Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The House That Built My Mom

Right after Christmas, my Aunt Dixie died. She was Nana's last living sister. It wasn't entirely unexpected; she'd been doing poorly last July at Nana's funeral and pretty much went straight downhill from there.

I'll be honest, Aunt Dixie's death was bittersweet to me. On the one hand, she was the last of Nana's sisters and the last of the Greatest Generation in our family. It would not be an understatement to say she was the matriarch (or maybe more accurate to say she thought she was). Her home in Batesville, Mississippi was the gathering spot for family celebrations, tragedies, and everything in between. On the other hand, she had publicly blamed me for my parents divorce when I was 12 and I'd spent the past 25 years or so staying out of her way. As sad as her passing was, there was part of me that felt relieved and even glad.

Mom and I debated whether or not to make the 10 hour drive to Batesville, Mississippi for Aunt Dixie's funeral, but ultimately decided that we wanted to be there and as a bonus, we'd get to "celebrate" with Christmas with Nana by visiting her grave. I packed a little bite of Nana's fruitcake and one of the Christmas ornaments I'd made for my Nana-themed Christmas tree to leave at Nana's grave and off we went.


Mom was born in Oxford, Mississippi and lived in Batesville until she was 8. Nana, of course, was born and raised in Batesville, as was my grandfather Jesse, who died 10 years before I was born. Nana's sisters Johnnie and Dixie also lived most of their lives in Batesville and their children raised their kids either in Batesville or in a neighboring town. With the exception of my mom's brother Michael and his family, Dave and I were the only ones not raised at least part-time in Batesville.

Until Nana's funeral, it had been 15 years since either Mom or I had been to Batesville and we both knew this would probably be our last trip. For me, this trip was about saying goodbye to Nana in a way I hadn't had time or the emotional ability to do in July. For mom, this trip was about to be about her ability to reconcile her childhood with her present and future.


The day of Aunt Dixie's funeral, Mom and I were up and dressed early with about an hour and a half to spare before we were expected anywhere. Mom wanted to drive around and see some old "landmarks."

First, we drove to the house Nana was raised in. At least four generations of my family have lived in this house. From Big Mama (Nana's mom) to Nana and her sisters Johnnie, Dixie, and Mazie, to all four sisters and their families separately and together, to Johnnie's grandson Robert, many members of our family can count this house as "home" at one point or another. It was part of the family farm, which at some point after Aunt Johnnie's death was sold.

I remember sitting in Aunt Johnnie's kitchen when I was about 6 or 7 and feeling the house shake and hearing the dishes rattle. I turned to my mom and said, "they sure do have low flying airplanes around here," even though we were no where near an airport. As a kid growing up 15 minutes from O'Hare, it was simply the only thing I could imagine would make such a racket. Aunt Johnnie turned to me and in no uncertain terms informed me that it was a freight train and the railroad tracks were 100 yards outside her front door. She then asked my mom what kind of a child she was raising that didn't know the difference between an airplane and a freight train. The thing about Aunt Johnnie was that if you didn't know where you stood with her you were either deaf or you weren't listening.
The house that built Nana. They added on the bathroom located in the left of the picture behind the bush. Before that, they had an outhouse. The railroad tracks are 100 yards to the right of the house as you're looking at it.

Mom wanted me to see her elementary school, Batesville Elementary School, which had also been Nana's elementary school. It's been Batesville's elementary school since 1897 and occupies one entire city block.

Next, we drove by Aunt Dixie's house on Highway 6. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but on the inside, the rooms are elaborately decorated in the Federalist style, or as I affectionately refer to it, Early American Whorehouse. Honestly, I affectionately refer to it that way. In fact, there are some pieces of Nana's furniture that have been in Aunt Dixie's house for years that I'm hoping I can get because I love them. Aunt Dixie also has a huge basement that her late husband, Uncle Happy, built. We used to have the most fun family parties down there. In fact, it was in Aunt Dixie's basement, that Aunt Mazie flashed the entire family one Christmas. But I digress.

When Mom lived in Batesville, her house was located just left of Aunt Dixie's house. After Mom's family moved to Crystal Beach, Florida, they sold the house and it was moved to make way for a strip mall.

As I said, Mom's house was moved about a mile or so from its original location after it was sold. Over the year, Mom has mentioned many times that she has always wanted to go back into the house and see how it looks now. When they moved to Florida in 1956, it was a very sudden move and I don't even think Mom knew they were moving. I've always understood that they went for vacation to visit Mom's godmother and decided to stay. In fact, they left most of their furniture in Batesville because they believed they'd be back, but they never returned.

Because there were cars in the driveway, I pulled into the drive and told Mom to go knock on the door. I can't remember the last time I saw Mom move so fast as she did racing up to that door. A middle-aged woman answered and it only took a second for her to invite Mom inside, while I waited in the car. There was a part of me that wanted to see the house my grandfather built and see where my mom came from, but I knew this was really Mom's journey and worried a stranger wouldn't let two women she didn't know just roam around her house.

Mom returned about 20 minutes later with tales of how nice the woman was and how much of the house was still the same. The bookshelves my grandfather built in Mom's room were still there. The kitchen and the pantry were still the same. The owner, who it turned out was the daughter of the family that purchased the house from Nana and my grandfather, bragged to my mom about how well my grandfather built everything so only minimal work had had to be done over the years.

Getting back in the car, I could see a glow on Mom's face I hadn't seen for years. She was so happy to have been given this gift of visiting her childhood home and the only house she felt like they were a happy family in.

Having been at Mom's house in Batesville, I now have a better appreciation for the old 8mm family movies I found last summer and had converted into DVD. I can better picture these movies being filmed inside Mom's house in Batesville. This is the only video I have of my grandfather. (Get Little Merry Sunshine via email? Click here and go watch the video on Little Merry Sunshine.)

Jessica Gardner from Orange Guest on Vimeo.

Being back in Batesville was not easy. It was an emotional trip, but it was well worth the 20 hours we spent in the car. I don't know if we'll ever go back, so I'm a happy I gave Mom the time with her cousins and the opportunity to step back in time in her old home.


A few months later, I first heard the Miranda Lambert song, The House That Built Me, and it brought tears to my eyes as it took me back to that day in Batesville with Mom.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for leaving a comment on Little Merry Sunshine. Due to the volume of spam comments, all comments must be approved to ensure they are not spam or spambots. Thank you for understanding.