Home for me will always be the farm where I was born and where I lived until I was twenty-one. It lay—and lies still—at Dixie Lee Junction some twenty miles west of Knoxville.
My father was first chemist, then superintendent, and finally manager of the Lenoir Car Works, a small subsidiary of Southern Railway making iron wheels and other parts for boxcars at the nearby town of Lenoir City. My older brother is afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. Just before I was born in 1933, the family settled on the farm. My mother and father could not bear to put him in an institution, and the isolation of what was then a remote and rural place seemed to offer everyone freedom and safety.
And it was isolation—though now with the cancerous and unplanned urban sprawl of Knoxville eating almost to the edge of our farm and with good roads and the habit of commuting, the isolation I so vividly recall seems dreamlike and unreal.
I remember the sense of tremendous space—the windows of the room where I slept as a child opening onto the mysterious woods, the silence of nights broken by the occasional grumble of a truck shifting gears to pull the hill on Highway 11, or the eerie shriek of a southbound freight pounding through the dark at Martel some four miles away, its wildcat whistle howling like a great exuberant spirit set loose on the world.
After years and years I can remember the fall of morning light against the green leaves of the oaks and maples on the west side of the house in the spring. And I remember the unique smell of fresh-cut hay in the summer and the working smell of farmers that was compounded of sweat, chewing tobacco, hay, and dirt. I remember the smell of cool rain on hot grass. I remember the myriad singing of insects in the woods at night, the fireflies drifting in the hot summer evenings, the morning sound of church bells rung down from the Midway Baptist Church on the hill next to what we have always called our “upper field.”
We were Methodists in my early childhood and attended the Martel Methodist Church until a young preacher fresh out of Emory University told my mother that Jesus had made some mistakes.
We were Methodists in my early childhood and attended the Martel Methodist Church until a young preacher fresh out of Emory University told my mother that Jesus had made some mistakes. Then we started to the Midway Baptist Church—midway between Muddy Creek and Hickory Creek. The Baptists did not allow preachers to say Jesus had made mistakes. Besides, we could walk to Midway through the woods.
The church bell ringing out over Sunday morning called our community together. It seemed to gong rhythmically in a great calm, and the sound carried for miles. Some people drove to church. But many walked, and I remember the irregular processional down country roads, men and women and children in their Sunday best, coming to worship a God who in His majesty and terror seemed close to life as we knew it.
We lived intimately with nature, but this intimacy did not breed in us any sentimentality about the natural world. We knew the beauties, but we knew the terrors, too. My life on the farm fixed in me the abiding conviction that nature is not benign.
We were always running into snakes in unexpected places. One of my most vivid childhood recollections is of walking, at age four or five, in the furrow behind a neighborhood boy who was plowing our upper field with a horse. The plow ripped a thick blacksnake out of the moist earth. I can recall that writhing body erupting suddenly out of the clean soil, twisting and striking. I fled in panic. I remember a king snake in a bird’s nest, its body lumpy with the baby birds it had swallowed and all the adult birds around screaming ineffectually at its looped coils. One of my recurring dreams is of coming on snakes unexpectedly. Sometimes I have to get up and walk around the house, arousing myself to full wakefulness, to convince myself that the nightmare is only that—a nightmare.
The weather had its terrors, too. Once when I was very small, I was in the loft of our barn alone, playing in the hay when a sudden lightning storm blew up. I stood in the big hay window of the barn, shrieking in terror as the rain roared down on the galvanized tin roof and as the lightning crashed down with its burden of thunder out of a black sky. Once when we had a terrible storm at the country consolidated school called Farragut when I was in the first grade, I jumped up screaming from my little chair and ran all over the grammar school building while the principal and two teachers ran after me and finally subdued me by throwing themselves on top of me.
Rural people adapt themselves to the terror and the beauty and live with them both from day to day. We made pets of chickens, ducks, and calves—and then killed and ate them.
