Chapter 1: Beginnings
I grew up in Asheville, N.C. A quaint, picturesque tourist town in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Historically labeled as “The Paris of the South”and nationally known for The Biltmore Estate, Thomas Wolfe’s novel “Look Homeward, Angel” and it’s rare and attractive combination of “Big City life with Country Overtones”. With tourism being its greatest financial boon, in recent years, it has seen a definite upswing, as more and more people are beginning to settle in the area, buy up the local real estate and revamp long closed and forgotten historical buildings into locations of lounging and pampering of said tourists.
Though it was inevitable that the latter would happen, it has been accelerated greatly due to visits by the Obama’s. The place of my birth that was once a “Hidden Gem” of the South and that I would invite people to visit with me for the now defunct Annual Street Festival “Bele Chere” each summer and they would agree all the way up until time to make the trip, then would create all manner of last minute excuses for not being able to travel to, is now the trendy place to be. Go figure.
I lived on one of Asheville’s major thoroughfares in a house with my Great-Grandmother Mary and her remaining children, my Great-Aunt Rose & Great-Uncle Theodore who for reasons unknown to me was addressed by the whole family as “Freddy”. Her first born son John, had violently passed away either shortly before or after my birth but I've never known all the details regarding it. Some sort of disagreement either over money or a woman brought him to an early demise. Her other daughter, my Grandmother Evelyn Mae, whom as long as I could remember insisted I call her “GranEvie”, lived a few blocks away and would visit regularly. Especially after Sunday Service, where she would sit at the full length mahogany dining room table with a large plate of freshly cooked Sunday dinner, holding court with her Mother about issues at her County Job at the Courthouse and Church Gossip.
The dining room table was a place that would soon become acquainted in my young mind with her repeating the phrase “Don’t go and repeat what you heard me say” expressly for me, as I didn’t truly have a concept of what I was hearing were her true thoughts about certain Church members and that they might not like what she had to say about them and or their actions during the morning service. No meal was complete until she completed the ritual of asking her, at the time, only Grandson to pluck a straw from the broom out on the back porch so she could pick the remnants of fried chicken out of her dentures, take a long draught from her glass of Coke and follow that up with a couple of cigarettes. Taking long drags and tapping off the ashes into her mostly empty plate (if you didn’t count the chicken bones stripped clean and hollow from lack of marrow) she would blow Salem 100’s smoke through her nostrils in-between sentences and flash her easy smile, accented in the middle by one gold capped tooth.
Uncle Freddy could be found in the living room, reclining in his favorite well-worn leather chair, watching television while smoking his favorite brand of cancer sticks; Kool 100’s and sipping something from his favorite yellow cup. He always claimed that it was simply water but it would soon leave him staggering around the living room as his sips steadily increased. Between them both, the downstairs air quality quickly became a dense mentholated haze that I would purposely and slowly glide through while inhaling as deeply as I could.
The house has now been converted into an office of some sort for some nondescript Doctor or Wiccan practitioner, due to the current owner of the property never allowing my Great-Grandmother to actually purchase it. From what I've gathered in my conversations with her, the older Caucasian male that owned the property and that she paid monthly rent to had intentions on allowing her to finally buy it. He dangled that prospect in front of my Great-Grandmothers face for 20+ years. Years of renting that could have paid for the entire two-story structure at least three times over, but with the same type of irony as in the scene from the movie “Life”where the Warden dies right before finally granting Eddie Murphy & Martin Lawrence’s wrongfully imprisoned characters their freedom, the Caucasian man passed away before the hope materialized into fact.
Once his burial and afterlife affairs were put in order, the property then was passed on to one of his children, a Daughter who apparently did not have the same supposed intentions, for she quickly had the property re-zoned for commercial use, possibly to increase its yield of monthly income into her coffers. So with one fell swoop of a Zoning Officer’s pen, my Great Grandmother, Aunt & Uncle and all of my fond memories were asked to evacuate the residence in the name of greed and so-called progress. I had already come of age and left Asheville by this time, in search of my own way of life.
