Today (meaning, when I started the draft of this post on 26 October) we signed the sale of our childhood home.
Strange — especially since Hannah was signing for both of us, though I was included via phone from 4,836 miles away (or at least that is the number you get when you google “How many miles is it from Vienna to Knoxville”).
Good — because we are so happy about the buyers . . . a young couple who cherish old things and are excited (?!) about upkeep of an old house. Moreover, like our parents who bought the house 37 years ago, they look forward to practicing hospitality, tending their part of the garden and enjoying the fruit of their hands, delighting in children’s laughter wafting in from the big yard, and investing their time and energy for the gospel, whether locally or across the globe.
Sad — not really yet, but probably later. Less sad because I suppose I can invite myself over for coffee some time.
It seems like the right day to try to put down on paper some of what this little corner of Tennessee means to me. What comes to mind are some of the smells and sounds of home and what the house and yard contain of wealth than can’t be lost when the physical property passes on to new owners.
Smells — Dad mowing the lawn. Man, I love that smell of fresh-cut grass, with maybe just a tinge of fumes from the mower mixed in. The summer evenings, still and peaceful but still plenty hot and humid, and the mingling sound and scent of Dad finishing off the lawn before dusk settles.
Other smells — countless kitchen aromas. That kitchen — the center of almost any home, and most definitely the best room of our house. If Mom was cooking or baking, there was a very big chance that I, or both Hannah and I, were at her elbow, eager to stir and taste what was being concocted. Who doesn’t love the smell of onions sautéing, promising any of dozens of potential dinners within the next hour or so? Or the remarkable once-a-year olfactory treat of an apple pie or a blackberry pie in the oven? Or the comfortingly familiar scent of Sunday night popcorn? Or the pungent odor of parmesan sprinkled across the birthday-dinner turkey-tetrazzini, the kind of smell you might not like if you didn’t know it was cheese?
Sounds — Well, there was the inescapable volume of the solid old upright piano, which saw us from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to Brahms or Beethoven. (How many afternoons did Mom sit next to the piano writing letters and taking in the music — or other times listening from the kitchen and calling out reminders to slow down or play more accurately?!) Or the beloved record player — Handel’s Messiah or Vaughan Williams’ Hodie and other Christmas favorites that accompanied tree decorating and the whole Christmas season — or the less frequently played Bob Dillan or (totally random) synthesizer Bach. And the muted roar of college football, an acquired taste we Holder women never acquired (though Hannah and I might now be moved by it with a certain nostalgia). And the tones of East Tennessee itself — cicadas and crickets winding up their nightly music boxes, while lightning bugs danced in the humid July air. We liked to watch the fireflies from our beds, the shades raised enough to invite in whatever summer night breeze just might be stirring outside. Probably the best sound of my childhood was the sound of books being read aloud. I remember Dad sitting down with us on the couch to introduce us to Hobbits. Much of the reading, though, happened in the kitchen, with Mom reading while we girls ate lunch during home schooling years or while we washed dishes in the evenings. Together we took in Charles Dickens and Philip Yancey, the Mitford series and Moby Dick (ugh), spellbinding historical biography (Endurance) and classic children’s literature like The Wind in the Willows — oh how Toad made us laugh!
Smells, tastes, sounds. Spaces. For starters, the dining room — the furniture Mom loved, fitting just so and offering a sort of elegance that suited her unique mix of frugal and proper. The scene of countless meals with guests, usually followed by a game (dominoes, Pictionary, the poem game, zilch), dessert always delayed till we had supposedly worked up a bit more appetite. Most days, though, the table was where Mom read the Bible and prayed in the morning and where she often sat to write letters.
Dad had his own prayer closet — literally. Because the kitchen had enough storage space, Dad made the pantry his “study,” a miniscule space stuffed with desk, stool, shelves, books, papers, family pictures. Countless mornings he was cloistered there before the rest of us were awake — a narrow beam of light escaping from the crack between door and doorframe or a squeak of his chair indicating he hadn’t left for work yet.
Back to the dining room for a moment: Hannah and I liked that room partly because of the heating register there — somehow that register was warmer than the others, or at least it was about the only one set in a carpeted floor. As little (and not so little) kids, we liked to sit right next to the register, intermittent blasts of hot air billowing up under old-fashioned flannel night gowns or beloved quilts. Both of us still sing the praises of the heat produced by the kerosene furnace of our early years, which was more satisfyingly warm than that produced by the gas furnace to follow.
