Over the years, one by one, my Dad and his brothers have returned to Black Hill Road. Its counterpart is Ivywood Road, both names amusing recent attempts by Van Buren County, Arkansas to give a pedigree to washboard dirt roads in the middle of nowhere in the Ozark foothills. Mamaw and Papaw raised their first kids there, before Papaw moved them away to preach elsewhere, and his people had built the house they lived in. By the time I came along, Mamaw and Papaw had returned to the area to retire, had bought a farm up the road, worked it until they died. I had spent many weekends there, sleeping on quilt pallets, trembling in fear at Papaw's fire and brimstone preaching at Old Euseba Baptist Church, churning ice cream outside, shelling purple hull peas into paper grocery sacks, watching Mamaw make fried pies and cornmeal dumplings.
After Mamaw and Papaw died, their house was sold (we bought the adjacent acreage) and there was no gathering place. "Old House"--the original homestead down the road--belonged to someone else. But as things go out there in the country, everyone knew the lineage of that house, and the fact that it sat on land another man happened to own made no difference. It was still the Ward place. The owner, too, had no reason to stand in the way of our family using the house on his investment acreage, so in the late 60s/early 70s, we all started using it again. My Uncle Joe, a contractor, fixed it up enough to make it weathertight. Cooking and heat were by fire; water was by well; bodily "business" was *cough* taken care of out of sight of people and in the presence of woodland creatures.
Even love couldn't best the passage of time, though, and eventually Old House crumbled and fell. In the meantime, my parents had gone in with Dad's younger brother Bill and his wife, Suzy, to buy 16 acres and a house on the other side of the family acreage. What started as a weekend getaway spot soon became Dad's primary residence. After he retired, he stayed there more and more. Mom goes up on weekends and they entertain there, but for all practical purposes, he lives there and she holds down the fort in the "city" apartment.
Bill and Suzy sold their share in the house and built their own cabin up the road...and another tiny one...and another one...and another one. "Cabin Village" was born. And when I was trying to raise money to buy my house in Minnesota several years ago, I sold Uncle Joe ten acres of my land, upon which he built HIS cabin.
The 3 remaining Ward boys (Bobby and Butch had already passed) now cultivate a practice of hospitality for their sisters, the rest of the family, and the many friends attached to them. Joe and Dad are writers; Bill is a photographer, and together they chronicle the old foodways and musicways and loveways of the family and the region. All tables are big. All cabins are 90% great room for eating and singing, 10% for sleeping. Fireplaces are central. Much of the traffic on Black Hill Road is the 3 brothers driving back and forth to each others' places. The rest of the family diaspora--from coast to coast, from north to south across the country--know that they can show up unannounced and be fallen upon with hugs around the neck, skillets of cornbread, extra logs thrown on the fire in the winter or a trip to the pond to fish in the summer.
The prevailing philosophy is DEGSAN: Don't Ever Get Shooked About Nothing...a phrase coined by Uncle Joe. There have been plenty of things to get "shooked" about over the years, from divorces to changing political and social arrangements to money woes to sickness and death of loved ones, but in the grand scheme of things, every one in the family knows that a visit to Black Hill Road holds the mightiest of quakes tight.
Soon I will build my own cabin there. Dad and I walked around the edge of the pond a couple of days ago and identified the ridge it would sit on. Dad is 80. His brothers are in their 70s. I feel a sense of urgency and responsibility, since the line of hospitality along Black Hill Road needs to stay unbroken.
Dad and Uncle Joe and Uncle Bill would, of course, just say "DEGSAN" to my handwringing, but this is what happens when young girls go away and grow up and only have the benefit of the mind's eye to know what a scissor-tailed flycatcher looks like on a fence wire.
In the meantime, I'm keeping my cornbread skillet seasoned.