Rural people adapt themselves to the terror and the beauty and live with them both from day to day. We made pets of chickens, ducks, and calves—and then killed and ate them. We hunted and ate what we killed. We accepted some things that seem brutal in retrospect. We did not raise pigs because my mother thought they were too much trouble. But I recall watching pigs slaughtered at the farms of neighbors. Pig-killing time came in late November when the chill air kept the fresh meat from spoiling. The pigs were pierced in the hind legs with hooks and hauled alive up to a beam. Then someone with a long, sharp knife cut their throats one by one. The pigs squealed in shrieking terror and pain when they knew what was happening to them. The squealing went on and on until they died, and the gush of blood came in a flood, draining the carcass and making it easier to work with. But in the aftermath of slaughter, there was the sweetness of plenty. My mother exercised a strange sort of matriarchy over our neighborhood. (I never heard anyone outside the family call her anything but “Mrs. Marius.”) At killing time, people sent us packages of fresh meat, and we ate well.
I disliked many things about farm life. The worst was the tedium of its routines. I milked for several years until my mother was kind enough to get rid of our last milk cow when I was a sophomore in high school. Being rid of the cows meant that I could participate in after-school activities.
The routines of milking are implacable—6:30 in the morning and 6:30 at night, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks in the year. You cannot take cows on a vacation, and all the time I was growing up my family never took a holiday together. In winter it was a cold, dark walk to the barn. In summer the cow’s switching tail was a flail across the back of my neck.
Cows—and most other farm animals—are more than a nuisance. They are dangerous. I still have the caved-in place on my chest where a Jersey cow kicked me when I was ten, apparently breaking one or two of my ribs back from my breast bone. She objected to fingernails that I had carelessly let grow long. When I was in the first grade, the father of one of my friends was gored to death by a bull. A little later one of the boys in my room was kicked in the head by a mule and reduced to imbecility. I remember him tramping around the country as an adult and preaching ecstatically at primitive churches and tent revivals where people heard his repetitious babbling as a direct inspiration from God. My first-grade class picture reposes on my desk at Harvard. He looks out at me from the time before the mule kicked him—a somber child’s face under a blond shock of hair, a face pensive and uneasy at the camera. I never look at him without feeling a pang of grief.
Some of the isolation and the poverty seemed like fun at the time. I remember how leisurely people were with each other at night and on summer Sunday afternoons. We had almost nothing to do then but be together.
I remember how leisurely people were with each other at night and on summer Sunday afternoons. We had almost nothing to do then but be together.
The Midway Baptist Church had occasional “socials.” Somehow calling them “parties” seemed wicked to some of the deacons; so we called them “socials.” We had them in fields and in front of barns and scheduled them by the phases of the moon. We sat around big fires and roasted hot dogs, and then we played wildly active games under the moonlight—red rover, drop the handkerchief, and my favorite, flying Dutchman. Sometimes to this day at a dull party or at a Harvard faculty meeting I feel the urge to clap my hands and shout, “All right, everybody! Out in the yard for a round of flying Dutchman.”
When someone died, the neighborhood turned out. The night before the funeral people brought food to the house of the deceased. The corpse was usually laid out in a coffin propped up in the living room. In the old days, I was told, people were supposed to keep watch during the night to see if the corpse took a breath. People had a horror of being buried alive. At every watching of the dead I ever attended, the story circulated about a corpse—some¬times male, sometimes female—that had been exhumed for some reason or another, and the body was found with hair in its hands. The person had waked up in the grave and had torn his hair out before death finally came.
By my time, corpses were being embalmed. There was a macabre sort of comfort in the assurance that if you were not actually dead when people thought you were, the undertaker would kill you with his formaldehyde.
These watchings were social events. Neighbors drifted into the kitchen or out into the yard in summer and drank strong coffee and talked away the night. Some young people courted—though this practice was frowned upon by the upright. But then death was an excuse for young men and women to stay up after ten o’clock. Despite the presence of death, you could hear the gentle murmur of laughter when people told funny stories sometimes about the deceased. And sometimes theological discussions went on in a desultory flailing of Bible verses and speculative argument. Is it true that what is to be will be? When was Jesus coming again?
The graveyard of the Midway Baptist Church was the final repository of the community. It has always seemed a comfortable place to me. I used to know the graves by heart and the stories that went with them.
The graveyard of the Midway Baptist Church was the final repository of the community. It has always seemed a comfortable place to me. I used to know the graves by heart and the stories that went with them. Here was little Nanny May Foute whose picture was stamped on the tombstone by some photographic process that I never understood. She had jumped rope some five hundred times on a dare about 1927 and dropped dead of a hemorrhage of the brain. There she was and is, looking out forever young across the green quiet of our cemetery.
