Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am Southern by nature as well as birth. I like my tea sweet, spring finds me digging in the dirt to plant flowers and vegetable. I eat my okra fried and on Sundays you’ll find me at church before I go home and serve Sunday dinner to my grown children. My ancestors wore gray and some were with General Lee when he surrendered at Appomattox.
When I first come down the street, lined by the old houses that slouch like tired sentinels who just want to get off duty, it looks the same and that nothing has changed at all. Time took a long break here and hung out – or it looks that way until I really open my eyes. Then I see that the old neighborhood has gone downhill like the rest of us, that it has lines cut deep into its face, the kind that make-up cannot always hide and that it looks bad. It was not an upscale place back then, about two rungs – or maybe just one and a half – above a slum but now, it is like some post-war disaster zone. At least it seems that way.
This should be the one place where I know who I am. I was born here, right down on the corner of 10th and Lincoln at Sisters Hospital but it is gone, that big brick monolith has gone the way of the dinosaur right down into the tar pits of urban renewal. I opened up my mouth and gave my first shout out here at birth. My grandmother died there or would have but she didn’t want to wait so she checked out in my aunt’s car outside. She didn’t want to do it – die, I suppose – with strangers, she said and then did it anyway.
I am almost home but there isn’t much sweet about that. There may be no place like home but I’m here because I have nowhere else I want to be now. My kids are grown, living their own lives and I am a widow, lonely yet not old. I may feel eighty some days but I’m just past fifty. This should be my prime, not my sad end. I have not set foot inside in years but it should be clean. My grandparents raised me, like they did their own children a generation earlier and this was as much home as I ever had.
Mary Jane Balsamo, my best friend from grade school and First Communion, cleans it for me twice each month. I mail her a check every month and she comes over here, keeps the dust down, and makes sure it doesn’t fall into a heap of rubble. No one knows that, either. Moreover, she has no clue that I am coming home but she should have cleaned last Saturday so I have some free time.
The street didn’t seem so narrow but it must have been as I steer this rented junk heap to the curb and bail out, grabbing my one bag from the backseat. I thought the front yard was larger but it is a postage stamp, stuck on the front of the house. There should be tiny roses growing all over the fence between here and next door but I do not see them or smell them. Must be long gone, I suppose, like me. At the bottom of the porch steps, I pause to see if my footprints are still in the concrete and they are, twin indents with a date scrawled out beside them with a stick. My Pop did that; let me put my feet in the cement for posterity. Funny but I remember making the foot prints a lot better than I do other events in my life even though it was a long, long time ago.
On the porch, I dig the key out of my jeans pocket and on a whim; I flip up the rusty black mailbox on the porch wall. The screen door key is still there but I don’t need it. I open the front door and step into my past. Even thought there is nothing but stale air inside, I think I smell my Granny’s round steak and onions or the heavy lingering aroma of bacon. Then my nose inhales dust – Mary Jane has been laying down on the job – and I choke.
It is dim once I shut the door behind me but I turn left on instinct, walking blind into the living room that has the same furnishings it had on the day Granny died back in 1980. I put my fingers on the lamp switch, on that old blue hurricane lamp I thought was beautiful back when and turn. It works and I turn to look at that old 1940’s couch, the matching chair, that television set that dates back to Ed Sullivan’s heyday, and the picture of Jesus knocking on a door still hung on the wall.
A crazy urge to weep hits me hard so I do, bubble up tears like a champagne fountain until I have no more tears. With my nose plugged up, I go into the dining room where that little old drop leaf table still has what looks like the same lace tablecloth. That ancient buffet still rests against the back wall, same knick-knacks dancing across the top on some doily that my grandmother made my hand. The desk faces the side window and the chair where my grandpa sat smoking his unfiltered Lucky Strikes is in the same spot. I lean down and smell the fabric. Deep within the folds of it, beneath the manufactured Febreze and Renuizit, I get a good whiff of his tobacco smoke. That makes me feel good, for the first time since coming home, and it takes me back to those early mornings when I sat on his lap while he smoked and read the paper.
