans to search for the graves of Mary Vann (Polly) Dorminy Fletcher and her husband William Fletcher. Richard packs a book and a cell phone, a sure sign he has no intention of trampling through the woods. I pack my camera, a bottle of water, bug spray, a tobacco stick, and snake boots.

In southern Georgia the August heat can bring a man to his knees. I know. In my youth, I worked in the fields during the summer, and I've seen men and women get too hot and dehydrated. By the time we reach the truck, sweat is popping out around my face and neck.

On Sutton Road, we pull into Hal's driveway where he is outside waiting for us. When he has time, he's my gallivanting partner. He climbs into the truck with a bottle of water, directions, a smart phone, and a machete.

Every pond we pass this morning breathes, exhaling fog the way my father exhaled smoke after taking a drag from a Winston. Traveling toward a landscape of approximately 5,000 acres, we drink coffee and map out a plan for the hunt. This will be the second time I've searched the area, the third time for Hal.

Edd Dorminey, a descendant of the Fletchers, is not with us, but Hal has been in contact with him. Edd searched for the graves in 1996 and found them. We visited with several members of the Fletcher family before deciding to search for the graves. June Harper, another descendant of William and Polly, visited the graves three years ago. Lois Fletcher used to come to the site often, but she says it has been years since she has seen them. Lois fears the tombs are lost in the dense landscape. And that's why we are here this hot August day; we want to find the burial spot before it is gone and forgotten.

The GMC we're riding in is old. Richard has owned it since its birth in 1999.  As we pass pastures, fields, and ponds exhaling fog, he handles the truck with ease. When we reach the designated drop off spot, Hal tells Richard to pick us up in approximately three hours. My husband has no desire to hike through the woods in search of graves.

We won't have phone access back here.  It is now 7:00 AM and we should be finished by 10:00 AM.  "Meet us here at ten," says Hal to Richard. They share a joke about getting lost. I don't laugh. I'm seeping sweat, and the boots on my feet are heavy and too big. I feel as though I weigh a thousand pounds or more. My boots are bricks on my feet. Richard watches us climb a fence. I turn back and wave at him and he backs the truck onto the highway. He plans to read at a nearby church and cemetery until time to pick us up.

Hal and I trudge through mud, water, sand, vines, and thick weeds. I'm a redhead, and my flesh is on fire. At times I'm discouraged and other times I swell with excitement. I feel as though I've crossed into the past, and the past is a place of few sounds and many mysteries.

We've been trailing these graves for more than a month. During times of uncertainty, when I think the hunt will come to nothing, I fear the graves have been turned over to make room for the planting of new trees. I fear the graves are lost forever. I'm swollen with doubt, yet hope and the thrill of the hunt jolts me from time to time. I'm not yet ready to give up the chase.

Hal is the leader; he gives directions. After a tiring walk, we leave a clean path to move into a wooded area. He says, “The graves shouldn't be far from here.”

While plundering through the forest, we come close to deer, snakes, and all manner of wildlife.  Hal spots wild hogs and identifies what he believes to be the tracks of a bobcat. 

Religion doesn't grow here in this glorious place, yet there is something sacrosanct about nature. Hal and I are intruders, trespassers, strange creatures. Dirty, sweaty, tired, we walk on the holy ground of history. Perhaps I don't belong here, yet I am in love with this southern landscape. When I leave this land my footprints will stain the stanzas of one of nature's poems.

After searching for some time, we separate. Hal goes off in one direction and I take off in the other. We are on the verge of giving up for the day. Richard will be waiting for us, and if we don't meet as planned, he'll be worried.  Searching alone, the tobacco stick comes in handy for whipping through thick growth and alerting snakes that I'm coming through.

