“Trailers. Single-wides, double-wides. Boarded-up houses and stove-in cabins.
“The ghosts of the American dream line the rural roads of the Carolinas. They keep company with vast fields of soybeans, cotton and tobacco that are labeled on the map as wetlands but in reality have been drained by corporate agribusiness of the life they once knew. Fields so big that they can only be plowed by mammoth tractors dragging tillers the width of a three-lane highway are still edged sparsely in places by the remains of once-flourishing cypress swamps that were home to turkeys and foxes, owls and water moccasins, turtles and salamanders.”
My friend and former editor Lisa Tracy is a true Southern story-teller. She spins tales and observations like gossamer spider webs—durable, true and incredibly delicate. Can’t you just hear the gentle Virginia inflections in the excerpt, above, from one of her website essays? Like Eudora Welty, Lisa writes with a true eye and innate elegance.
I envy the languid tone that softens the incisive intelligence she wields with a surgeon’s skill.
“I am everywhere reminded of human incursion into the natural world – the two cheerful turkey hunters we pass, driving their ATV up the dirt road that was supposed to go through a wetlands, but ends up at a corporate “No Trespassing” sign and gated fields; the endless fields themselves; the gently acrid stench of the paper mill that fed the city of Roanoke Rapids for generations, a stench so much less offensive since mitigation forced the mill to route its effluence through giant ponds installed on the far side of the river.
“But I am truthfully most haunted by the human losses: the once-handsome, now abandoned Victorian clapboard houses, the roofless cabins and vine-choked wrecks of silos, the broken towns with their blocks of empty storefronts and their broken hopes. Somewhere between Halifax and Hamilton, a stretch of two humble but once habitable houses, an abandoned shop and the remains of a country store-cum-gas station, swallowed in dense undergrowth on a little sandy elbow of a road that was once a vital part of the two-lane country highway we are traversing.”
I wish I could write sentences like those, simultaneously melting and cutting.
Lisa was my editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, with the exquisite—and very rare—ability to not only improve my writing but also manage my, shall we say, passionate temperament. I mention that only to explain our long friendship.
More importantly, Lisa so thoroughly understands why we love our belongings, not for their actual value but for the stories they hold. Her memoir, Objects of Our Affections, said one reader, “shows us why the possessions of our ancestors exert a profound influence upon our modern lives.” She grasps the emotion we invest in the talismans of our lives, whether the object is a red velvet armchair or an age-crackled photograph.
Consider this passage describing a packet of photos Lisa’s mother bundled along in a much-resented and resisted move to a nursing home:
“This photo of Daddy is not the young officer she wed in Washington, D.C. He’s older, and looks tired and a little worried – probably wondering why we are spending money on formal photos instead of food or good liquor – but still handsome, even with his receding hairline.
What was this man ever doing in a suit? He was so much more at home in tennis togs, crouching under tropical skies, playing with their little dachshund Gretel.
“And what was she doing, gazing off into the distance over the photographer’s shoulder with a hauteur that defies the viewer to question her modest sweater or the life she now finds herself in, married to a smart, capable alcoholic, living under her father’s roof, caught between two high-ranking Army officers who happen to be her husband and her father, trying to raise up two headstrong daughters who are much too smart for their own good and must be coaxed and coached to get into the requisite evening gowns and get out there and meet eligible young men.…
“But there is no picture of Mother in this collection. The photos themselves stand as a reproach – once again, and now almost 20 years after her death, she can still confront me with the anger, contempt and grief I felt from her when she accepted her consignment to that nursing home.
“I am so sorry, Mommy – so sorry we couldn’t play out that solution where the dutiful daughter and her silent husband come home to care for the old folks. It just wasn’t happening in the generation you raised. We do what we can. I’ll find a place for the pictures.”
I hope, as I dispose of the mementos and possessions that clutter my own life in these 365 days, that I can follow Lisa’s lead. She honors the past, treasures her emotions and memories, but lives thoroughly in the present.