My Great-Grandmother Walker’s wide, old porch wrapped all the way around the frame of the house. Its boards rumbled when I ran across them to the front door. The house was built in the 1840s on the edge of a small farm in Forsyth County, North Carolina. It was not fancy, but possessed many long-forgotten amenities: white-washed clapboards, a tin roof that put you to sleep in a rainstorm, a constant breeze through the windows, and rooms large enough to hold the whole family. My grandmother was born in the house in 1910, the oldest of seven. My mother lived in the house during part of her childhood, waiting out World War II along with a collection of cousins, aunts, and poor-sighted uncles. There are pictures from this time: my mother playing in the dirt yard with her Aunt Clara; a portrait of all seven siblings posed in the middle of the front walk, smiling ceremonially: my Grandmother Evelyn, Charles and Ralph in uniform, Tom, Betty, Juanita and Clara.
These Walker brothers and sisters each possessed a fierce love for the family, a temper that could rise up and burn you and then be gone in two seconds, and a fine sense of honor that is now almost extinct. At the base, they were a practical lot, grounded in this life, unlikely to carry on. As a child then, I was cautioned against carrying on, that is, making an unseemly fuss. I know that above all on the day the photograph was taken, a day just before Charles and Ralph were to catch a train to the war, there would have been no carrying on. “You’ll be fine,” they’d have said. “We’ll be okay here. Just you go on.”
My uncles and the rest of them did survive the war. They were just fine. And for the most part, the seven of them—with spouses and children, and finally children’s children—settled near the house, some right in Rural Hall, some next door in Winston-Salem, my mother’s family in Pilot Mountain. We did not stay away long, any of us. I can remember from the earliest part of my life, Sunday afternoon visits to Grandma Walker (those of us in the next generation did not add the “Great” to her name). Though she was a widow for decades, Grandma Walker was rarely alone in the house. There was always some uncle and aunt or cousin living with her—starting out, needing help, waiting for something, and finally, watching out for Grandma.
Standing inside her front door, in the wide, wood-paneled hall, you could see all the way to the back of the house. Every Christmas night, the family members would bring in all the tables and set them end to end the whole length of the room so that we could all sit down to dinner together. When it was time, we would hold hands and say a Moravian blessing that goes, “Come Lord Jesus our guest to be and bless these gifts bestowed by Thee.” These words are as ancient as any that I know, their literal meaning eroded by a lifetime of repetition. When we say the blessing now at family gatherings, there is an echo in the murmur of the present. I hear the voices of those who are gone, I hear the bell tones of my children when they were small. I can hear my own voice in childhood.
On Sunday afternoons, I would stand in that hall with my family, let in by a boarder cousin. My sister and I would be warned against breaking the knickknacks on a little shelf that stood outside the front parlor. Eventually, Grandma Walker would be found, and she would show us into the room. The parlor was not a fussy place, but it was crowded, filled with many things that had been passed down: an old spinning wheel, needlepoint cushions, hearth tools, lace work.
No matter our age, we were expected to be still and listen to the adults. Grandma Walker, always wearing one of her cotton work dresses, would sit in her armchair, share news with the adults, and smile at us children with crinkled, sharp eyes.
I remember little of the parlor conversation, for I was waiting to move to the kitchen. It would not be long before Grandma Walker would say, “Come on out here and let’s see what I might have for you children.” She would lead us, tapping in her black lace-up shoes, to her kitchen, which was large enough to feed a yard full of children. There was a bank of windows overlooking the yard, an old timey stove, and a dish cupboard. In the middle was a dark wooden table where Grandma Walker would put out sweet baked items that are without parallel in my mind: black walnut cookies, pound cake, or the best thing, her tea cakes—sugar cookies so thin that you could see light through them.
The last time I visited the house was in the fall of 1967. It had been a bad summer for our family. After several years of decline, Great-Grandmother Walker had died in May. Six weeks later, her daughter Evelyn, my own grandmother, died of cancer at just fifty-eight years old. In settling things, the siblings decided that the homeplace should be sold. I was ten years old at the time, and I took all of these events to heart. Though it was not the worst of the things, the practical act of selling the house held great significance for me. I believed that it marked the passing of something I could not yet quite name, something important, something known only to me. I realize now that the last day, the day we all returned to the house together, was significant and sad for everyone. That day was spent going through the house, room by room, and dividing the contents among the descendants.
In another family, this might have been a maudlin affair or an occasion for intrigue, where old arguments were settled and secrets revealed—the perfect play in three acts: parlor, kitchen, bedroom. Even as a child, I thought the situation called for some form of drama. However, there was no carrying on. Instead, there was a calm matter-of-factness in the proceedings. Each item was named in some familiar fashion—often a story was offered: that needlepoint footstool Mother left for company, the one that Clara made her; that chair that needs recovering; this little pitcher, it’s very old, it came from Daddy’s family. There was no need to lift up these items, auction-style. An object would be named, and there would be a pause, then a soft collective sigh of recognition. Finally, the talk would center around who always admired a thing, who always liked that pillow best, who always propped his head on it. Things were not divided as much as placed where they belonged. The spinning wheel from Grandmother’s Moravian family was sent to a museum, things were set aside for those not present, items were marked for auction, or with a quiet laugh, for the dump. For things beloved by everyone, Aunt Juanita found a broom, and the Walkers drew straws.
My own mother was included in place of her mother, and this was how she came to win the china cabinet. My great-great-grandfather made the cabinet, the story goes. He put it together with pegs. As a young bride, Grandmother Walker rescued it from the washhouse, refinished it, and put it in her kitchen. It stands in my mother’s kitchen now, eight feet tall, glowing wood, my mother’s own treasures stored behind the bubbled glass. At the holidays, when I open its doors to retrieve the good silver, and I swear I can smell Grandmother Walker’s house—the floorboards, well water, musty bedrooms.
Even as a child, I had an acute need to hold on to things and an overly developed sentimentality. At the end of that day in 1967, I stood out in the yard and looked back up at the house, massive, lonesome, needing paint. I remember counting the windows, the chimneys, the doors—inscribing each in my mind, telling myself over and over: remember, remember, remember this.
A few years back, when passing through Forsyth County, I tried to go by the house. I had heard from my cousin Ann that the house was recently renovated. “Pretty,” she said, “but they’ve painted it pink.” I was hoping to get a photograph of the house I remembered, but as much as I could recall the porch, the staircase, the beautiful eaves, I could not navigate my car down the right road. I became hopelessly lost, settled for Moravian coffeecake at Dewey’s Bakery, and returned to my cul-de-sac in Chapel Hill without seeing the house. It was a small loss, nearly forgotten until a few months later when my mother called me with news she had heard from Aunt Clara, who had heard from Aunt Betty: the new owners of the house had left their iron on in the kitchen. While they were at work, the house, every last board, burned to the ground.
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Long ago, my aunts found and preserved Grandmother Walker’s recipe for tea cakes (Moravian sugar cookies). It was written on a card at the very back of her tin recipe box. It is printed below in its entirety. Not one of us can make them right.
Mix, chill, roll out, and bake in a medium oven.