Like a scene from a horror movie, my legs tangle in strong vines and I'm yanked to the forest floor. Bam! Sweat clouding my vision, I lean back, relax, and wipe my face with the tail of my shirt. The view above me is lovely from down here. Dappled sunlight dances around me. The forest carries the scent of a mossy stone pulled up and turned over. I smell the Alapaha River. 
a coachwhip snake
When Hal and I meet up again in the woods, he makes another plan, and we head off once more through undisturbed land. It occurs to me that I am likely wasting another morning in the woods when I should be writing, Still, I search, aware that our time is running out. 

My family originated in Irwin County, and the Fletchers settled in Irwin County during the same time period. I come from Faulkner, Story, Tomberlin, Sutton, Rowe, Sears, Jowers, Tyson, Hendley. And I long to see the graves of the people my ancestors knew: Fletchers. 

Much later, when I am ready to give up, I hear Hal’s familiar whistle. I rush toward the sound of the whistle. “I found them,” he says.

I yell, "Yes!"

The tombs are surrounded by aged fence made of fence wire nailed to split-rail lighter posts. Sunlight slips through the trees and shimmers on the graves. The two burial spots are beauties. We recognize slave and servant graves once marked with wooden markers. Light gleams golden and hopeful on a thousand southern leaves shivering overhead.  

Hal cuts back thick growth with the machete, thinning the area so we can move in closer. Polly’s tomb reveals a small crack and two holes about the size of large marbles. The inner part of William's tomb has crumbled and is filled with dried leaves, straw, and soil. The outer structure remains intact.

As Hal works, I take photos. At some point I put away the camera and sit in this lovely bedroom of death. It's a place of quiet and solitude.

A large outdoor room containing two concrete beds is surrounded by fence. Quilts of moss cover the beds. The Fletchers sleep under the shade of a magnificent magnolia. I pull on posts, testing them; they are sturdy. William and Polly died in 1855 and 1860, and I assume the fence and posts were erected at least a century ago.  A rustic gate has been left open, as though the tombs, 150 years old, are expecting visitors.
Hal clearing the area.

The morning sun shimmering on leaves.
Everything out here seems luminous and fertile. I look back and imagine these people's lives. The laughter of Polly and William comes through the trees like a breeze. During their marriage they prospered, at one time owning oxen, horses, sheep, milk cows, hogs, and more than 1,500 acres of land. I imagine their children playing in the woods.  At night, in the Fletcher home out here in these peaceful woods, I see the couple holding each other, talking about the events of their day. Perhaps they make love with a wind blowing in from opened windows. Perhaps Polly gave birth to her children here.

I like to think that William and Polly Fletcher loved as deeply as any married couple has ever loved. 
The gate. "Come on in for a visit."

A post covered with moss and lichen.

I hope the Fletcher graves remain in this location, deep in the heart of the forest, sleeping among nature.  

Update: The graves are now accessible by car. Changes were made to the land.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Used Cows for Sale

Used Cows for Sale.  The sign will lead me to Emory Tucker’s house, or at least that's what I've been told. Emory is my father's first cousin. My driving directions are scant, nothing more than a few confusing words.  I scribbled them down in a hurry a week ago when I first called Emory to ask if I could explore his land: Hahira. Truck Stop. Left. Left. Brick house. Left. Behind the pond. He gave detailed directions, but I didn't write much of it down.

Licia Nicholson, my friend since the mid 1990s, is supposed to meet Hal Sutton and me for a day of grave hunting. It's my hobby. I enjoy the thrill of finding something in the woods, of uncovering a bit of history. We have plans to park our vehicles near the interstate and take Hal's vehicle. Our destination is somewhere in the boonies near Morven, a place I've never been.

Before leaving home, I make a quick phone call to Emory and repeat the directions to him. I want to be sure I'm not going to get lost. The phone is breaking up and he's not hearing me. “Yeah Brenda.  You’ll see the sign.  Used Cows For Sale.  We’re back here in the pasture.”  

I grab my camera, notes, purse, and car keys and head out through the art studio where my husband’s bridge club members are examining their card hands. My husband calls to me, “Watch for snakes.”

