You Can Go Home Again

GLENN MARTIN McNATT

December 26, 1992|By GLENN MARTIN McNATT

This year our family is celebrating Christmas in the TC country,where my parents recently built a retirement home on Grandpa Martin's old farm in the North Carolina Piedmont.

I hadn't spent a Christmas on the old homestead in nearly 40 years, since the 1950s. Then I was a small boy, happy to be out of the city, thrilled to be taking a Pullman train out of Penn Station in New York and riding through the night knowing that when I woke up in the morning we'd be rolling over the red-brown earth of tobacco country.

Winter had come early that year. Frost was on the pine needles and the creek had frozen. A few days before we arrived my grandfather's cow had calved, and when we went out to the barn to see it our breathing left wispy contrails behind us.

Grandpa Martin built the farmhouse about 1906, soon after he and my maternal grandmother's first child was born. Later he built a stable for his two gray mules, Kate and Jack, a tobacco barn, curing sheds and a henhouse. The pig pen was off to one side of the stable.

Every morning we drew water from a well in the front yard, because the house didn't have indoor plumbing then. Grandpa woke me before dawn and marched me out to the stable to help water the animals. Then I collected the eggs the hens had laid the previous evening while he gave the livestock their feed.

Christmas in New York was all bright lights and holiday bustle. But in the country it was so quiet you could hear the frost snapping on the trees under the pale gray wafer of sun pasted against the winter sky. One day I walked out to the stable and was startled to hear the mewling of newborn kittens when I pulled the door open.

On Sunday my grandfather put on a freshly washed pair of overalls over a starched blue shirt with a Western-style string tie and drove us to church over at Hays Chapel in his black Chevrolet.

We sat on the hard benches in the pew listening to the preacher while the choirmaster played the piano and the singers lifted their voices in one lilting hymn after another until the rough-hewn little church seemed to expand and contract ever so slightly with the breath of the holy spirit that gradually descended on the congregation until we all felt at peace.

Then we drove back to the farm and turned off Highway 4 onto the dirt road that led down to the house, and by the time we pulled into the yard and turned the motor off the fat, fluffy white flakes of the season's first snowfall were already hitting the ground.

The snow fell all night, and when I looked out my window that evening the whole world seemed hushed by a mystery as impenetrable and profound as the sudden appearance of those mewling kittens in the barn.

My grandfather, Roman Samuel Martin, died in 1966, the year I graduated from high school. In his will he divided the farm into parcels for each of his children. As they've retired from jobs in the north, they've gone home to build on the old place. My parents' house sits on a little hillock up from the stable, now empty,where I saw the newborn calf and where my mother herself milked many a cow when she was a girl.

Of course, the tobacco country has changed a great deal in the 40 years since I last spent Christmas there. Hardly anyone grows tobacco anymore, for one thing. Can't make a living at it.

You don't see chain gangs on the roads, either, watched over by shotgun-toting guards. The little town nearby isn't growing anymore; most of the young people have left for jobs in the cities -- just as my parents did half a century ago. Oddly, the local paper ran a nice little story on their return, which it probably wouldn't have done 20 years ago.

Yet the slow rhythms of the piney woods have changed hardly at all. Suburban sprawl hasn't yet reached us. The pasture is all grown over and brambled and the farm animals are long gone. But the gray winter sun seems plastered against the sky as always, and in the morning you can still hear frost crackling on the pine boughs.

It's tempting to think we've come full circle this year, that by returning to the tobacco country at Christmas we've made our peace with whatever hold it has over us. On Sunday we'll go to church and sit on the hard benches and listen to the piano accompany the singers in their lilting hymns. Then we'll drive home. And even if there is no snow on the ground when we get there, the miracle of the season will still be evident all around us.

Glenn Martin McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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