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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