I'm good about watching for snakes. I've come across many while traipsing through the countryside, but I've never taken a bite.

Hal drives down country roads, and nothing around us lines up with my pathetic directions. It doesn't take long for me to realize my friends have not a lick of faith in my directions. Hal mumbles about my lack of planning and decides to use the GPS. It is soon obvious that I’ve led them down the wrong road. It helps to know where to turn left. Of course the GPS can take us only so far.  At some point we are on our own and in the middle of nothing familiar.  We ride down a quiet road so long I fear we might end up in Florida.  Spanish moss hangs from trees like freshly brushed witch’s hair. We are wasting gas and I haven’t written down decent directions. Hal, a military man, is unaccustomed to a lack of planning.

Somewhere near Morven, we come up on two young men working on a sign at a peach orchard.  I say, “Hal, let’s stop here and I’ll ask them for directions.” I want to make up for the mess I've made.

Stumbling out of the high truck, I catch my balance and approach the men. “Are y’all from around here?”

Their eyes walk across my sweaty, sun-ripened face, trying to place me. I'm sure they notice my husband’s size 10 army boots on my feet.  The boots are several sizes too big and clomp with every step I take. 

“Yep,” one of them says in response to my question. Short and sweet and to the point.  Just yep. I take it to mean he's from around here.

Determined to get directions, I leave the silence of their abrupt answer hanging in the air for no more than a moment before filling the void with another question. “Do you know where Emory Tucker lives?”

“Emory Tucker,” says the youngest one.  “Didn’t he die?”

“Unless he's died in the last couple of hours, I don't think so. I spoke to him this morning on the phone and he was still alive.”  

Hal and Licia watch the exchange from the truck. 

“He has a sign on his property that says used cows for sale.”

“Well yeah.  I suppose Emory does have some used cows. He sure does.”  The man smiles.  “Sure does. I think all his cows might be used.” His face is tanned.  He’s ruggedly handsome. “His place is about a mile down the road, back in the pasture. You’ll see the sign. Used cows for sale.”

I climb back into the truck with some decent directions. A few minutes later we spot the sign, Hal pulls over and stops so we can take photos. Behind the sign is a pasture, and behind the pasture is a pond rich with cypress trees, and behind the pond is Emory’s house.

This pond in front of Emory's house is filled with cypress trees with bulging lower trunks.

Emory's pond

After driving down a road in the pasture, we reach the entrance to Emory's place.

the pasture

Emory is outside when we arrive. He hugs me and says that I'm starting to look like Aunt Mary Eliza.  She was his aunt and my grandmother, my father's mother.  Emory introduces me to his wife and they take us inside a screened room for an icy cold root beer. Jeanette is an attractive and sweet woman. She makes us feel comfortable in her home.

A huge hornet’s nest hangs from the ceiling.  A cooler in the corner reads: Used Cows for Sale.  Tobacco pipes are spread over the table where we sit. 

Emory offers give us a lift to the woods on his golf cart.  The cart seats Emory, me, and Licia, all squished in together. Hal has no choice but to stand in the back, forward facing, leaning over the hood of the cart. He can’t sit because the rear of the cart is filled with items.  

Emory takes off toward the woods. Right before barreling under a low hanging limb, he yells to Hal, whose head is sticking up, “Duck!”  Then he laughs, a soft chuckle that goes a long way. I'm reminded of my father, a man of laughter.

Danger comes at us again and again. Several times, Emory yells, "Duck!" Hal, dodging limbs, somehow avoids decapitation. Emory drives like a man who has some place to go and he doesn't care if he gets there dead or alive. If I’d known we were going so deep in the woods on a golf cart with a maniac as the driver I’d have taken out some life insurance before leaving home. Lord knows the man takes us to the brink of death.

We're bruised and battered from the ride when the golf cart comes to a halt. This is as far as the wheels will take us.  The rest we’ll make on foot.  Earlier in the day, the sun seemed to be burning a hole in the sky, but now, the woods provide a canopy of luscious green shade. Licia whispers to me that we have walked into a jungle of poison ivy. 

