Day One Hundred Seventy Six: June 24
You would probably consider it “speed-through” country; most people do. Latte in hand, music cranked, cruise control set, halfway between metro Atlanta and the South Carolina border. But it’s easy to forget that, off the big highway, generations of people have lived in and off the earth. Speeding out of town, get off Interstate 85 at exit 133, state highway 53. Just past the McDonald’s, take a hard left onto Zion Church Road and follow it until it merges with Highway 124. Keep following Georgia Highway 124 past Zion Church, past Gum Springs Church, and past the tent revival at White Plains Church. Continue for nine miles until you pass a small rancher on the left. Congratulations, you have arrived at “the land”. Keep going another quarter mile, and turn into the gravel lot. You’ve reached the final resting place of generations of family before me.
I hadn’t been on the land since Uncle Harold, my grandmother’s oldest brother, passed in 2003. And, when I walked on the property this morning, I was surprised to meet the resting place of my Uncle Ralph, grandma’s younger brother, who passed this past December. As a matter of fact, my parents had just arrived in Virginia to meet their week-old grandson when they got the sad news that Ralph had passed. Ralph was the family historian, and between this lot and the church yard at nearby Ebenezer United Methodist Church, Ralph’s stories rooted me to this place.
Ralph Lee Howard, grandma’s next youngest brother, rests to my left, just at my left elbow; born on the land May 21 1925 and passed in Atlanta on December 13 2011. Next to him is the future place of his wife Marion “Frances” Brown, born May 19 1928. Her older sister and my grandma were close childhood friends, long before her younger sister married grandma’s younger brother. At my right side is grandma’s oldest brother, Robert “Harold” Howard, born on the land March 5, 1921 and passed on June 27, 2003. The marker next to him is for his lovely wife, Frankie Green Howard, born June 12, 1926 and still with us; sweet as can be. Behind me are my great-grandparents; Ernest Lee Howard and Almedia Carruth Howard; he born on the land February 10, 1895 and she December 31, 1900.
In my childhood, on nights at grandma and grandpa’s house, instead of reading a story at bedtime, grandma told us stories from her own childhood; of her parents, of her brothers and sisters Harold, Tina, Ralph, Dwight, Newell, and Jean, of life on the land, of fishing for dinner, and of the time that the boys convinced grandma to climb the cherry tree and her mama came out after her with a wooden spoon, certain she would soil her dress up there atop that cherry tree. Well my grandma was no dummy…she told her mama that she was not getting down out of the cherry tree until mama took that wooden spoon inside. Well she did alright, and grandma came down, but I hear tell that wooden spoon later came back…and with a vengeance! There were cows and horses and cotton fields and sharecroppers. Grandma told us how on cold winter nights her mama would send her to check on the sharecroppers, and in the Christmas season, to bring them warm bread.
In the days before I-85, and even in the days before Highway 124, the big city of Atlanta was a day trip. I remember Grandma’s stories from her childhood about the glittering department stores on Peachtree Street, especially the Rich’s at Pryor and Forsyth. The only job I ever knew grandma to have was in the gift wrap department of the downtown Rich’s, the one that hosted Rich’s Great Tree and The Pink Pig every Christmas season. She held that job during World War II.
The Howard family owned land. Still not enough that the Carruth family didn’t look down their noses at the Howards, but they owned land nonetheless, near the Oconee River in Jackson County, Georgia. Land records go back at least as far as the 1820s, and that little parcel there, for as long as anyone can tell, has been Howard land. My own mom tells me of her grandparents. Great-grandma passed on September 23, 1966 and great-grandpa on November 26, 1973. Mom still speaks of them fondly.
The next marker off my right shoulder, the granite one with the sun half-shining on it and the flowers in front, those are my great-great grandparents. Robert Lee Howard was born on the land May 17, 1865 and his wife Lola Fleeman Howard born November 14, 1872. As a young child, he suffered through the era of sky-high taxes, carpetbaggers, and a political leadership installed by the military government in the postwar years. Both of my great-great-grandparents passed on the land; he on November 25, 1929 and she on August 21, 1936.
Finally, the twin obelisks off my far right, on the left side of this photo, mark the resting place of my great-great-great grandparents; Captain Homer R. and Martha E. Howard. He was born on the land December 29, 1829 and she on January 25, 1837. As dark clouds brooded over the nation in the winter of 1860 and the Constitutional Convention assembled at the State Capitol in Milledgeville, Mr. Howard raised a company of volunteers from Jackson, Banks, and Barrow counties. Attached to Colonel Habersham’s regiment, Braxton Bragg’s division, Jubal Early’s Corps, the Howard Company served in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Antietam, Monocacy, Gettysburg, and finally Spotsylvania Court House. He returned home after the war, in time to name his son Robert Lee Howard, and guide the land through sparse postwar years. He died on the land March 28 1903, and she also on the land March 4, 1910.
The unmarked graves forward of Capt. Howard’s obelisks are little-known…likely either servants or slaves. They were not family children but other than that their identities or when they lived are unknown. Only since last I was there have those graves been surrounded by a granite border and covered with the customary pebbles that cover the other family graves. My previous memory is that they were merely headstones and footstones and nothing more. Nevertheless, it still is rather progressive to bury help in the family cemetery alongside the family.
I spent about ten minutes walking around, looking, taking notes, and then took this picture. The clicking of the shutter was the only unnatural sound in the twenty minutes I spent here. Otherwise my ancestors wait here, unhurried by time, in the red red Georgia clay, beneath the loblolly pines, with the bobwhites and whiporwhills to keep the company and the mockingbirds to chase off intruders. They wait for that bright and cloudless morning, the moment when all that is old is made new again. Until then, it is up to me to keep them new. When I served ovsereas, when I served in the waters off Iraq, and off Somalia, and off Sudan, and inside the Arctic Circle in the hostile months of the year, it was the memories I cherished of those who lived an abundant life before me that kept me going. When washed over by wave, blown over in a sandstorm, or had my radios jammed by Russian military forces with their national anthem, I was rooted in this red clay, these loblolly pines, the whiporwhills and the mockingbirds.
These are, quite literally, my roots. This represents but one of the eight family names in the generation of my grandparents, but these roots are as permanent as this land. Wherever I have gone and whatever I have done, I have remained rooted here to my family in this place.
I was astonished, though, driving out here, making the turn off I-85, how much had changed since last I drove this way. There are new McMansions and brick and mortar Starbucks and fitness clubs where last I saw cows grazing and cotton growing. As I drove slack-jawed at the urban sprawl that threatened to plow my sense of place under the all-consuming push of Atlanta suburbs growing ever-outward, I heard a verse of John Prine’s song Paradise playing in my head. Prine was writing, and singing, about his hometown of Paradise, Kentucky, when it was bought by the Peabody Coal Co. and razed in the late 1960s for the mineral deposits beneath the town:
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the “Progress of Man”
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
By the end of my lifetime, there will likely be McMansions all around the land, and maybe on it. Maybe this cemetery would one day be in someone’s back yard. But those are problems for another day. It was time to go. Rooted as I am in this land and those who have gone before me, I had places to be, lunches and dinners to eat, children to bathe and put to bed. I breathed a silent prayer that I could be worthy of my family’s examples before me, and then I turned out of the gravel lot and made a left onto Highway 124 for just a short distance before another left onto Winder-Jefferson Highway. Before long I was back at I-85. I turned onto the interstate, accelerated to speed and merged on to the highway.
I turned the stereo up. I picked up my latte again.
And then I set the cruise control.