Memoirs of Trauma

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Rick Bragg (essay date 18 September 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2051

SOURCE: "If the Doorbell's Ringing, It Must Be Home," in The New York Times, September 18, 1997, p. F20.

[In the following essay, adapted from his memoir, All Over but the Shoutin', Bragg relates his mother's lifelong yearning for a home of her own.]

All her life my momma had lived in other people's houses. Sometimes through cheap rent, sometimes through charity, she had lived beholden. The closest thing we had ever had to a home of our own was a small trailer we lived in for only a few months, when I was a boy.

Through it all, my mamma never said she wanted a house. She never even hinted. But if you could have seen her face when we rode down the rural roads of Calhoun County, Ala., heard her talk about how this house is an A-frame and that one is a Victorian, about how this one will need painting in a few years and that one has just got a new covering of aluminum siding, you would know.

She is the daughter of a carpenter, after all, a man who lived his whole life building other people's houses and never owned one of his own. I guess she never expected to own one, either.

When I was a teen-ager, she used to order catalogues from the Jim Walter Company, which was famous for building "affordable housing." These were neat, nice, small real-wood houses, usually white, with porches. She would flip through the pages like a child flipping through a toy catalogue, wishing. But there was no money for land, even if we could have ever saved enough to build anything bigger than a doghouse. You can dream on welfare. You can hope as you take in ironing. It is just less painful if you don't.

We all try to buy our way into heaven, one way or another. Some use the genuine currency of faith. Others, like me, try to barter, as if the great Hereafter were a swap meet in the clouds. Me, I'd always figured that if I did right by my momma, I had a shot.

I kept my promise to her on Nov. 2, 1996. I bought her a good four-bedroom house, the first thing of any real value she has ever owned. She never had a wedding ring, or a decent car or even a set of furniture that matched. But now she had a house.

Made of beige brick with dark green shutters, it sits on top of a hill—she has always wanted to live on a hill—but it is not so steep that she will have a hard time walking down to the mailbox every afternoon. It has a porch on the front, and in the summertime she can sit there in the cool of the evening and snap beans or just wave at the cars.

It has 13 acres, with room for squirrels and ugly dogs and family. If it had been up to me, I would have bought her a white Victorian in town, one of those homes where she used to scrub floors. I would have done it for the pure poetic justice of it. But she wanted nothing to do with town. She wanted to walk in the pines and smell the wood smoke and plant rose of Sharon. She wanted her dog, the remarkably unattractive Gizzard, to live out his last, limping days in the country. She wanted to live as she had always lived, with room for a small garden and space to pace away her troubles, only on...

(This entire section contains 2051 words.)

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her own ground.

She picked out the house because she thought it was pretty, because it was close to my brother Sam's house and my other kinfolk, because the hill would always have a good breeze on it. We went to look at it, scuffed along the wall-to-wall carpet, opened the oven in the nice, roomy kitchen where she would can her jellies and peppers and green tomatoes. We flushed the toilets in all three bathrooms, walked down into the full basement and the "family room," twisted the dial on the thermostat to hear the heat pump click on. I saw her reach up to feel the cool air rush in and saw her smile.

"I won't run it 'cept on the real hot days," she told me. In the basement family room there is a fancy new wood heater with a rock fireplace, which she said she would use sometimes. I made it plain to her that the reason for buying this house was so that she could grow old in some comfort, that she wouldn't have to tote wood anymore to stay warm. She pretended not to hear me—there is no arguing with my momma's back—and went on talking about how the wood heater would heat that whole house, if she blocked off the space she didn't need.

She kept wandering back to the kitchen, with so many cabinets, so much space, such nice, clean space. "It's a lot of house for one woman," the real estate agent said, but I told him no, it was just right.

Then he told me what he was asking for it, and I saw my momma's eyes drop and her dream snap closed, because to a woman who had lived with next to nothing, that very reasonable price seemed impossible. She walked outside and stood in the yard, and wouldn't talk about it much, after that. Now and then she would slip in conversation and call it "my house." She drew pictures of it, but she never asked for it again.

It took a few months to close, until the November day when I showed up at her door unannounced, and told her she owned it. She smiled, as wide as I have ever seen her smile, and the tears pooled in her eyes. She asked me if we could afford the mortgage payments, and I told her there were none. It was hers.

My brother Sam went to work on it, fixing all the little things it needed, making a pretty house much prettier. He sawed down unwanted, spindly trees and crawled over it and under it, with a hammer in his hand and nails in his teeth, to make it perfect.

