By Brian M. Howle
In the previous column, I had begun relating the events of a recent weekend excursion over in Orangeburg County, S.C.. My sweetie had arranged a kayaking trip through a group at her place of work, and we had a great time on a gorgeous, sunny fall day. We met a young couple from the area, and when I mentioned my mother was from nearby Branchville, the girl mentioned that we should try to catch “Railroad Daze.” It’s a festival that commemorates the fact that Branchville is the world’s oldest railroad junction. I had always wanted to go, but never seemed to find the time, or could not remember the date – a fact that I lamented out loud.
“Well”, she turned and chirped, “today’s your lucky day, then. It’s going on this weekend”.
We pulled out onto the main road and made a beeline for Branchville, approaching from a direction that was foreign to me; all my previous trips there came from Andrews. The last community we passed through on the way was Bowman, where the Main Street began at the blinking light, then you turned right and went one block, where it ended at the next blinking light. Take that left, and next thing you know, you’re entering the suburbs of Branchville. But this road was not that road, so I was “flying blind” as we made our way.
The sight of cars parked alongside the highway signaled that we were entering town. You have to understand – for me, this was unimaginable. So many people in Branchville that they’re parking on the side of the road – a half mile, from downtown? Waaaay too weird.
When I finally recognized some landmarks and realized which road we were on, I knew how to get to my mother’s old home. But when we reached Main Street, our path was blocked by State Troopers, who were directing traffic around town via a one-way circle which made its way back to the point where we entered town. I had never ventured more than four blocks from my grandmother’s house as a child (actually, they wouldn’t let me out of their sight, and four blocks was pretty much the whole town from my perspective at the time), so this route was a new experience for me.
As we crossed over the other main highway that intersects Main Street, anticipation began pumping through my veins. I knew Mama Ruth’s house was just a few blocks away, I knew we were behind it, and that the old school playground – wher I used to swing for hours on time – was on my right. Yes there it was And the church that was righ beside the school! I began looking over toward Main Street, searching for the high brick walls that encircled the back and side yards of the big house. I was looking for those majestic Magnolias that skirted the sides of the front porch – the ones that flooded the warm night air with the sweet odor of Magnolia blossoms; the smell that permeated the old non-air conditioned house in the spring and summer. Many an hour, I determinedly chased after “lightning bugs” (fireflies to the Yankees amongst you) that hovered around the flowers. Captured inside a Duke’s mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the lid, I would keep them beside me for the free light show, as I rocked in the big wicker glider that graced the cool, breezy porch.
I didn’t see any of that.
We parked a block behind the house. As we made our way towards it, my memories were shattered.
The old walled fence was gone. The Magnolias were gone. But, the house was beautiful – even more beautiful than when I was a child. The new owners had completely renovated the outside, with some additions to the back and sides. A gorgeous, lush lawn runs around the sides, where a large wrap-around deck hugs the back and rear of the house. A small open porch that opened off of the kitchen /breakfast area had been enclosed and slightly enlarged. The other side of the yard still retained a section of the original brick fence that joined the house to a storage building. The old smokehouse (a tool shed by the time of my arrival in the day) that sat behind the back dining room had also been renovated.
The house sits right on Main Street, where the highway has a slight dogleg to it as you head South. From the front porch, or the “lookout” room that topped the porch upstairs, one could observe anything coming into or going out of town – for as far as the eye could see. We walked around front, as State Troopers were directing traffic away from downtown, right before the big parade. My great-grandfather’s house is still standing and in remarkable condition, directly across the street from Mama Ruth’s home. We ventured up on the porch where I peered through the familiar, slightly distorted original panes of antique glass in the front door. Although the furnishings were different, somehow – in a very odd, but very comforting way – somehow, it seemed the same.
There was a mirror at the end of the foyer, just like Mama Ruth had. To the right, a small bureau chest sat beneath it, just like Mama Ruth’s. A sideboard graced the open space beneath the carved banister railing of the staircase, just like Mama Ruth’s. I shivered at the similarities. I looked over to the entry to what we called “The Parlor”, or “The Pink Room”, or “Mudd’s room” (my great-grandmother’s bedroom). And there, I saw something that I never, ever dreamed would be seen in this house.
Sitting just inside the French doors to the room – in my great-grandmother’s bedroom – was a full set of drums, complete with crash cymbals and a high-hat.
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I rang the doorbell, and continued looking through the window, hands cupped around my brow to fight off the reflective glare from Main Street. For a brief moment, we heard thundering little feet racing down the stairs, but only caught the blur of a small child on his way to the kitchen. I leaned over the right side of the porch and looked towards the back. They were barbecuing on the fencedin patio side, but no one was attending the cooker. The family was having a gathering, and at this particular moment, everyone was inside.
