Forty-six years ago I was 7. We were back in Lynchburg – but not on the ridge, running around the tobacco fields, berry patches, gardens, and hayloft.
My mom was home to bury her dad. Grandaddy was 59 when he died on Aug. 17, 1974. Granny was a widow for 33 years, almost as long as they were married, just shy of 39 years. She buried a husband and two sons.
I was a few weeks old when my folks moved to Aberdeen, Miss., where I grew up. We would visit kinfolk in Tennessee a few times each year. But really, how much is there to remember between birth and 7? I vividly remember being 10, my teenage years, most of last week.
And yet, those seven years … I do not have a memory of my grandaddy.
Four years ago, we moved into my grandparents’ once-upon-a-time tobacco farmstead that once upon a time stood where Tims Ford Lake is. (In August 1967, the house, barn, and garage/woodshed were hauled through the woods in the holler and up a hill to the top of the ridge.)
Also four years ago, and not coincidentally, my wife contemplated either divorcing me or having me placed in a mental facility. My aunt and a cousin lived in the house, but my aunt needed to move out for health reasons. After talking with my mom, it was settled: I was moving in. So, we traded almost 2,000 square feet in suburban Atlanta for a bit more than 900 in #TheBurg and the remodel was on.
A buddy, Bill Dlhosh, and I trekked to Lynchburg in July 2016. It was my first trip to the property since my grandmother had passed away in 2007; it wasn’t “Granny’s house” without Granny there. … And while Bill never said a word, I can look back and understand what he was thinking: You’ve lost your damn mind.
I believed the house needed some TLC. The bank, however, disagreed; the house appraised at $0. Ditto the barn. Ditto the garage/woodshed. Three structures on the property worth a cumulative zero dollars. You could literally feel around the couch cushions and come up with more change.
Nope, I wasn’t gonna hear it. This was where my grandparents raised three kids, worked the land for fruits and vegetables, labored for a tobacco crop to pay the bills. Their cows roamed these hills and hollers. I mean, there was an outhouse on the property into the 1980s! No way was I going to walk away from this house, built by my grandfather; the barn, built by my grandfather; the garage/woodshed, built by my grandfather. This house is a piece of history; it’s a Sears & Roebuck blueprint.
This is family land, with buildings sweated on, bled on by my grandparents, uncles, mom, and other family members who knew hard times. This is where I wanted to be. This is where I was supposed to be. This is where they’ll eventually stick me in the ground. (Fun fact: You can be buried on your property in Tennessee!)
So, we began working on the house. I spent three months commuting between Atlanta and Lynchburg. On Dec. 1, the moving van backed up and unloaded our stuff. Everything was stacked on the front porch, because the house still wasn’t ready. Two weeks later, Mandy and the kids rolled up to their new home. Buried in the hustle and bustle of the move was our Christmas tree. Wouldn’t have mattered; our home in ATL had vaulted ceilings and this house has 7-foot ceilings. We literally had a Charlie Brown tree that Christmas.
The past four years have given me a lot of time to talk with granny and grandaddy. Reclaiming the land has been a labor of love (and there’s a lot of reclaiming still to be done), but I do not regret making the move. As I sit on the porch and watch sunsets, I wonder if my grandaddy would understand why I had to clear the tree line between the house and hayfield, why I had to drop the garage/woodshed and the massive cedar at its corner, why we’re cutting down the pecan tree at the back corner of the house.
And then I come into the house and feel the coolness of the air conditioner. Yeah, we put in heating and air in August 2017. I don’t think he’d argue that addition, and if he did we’d just have to go toe to toe in the yard. How they survived summers in Tennessee without AC is one of life’s great mysteries …
It took more than I thought to save the house. We gutted two rooms – the bathroom and the kitchen – reworked a wall in the living room, replaced the original windows and doors, rebuilt the front porch, and added one to the back door. The footprint of where we roam is grass vs. the underbrush and the weeds we began tackling four years ago. The bones of the barn are strong; we’ll have it reskinned in the next few months. We’ll also plant a crop in 2021. This will be a working farm again (with fainting goats, a couple donkeys, and maybe a few sheep, if Mandy is nice about it).
Still, all I have of Lawrence Cunningham with me is three snapshots. For years the most significant thing I believed Grandaddy gave me was a first haircut, which is one of the photos. What I’ve learned is that he left me much more. The old hay equipment and several farm implements were in the woods. A buddy dragged those into the barn lot and I spend time kicking the iron and holding the handles and hitches, knowing he once touched them. After getting the barn cleaned out, we discovered the tack room was untouched. I fiddle with the ropes, the mule harnesses, the mule shoes for no other reason than they were his. I also have his whittlin’s, which are amazingly intricate for a dude with a piece of cedar and a pocket knife.
Well, I do have one memory of my grandfather. It was about 46 years ago. We were at the funeral home in Lynchburg. I was 7, in a strange place, and wanted my mom. I saw her in a room and made a beeline. To the left, just beyond mom, I saw my grandfather. He was in the casket. That is the memory I have of him.
When I was a kid, Granny and I planted an oak tree on the point, which overlooks a part of the lake where the farmstead used to sit. I told her that I’d retire and build a house, with that oak in the front yard. From the front porch, I’ll be able to see where Grandaddy planted the seeds for what I’ve grown into.
I hope he’s proud.