Lucy Lowe and Bobbie Harbin went for ice cream and a ride one night in August 1941 with a couple of boys in a new car. On a country road that ran down to the Tennessee River, the driver got confused by the moonlight on the water and thought it was the road stretching ahead. He drove at full speed into the ferry landing, and Lucy and Bobbie drowned. They were sixteen. Lucy had blond hair and laughed much. She used to let me sit on her lap on the schoolbus where there were never enough seats. Bobbie was chubby and used to come to sew with my sister.
They lie close to each other in our cemetery. Bobbie’s mother planted a flower garden on her grave. For years and years you could go up there and see Mrs. Harbin sitting by her daughter in the twilight. Now Mrs. Harbin is buried next to the girl she lost.
More than anything else I remember the stories. My mother’s people told the first stories I heard. They had all been born at a farm called Rattlesnake Springs which my great-grandfather James Curry bought from the Cherokee Indians when they were herded west in 1838 on the infamous Trail of Tears.
I don’t know what James Curry paid for the farm. The Cherokees were not in a position to bargain. But get it he did, and named it because he had to kill rattlesnakes by the hundred in the marshy basin where the spring water gushed out of the ground. The Indians were collected on his place to be driven west. One family tale was of a Cherokee man with a feverish wife who knocked at the door one night seeking help. My great grandmother nursed the woman, and when they departed, the man left a necklace of copper beads which, my mother recalled, was a green relic in the house when her family moved away around 1901. She did not know what happened to it.
Like many East Tennesseans, James Curry and his sons went north to fight for the blue and union in 1861. My mother, born in 1891, and her sisters and brothers could sit together in our big yard on summer nights and tell stories of what it had been like for their mother and the other women in the family to endure the War down there in Bradley County where most people espoused the Rebel cause. I can still tell many of those stories—though my own sons, urban and perennially occupied as they are, have never been interested in them.
Anyway, our community at Dixie Lee Junction had its own treasury of old tales. I got from a neighbor named Agnes Ginn the story of how a man about to be hanged in the county back in the nineteenth century stood under the noose and predicted rain during a horrible drought and how the rain came in a whooping storm that nearly tore the county apart the next day. Years after Mrs. Ginn died I adapted that story into my first novel, The Coming of Rain.
Molly Montgomery Hand, now buried in our graveyard, told me once that her father had fought for the Union and her father’s brother had fought for the Confederacy. There was bad blood between them all their lives afterwards, “Each one of them knew that the other one would have killed him if he’d had the chance,” she said.
My mother, born in 1891, and her sisters and brothers could sit together in our big yard on summer nights and tell stories of what it had been for their mother and the other women in the family to endure the War down there in Bradley County where most people espoused the Rebel cause. I can still tell many of those stories—though my own sons, urban and perennially occupied as they are, have never been interested in them.
We suppress the bad memories, but they are there. My family was not poor, but we lived side by side with people who were. Most people I knew had a hard time. The miracle is that most of them made it. When I went to Farragut School, many of the children were off subsistence farms. Many were sharecropper children. Sometime in grade school we started getting a federally assisted lunch program. A hot plate lunch cost eleven cents. Some families got the only cash they had from their tobacco allotment, and that was only a few hundred dollars a year. If they had two or three children, they could not afford eleven cents a day for a hot meal for each of them. Some of the children who brought their lunches wrapped in greasy paper probably ate better than the rest of us. One of the staples of the plate lunch at Farragut was corn pudding, a thick, greasy mess. The memory of corn pudding turns my stomach to this day.
But not long ago I talked to an old friend who is now a truck driver. He recalled that his mother used to fix him country ham with biscuits to take as his lunch to school. He was so ashamed to have to take his lunch while other children were buying theirs that he went out behind the school to wolf down his biscuits and then go back to pretend that he had eaten at the cafeteria. I recalled the corn pudding and told him that he had the better part. But the hurt was still in his face when he remembered.
At Farragut I went to school with children whose powers of survival in retrospect seem remarkable. I remember the boy whose father shot him with a shotgun, whether on purpose or by accident I do not recall. But I remember that child’s bad eye and how ready he was to fight with all of us, and how our first grade teacher Miss Elsie Llewellyn took him to Knoxville one Saturday and bought him a red-and-blue striped T-shirt that he then wore every day until it rotted off of his little body. I remember children coming barefoot to school long after the ground was cold, and I remember illness.