All of those collected memories, keepsakes, knickknacks and bric-à-brac would need to be dusted off and carefully, lovingly packaged and hauled to some other unfamiliar location. All the laughter and tears, Birthdays, Christmases, long-distance phone calls from family in other states, Sunday dinners after spending all day in church and an indefinite number of home-baked Chocolate Pound or Pineapple Upside Down cakes, just couldn’t stand up to the real estate practices of the time. All of those years of having a permanent address that received mail rain or shine, that the same seven digit land-line phone number has been assigned to for decades, years of having a stable and comfortable place to lay your head, the place where family from out of town would most certainly make sure to stop first and later place phone calls to, once they made it safely off the road and back to their own homes miles and miles away, was now gone.
Gone, because those memories of people, places and events, things that were tangle and intangible, memorable and wide smile making, grievous and life lesson giving were inherently ours alone and not theirs. And because of this glaring factor, it wasn’t deemed worthy enough to honor the 20+ year promise a now deceased Caucasian male made to an elderly negro female.
None of it mattered to the daughter of the now 6 foot deep Caucasian. It didn’t matter during her business deal conducted in unknown offices by unknown people who knew nothing of our history. Of our lives, hopes and dreams. It was just a property. An inherited belonging, to be marked down on a tally sheet as a liquidatable asset for financial and residual income purposes and more than likely a healthy tax break or kickback. A simple doling out of some dead mans last will and testament to a child that probably couldn’t have cared less if it had or hadn’t been bequeathed to her.
Don’t misunderstand me here, as I harbor no bitterness regarding the business practice that took away the structure that houses my earliest memories of my family. I am merely stating what I was told and what my memory has retained over the years. Despite the tone of my wording, I am well aware that business is business and unless there was some way for the new owner to receive the same amount or more a month that she stood to rake in by changing the zoning of the house from residential to business, she may have considered it. Alas, with my Great-Grandmother being on a fixed income after her long years of working in Housekeeping for the City government, my Great-Aunt still working as a housekeeper at the most expensive Hotel in the city, yet bringing home a pittance in comparison to the amount of money tourists paid to stay there on a nightly basis and my Great-Uncle receiving a disability stipend for his Alcohol dependency, I can only assume there just wasn’t enough income to foot the bill.
I loved and still love that house. If I were to ever become an overnight success at this thing called life and somehow legally net a large windfall of cash, I would buy that house and the surrounding area and petition the city to cite it as a Historic Landmark. I doubt the latter one would happen but I suppose that’s why they are called dreams. In recent years, since it’s rezoning, the house has been painted an unsightly shade of light ochre, a far cry from the pristine white it proudly sported in my youth. The shrubbery in the front looks unkempt (something my Great-Grand would have never allowed) and the annuals that she insisted Freddy tend to in between his long sips of Thunderbird, have long since withered away.
What can’t be viewed from the street, and is undoubtedly the greatest tragedy to befall my childhood home, is that the large backyard is now completely paved over to allow paying customers a place to park their shiny cars in the magical place where I once allowed my imagination to roam and gallop, untethered by the heady weight of maturity.
The mighty Oak, with strong weathered branches that I would tie ropes around and swing on for hours, is gone. The Weeping Willow whose thick hanging branchlets that I would run back and forth through, over and over just to feel them lightly slide over my arms and pretend it was Rapunzel’s hair I was being attacked by, is gone. The Cherry tree in a small field adjacent to the backyard proper, that blossomed every spring and bore so much fruit that I would spend hours picking the most ripe ones I could reach and almost make myself sick with feasting on their sweetness, is no more.
That tree was always popular, as people I’d never seen before would come by to ask my Gran if she would allow them to pick from it, which she would always agree to, asking only for them to bring her enough back to bake a few Cherry Cobblers as payment. The Black Walnut tree near it that actually grew from the neighbor’s yard, had strong limbs that crossed over on our side of the fence and dropped it’s lime green orbs that no one cared to open and attempt to eat, afforded me years of batting practice and makeshift ammunition against imaginary foes.