One night we sat in his living room, trying to decide between tan and off-white for the trim, and it struck us how odd that was. "Did you ever think we'd be doing this?" I asked him, and he shook his head. But there was no celebrating.

You celebrate winning, not just catching up.

"Did you know it had a doorbell?" my momma asked me. "I never had a doorbell." I asked her if the sound of it bothered her, and she shook her head. "I kind of like it."

Some weeks later I was talking to Sam on the telephone. He told me he was a little worried about one thing. "She rings her own doorbell," he said.

I told him to let her ring it till she wore it out.

There wasn't much to move, really, and memories don't weigh nothin'. She took a chrome and vinyl couch and chair, leftovers from some doctor's office, and took her washing machine, which she had nicknamed "Old Smokey," because a fire had blackened the white paint. Smokey didn't look like much and was prone to dance across the floor, as if possessed by demons on the spin cycle, but you couldn't kill him with a gun. "Still runs; don't leak," Momma said, refusing to let us get her a new washer.

The night after my momma's first full day in her new house, my little brother came to see her. Mark was drinking, a little bit. We had all asked him not to come there.

I don't know what right we had to say that or expect him to comply.

My big brother, Sam, drove up at about the same time, just to check on her. They faced off in the yard.

I guess Sam and Mark had to fight. They had to, because of who we are.

Sam fought because he believed he was protecting her. Mark fought because he felt he was being pushed away, which I guess is about the worst feeling in the world.

So, on my momma's second night in her new house, a 40-year-old man and his 33-year-old brother are fighting mean and earnest in the front yard of the very symbol of our new beginning. My momma introduced herself to her new neighbors not by taking them a jar of homemade jelly, or some pickled banana pepper, but by running to them for help.

Finally, they broke apart and it was just over. Sam only did what he believed I would have done. He did it to keep something good in her life from being tarnished.

But of course Momma didn't see it that way. She has tolerated drunks all her life; she is good at it. She expects it, like she expects the sun to rise in the morning. Instead of being angry at my little brother, her baby, she was mostly mad at Sam.

So, instead of fixing anything, I only built a stage, a prop, for another sadness. Even though I couldn't make everything right with the simple purchase of a house, I wanted to believe it would at least be someplace fresh, free for a while of that lingering aroma of dusty pain. And then I knew that maybe I had bought this house more to redo the past than to make her dreams come true.

It got better, of course. By Thanksgiving, Sam and Momma were working side by side again. She held the ladder for him, passing him nails and cooked him biscuits.

We had Thanksgiving dinner with Sam and his family, my Aunt Jo and Uncle John. Momma used every rack in the oven. And there were biscuits and dressing and mashed potatoes and pinto beans with a hambone as big as my fist, and a turkey that fell off the bone. For the first time ever we all sat in the same room and ate, because it was the first time we had ever had a room big enough to gather in. We tried hard not to notice the empty chair.

We started painting the wood trim and concrete block portions right after Thanksgiving. My momma paints as high as she can reach, and Sam paints the rest. It doesn't bother her at all that the wooden part of the house is forest green in some places and "ivory" in others. She isn't like me, as I said.

In the guest bathroom, I noticed that the towel said "Emory Hospital" on it. Stolen, no doubt, and given to my momma in one of those boxes of donated clothes. Just on a hunch I went to the next bathroom. The towel there said, "Peninsula Medical Center," and I started to laugh.

Of course, you can't buy respectability with a house. I had wanted her to have a place where she could be more comfortable, where she could enjoy the good times in her life and tolerate the bad. And she has exactly that. But I had set my hopes on something higher. I wanted to redo the past, feel that we had won, after all.

Well, we have.

She has a split-level castle with stolen towels.

She has a four-bedroom, brick-facade mansion with vinyl furniture scavenged from a closed-down doctor's office.

She has a home.

"The thing we got to remember," I told her, "is that we ain't gonna be any different here. We just got a little bit better place to be us in."

The squirrels have been raiding the old hickory nut tree in the neat, green front yard, leaving a carpet of dark hulls on the lawn. It is a good sign, that tree. It is hard to be lonely with a yard full of gray squirrels.

This summer, Momma has smothered the house in flowers.

But it being us, the yard may just blossom with junk cars, too.

"No, it ain't going to be that way," she insisted. "It's going to be real purty."

It may be somewhere in between. And we will live with that.


Anthony Walton (review date 14 September 1997)