It seemed that people were sick all the time. When I think of Farragut School, I remember rooms filled with children coughing. The school was heated with soft coal, and I recall with great affection Mr. Thompson, our janitor, who labored with the great old furnace and kept our rooms hot and always spoke gently to us. I suppose that some children came to school when they were sick because they knew they could be warmer there than at home.
A little girl named Maudie May was, we thought, unusually dirty and misshapen. Poor children, fighting so hard for survival, are not generous with underdogs. To mock one or another of the boys, we would shout that this frail little creature was the unlucky boy’s sweetheart. The accused boy would deny it at the top of his lungs, sometimes with tears. These cruel jokes came to an end after the night Maudie May’s throat swelled up and she coughed herself to death.
For fifteen cents we got to sit enthralled and silent in the school auditorium with the heavy shades pulled and watch the romance and the happy endings that movies gave us then.
Not many children could get to town to see movies. We had “educational films” every Monday afternoon, and I always looked forward to them. They were about the war or about the Good Neighbor Policy or about how to do safe home canning. They were about exciting places and other worlds. Farragut provided feature films for us about once a month. For fifteen cents we got to sit enthralled and silent in the school auditorium with the heavy shades pulled and watch the romance and the happy endings that movies gave us then. When the principal pulled the shades down, we knew the glory was about to begin.
Many children could not afford the fifteen cents. And so they were herded into some of the large classrooms and put to doing something else while the rest of us trooped into the magic precincts of the glorious auditorium. The fiction was that you could choose to see the movies or choose to stay in a classroom. The reality was that children with fifteen cents chose to see the movies, and those with no money chose to stay away.
What I remember most was how uncomplaining these poor children were at being excluded. I saw then how poverty confers on its victims a certain set of expectations or perhaps a certain absence of expectations. This was the way life was. Some children went to movies, and some children did not. The poor are natural predestinarians. What is to be will be, and much of it will be bad.
One of these boys was Charley Slooksbury who used to wait for me outside the basement cafeteria at Farragut at lunch. My father gave me sixteen cents for lunch, and with the extra nickel I bought a Brown Cow—vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate and frozen onto a stick. Charley would descend on me and shout, “Gimme ducks,” and draw his dirty fingernail across a place about one third from the bottom of my Brown Cow. I could eat down to the fingernail line. Then I had to surrender the rest to Charley, or he would beat me up.
After the movies, which Charley could not afford to see, he would fall on me to get me to tell him the story. So I played David Copperfield to his Steerforth, telling him the stories while he listened rapt with pleasure, sometimes nodding in puzzlement and asking a question, sometimes filling in the parts as though he had seen the picture himself, sometimes running back over what I had said to be sure he had got it right, as if the movie had been some oracle and he had to get it right to make life work. He was a lovely bright and witty child, always happy—especially when he was eating the last of my ice cream—and I don’t know whatever happened to him.
We were an unruly lot, and some of our teachers ruled by the paddle. I recall with special detestation one of my third-grade teachers (we had three that year) who used to snatch us up from our desks for the slightest offense and beat us on the backside or on the hands with a ruler. I think she enjoyed hitting us. Years afterwards I ran into her in a Knoxville cafeteria and realized that time had not dimmed my loathing for her. I imagined picking up her fruit Jell-O and rubbing it into her snow-white hair. But of course I only smiled and told her it was nice to see her and fled as quickly as I could. Who could know? She may have carried a ruler still in her purse in case she met some old student like me.
But most of our teachers at Farragut were wonderful. I went to visit Miss Elsie Llewellyn as long as she lived and by the bye got caught up on which of my former classmates was in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary where her brother Mr. Frank was warden. When she died in December 1967, old and full of years as the Bible says, I was one of the five or six people who stood by her open grave to bury her. Her picture is on my desk with the members of my first-grade class, and I look at her and still think she was beautiful.
Suddenly there was our bus driver, Clayton Brown, being a handy man on stage and saying very funny things, and there was the high-school math teacher Mr. Crowder being a country father in search of his son who had run off to the evil city, and there was Gene Gibson, the high school agriculture teacher, playing a street bully, and it was all grand.
