Mark Twain, writing to a friend in 1874 about his new 19-room red brick Gothic mansion:
“To us, our house was not insentient matter – it had a heart and a soul, and eyes to see us with, and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benedictions. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome – and we could not enter it unmoved.”
Long about fourth grade, we built a house in town, moving away from the family home place outside of town to live in Fayetteville proper so Daddy could be mayor. And while I have no such elegant story to tell you about how our house lit up upon our return, I can tell you that when Mr. Mac Bray’s bulldozer began to dig out the basement, the rather large family of snakes weren’t the only ones disturbed. The boy of the house across the street came galloping over with bucket in hand enthusiastically asking if he could take the snakes home. He collected them, he explained to the stunned speechless folks, and kept them as pets.
Now I’d spent my entire life – all 9 years of it – out on the family home place, and I didn’t care if Daddy wanted to be mayor or not, this had me more convinced than ever that it was not a good idea to move to town and live across the street from a bunch of snakes. (Dear Reader, that sentence is literal as written here, but it turned metaphorical after we’d been in the house a few months when Mother and her friends gathered at our front window every night to watch the drunken man of that house parade around the front yard wearing nothing but his BVD’s. Whether he was locked out by his wife or took a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom, we’ll never know, but he gave my mother and her friends something to look forward, that’s for sure, and the entertainment didn’t cost a dime.)
Our new house was on Kelley Drive. Newcomers – read: anybody not born in Fayette County – spell it “Kelly”, but Mother and Daddy knew Mr. Kelley for whom it was named, and it most definitely is supposed to have that extra “e” in the name. Mr. Mac Bray built our house according to the blueprints, and the excitement was palpable when Mother, Daddy, and Mr. Mac unfurled those drawings on makeshift table of plywood and sawhorses and huddled up to plan the particulars of our new home. Those thin white lines on that most marvelous shade of blue paper were an orderly, easy-to-follow roadmap to our future. All we had to do was follow those directions, and we’d have the shelter of our dreams that would take us right on into happily ever after.
It all seemed so easy then, with those blueprints in hand. Once we were happily nested, with our pink and white poodle bedspreads and real tile in the bathrooms laid down in the shape of flowers, I quietly fished the blueprints out of the trashcan and tucked them in my pajama drawer for safekeeping so I could easily put my hands on them when it was time for me to create a life of my own.
A lot of living happened in that house.
A lot of living happened on that street.
Pam, Steven, Doug, Dianna, Gordon, and I – we all walked home from school together, stopping by Dell’s for some fries and a Coke and to play “Build Me Up Buttercup” on the jukebox till our dimes ran out. The older kids in the neighborhood didn’t speak to us, and we didn’t bother ourselves with the younger kids unless we just had to.
Life on that street was the inspiration for my self-introduction when Mr. Baker, the new Georgia History teacher, came to town in the middle of seventh grade. When he asked us to stand up one at a time and tell him our name and a little something about ourselves, I kinda’ strayed from the blueprint, took a few liberties, and introduced myself as Jeanne Burdette (in my defense, Pam and I practically lived at each other’s house), then proceeded to tell him how I was a little down on my luck in the report card department this year on account of how hard it was to study or sleep what with all the yelling and parading around nekkid in the front yard and other miscellaneous carrying on happening across the road. All the adults on our street were bad to drink, I explained, but only that one particular neighbor chose to clean up after himself in the middle of the night. On a roll (and seeing no need to let details or truth slow me down), I told him that I didn’t know how in the world my mother could hold down a job (I saw no need to mention it was at the Central Office which is what everybody calls the Board of Education), but I sure was glad she did cause my daddy didn’t hit a lick. And for the big finale, I borrowed from history and mentioned how some days I went hungry when I couldn’t catch a fish with my hands on the way to school and that he’d have to pretty please excuse my occasional absences cause sometimes – especially after a pay day when the liquor flowed like a river in our neighborhood – I overslept and simply didn’t have time to walk the fifteen miles to get to school. Then I politely thanked him for his attention and sat down, demurely crossing my feet at the ankles.
Pam and Dianna picked up on my theme and added their own (made up) versions of life on Kelley Drive, Pam casting her parents in the role of The Drunks Across The Street, and Dianna telling a sad, sad, sad story about how hard it was to study with her daddy parading all kinds of honky-tonk women through the house day and night.
We can never be sure if our made-over selves had anything to do with it or not, but Mr. Baker turned out to be the toughest teacher we’d ever had, so I was button-busting proud to get a B+ on that first test. I ‘spect I’d’ve done a little better if it had been the English teacher had asked us to introduce ourselves.