Love and laughter help make a 'home place'

I have traveled over that lonely stretch of road for years, tracking down a person or a story of some historical importance.

I have grown accustomed to the fields of cotton, reminding me each fall that, indeed, I did live in the Deep South, and this was the plant that had saved us after the Great War. It is a fact that no Southerner whose family had been intimately connected with that terrible disaster could ever forget the romance and the comfort of the beautiful white blooms. We even accepted the terribleness of the boll weevil and our bleeding hands when picking was finished. We lived through all of it and still managed to survive and see the beauty in those fields that had, at one time, been a killing place from the British and the loyal and indomitable Chester County frontiersmen. Then came Sherman, and then those from the North flocked here to enjoy our climate, our beauty and our magnificent river. Time does change all things.

I saw beautiful churchyards and sprawling cemeteries with glorious monuments telling the history of the people who rested beneath their majestic carvings. I passed herds of cattle that grazed happily in the green grass of rich pastures.

Small churches dotted the highway, and there were gracious homes with porches that encircled the beauty of family life and held swings that were used by courting couples and old ladies who rested in the afternoon, sipping sweet iced tea.

Then one day, I noticed for the first time a little cabin that sat close to the road and was in a state of terrible disrepair. Windows hung carelessly from their rotting frames, and the porch sank into the yard, presenting a dangerous slant to anyone who passed that way. Big cars of recent years stood outside: a Cadillac, a big British Range Rover and a Hummer that dwarfed all Lincolns, Chryslers and Chevrolets. But they were there, and their owners were surely tucked inside of that small house.

I well remember that day. It was a Sunday, it was a perfect one. Not only folks but also flowers, bees and birds celebrated its magnificence. The porch, which was near to rotting into the ground, held baskets of tiny bell-shaped petunias, bright red geraniums and glorious pink and white impatiens, which all draped gracefully onto the disintegrating banisters. On the rotting floor stood huge pots of hydrangeas in deep blue and raging purple.

I stopped the car and pulled over on the roadside. As the window was lowered, the warm spring air filled the interior, and I heard music. Ray Charles was telling the world "I got a woman, who lives over town," and the laughter of young children topped all the other sounds. Every once in a while, the name "Mama" was called out, and an older voice answered, "Whatie?" My, I had not heard that rarely said word since my Aunt Polly died. Whatie -- it was a special word used by few. A gentle word that implied "Yes, what can I do for you?" It was different from the harsh sound of "what"! The simple addition of the "ie" made it sweeter and more beguiling. I knew then, the kind of woman that had to be the honored person on that sunny Sunday.

A stream of white smoke floated gracefully from the one chimney that also was tilting toward earth in a dangerous slant, but still puffing away. The scent of burning wood reached my nostrils, and I knew from my past life that I smelled an old cook stove that made chicken taste the way it should. I knew that in that house, which was soon to fall, was a woman who had cooked, raised children, tended to their illnesses and fearful happenings. She had guided them with rules delivered on hot Sunday afternoons by a bellowing preacher and had taken them to school, to church and, surely, covered-dish suppers where they met and married people who would be parents, too. They were honoring her, not only on that day -- for as I looked back, there were always cars parked close to the door.

I went back one more time to see if I could hear the sounds or see the cars that filled the overgrown yard. A few brave zinnias raised their colorful heads, but the lady of the house was gone, no more "whatie's" were heard, the windows and the porch had given way, and I could only wonder about her whereabouts now.

Months later when, on my way on that same road, I saw yellow tape and police cars parked on the side of the road, and the lovely old cabin was no longer there. There were no flowers, no cars and, certainly, no "whatie's" were heard. The voice of the late Ray Charles was only a memory.

A fire had picked its way through the house and destroyed it and all the history that had taken years to make. Surely, the lady who raised and cared for all the children that drove those fine cars must have a new kitchen and a new phonograph to hear Charles sing "Georgia on My Mind." I hope for her that her time is now pleasant and that her friends still come to visit and park close to her new front door and celebrate their lives together on a sunny Sunday morning.