I should go upstairs but not yet so I head back to the kitchen, the largest downstairs room, still open and airy although the air is stale, old, and I can’t breathe or think I cannot for about two minutes. The same sink built into a wooden cabinet is here and so are the giant stove, double ovens and multiple burners. All those metal cabinets that my Pop hung are here and I open one, finding it still stacked with the old Willowware plates, the cracked old bowls, and the familiar glassware. I pull out a drawer and find the silverware that I remember well, the wooden handled old utensils, and bread ties. On one countertop, that aged breadbox still sits but when I open it, it is empty, of course.
The vintage refrigerator is the same and I wonder if it even works but when I put my ear against it, I hear it humming. I open up the door and cool air rushes out even though there is nothing inside. That shelf with more knick-knacks hasn’t been touched and the pantry door reveals nothing but some of the old things that were always there. I am not ready to open that cellar door and mount those shaky steps or venture out onto the closed in back porch so I retrace, then enter the doorway that leads to the stairs.
They are as narrow as I remember and there are still thirty of them. I counted these as a small child. Halfway up, I pause to look out from the diamond shaped window and wince. The backyard, a place where I spent many hours at play, looks like an untamed wilderness. Some of the weeds stretch up four, five maybe even six feet tall. Under them, though, I see the remains of the brick patio. Among the choking weeds, a few bright flowers bloom, remnants of my grandfather’s many perennial beds.
At the top of the steps, I walk straight into the dinky bathroom, past the old claw foot tub to the rear of the room where the toilet and sink stare at each other. That sink in the corner still drips, I notice, and although all the shelves are bare, I think I catch the ghost aroma of old Ivory and Dove soaps, scents from the past.
There are three bedrooms off the small hall, two across from each other and one perched at the front of the house overlooking the street. The one to the right was my grandparents, the other the small bedroom where my grandmother sometimes sewed or slept when she had guests. That front bedroom was mine, my father’s before me. He shared with his brother but I had it all to myself, like a princess at the top of a tower.
I walk into the room and see the antique bedroom set, a dark wood double bed, a tall highboy dresser that dates back to before the first World War, and the dresser, also tall with a high mirror and drawers that tend to stick in the summer humidity. It was always hot in this room during the summer, cold in the winter, but at night, with all the windows open, it was all right. I know I will sleep here tonight; I am not ready to usurp my grandparents’ old room.
Right now, everything feels surreal like I am walking in a dream, maybe a nightmare. Here in this familiar room, standing beneath that same old picture of two kids on a broken bridge with an angel waiting to sweep them to safety, I almost think I never left.
Or, I think so, anyway, until later, after I walk out to the car, grab my bags and the few groceries I picked up on the way. I am walking in, enjoying being anonymous, just another resident of the ‘hood when I hear a whistle, that makes me drop my bag and half my groceries tumble out.
“Katy?” A voice that was once as familiar as the teddy bear I slept with until I was fourteen says my name, my real name. No one’s called me that since I left – I’ve been Kathy for years.
As I turn, in slow motion like a street mime, I become who I have always been, Katherine “Katy” Garrity, home at last.
Jim stands there, gray and grizzled, his face lean and lined like someone’s drawing of an old hippie. I can’t read his expression and that feels bad because once I knew his mind like my own. Then he cracks a smile, enough of one that I know he still loves me, that everything we felt bubbling up inside for each other never died but has been dormant, stored away like furniture in an aging warehouse.
This is what I came for, I realize, not the house, not the memories, but to be Katy again with Jim.
He opens his arms and I run into them, sanctuary after the years wandering in the wilderness. His arms are strong and I wish I could stay inside them forever, because then I would never have to face the world or deal with my career or anything. My heart pounds like a drum in the Tournament of Roses parade and although I am happy, connected back to my grounding, I am scared.
Last time I saw him, he cried, angry tears because I was leaving the next morning for college, weeping because the bouquet of red roses he spent all his money to buy and that I clutched in my arms were not enough to stay me.
As we step apart, I raise my right hand to show him where the ring has been, always and forever and I see his face catch the knowledge, hold it, and heal.
I don’t know what to say; there are too many words crowding my mouth like rush hour traffic on the freeway but I want to babble that I love him, that I am home where I belong to stay, that this is all that ever mattered.
“What took you so long?” He growls but his smile pares away the bite. “It’s about time you came home.”
I say nothing; it is and I am. My mouth accepts his kiss of greeting and it tells him everything he needs to know, thirty years later but not too late.
I am Katy. I am home and I still love Jim.
And he loves me.