Getting  There

Last month I went back to Tennessee, to the small town of Carthage where I grew up.  When I made my reservations, I had two missions in mind:  to attend the reunion of my high school graduating class and to deliver some items that had belonged to my great-grandmother to the Tennessee State Museum. So I’ll write about those two things when I get around to it. First, though, I have to set the scene.

I hadn’t revisited my home town in, maybe, ten years, and I found that it is still the same and, yet, different. The old town square is the same with the courthouse in the middle and mostly Nineteenth Century buildings clustered around. Another stoplight has been added, but it just blinks, warning people to slow down.   The Cordell Hull bridge has been closed, though I hear that renovations are in the  plans.

There is  a WalMart down at the end of the road –literally. If you drive past WalMart, you’re off into a field, or maybe the Cumberland River! And on the other end of town, there is a McDonalds.

The town was built on the banks of the Cumberland and backs up to steep hills, making expansion difficult. But the place has grown, in a linear style,  stretching out for, maybe, three miles to the northwest and bounded by the river and the bluffs that funnel it in that one direction.

Sometime, a few years ago,  the State of Tennessee, it its infinite wisdom, built  a by-pass around Carthage. Not having been there to listen to the outcry that must have arisen, I can only say that it appears to me to have helped the town. It’s a more peaceful place since all the   trucks and farm equipment go around instead of through the town. Time was you couldn’t sit on Mother’s front porch and carry on a conversation because of the traffic noise.

It’s interesting, though, that Walmart is on one end of the by-pass and McDonald’s is on the other!  Like parentheses.

The citizens of Carthage have done a really good job in keeping the small downtown relatively intact. Most of the buildings that front on Main Street were built in the nineteenth Century and though they went through a Modernization (plastic and glass store-fronts) sometime in the mid-Twentieth, they’ve gone back to their roots, showing their old brick faces to the world.

There seem to be a lot of attorneys who cluster around the courthouse. The little boy who used to play with my children when they visited Mother is a judge and has an office with his dad, who has practiced law in Carthage for more than fifty years. Their office is where, I think JoAnne’s daddy’s store used to be.

Theresa, who was a flower girl in my wedding, has an antique store in the building that used to be the Ben Franklin 5 & 10 Cent Store. She has arranged an artful display on the sidewalk in front of her store and it stays there day and night. A good measure of the town morals, I think.

And I’ve saved the best for last. The Walton Hotel. When I was a little girl, Mother would give me a nickel, help me across Main Street and let me walk down the three blocks to Waggoner’s Grocery Store.  Bread was five cents a loaf. Those were the days.  Anyway, as I was being helped across the street, Mother always warned me: “Don’t go past the hotel.”

To this day, I don’t know why going past the hotel was prohibited. Operated by Hattie Hyers, the hotel served as home for years and years  to Isom Beasley, a local attorney. The hotel has a porch and it was occupied on most nice evenings  by a jovial group of men. Hattie used to join them, and when my family sat on our front porch in the hot summer after supper, we could hear her distinctive laugh, all the way out Main Street.

For a number of years, the hotel sat vacant; then a brave soul bought it and spent ten years renovating it. It’s astonishing. Remembering the Walton of my childhood, there were several rooms on the second floor and one– One– bathroom. But that was, I imagine, a luxury in 1904, when the hotel was built. A drummers’ hotel, it saw salesmen with their samples come up the river on one of the steamboats that served the towns along its banks. Maybe they trudged up the hill from the wharf, or maybe the owner of the hotel sent a wagon…And once at the hotel, they would find a little boy to go around the town, beating a small drum, to announce the arrival of the salesmen.  Those days went by swiftly, leading to the busy county seat that I knew as a child.  I made sure that the bathroom deficiency had been corrected before I made reservations.

I rented a car at the Nashville airport. I hadn’t planned to take a SPORTS CAR. But the darling girl at the rental desk told me that I had a sparkle in my eye and I really needed that red Mustang that was sitting out there, waiting for me. Feeling sure that she was totally correct, I succumbed to my worst nature and signed the rental agreement.   And trotted out to the parking lot, found the car. And couldn’t open the trunk. But a nice man came over and showed me how to open the trunk using the key (imagine that!) and put my bags inside for me. (Being an old lady has its perks) Then I had to find my way out of the parking lot. At the exit, a nice man came out of his booth and turned off the car’s lights for me. I began to have misgivings: was I competent to drive this red demon?  Then I had to find my way out of the airport. OK. I made it onto I-40, headed toward Lebanon.

There was only one tense moment after that when I was trying to find something on the radio that wasn’t ear-splitting and almost ran into a car in the next lane, over corrected, and rocked around for a heart-stopping minute. Fortunately there was no one within five hundred miles who knew me. So I didn’t need to be embarrassed!

When I got to the Lebanon exit, I was in my own territory. (Did you know that Lebanon is the Home of the Cracker Barrel Restaurant? Just a little bit of information you might need at some time in the future. No charge.)

From there, I took the narrow, twisting back road that runs along the Cumberland River, to Hartsville and the home of the Browning family–my mother’s–and the Nollners–my dad’s family.  West Texas doesn’t have roads like that.  Roads that run through green tunnels: trees that arch over and cast shade that makes me squint as, sun-blind, I plunge from light into shadow.  Narrow side roads slip off into the trees and the flowers of Fall, golden and lavender and white, bloom in the fences. So many small things that I’d forgotten to remember.

This is going home. At least, in part.