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Home, without a house — that’s where family memories live

POSTED: August 22, 2010 1:00 a.m.

On both sides of my family there is a story of a hardscrabble upbringing. Grandmother Blackwood was widowed at a young age with four little boys to raise.

She brought them to Atlanta, where she worked as a nurse.

On my mother's side was Papa Stone, my maternal grandfather, who died when I was 8. He was a sharecropper farmer who kept a family together during The Great Depression.

Neither of my grandparents owned a home so there is no homeplace, at least in the terms of a house filled with childhood memories.

The closest thing to that is Gratis. It's a little crossroads in the north part of Walton County. The anchor of the community is Center Hill Baptist Church, where my mother and her siblings first heard the stories of Jesus.

I went back there recently for homecoming, the annual Sunday when folks come from miles around to go to church with their family members. Most of my cousins were there, as well as our patriarch, Uncle Harry.

Harry is the last of the four Stone children of his generation. He will turn 88 in October and is fighting a battle with the effects of age. His heart, mended by open-heart surgery in the 1970s, is failing and he struggles to get around. His hearing is also failing and a phone call to him involves a great deal of slow, deliberate speaking.

In 2001, Harry was a much more vibrant man. I took him to New York for Memorial Day weekend. I took him to the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I made his picture with those towers in the background.

It was just three months later that a terrorist attack would level those towers. Harry is still very proud of the picture, a memorial of sorts to what happened on that fateful day.

My mama was named Betty, and when I go to Gratis, I am known as "Betty's Boy." I may be 50, but I'm stuck in a time warp at my mother's home community. There is actually something to be said for being called a boy when you are more than halfway through this life.

There is a combination of joy and sadness at an event like this. There is the joy of seeing relatives that you only see once a year. You look around and realize some of the elders are gone and you look at those who survive and you mentally wonder if this might be their last time at this gathering.

The images of the place are etched in my mind. I can remember the days when the roads leading to the church were dirt. There was the old school building next door where my mama and her siblings got their early learning.

Just down the road was the old country store where Papa used to sit on a bench and tell lively and colorful stories. Nearby are the fields where my mama picked cotton until her hands bled.

There may not be a house, but this is truly home.

Harris Blackwood is a columnist for The Times. His column appears every week in Sunday Life.



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