The High & The Low

A Moving Experience

Toting a lifetime of memories into a new home

Photo: Michael Witte

“If you want this, you better come get it. Now.” That was my mother, yelling down the phone pretty much every week beginning in October 2016, when she announced that she was selling our family house, until May 2017, when she and my father moved into a nearby new one. The items in question ranged from my childhood country mouse house and the riding boots I’d last worn in the ninth grade to a winged chair and a crusty trumeau mirror I’d always wished was mine. Whatever she didn’t want, she wanted gone, immediately.

She was on a mission, an urgent one that none of us had seen coming, though there had been a few hints. There was, for example, the catfish fry she and my father so graciously hosted each year during the Delta Hot Tamale Festival to thank the many chefs and writers and artists who come to contribute to the improvement of our town. “This is the last one,” she’d said as she directed the hanging of lanterns from the branches of the live oak tree spreading over our back terrace and draped cloths over the round tables that dotted the lawn from the
terrace to the pool. I’d thought she’d simply tired of the annual effort, but less than a week later she broke the news: “I’ve found a house, and we’re selling this one.” I was stunned. “This one” was the house we’d moved into when I was two and my brothers were not yet born. It was the house my mother had made so eminently magical and welcoming with endless additions that drove my father mad. (“Remind me what it was that you liked about this house in the first place,” he would say as each new project started.) It was the house surrounded by trees and gardens she’d lovingly created as a novice: a young woman, barely twenty-one, who’d left the well-manicured environs of Belle Meade in Nashville to marry my father and create a life in the comparative wilds of the Mississippi Delta.

My mother had grown up on the banks of Richland Creek, a civilized rivulet filled with moss and watercress and rocks on which she and her cousin sunned themselves. Our house, on the other hand, was on land that had once been part of Rattlesnake Bayou Plantation, named after the muddy stream that once provided water for the whole town—as well as the rattlesnakes that never exactly cleared out of our yard. The property had been divided into spacious lots in the 1930s, when our house was built next door to the “developer,” Mr. Smith, who lived in an expanded version of the original plantation kitchen and who still kept horses and cows and a bull that once got loose and landed in our swimming pool. A levee, built by slaves in the 1830s as the only protection against the ravages of the Mississippi, still fronted our house and three more. On the rare occasions that snow fell, we sledded down its banks; in spring it was covered with the tiny heirloom daffodils with the heavenly scent my mother brought from Tennessee. The previous owners had pretty much left our six acres as it was, with clumps of cypress in the low-lying land in front of the levee and ancient pecans dotting the lawn. Mama got to work immediately, planting more cypress, dozens of magnolias, pin oaks and live oaks, crape myrtles and hollies. She planted borders in the back and thousands of bulbs in the front: more daffodils, crocuses, tulips, and snowdrops. There were masses of swamp iris to greet arrivals at the beginning of our long gravel drive; the summer border was a riot of hydrangeas and lilies and Queen Anne’s lace.

I loved that yard. I used it as my own private theater, wandering about while acting out dramas in which I imagined myself to look like Anna Maria Alberghetti (an actress I’d seen on The Mike Douglas Show), playing a singer who faced her many tribulations stoically while belting out the songs I’d learned in school (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”), terrifying the squirrels with a voice that is, in real life, not so hot. I read for hours lying on my stomach, picked wildflowers and made clover chains, created “houses” of my own inside the hollows of the vast honeysuckle hedges. A fenced-off area contained the pear tree that was my favorite roost, a fig orchard, and the mostly unmarked graves of: seven dogs; untold numbers of goldfish, turtles, gerbils, and guinea pigs; and my beloved gray cat West Virginia, named after what was, perversely, my favorite state at age three. There was also the ruin of the pen that housed the pet ducks we finally let loose in the lake and my beloved rabbit Carrots, whom Mr. Smith’s dastardly dalmatians made such a feast of that all that was left to bury was his fur.