Of course, there aren’t just warm, cozy memories of the place, but sad things, too — to deny it would be to paint the wrong picture. But raised voices, out-and-out arguments, and patterns of misunderstanding hardly invite nearer description. There were also lots of apologies and a sizeable portion of forbearance — and lots and lots of laughter. Oh man, for another of those volleys of hysterical laughter with Mom and Hannah after supper, the three of us still sitting around the dinner table and Dad already off to watch the nightly news. Something would get us going, and then Dad would appear, curious and slightly bewildered by what could have come over us in the space of just a few minutes. We couldn’t really explain.
Moving outside, more memories show up, clamoring for recognition. There’s the view out the front door — the hazy parade of the Smoky Mountains, the nearer green hills, the fog painting the river’s course — oh, the many beautiful sunrises we’ve enjoyed from that vantage point. In the side yard on the bedroom side, there’s the strapping tulip popular tree Dad planted when I was in the fourth grade, it’s upper branches now far above the roofline. On the same side of the house, the old pecan tree — some years not a nut to be found, or then again one year a bumper crop — same with the peach trees on the driveway side.
In the backyard, the veggie garden and old smoke house. For a number of years a treehouse — and, even better — a rope bridge leading to it from the now deceased oak.
Speaking of trees, the sycamore that shaded the western side of the house so many years is worth mentioning not only for its shade and the copious quantity of leaves it let fall this time of year, but also for the big rope swing Dad hung from it. That same tree, or the neighboring maples, supplied with their shallow roots one of the hillbilly-golf features of our croquet lawns — “lawns” being a euphemism for the sloping, bumpy, or downright steep courts where we honed our skills. How many games did Dad and Hannah and I play — punctuated by yells and howls of delight and dismay! I must say, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Hannah and I are competitive, having Ron Holder, the soul of competition (and good sportsmanship), for our dad!
Other sports tended to spill into the neighbors’ even bigger yard. Frisby and baseball were favorites — I still remember the time Dad told us he’d take us to Disney World if we could catch his next fly ball. I’m not a good catch, but I caught the ball. We didn’t make it to Disney (which I don’t regret), but eventually we tasted real rollercoasters on a summer vacation up the East Coast — Dad and our uncle promptly getting motion sickness and Hannah and I rather enjoying the thrill and not one bit queasy.
Back to trees, the same old sycamore served as a popular “fairy house” site. We loved to gather twigs and moss to build miniature houses, one imaginative past time among many in a childhood blissfully free of digital dependence and ignorant of the very existence of cell phones.
When I think about growing up and doing it in the same house since age one, I think especially of routine, of ordinary days, of a certain predictability. Sometimes that bred a bit of boredom and plenty of wishful imagining of what life might be like some day. I remember playing in the backyard, hearing and watching a plane high overhead, thinking how amazing it must be to fly. Would I ever get to be in an airplane myself? Two to three decades later, I feel a reverse longing for the simplicity of that childhood moment every time an otherwise quiet summer day is interrupted by the distant hum of an airplane.
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts our parents gave us was to grow up with the stability of quiet routines. For that I’m grateful.
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Smells. Turkey coming out of the oven while international guests watched a bird being carved for the first time. So many batches of homemade bread. Christmas baking. Curry dishes. All those amazing aromas you mention. And the terrible, mysterious smell that eluded us for years and turned out to be an old light fixture.
Sights. The sunlight coming in the kitchen windows all afternoon and evening and the leafy shadows on the kitchen wall. Water rushing down the driveway in a huge storm. The pattern of Christmas lights shining through cedar needles onto the ceiling in an otherwise dark room as we ate Christmas cookies by candlelight and listened to the Glen Ellen children’s choir and organ after decorating the tree as a family.
Sounds. A record of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played as we went to bed. Mom listening for years to Elisabeth Eliot’s short daily radio broadcast (and doing a few stretches and exercises while she listened). Laughing with our family and Aunt Renie over dictionary words zyzzyva and zarf. Popcorn popping every Sunday night for a simple dinner with fruit and cheese.
Assorted. So many meals of garden vegetables after we helped Dad plant and Mom harvest. Pretend tea parties with doll dishes in the sunroom before the room turned into storage. Using the coffee table both as a slide (with one end propped up on the couch) and as a shuffle board court; Mom let us draw the scoring triangles on the table with crayon and leave it like that for weeks! Many jigsaw puzzles occupying the dining room table over Christmas break. Two person games in the hallway that involved balls, rackets, and closing all the doors. Hide and seek in the dark with Dad. Three o’clock coffee with Mom whenever we were home to join her. So many thousands of laps walked or run or cycled around the block. Joining Dad on the roof several times. Playing on our ladder swing set and sheet metal slide that was an accident and tetanus waiting to happen. The sandbox in the smokehouse and the various horses we kept; several of the latter got out, including a pony, a lively colt, and a Clydesdale.