Unable to recognize the vine, I ask, “Emory is this poison ivy?”

He takes us right up to the fence then yanks the steering wheel and turns the cart.

This photo is taken while I'm beside Emory.  He's driving the golf cart, taking us to the woods in the distance.

This is the kind of growth covering the graves.

“Nah.”  He’s wearing shorts, a cut off shirt, and brogans.  

I believe Emory's denial of poison ivy until Licia whispers with urgency, her eyes widening, “It is, Brenda. There’s poison all around us.”  

Hal cautions me not to touch the sumac. I don’t know what sumac looks like either, but I’m being told I'm surrounded by the stuff.  
a grave



Emory is in the golf cart.  Hank is resting on the ground. 

Hank, a good dog

We wade through poison sumac and poison ivy and poison oak and grape vines.  Our boots tangled in vines, we free ourselves again and again, moving forward. Every now and again, Licia reminds me not to touch the greenery.  According to her, the woods are infested with poison. With tobacco sticks provided by my husband who is at home playing bridge while we fight for our lives, we beat our way through thick brush. I make a lot of noise in an attempt to shoo off any snakes that might be in my path. Our boots crunch rotten limbs the shape and color of snakes.  Smiling, Emory leads us deeper into the forest without ever looking down.  By now, he and Hal are so far ahead of me I lose sight of them. Licia is nearby, close enough to remind me again and again that we're walking through poison.

At last, sweat dripping from our faces, sweat blurring our vision as it slips over our eyes, we discover graves wrapped in a shroud of silence. Betty Nelson, 1828 – 1858. Ira Nelson, Infant.

Emory explains that Mr. Nelson, an African American, comes to the land now and then to visit the graves of his ancestors.  I think of how Mr. Nelson's people lived close to the earth yet could not put down roots until their bodies had been planted in the ground.  They had no freedom, no land to call their own.

The growth is so thick we can’t locate all the graves.  I imagine the thumping heartbeats of the past beneath my boots. Emory tells us there are more graves, some being swallowed by the earth. Many are lost at this time of the year, their graves strangled beneath a jungle of vines. Emory encourages us to come back after frost hits. Without the greenery, we’ll be able to see and touch the land and the graves.   
1828 - 1858

Most of the headstones are broken.  Many graves have no headstones.

Emory Tucker, son of J.P. Tucker and Ella Mae Tucker, is a man not to be forgotten.  He drives like a prisoner escaping the authorities taking us into the woods, and he drives with suicidal and homicidal tendencies taking us out. At one point, the golf cart nearly flips, the tires on one side lifting as our vision tilts.  Hal reacts quickly from the back, throwing his weight to the opposite side to balance the cart. Licia and I make every effort to remain calm, but I need a strong drink of moonshine to calm my nerves. Driving the cart painfully close to obstacles, Emory turns at the last second, and my face nearly collides with rusty nails driven into wooden posts. Emory's soft laughter surrounds us. I think of Satan with a sense of humor.

When the day is over, the three of us leave Emory and Jeanette behind. We take home yellow tee shirts with Tucker’s Place printed on the front and Used Cows for Sale on the back.  We take home an obsessive fear of rash covering our flesh before the night is over.  We take home photos of graves hidden in the woods. We take home the taste of icy root beer on our tongues. We take home memories that will warm us for months to come. I cannot speak for the others when it comes to this, but I take home the experience of finding something sacred and peaceful.  I take home a burning desire to discover the locations of more slave graves, the burial spots of people who watered our crops with their sweat and nursed many a white baby on their breasts. 

a hornet's nest hanging from the ceiling inside Emory's screened in room

the knock-out roses

I hope this is a grill and not a moonshine still.

A parting gift from Emory.  Three tee shirts, one for each of us.

My cousin Emory. 
We take home the mischievous smile of Emory Tucker tattooed forever on our hearts.