Mrs. Reynolds in the high school used to direct plays in the auditorium. I suppose they were not great plays, but they took us out of an ordinary world of routine and gave us a wonderful world of fantasy in its place. She mobilized students and grown-ups, and suddenly there was our bus driver, Clayton Brown, being a handy man on stage and saying very funny things, and there was the high-school math teacher Mr. Crowder being a country father in search of his son who had run off to the evil city, and there was Gene Gibson, the high school agriculture teacher, playing a street bully, and it was all grand.
Somebody had given the school a backdrop for outdoor scenes. It pulled down from the top at the back of the stage like a great shade, and there was a beautiful garden with three painted marble steps leading up to a walkway that led in a slant off to the right into a magical woods. The perspective made it breathtakingly real to little children. No matter what the play, that was the backdrop with its walkway and the great woods for all the outdoor scenes, and when we had PTA programs and speeches, somebody pulled the backdrop down because it was better than the naked stage. I loved that backdrop. In my mind I ran down that walkway into the woods a thousand times and came into a wonderland where everything was soft and gentle and bathed in endless spring light.
Miss Grace Boring was my fourth-grade teacher, and she had a beautiful singing voice. Once, standing in front of the enchantment of the backdrop, she did a solo version of a popular song called “Juanita,” and as she sang, her voice filling the auditorium, I could see the whole story unfolding before my mind—the Mexican woman choosing to leave her lover because of her family or something. His pleas that she remain. I don’t remember what. Maybe I made it all up. But it was sweet and sad, and when Miss Grace sang, I felt like crying from the beauty of it all—though of course I did not.
Ask thy soul if we should part
Lean thou on my heart.
In thy dark eyes’ splendor
Softly shines the southern moon;
Through the eastern window,
Comes the day too soon.
Everything has changed now. The monstrous ugliness of West Knoxville has eaten up the green land. The Midway Baptist Church has changed its name to the Dixie Lee Baptist Church and installed saccharine electronic chimes that ooze cloying hymns all over the neighborhood on Sunday mornings—a neighborhood going suburban and not going to church. Miss Elsie’s house surrounded by its huge oaks is gone, and a garish shopping mall sprawls on the spot. Old Farragut School is falling into ruin on the silent hill across the highway from a new Farragut School that is huge and sleek and marvelously modern.
I would not wish back days that had so much poverty, so much illness, so much tedium, and so much toil. Still I feel a pang of memory when I go home and see the changes, and I miss the things that are gone.
Things are better of course. And I would not wish back days that had so much poverty, so much illness, so much tedium, and so much toil. Still I feel a pang of memory when I go home and see the changes, and I miss the things that are gone. All the elders are dead. All the dirt roads have been paved, and people do not know the family that lives two houses away except by name and sometimes not even that.
One warm afternoon last June, driving from the farm to Knoxville I turned off the crowded highway and drove up onto the hill where the brick buildings of old Farragut School stand broken and abandoned. A soft breeze whispered in the branches of the huge elms. I walked around to the crumbling gymnasium where my third-grade class danced a Virginia reel to dedicate the building when it was new. I went into the basement cafeteria. And I went into the auditorium.
The interior of the auditorium was a wreck. All the windows were broken. The black shades had been torn down and lay in heaps on the floor amid shards of splintered glass. The seats had been pulled out of the floor and lay all hugger-mugger in a general litter of discarded paraphernalia. The backdrop with the long walk and the magical woods was gone. I walked up onto the stage and looked out on the desolation. And suddenly on impulse, I stepped forward and began to sing what I could remember of “Juanita.”
I must have presented a mad spectacle. A certain foretaste of embarrassment crossed my mind as I stood there singing to the emptiness, wondering in the upper room of thought how on earth I would explain myself to some passerby who might be drawn inside by the sound of a voice coming from such a place at such a time. But then I told myself that the home that lies always in our memories requires no explanation. I thought of all those children who had once sat there, all those teachers, all our faces expectantly upturned waiting for something, all those ordinary people who had created for me such extraordinary memories, all the life and fantasy embraced within those once-proud walls, all the years of childhood.
And I sang on to the end.
[This article appeared originally on January 13, 2011.]
Richard Marius (1933-1999) was born in East Tennessee and grew up on a farm outside of Knoxville. He wrote four well-reviewed novels set in fictional Bourbon County, Tennessee. A brief biography of Marius is available here. This essay originally appeared in Touchstone, a publication of Humanities Tennessee, in 1986.