We made our way back around to the new addition, and stepped up on the deck. A door leading into the small room opened slightly as we approached. We announced our presence, and the door opened wide. A delightful young woman greeted us, and in a blurted few sentences; I gave her the basic background story on my family’s previous ownership. She smiled in wide acknowledgement as I began telling her little “things” about th house; where things were located (or where they used to be located); where we played as children, where the adults gathered, and on and on. A group of women were sitting around the breakfast table, and the smilingly granted us permission to kidnap their host for a few minutes. she led us on a tour of the house, back through the old dining room, where all the men folk were now gathered watching college football on TV. From there, through the old rear kitchen (now converted into a laundry room), and on to the old screened-in back porch, which has been enclosed and walled off at the other end (which had led a small hallway just outside my grandmother’s bedroom and a bathroom), just off the base of the stairs.
We went back through the dining room and kitchen, through the old den and into the front hallway. There I related stories about my cousins and me sliding down the stairs on our rear ends, and how it seemed to be just so absolutely delightful at the time. I enquired about the “lookout room” upstairs, my favorite place to hide away on rainy days – and she told me they had turned that into her son’s bedroom, after he had fallen in love with the room on first sight. Lemme tell ya – that kid has great taste and a good eye for detail. We knew we were keeping our thoughtful host from her guests and family, and began making our way back towards the side room.
It was then that I realized that, although they had made extensive renovations to the outside of the house, the inside had been kept very much as it was. All the wood floors and paneling, moulding and details are still unpainted, varnished wood. New paint and sorne needed plaster had been applied to other surfaces, but the wood’s glorious grain and patina is the unrivaled star of the home.
After meeting her husband and children, we bid our host goodbye – along with her entire group – and made our way back to the car, as I stopped every four or five feet to marvel at the beauty of the old homestead. As we opened the doors and sat down, I allowed myself a few minutes to take in what had just transpired – and to soak in the sweet irony of it all.
Oh … I’m sorry, I just realized that I’m keeping the point to myself. You see, mom’s family has long lineage. And in the South, that means – at some point in time – someone in my family probably held the title of slave owner.
Of course, by the time I first visited Branchville, things had been slow to change. Heck, things had been slow to change everywhere in America. I was eleven years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave blacks the right to vote, folks – and that was a Federal statute just coming to change with the times.
Across the street from Mam Ruth’s house, beside Big Daddy’s old house, there runs a narrow, shady dirt alley, which winds back from the highway and disappears into lush foilage. A few yards back sat the home of my grandmother’s right hand – her maid, Daisy. I would ramble over there and play games with her son, and vividly remember noticing the discrepancies between Daisy’s family’s standard of living and my family’s.
Her house had no indoor plumbing. The floor was not parquet, not tile, not berber, not even brick – it was dirt. Broken windowpanes were covered with yellowing cardboard patches, and insulation was non-existent. Chickens wandered through the middle of our circle while we played marbles, aimlessly pecking for specks of food on the living room’s tightly packed, broom-swept dirt floor.
But every morning, for as long as Mama Ruth lived there in my lifetime and even before, Daisy would come on over to the big house. She cooked, cleaned, shopped for groceries, and helped tend to children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; as well as son- and daughter-in-laws. She was my grandmother’s closest ally, and the two spent countless hours debating the current political, social or religious differences of the day. Two women of like age, bound by destiny and circumstance to become lifetime friends – but quantum physic equations apart in economics, social standing and legal rights – chatting the evening away in rocking chairs, all the while shelling bushels of butter beans or snap peas.
Three generations later, the ways of the world have made deep inroads into correcting the wrongs of our past. My children can’t imagine a public water fountain, restroom or dining room marked “Colored”. And the only sheets they’ll ever wear will be for toga parties in college.
You see, the folks who bought the house are black. In and of itself, this doesn’t matter, really. It didn’t when these folks applied for the loan to purchase Mama Ruth’s house, because now the law says you can’t discriminate because of race. It didn’t matter when they pumped a considerable amount of that money into the local economy during the renovation project. It didn’t matter when they increased the value of the property by doing so, either. When it comes to money, there is no black or white – only green.
All that matters is that a young, vibrant, highly educated professional couple has returned to this venerable old antebellum community. They have breathed new life into an old, comfortable home, where new generations of children will bruise their little backsides sliding down that beckoning staircase and revel in Easter egg hunts in the yard’s many hidden nooks and cranies. A home where they will gather on Thanksgivings, Christmases and birthdays to share in bountiful feasts among those they love the most.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful to any of my ancestors – but I’ll bet anything that somewhere in a local cemetery, there’s a whole lot of spinnin’ goin’ on. Bet that breeze feels good o the ol’ front porch, too.
Sorry, Tom. I guess you’re wrong, after all. You can go home again.
Just don’t look for the old Magnolia trees. The new lady of the house is allergic to them.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, October 25, 2001.