“Don’t you ever say that you have a small family, because you have family here, a big family.”
A bittersweet visit to North Carolina February 10, 2010
It’s blizzarding right now in New York. I’m not there though – I’m in North Carolina! I flew in Monday night for my Uncle Pat’s funeral. Now my flight is cancelled, so I’m relaxing and catching up on the blog.
Did you know I’m from North Carolina? I grew up in Sanford, North Carolina, right near the famous golf courses of Pinehurst. My late father’s whole side of the family is here. There’s a Wicker Street, and Wicker recreation center, and acres and acres of land that has been passed down through the family.
Right now I’m sitting on that land, at the Brinker’s house. They’re actually my dad’s cousins, but I call Mary and Bill my Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill, and their children my cousins. They’ve got a whole brood of children – seven of them – and grandchildren too. Last night the house was full of the family and friends: the toddler twins wrestling on the ground and a burbling baby being passed form person to person, the grownups drinking Bloody Marys and ginger lemon martinis, and couples snuggling on the couch. I went to my cousin Walter’s basketball game, and ate some organic lasagna that Mary made for dinner.
It’s so nice to escape the fast life in New York and take on this slower pace of life. So I’m definitely ok with spending an extra day here while I wait on the blizzard. Bring on the snow! Instead of working I’ll be taking walks around the property and petting the cows.
Sarah, one of that big brood, is sitting to my right this morning, watching a video on permaculture. She’s my favorite cousin and one of my sister’s best friends, a bridesmaid in her wedding last summer. She’s deeply into the sustainability movement too, so you know she and I get along! In March she’s going to Burkina Faso to talk to officials there about permaculture. “Good,” I told her. “Get to them before Monsanto does!”
All around me are the results of Mary’s frequent antiquing trips: wooden bowls full of flowers and dyed seed pods, a hog-slaughtering table for a coffee table still full of knife marks in the soft wood, benches, wooden statues, well-worn rugs, duck decoys…I couldn’t catalogue it all if I had ten pages to write. If I look outside to my right, I can see the barn with the horses, and beyond that the piney woods.
The house is situated adjacent to “Aunt Sally’s and Uncle Pat’s House,” as I always called it since I was a little girl. Last time I was here, my younger cousin Oberlin threw a blanket on one of the horse, saddled up a horse for me, and we cantered through the woods and across the pasture to Aunt Sally’s, stopping on the way to pick pears for us and horses. And when we got back to Mary’s, she had a blackberry cobbler waiting for us, made out of fresh picked berries right from the land. I mean, how cool is that?
Aunt Sally and Uncle Pat are actually my great uncle and aunt and my late father’s side. When I was very young they were still raising beef cattle on the piece of land known as “PatWic Acres”, a combination of the Patterson and Wicker family names. pasture that skirted Route 1 through the little town of Sanford.
When my mother and I would pull up the white gravel drive and around to the front of the house, Aunt Sally would come out of the door and shriek in pleasure, and invite us in for sweet tea and gossip. Uncle Pat would be in his old armchair, smoking his pipe. Or maybe they would both be out in their expansive garden, and would emerge with dirty smeared all over their clothing and a smile on their faces. “She looks just like Butch,” Aunt Sally always says as she envelopes me in a hug and examines my face. (Butch is what the Sanford family called my dad. His real name was Walter. But Butch sounds so much more Southern and friendly, don’t you think?)
Aunt Sally and Uncle Pat’s house is a treasure. They’ve lived there since they were married, 66 years ago. Before that, Pat’s parents lived in the little white house nearby, on those same hundreds of acres. The old part of the house is cozy and dim, stuffed with baskets, crocheted coverlets, old wooden furniture, and family photos. It has that peculiar smell of a well-loved, old house. Not really musty…it’s more an accumulated smell of whole lives lived in those rooms, augmented with fresh flowers and home cookin’. The newer addition, which they added about twelve years ago, is a light-filled room with huge windows that look out over the garden and pasture. The walls are covered, and I mean covered, with farm artwork: oil paintings of cows, geese, horses, sheep, you name it. There are duck decoys lining the shelves and pieces of furniture that Uncle Pat carved himself out back in the shed.
There were always things to do at Aunt Sally’s and Uncle Pat’s. I could ring the huge, rusty bell that used to call the farmhands in. Or I could follow the mossy stepping stones into a secret place made of intertwined branches and wildflowers, with a small stone girl standing watch. I could sprint across the lawns carefully lined with all manner of plants and flowering shrubs, or rest in the shade of the giant magnolia.
When I was really little, I remember picking my way across the cow pasture, trying to avoid the cow patties, to the little pond where the geese lived, or entering the barn to see Uncle pat feed the cows. I had my first encounters with horses, when Aunt Sally showed me how to hold my little hand flat so the horse could nibble up the sugar cube.
Aunt Sally would pull up rocks so I could see the roly-polies (like tiny little insect armidillos) roll up into tiny balls to protect themselves. One time Uncle Pat accidentally ran over a little turtle with his lawn mower and broke its leg. So he gave it to me, entrusting me with its rehabilitation before I let it go in our lake.
My favorite thing to do was have tea inside the little playhouse in the garden. Aunt Sally would get out the Nilla Wafers and sweet tea, tin plates and tea cups, and cart them out to that tiny little house with glass windows and wallpaper and framed pictures of little girls on the wall. It even had a tiny porch and a windowbox of flowers. And we would have tea and gossip.
If we weren’t outside, we were having a good time in the house. If Aunt Sally was busy, she would dump out a huge basket full of toy cars and horses for me to play with. (Those same toy cars are still there – a little girl was pawing through them yesterday!) Or she would open a wooden box and pull out well-worn cards for a game. I liked spending the night in the four poster beds deep inside the old part of the farm house. And Aunt Sally can cook like any good Southern woman!
Uncle Pat retired from raising cattle a while ago, but Mary now has ten of them out there, grazing on the rain-soaked pasture. Sarah and Oberlin were just picking through the barn yesterday, searching for materials for a chicken wagon. If you’ve read Michael Pollan, or seen the movies Fresh and Food Inc., you’ll recognize the makings of a Polyface-type farm operation.
Not everything has changed for the better. The farms surrounding Aunt Sally and Uncle Pat’s have all been sold off and replaced with factories. Sally and Pat shelled out for a 10-foot tall wooden fence, complete with mirrors and an automatic door, that runs all the way around the property, but you can still here the steady hum of machines.
The garden has been neglected for the past ten years, as Uncle Pat’s health declined. It was always a huge project, enough to keep two passionate gardeners busy all year round. Now things have gone a little wild and rambling.
My sister, mom and I picked up and moved to Maryland when I was nine, leaving all this behind. I’ve encountered so many of my relatives, who I haven’t seen since I was seven or eight when we moved up to Maryland. It makes me sad, because I think of what might have been if my father hadn’t died when I was three. I would have been surrounded by this huge branching family tree that is deeply woven into the history of Sanford.
I kind of miss it.