|Vol. IX, No. 2, 1996|
by Jamie Cox
Jamie Cox, a native of Ellington, Missouri responds to an article previously published in Missouri Magazine by Nancy Averett. The Averett article was reprinted in part in OzarksWatch, Volume IX, no. 1, 1996. The quality of life at any place, Ms. Cox argues, is not precisely observable by a visiting journalist. Much of it must be felt.
Ellington, Reynolds County, is in the southeast Missouri Ozarks.
Recently, my hometown was visited by a journalist. I was disappointed to learn that this visitor, who is trained to see beyond the surface, came to Ellington and failed to do just that. It seems to me upon entering a town that appears to offer so little, a journalist would want to know what makes people want to live here. What does such a town have to offer? Ellington, a small community in Southeast Missouri, one like many other rural American towns, may be socially and culturally deprived, and many of them are undeniably economically depressed, but the sense of home and the chance to have a childhood are endangered attributes that still exist in these towns and make up for the things they may lack. Had the journalist pressed the residents about why they live in Ellington, Missouri, most of them would have told her about their family tree, their roots, their history, their traditions. The undercurrent that flows through such stories sends a strong message--the importance they place on, and the pride they take in, their homes and families.
These personal accounts of days past is essentially a way of defining home and saying that here, in this land, I am home. For these people, home is not an address with socially elite neighbors, handy to the mall and the megamarket, in a safe part of town. It's about living and dying, surrounded by those whose blood runs common through soil and sky.
It's all really so very simple. Home is about gardening with grandma, fishing with grandpa, and playing hide-n-go-seek with cousins, while in the living room grown-ups gossip and recall that Great-grandma Hettie was a Chilton. Home is a place where a child can have a childhood, and an adult can recall---even relive--childhood without fear or shame.
Even now, no matter where I live, I often think of growing up on a hill three miles outside of Ellington. With the changing of the seasons, I remember blooming, greening, growing, falling, and resting. Each season has its own set of memories, and I suppose it is those memories that call most clearly to me from home.
Springtime was Mom's favorite. Our hill was covered with trees and wild shrubbery of all kind. Almost before winter loosed its grip, "sarviceberry" blooms sent their sweet messages throughout the woods. Then came the dogwoods, so sudden and magically white against a still-stark background it was easy to believe the four petals stood for the four points of the cross and the center the crown of thorns. Mom would clip a few and arrange a bouquet to use as a center-piece at the Easter Sunday dinner.
The grandparents always came to our house on Easter Sunday; and our cat never failed to have kittens on that day or a day before or after the holiday. My granddaddy's birthday was in the spring. Grandma always made a great fuss over birthdays, so if the weather was warm we would sit outside on the porch when he opened his presents.
I loved summer because Mom would let me go barefoot. She knew just when the ground was warm enough for my feet. I would swing on my swing set and sing the Baptist hymns I had heard at church the Sunday before. Then Mom would yell from the patio door that lunch (usually my favorite--grilled cheese sandwich and Kool-Aid) was ready and I would leap from my swing and mark my landing spot--just in case it was a record setting jump.
"Wash your hands, young lady," I'd hear the second I walked through the door.
Sometimes I'd come inside to the smell of chocolate chip cookies. That was the grandest aroma. My big brother always waited for the second batch because "the second batch is always better" he'd explain, but I never had the patience.
Dad made certain that our yard was as smooth and green as astroturf. It isn't as large as it seemed to me then, but it was all the world a child could want. When it was too hot to do much of anything else, my brother and I would get out the garden hose and dance through the spray screaming and laughing. With the one possible exception of our annual week at Grandma's house, I believe those days with the garden hose were the best summer had to offer.
Fall eased onto our hill like an old friend. My brother and I raked the leaves into mazes. Then when we were finished finding our way through sibling deviousness, we'd make a pile at the bottom of the sliding board and lose ourselves amidst the dying summer. This was autumn at home. One autumn everything changed and I thought I was going to die--I went to college. I felt like an empty bottle floating on an aimless sea. Then I'd call home and everything was all right.
Every year autumn eventually turned to winter and winter had a way of settling in with us like in-laws. Snow days would go on for weeks causing cabin fever and allergic reactions to siblings. Dad would leave for the mill in the morning with his trailer hooked to the back of his pickup and come home with the trailer filled with woodblocks. We would go outside to help unload the wood because supper was never ready until all of the wood was unloaded. Dad was such a hard worker. Even when he came home from work, he worked. In the winter Mom cooked. Cooking was not one of Mom's favorite things to do, but we could count on her to make vegetable beef stew during those long cold months. Sometimes she'd make cinnamon rolls. Cabin fever didn't stand a chance against the aroma of her cinnamon rolls.
In the past few years changes, the unpredictable-predictable sort, have come. Change, even in the most unchanging environments, is inevitable. Granddaddy doesn't come over for Easter dinner any more. One bitter December, winter settled into his body and gently took him home to his Lord. When we visit him there on the hill, resting among three generations of our family, even through the loss I feel a strange contentment.
In the summer my brother and I don't play water games. We visit one another's homes, new mazes in new yards. In the fall I still try to go back to Ellington for my birthday and to see the autumn leaves hanging over highway 106 just before they fall to the ground for the winter. If it is still warm when I go, Mom likes to have my birthday dinner outside on the porch. The older she gets the more she fusses over birthdays.
These memories are a small part of what Ellington really is and why people live there. They live in
Ellington for the same reasons I go back there to visit: it's home, a place where you've always
been taken in, always will be, even if, somehow, you haven't to deserve it.
|Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw it
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harplike morning-glory strings,
Taught with the dew from garden bed to ease,
As if she played unheard some tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
'Warren, 'she said, 'he has come home to die:
You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time.'
'Home,' he mocked gently.
'Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.'
'Home is the place where, when you have
to go there,
They have to take you in.'
'I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.'
from "Death of the Hired Hand," by Robert Frost
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