Softly and Tenderly
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
I had just woken up from a deep Sunday nap one deliciously rainy afternoon. A TCM movie (and one of my favorites), Mildred Pierce, had lulled me to sleep just after lunch. I slept through both shouting and gunshots. When Alan wandered into our room to ask me if I was going to sleep all day, the sweet sound of Geraldine Page's voice was softly drawling through the air. "I just want to see Bountiful one more time before I die."
This gets me every time. I can hear Meems singing it at FUMC Waco back in the day.
In 1985 when I saw A Trip to Bountiful on the big screen, I was twenty-eight years old. It was the year of Back to the Future and Out of Africa. Bountiful seemed slow and sappy to me. Ludie Watts' passiveness gave me a twitch. I was far too young and distracted by mean girl, Jessie Mae, to fully focus on the poignance of the gravitational pull a homeplace can have on someone's heart.
Yawning and stretching, I fluffed up my pillow and watched the story unfold as a sixty-five-year-old who can count her surviving extended family members on one hand. I don't need a handful of fingers to count the surviving members of the family into which I was born. They are all gone. The five fingers on that one hand represent my three living cousins and two aunts (kin by marriage). On the other hand, I could tidily count nieces, nephews and second cousins because they are five in number. It feels like the end of an era.
As I watched this time, when Geraldine sat on the porch of her long-abandoned home in Bountiful with wisps of tattered curtains weakly waving from the yawning windows, I wept along with her. In that moment, I missed my little mother mightily. A big bucket of guilt poured down over my head. "I wish you had time to go with me to Carthage (my birthplace, Mom's Bountiful) sometime. Myrna and the Baker sisters would love to see you! You can see our old house!" I was like Ludie, albeit a kinder, gentler Ludie. I didn't get it. I was too busy.
There is something about a homeplace. The house you were born into. The thick, spongy St. Augustine grass that slipped between your toes while you stood waiting for the snowcone truck to round the corner. The smooth bark and seductive canopy of a blooming mimosa tree that beckoned to be climbed on sultry summer days. The walls still whisper your siblings' names and, perhaps, hold a few sad secrets. No matter where you end up on this big planet, there will always be a particular address that pulls at your heart like a magnet.
Since childhood, I have experienced many a sentimental journey. In Sour Lake, my Aunt Mamie drove us over to the tiny cemetery regularly to "visit" dead relatives. These visits were particularly memorable while my Grandma Kinzbach was still with us. Mamie's car crunched slowly over the caliche roads that divided the graves into recognizable geography. "The Kinzbach plots are on the south side on the left just after the second right turn." (I made that up. I would need a map, a breadcrumb path, and a geo-locator to find Kinzbach headstones in that cemetery today.) For years after my grandfather died, Grandma Kinzbach would weep, nay wail, during cemetery drive-bys. We kids sat impatiently in the back seat antsy to get back to Aunt Mamie's and the all-you-can-eat ice cream sandwiches.
For a time, my mother's family lived in Marlin, Texas. My grandfather once ran a dry cleaning business and then a second-hand store there. That might have been the same town in which he ran a drugstore with a soda fountain. I thought that my mother was the luckiest girl in the world because she swigged free milkshakes every day after school during the good old drugstore days. Long after my Williams grandparents were gone, we made Sunday drives to Marlin with an uncle or two in search of old family homes and "Daddy's" storefronts. In the back seat of the car, I rolled my eyes as we drove zero miles an hour trying to remember in which house on which street Lem and Edna (grandparents) first lived when they moved to Marlin. "Well...I think it was just after so-and-so married...maybe before so-and-so was born."
I once spent a sweet, sweet weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas, with my Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Ruby and mom. Mom was excited to have me experience a Stephen F. Austin homecoming. The visit was doubly sentimental because their family lived there for many years before and after Jimmy and Helen became "Lumberjacks".
This particular homecoming was to include a gathering of my favorite generation: the graduates of the WW2/post-war era. The Greatest Generation.
Inching across campus in Uncle Jimmy's brown Honda station wagon between Homecoming activities, I learned the history of each of the "old buildings." "See that window on the far right of the top floor?" "Yes! I see it!" "There was a jukebox in that room. We used to dance in there between classes!" My traveling companions shed their 70-year-old skins and became youthful 20-year-olds with bright smiles and shining eyes. I will treasure that transformative journey for the rest of my days.
My Bountiful is Waco, Texas. I have fond memories of my birthplace, Carthage, but, Waco is where some of the best days of my life unfolded. The move to Waco was prompted by my parents' divorce. My mother was able to heal our broken hearts and create a life filled with love and music and scented candles. The house on Rockview was an oasis of beauty and peace. There was "something blooming year-round" in Mom's yard. I know this because we had to walk the property admiring her flower beds before our suitcases had been unloaded from our Suburban. Moving her from Waco to Lubbock was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It was both physically and emotionally draining. Goodbye Thanksgivings and Christmases and Birthdays. Goodbye guided tours of the flowerbeds. Goodbye Pepto Bismol pink bedroom.
Mom only visited Waco once before she passed away. The occasion was our middle child's graduation from Baylor. It was painful to drive past her home. I wanted to run up the hill to bang on the door demanding the current owner surrender the property to me.
I have been back a few more times. A sentimental magnet pulls me down Valley Mills Drive towards familiar territory. I still love driving along the gentle curve of Rockview Drive. I know by heart the moment Mom's not-too-shiny mailbox will come into view. My brain calls the role of the neighbors who made Rockview such a special place for our family: The Bruichs, The Mills, The McGuires... Then, I see the house sitting atop the slope of once lush Bermuda grass.
The reality is that the newest owner has torn out all of the flowerbeds that once surrounded the front of the house like a lace collar. With those flowerbeds went a piece of my heart. Grass is making a half-hearted effort to cover the evidence of Mom's creativity and hard work. The beautiful magnolia tree that her grandchildren climbed has been removed. The house looks like a border collie that has been shaved to the skin.
I never told Mom about the ravaging of her beloved landscaping. The conversation we would have after a visit I made to Waco was difficult for me.
"Did you see the house?" she would ask intently.
"Yes. I drove by it after I had lunch with Cindee and Lindy."
Then, the question I dreaded.
"How did it look?"
"It looked just like you left it. The daisies were blooming and the magnolia tree had a few saucer-sized blooms on it as well."
"Good," she would softly say, "I'm glad the new people are enjoying my yard."
"Me, too," I would whisper twisting the dagger of guilt further into my heart.
Chip and Joanna Gaines, please choose a little ranch house on Rockview Drive. It's a love-filled Fixer-Upper. It's someone's Bountiful. Only you can give it the grace and care it needs.
So, my friend, where is your Bountiful? What transports your heart to a particular spot on the planet. Is there a place that you check on Google Earth from time to time just to "see"? Please comment below. I'd love to hear your story.