My Kingdom for a Two-Lane
Our writer-at-large’s yearlong road trip is nigh. That means leaving behind the home his grandfather built in the Tennessee woods.
Beth and I weren’t married when my grandfather passed. How do you sum a man? Put him in words? He laughed like a jackal, but rarely. Grinned sly, never smiled. Spent his war years in the Navy, wrenching on Corsairs under the California sun and fighting nothing fiercer than farm boys twice his size, a lump of lead in his neckerchief to bring them down or stand him up. Raised three boys in a house smaller than a fair-sized flat. Worked. Always worked. And fought, always fought. His jobs. His cars. His house. His marriage. Himself. Finally, cancer. Got licked and did the licking, sometimes.
I see him, still. His granite hands in my oldest uncle’s grasp. His grey eyes in my father’s gaze. His proud profile in the shadow of his youngest.
He built this house in 1967 alongside an army of family. Brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, all just good enough at something to sew together a little white building in the woods with one neighbor and not much else. He stole a forest from the Park Service. Robbed them blind of their delicate saplings—maple, walnut, pecan, and dogwood—carried them all home in the tender warmth of his coat pockets. Wildflowers, too. Trillium and iris, tulip and coneflower, lady’s slipper and daffodil. All planted with abandon and nurtured up out of the hateful Tennessee clay. He loved to see things live.
Spring is an explosion, a deafening shout of color and life with neither plan nor program. Each reaching leaf feels like a line to the man, every soft petal a tether, tangible proof that he knelt here in the dirt where I kneel now. The feeling of it grabs me by the ribs.
He knew he was dying. Stopped turning his calendar but squared away the house anyhow. Drained his meager savings on new plumbing, HVAC, and a roof, and did it knowing it’d all out last him. He did it so his boys wouldn’t have to. Because carrying his blue casket would be all the burden any of them could stand.
He spent 41 years here. More than half his life. And even when he was gone, he wasn’t really. Our minds paint in associations; the groan of the front door, the warm dart of light from the kitchen, or the dark and quiet smell of the garage all called him up out of the emptiness. Sometimes they still do.
Beth and I bought his house from the estate almost eight years ago. We started our lives together here, neither of us certain we were doing the right thing by moving hours from our immediate families. It was a step we couldn’t have made otherwise, a chance to put our money towards something that was ours rather than shoveling it at a landlord. It was a gift. Or a curse. It’s been eight years of constant renovation, one small room at a time, pressing whatever money we had into trim and paint and doors. Into a kitchen, a bathroom. A nursery.
I have worked, always worked. Leveraged the skills my grandfather handed to his sons, who handed them to me. Weekends, lunches, nights. Pressed to make the place livable before our daughter arrived, skipped vacations and holidays. Conned an army of my own into coming to lend a hand, an entire generation of friends and family laying floor and putting up drywall. There isn’t a piece of this house I haven’t put hands on.
Asked why I was pouring so much into an old ranch in the poor part of town, I would’ve mumbled something about resale and gone back to swinging a hammer. I didn’t know why I was doing it. I couldn’t sit the way it was, doused in paneling, dark carpet, soaking in 30 years of my grandmother’s cigarette smoke. Maybe I had some vague concept of the future, and wanting the place to be something he’d have been proud to come home and find. Maybe I did it to honor him.
We finished the last room a few weeks ago, just in time to hit the road and leave it behind for good. In another year, there would have been a Bowman in this house for the past half-century. That’s no small thing for a rootless clan from the hills outside of Knoxville, as close as we’ll ever come to a homestead. It’s a pang, knowing I’m walking away from it, and it would split me down the middle if I couldn’t watch our daughter ramble from one end of the place to the other, chasing her mother and stopping to play in that same dart of sunlight from the kitchen.
Am I squandering what he gave us by turning for the horizon? Does it dishonor the sacrifices he made for his family? Does it diminish his work?
My uncles say no, that his gift wasn’t cinder block and mortar, oak and pine. That it wasn’t a strip of Tennessee dirt or the chorus of trees and flowers that spring from it each year. That it was the chance to go. That he loved to see things live.