My father had complained about the yard and its massive upkeep off and on for years, but I know he never dreamed he’d actually be pried from his lair. We’re sentimentalists, he and I, and anyway, what would we do about his books and all the stuff crammed into every drawer and every closet, not to mention all the memories? But as much as I loved every moment I spent in that house—the joyful, the profoundly sad, and all the ones in between—I was surprised to realize that I admired my mother’s resolve even more. At eighty, she was not heading to a retirement community but embarking on a new adventure and a fresh project (naturally, the house they bought required a ton of tinkering and, yep, an addition). The purge the move engendered was not just a lightening of the load (the house had become such a repository I’m surprised its foundation had not sunk deep into the fabled Mississippi mud), but also an exhilarating lightening of the spirit (my mother’s). I, on the other hand, was the beneficiary not just of my childhood possessions and the odd piece of furniture, but of massive boxes containing every photo ever taken with me in it and every letter I ever wrote home.

Then there were the dozens of champagne flutes, water goblets, sherbet cups (sherbet cups!), wineglasses, and one of the three sets of breakfast china (breakfast china!) Mama was given when she got married. I toted out felt bag after felt bag of silver trays and soufflé dishes, boxes of embroidered place mats, and the stemmed garnet glasses that were only ever hauled out at Christmas. Clearly it’s time for me to write another book on entertaining, but what to do with my Woodmen of the World history award plaque from eighth grade or, indeed, the mouse house?

Meanwhile, my parents’ new place is beautiful and light filled and stocked only with the treasures that mean the most to both of them. When I visited the old house just before it sold, it was shockingly empty, but the memories had not yet left. In the quiet, I heard the ghosts of countless parties past: the tinkling of laughter and the lilting female voices I can still identify drifting from the pool house to my bedroom window on late summer evenings, William F. Buckley, Jr., banging out “Cielito Lindo” on our piano accompanied by a close friend who invariably arrived with his vibraphone, the pop and fizz of the Roman candles my friends and I were allowed to set off on the front lawn every Christmas night while the adults carried on inside. There were birthday parties featuring the full-size merry-go-round that was a gift from my extravagant grandmother, legendary teenage summer bashes held when my parents were out of town that required heavy cash and comic book payoffs to my brothers, who were charged with retrieving the hundreds of Budweiser pop-tops off the bottom of the pool. There was my fortieth birthday dance, a fabulous wedding that kicked off a pretty good run of a marriage, endless cookouts, and the aforementioned catfish fries.

There were sad times too, of course. When my paternal grandparents were killed in a car wreck about two hours out of town, my parents took off to the scene and by the time they got back, at least a hundred cars lined the driveway. My grandfather’s contemporaries were sitting stone faced and stiff backed on the sofas, toddies between their legs, while ladies from the church had positioned themselves by the front and back doors with spiral notebooks in which to write down who had brought the various casseroles and cakes that had already begun to arrive. When the funeral was finally held, on a rainy Easter Sunday afternoon, we had already hosted a nonstop three-day wake. Still, my mother laid out more food for those who remained and lit a fire, a spark from which set our shake roof ablaze. After a valiant effort by one of my cousins, the fire department arrived to stanch the flames, followed by my father’s best friend and business partner, Barthell Joseph, who drove across the front yard and bounded up the porch steps, wild eyed and demanding to see that “Tyrone” (his nickname for my father) remained alive and well.

It is those memories that remind me that it’s not the house that held us all, but the larger community, which remains in one way or another still intact. My parents’ new house is just down the street from Barthell’s widow. I’m building my own house, a tiny one, on the narrow lot behind our old house, between a tall fence and the dirt road across from the pasture where I once kept my horse Hi Joe. My closest neighbors will be my childhood friends Amanda and Carl Cottingham—Amanda’s father drove us to school in his Mustang convertible every day of my life until Amanda was old enough to drive us herself.

Before the lovely new owners closed on the old house, I’d vowed to host an enormous farewell on the grounds, but then it seemed somehow unnecessary, wrongheaded even. That trusty, sprawling board-and-batten structure had served its purpose and given us plenty. Instead, I decided to take a leaf from Mama’s book and look forward. Better by far to host a groundbreaking shindig on my own property or start a new Christmas party tradition at my parents’ place. In one of my many boxes there are probably some ancient Roman candles, and I can always bring the garnet glasses.