Joe took this picture: a jar of green beans sitting on the windowsill of the house our grandmother was raised in, a house that has been abandoned forty years now and is grown over with poison ivy and kudzu.
I remember being little at our other grandmother’s house and spending all afternoon sitting on the porch snapping and stringing beans. Mama Heaton would spread her knees and make a bowl out of the skirt of her dress, throw the heads and the strings of the beans into that bowl. Heather and Joe and I’d snap until our fingers hurt, and Mama Heaton’d tell us to keep snapping, and we’d snap some more.
I’m up in the mountains now–in Blowing Rock, North Carolina–not even an hour from that front porch. I’ve got this feeling of emptiness that I keep trying to find words for but it only comes to me in flashes: a salted tomato, the cracks in the sidewalk that ran up the street, a hickory bush, the smell of bologna frying, Bob Barker’s voice coming from the bedroom.
My mother told me once that her father (before he died–almost everybody is dead now) was building a boat in the basement of that old house. Every evening when he’d come home from the gas station and before he’d go to the mill, he sanded the wood and sawed the notches. He spent hundreds and hundreds of hours building a boat that–if it would have been possible to take out of the basement (it wasn’t)–could have sailed around the world. It was a giant ship in a bottle. The walls, though, weren’t made of glass; they were more like mud, and there was nothing much else down in that basement: old boxes of torn paper dolls, a washing machine that was nearly always off balance and metal shelves stacked with canned green beans.
When I dream about the basement, and I often do, there are secret tunnels and holes, places to hide, places to be found. I am usually reaching for Cody when I dream of it, terrified, and I go downstairs, take an Advil, drink cold water, make small deals with God to get me back to sleep. Sometimes, though, I dream that there is a door that opens into the back and that the back is a beautiful orchard: magnolia blossoms and Queen Anne’s Lace, ripe apples and just fallen pecans. When I dream of the orchard, I don’t even bother to look back to see if the house is still standing. I almost hope it wouldn’t be.