A House Painted White

In last week's episode of Home Town, you saw me painting in my studio. What you could not see is my work desk built from all that is left of the demolition of my family's Victorian farmhouse. Today, my mother, Karen Rasberry, will tell you about that house in gorgeous detail. If you want to spend more time in her beautiful writing, you can shop her books by clicking here. – Erin


When remembrances of the old house visit me, they are most often born on the wings of a rope swing suspended from a crooked oak tree in the back yard. It mainly depends on the season or the time of year. Around the holidays, I’m often transported to its living room floor, spellbound by a scrawny, cedar Christmas tree that I helped my grandfather find in the woods while putt-putting in his lap on a Farmall tractor. When summer comes around, my head is buried up to my ears in a huge watermelon slice with the juice dripping clear to my elbows. In late spring, I’m playing underneath the fragrant umbrella of a Magnolia tree in full bloom. Or, I’m running from bumblebees that buzz and float along the wisteria vines that smother the front yard fence. In the fickle coolness of fall, I’m diving into piles of leaves that have been raked up for burning or helping my grandfather call up the cows from pasture.  

For exactly one hundred years, the big white farmhouse was perched on the crest of Clark Hill. With an elevation of approximately 425 feet, it is one of the highest points in the county. Although the past few decades have seen time and the elements take its toll on the old home place, it was once a testament to the pioneer spirit of the people who migrated to the Piney Woods of South Mississippi in the 19th Century.  My grandfather was fourteen in 1909 when his parents built the large farmhouse and added Victorian embellishments to make it appear more refined. It stood beside the red, dirt road that ran from Sandersville to Eucutta, Mississippi. When my great-parents passed away, Herman and his wife, Ola Sims Clark became the owners of the house painted white. 

My earliest recollections of the house are foggy now, but I have strived to keep them clear by making regular pilgrimages to where my memories and roots run deep into the Mississippi soil. Although I once knew the exact number of steps it required to reach my grandparents’ house, it was no more than a few dozen steps from my own back door to my grandmother Ola’s big-bosomed hug and the smell of tobacco smoke wafting from PaPa’s pipe. 

It’s a scientific curiosity how the fragrances of the house have endured while other recollections involving sight and sounds have diminished as I grow older. My memories are infused with the smell of sweet potatoes baking in the oven, the mustiness of aging heart pine, and of soot in a cold summer fireplace. Protected from the elements with a tin roof, the house had a wide front porch that held creaky rocking chairs where the old folks would visit while the kids ran in and out slamming two screened doors that led into the double parlors of the house. When thunderstorms rolled in from the south, we could hear and smell them coming as we kids would seek refuge under the porch. It was magical and calming noise that I would like to hear again someday before I leave this world. The front porch is where we lived publicly, but the back porch is where I could skip around freely in my panties and preen in the mirror beside the back kitchen door where three generations of Clark men once shaved. 

The old house has been a shelter in the storm, a sanctuary in our hour of need and the cradle of our family’s history. It and its inhabitants were witnesses to depression and war, prosperity and peace, joy and sadness. It has held beds for newlyweds and newborns, those who were just beginning to live, and those who were at the end of their journey. It has opened its arms to returning soldiers and welcomed kinfolk and friends from near and far. Five generations of Clark ancestors called it home, beginning with my great-grandparents and ending with my sister, Marilyn, and her son, Steve. My nephew spent his formative years in the house from the time he was five years old. He and his mother had a rough go of it most of the time, but he swears those were the happiest years of his life. I fear that he will not take this with dry eyes on his next visit from Missouri when he finds that only the chimney remains. 

In the interim, when Clark people didn’t live in it, several families of tenants abided in our beloved domain. When I was in high school, my grandfather rented it to a family that included my new best friend. If its wall could talk, it would tell of giggling teenaged besties, two peas in a pod who shared every little secret until the tearful day she moved away, never to be seen again. We were naive, dreamy-eyed girls who missed knowing the woman the other became. 

Though we all own precious memories of the house, Marilyn is the one who invested the greatest number of days there. By the time she called it home, all of its grandeur and 90 percent of its functionality was gone. She spent her winters trying to keep it warm, battling frozen pipes and cold wind that crept under the doors, down the chimney and through the rattling windowpanes. On “hard freeze” nights, a glass of water left by the kitchen sink would be a cylinder of ice come morning. Summers were marginally better when the wide porches caught a breeze and the tall ceilings kept the sultry air aloft. There was not a right angle in the house and the kitchen sloped off the back at a dizzying 30 -degree angle. It gave me the feeling of being in the fun house at the fair—a little off-balance and tipsy. Some doors had to be kicked and cussed to open and shut them, while others gaped open like barn doors in the wind. The faucets dripped perpetually and the water built up deltas of rust stains in the sinks.  The electrical breakers tripped at the drop of a hat, making it impossible to run the window unit in the living room and bake a cake at the same time. 

Although I’ve tried to imagine the scene in my mind a hundred times, my heart cannot fathom how my grandmother withstood her emotions as she hugged her two boys, Ralph (my daddy) and Charlie Paul, on that front porch and sent them off to fight in WWII. Nor can I imagine the joy she felt from her vantage point in the kitchen window when she saw her boys triumphantly rising up Clark Hill in a cloud of orange dust.  

It’s heartbreaking to know that when I return, the old fortress will be gone. While the finality of it is almost like the death of a loved one, we all knew the day was coming when something would have to be done. It just wasn’t financially feasible for any of us to restore it and much too painful to let the proud old house fall down with our history inside it. 

It’s only fitting that my sister is overseeing the demolition, taking care to salvage what she can so each of us can keep a piece of the past. If she has the courage to tear it down, then the rest of us must be brave enough to let it go. It’s only old boards and rusty tin— not flesh and blood, but it sure feels like it. It’s just that the house is so much a part of the deep places of my heart. As surely as I inherited a furrowed brow and bunions from my daddy and the green flecks in my eyes from my mother, the imperfections and desirable traits of the house run through my blood just the same. My southernmost journey began with the house. It is in my country-girl sensibilities, my character, and in the voice of the nostalgic words I write. Although I only lived in its shadow and have resided away from it for most of my life, my southern identity abides in the cool shade of its trees and porches. 

The contractor who is tearing it down declares the foundation is made of some of the finest virgin timber he’s ever seen. Like the hardworking folks who built in in 1909, the foundation was hewn from some pretty strong stuff. 

We Clarks could have told him that. 

Karen Clark Rasberry, besides being Erin's mom, is an IPPY-award winning author and realtor in Laurel, Mississippi. When she isn't playing competitive league tennis, you'll find she and Erin's dad at the beach with their pup Hooper or playing on the banks of their lake with their grandson, Walker.