Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sundays in the South

A realtor was quoted recently in the Washington Post Real Estate section saying, “Most buyers have no use for a living room.... It’s functionally obsolete...” Instead, people are converting those spaces to home offices, where they can work more quietly, and alone. The realtor then goes on to explain why: “Everyone here (in the D.C. area) is so uptight. We are so hustle and bustle. Everything is work mode.”

Perhaps this explains why I rarely go to people’s houses around here and sit in their living rooms and talk. Rarer, still, for my entire family to go to someone’s house for the sole purpose of sitting and talking together, as we did when I was growing up in the South. Now we are usually too busy on weekends. And even when we're not busy, we don't know that many other people who aren't busy or whose sudden lack-of-busyness coincides with ours. (I know, also, that some people never have us over because they are too busy to keep their houses clean).

When I was young, Sundays would find us sitting in our grandmother’s living room, joking and sharing with other family members. My Uncle Raymond and his wife and kids would come up every other week from Salisbury, 70 miles away, but most of the rest of us simply walked down the street to be there. We visited her during the week, as well, but those less formal visits were confined to her den or kitchen. On Sundays in the summer, we'd walk across the street to Aunt Maxie and Lola Belle's and sit on their front porch, amid large pots of Christmas stocking ferns, watching cars drive by while we rocked ourselves on their porch swing.

(When I returned to my grandmother’s house after going away to California for a few years, I was surprised at how small it was. The elegant couch and ashtrays with tiny pink china roses seemed almost ordinary, the room and house itself smaller than I remembered.)

I would get bored sitting there with my elderly aunts, my fidgeting cousins and smoking male relatives. Sometimes moments would pass with no one saying anything. Often the topic of conversation was who was sick in the neighborhood or who was having troubles in their lives, things I didn’t care to know as a child. In the winter, in the overheated house, I longed for fresh air and spring warmth.

But still I learned about my family, I learned the history of each of my relatives, and how we were akin to each other. I learned about how sweet my great-grandmother had been, how good with his hands my grandfather had been. We were surrounded by history. Maxie and Lola Belle lived in their parents' house; their brother and other sisters married and moved out, but they stayed on, adding a chandelier in the dining room, plush carpet in the living room, other parts of the house entirely unchanged, their father's furniture still in most of the rooms.

Now my own children hear about their great-grandmother intermittently, with no tangible thing to attach to the recollection, most of the people in my stories long gone. My grandmother's house was sold years ago and I don't know who lives there. There is never anyone outside it. No one is sitting on any of the porches in the neighborhood when I drive by. Perhaps they are inside, watching television together—or they are sitting alone in front of their computers, in their home offices, writing about the past.

(Pictured: My grandparents, in their living room, in an undated photo. He died when I was six.)

1 comment:

Eric K. said...

Beth, nice reminiscences. I don't think this only happened in the South, though.

My childhood in Iowa was very similar, with visits to my grandparents or other relatives on nearly every Sunday, which included a savory home-cooked meal, a nap and casual conversation.

Could it be that this sort of activity was rooted in an era, or perhaps more rural communities (we drove from Des Moines out to my grandparents' farm about 50 miles away)?