That backyard was a magical place. A place that my imagination and young legs ran free and clear in. A far cry from the large portion of today’s youth that wouldn't dream of being outside longer than to walk from the front door to a car and eons away from those that shun physical activity unless it’s connected to the Internet in some way. I could step out the back door, let the screen door slam in it’s familiar way and gain access to the Ethernet of my fantasy, creating elaborate story lines that would rival much of Joss Whedon’s tales and Industrial Light & Magic’s computer created imagery. I spent many a summer day and night in that large back yard, pretending to be either a Ninja (thanks to too many viewings of “Saturday Morning Kung-Fu Theatre” and “American Ninja”movies) practicing my tumbles and flips or running and hiding from imaginary “Gremlins”, devising intricate plans and traps to rescue Gizmo and save the day. Sticks, rocks, a discarded piece of burlap and a tattered length of rope would all become weapons to defeat those that opposed me. Add an actual toy or two and I had all the tools I needed at my disposal to have fun.
The nature surrounding me in that backyard would also become my unwitting sources of amusement. Ants and other insects got fed small morsels of my PB & J sandwich made with Granny’s homemade preserves, just to see them fight over the sweet, sticky, peanut-buttery goodness. The Cardinal that lived in the Weeping Willow once fell to the earth as if it had broken its wing but it wouldn't stay still long enough for me to try to help it like the kids I saw on Sesame Street do for a wounded bird they found. Once, when I surprisingly exhausted my imagination and was lost for anything else to do, I chased a squirrel around the yard for an hour. It kept trying to make it back to it’s normal home in the old Oak and I kept cutting it off by wildly waving my plastic replica He-Man sword at it. I actually managed to corner it near the house but when it decided to have the nerve to growl at me in fear and protest, I suddenly realized that this was a living creature and became scared. So I did what any threatened child would do. I just happened to be holding a yet unripe walnut, so I threw it at the bushy tailed growling thing and ran.
Aside from the property’s grounds, the inside of the house had it’s own special timeless magic as well. I have clear remembrances of sliding down the hunter green carpeted stairs in my one piece footie pajamas just to cackle like a little madman while climbing back up to do it all over again. Gran didn't believe in covering furniture in plastic that became sticky in summer and brick hard in winter, so the couch, love-seat and recliner were thankfully draped with fabric coverings of modest colors. Uncle Theodore always took command of the old cracked black leather recliner nearest the front door, were he would smoke his Kool’s, sneak his sips of Thunderbird and watch Bonanza, The Big Valley, Gunslinger and Gunsmoke reruns on the smaller Television that of course was placed on top of the larger floor model, so well past it’s warranty, that Sears had flat out refused to repair it any longer.
Though every room the house was equipped with one of those unprotected cast iron radiators that would spurt and sputter when they were attempting to warm up, there was always a kerosene heater in front of the working fireplace with a pot of water on top to humidify the fuel scented air. Directly in front of the couch was a dark colored hardwood coffee table that I once tripped an gashed my forehead open on as a toddler and there were matching end tables with deep cabinets that housed all manner of old papers, records and other things that Gran wouldn't dream of parting with and on rainy days I would rummage through them looking for anything of interest. I was certainly interested in the covers to a few of the records my Uncle Mark had stashed in one.
In the dining room, aside from a proper dining table covered in a green and gold brocaded tablecloth, was her curio cabinet or her “What-not Shelf” as she called it, each shelf brimming with little mementos of her life. I would spend hours at a time looking at each trinket and ask her about all the stories behind them; a colorful snowglobe from Hollywood, FL that held a clear fluid saturated with glitter and a tiny floating windsurfer, a stack of unused postcards from various states, her Mother’s Bible, pictures of family members either already interned back into the earth by the time I was conceived or ones reflecting younger versions of the family that I knew, a set of ornamental gold plated spoons with a crimson crested insignia emblazoned with FLORIDA in gold across the top and other odds and ends from her travels. Next to the cabinet, directly in front of the window to provide the most lighting was her floor to ceiling pole plant hanger, where she keep several different types of flora alive year round with nothing more than Miracle-Gro plant food, eggshells, water and love. On the other side of the table sat a long cabinet where she kept her table linen, good silverware and glassware for baking and entertaining whenever company came calling or, when a holiday meal demanded it, doubled as a display area for one of her freshly baked cakes as well as the Poinsettia flower that she would purchase every Christmas and miraculously keep alive all year long until the next holiday.