As I said last week, before Christmas, the opportunity to visit my hometown presented itself. Actually, it was a little less of an opportunity and a little more of a pressing need. In addition to being a cultural center of some repute, Yancey County is also (yay!) one of the meth capitals of these United States. I know, right? What a distinction. I guess lots of acres of remote, forested areas provide meth heads with ample opportunity to build meth shacks and run meth labs.
Said meth heads use some unique tricks to finance their rather idiotic illegal enterprises: they steal copper. In my particular case, they illegally entered my family’s house in the mountains and used tin snips to cut out all the copper hot water pipes. These they planned to sell to finance their idiotic lifestyle. These idiots, though, we apprehended by the County Sheriff on the road from our house, the copper pipes rattling around in their open truck bed. They claimed both that they were members of my family and that a family member who didn’t own the house had given them permission to vandalize it.
BTW, I’m for 100% drug legalization. Doesn’t mean I like drug dealers. I’m also for 100% stupidity legalization. I don’t like stupid people either. Their existence offends me. I think recreational use of a drug like meth is inherently stupid. You have a right to be stupid. I also believe that, if this particular kind of stupidity were legal, these jokers would have less incentive to pollute nice places like Yancey County with their presence.
Anyway, said stupidity indicated that some member of my family needed to go check out the damage, and I was the one with the most free time on my hands. My eldest son also had plans to visit friends in the Shenandoah Valley over Winter Break, so it seemed a good time for me to make the 500 mile drive south.
Returning to your hometown can be many things. It can be a shock, because so much has changed. It can be sad, because people you loved have died or moved on. It can make you realize how much you’ve changed over the years. For me, it was a grounding experience. It let me make more consistent contact with the person I used to be and the people he grew up with. Things in Yancey County haven’t changed that much since the 1970s, when I was hiking the woods and my cousin Stuart and I were subjecting the Pisgah National Forest to threats of wildfire by playing with stolen kitchen matches.
Oh, people have died and moved on. My grandparents are all gone, at least in body. In spirit, I still feel them there. It helps that my Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s names are on the walls of the new County Library, which occupies the YCI building I wrote about last week. And it helps that the home of my other grandparents has been lovingly maintained by my cousins who now live in it. Even my Dad’s 1930-something pickup truck that we were always going to restore “someday” is parked in the front yard. (We are Appalachian with a capital “A!” And we’re still getting cash offers on that truck!)
Some things are bittersweet. I could have gotten really depressed at seeing my beloved Chocolate House (yes, there’s a story) had been raided for copper by people who didn’t know or care about the precious family memories it’s housed over the last sixty years. But seeing it attacked, treated like an abandoned building erected by someone old and forgotten who doesn’t matter anymore, that filled me with a resolve to take care of it. Did you see my Christmas photo? Like I said, not art. It’s a picture of the little Christmas tree that I had in the car, waiting to be set up at the beach house in Delaware where I’d be meeting my family a few days later, set up and lit on the antique table in the Chocolate House’s living room.
Why did I set up a Christmas tree in a house where I wasn’t even staying, where no water was running and it would have taken me a day to bring the rooms to a livable temperature? Because, dammit, I wanted the house, and everyone else, to know that it’s not a dead house. It’s still alive. It’s still loved. To me, it’s a part of the family. And for everything the Wilson family has endured and will endured over the past 62 years since my parents got married, I wanted to tell the world, the gods and everyone that we’re doing just that, enduring. A house that’s lit with a Christmas tree, even for half an hour, is a house that’s still alive.
When I got to the Chocolate House, all looked well. It took me a while to notice that someone had unobtrusively picked or jimmied the basement door lock and come in, that the pipes were missing, that someone had pulled all the fuses from the fuse box. The idiots were planning to strip our electrical wires, too, but I guess they decided it was more trouble than it was worth. When I screwed all the fuses back in and plugged in the blocks for the mains, the house came to life. That let me plug in my little tree, take some pictures, and spend a few minutes letting the house be lived in again. And promise it I’d be back, of course, because I will.
So, “Chocolate House.” Right. My sister Susan was born in the 1950s and grew up in suburban New York and Pennsylvania, before I was born. She lived in developments, where older houses were red brick and newer houses where white clapboard. When she first saw the new house our father had built in the mountains, with the intent that the family would always have a place to go if things went bad, her young mind pegged on the fact that it wasn’t the same color as all the other houses. It was sided with redwood, protected by a brown primer coat. She decided (as you do) that it must be made of chocolate.
The name is deceptive. As long as I’ve been alive, the Chocolate House has been red. Okay, maroon. That’s the color the redwood was painted. Doesn’t matter. The Chocolate House is the Chocolate House. What flavor is Red Velvet cake, after all?
I didn’t only visit and re-connect with a house. I caught up with cousins, some of whom I hadn’t seen in months, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. I visited aunts, and saw the Christmas show directed by my Uncle. He runs the Burnsville Little Theatre. On closing night, I helped tear down the set. I met my mother’s college roommate, whom I’d never met. She has emphysema and can’t speak easily, so she asked if everyone minded just watching As Time Goes By together. Coincidentally, it’s her college roommate’s favorite show to. I introduced my mother to it about ten years ago. You can spend an evening in a lot worse ways than watching Dame Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer.
All of this visitation and ceremony, as I said, grounded me. Things have been moving at such a fast and furious pace, it was helpful to step away, look back, and get a sense of perspective. I ended 2012 with a sense of calm and a feeling that 2013 was going to be something I could handle. After the last few months of 2013, I’m, well, a bit more apprehensive about 2014. But I’m still resolved…