“Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization.” So says the Realtors preamble to the Code of Ethics. I have always loved this introduction. It makes the ownership of dirt an honorable notion and it is. I have now dedicated going on 12 years to the selling of such land and improvements and it is still a joy. But I come from part of a family, only one side, that didn’t get to, for whatever reason, ever enjoy the benefit and pride of home ownership.
My mama’s mama, Myrtle ZoElla Hillhouse, never, for the 26 years I knew her owned a home, and instead moved, pretty much every time a lease was up. She zig zagged all over Cobb County, focusing mainly on Marietta, Acworth, or Smyrna. Most homes remain a vague memory, some very vivid, some filled with wild stories of deep swimming holes we found out in the woods behind her apartment (another story for another time), or long walks through fields with my dad while he smoked as Myrtle always had lung problems and smoking was forbidden in her house, despite her never having touched tobacco (or liquor, Church of God that she was) in her life. Today, I remember one place particularly. Not for the swimming or the field, but for a boy up in a tree.
We usually visited my grandma on Sunday’s after church, quickly, to get back in time for evening service or to join her at her home church, Acworth Church of God, where there was sure to be foot stomping hymns, loud preaching, and much shouting and running in the aisles. This visit I write about, I was little, maybe 6 or 7, and I did not look forward to a steamy service, full of hand clapping and spirit slaying. I sat in the living room of my grandma’s apartment on a hot summer day, fan buzzing (no air conditioning in this day). Several other aunts and cousins had also come to visit and were talking and I heard someone say that out back of the apartments was an old road bed that led to a waterfall (or stream, who knows, but it was hot and I was always looking for a place to swim or wade). I slipped out unnoticed.
Around the white wood siding building I went, not even sure what a road bed might be, but I headed to the edge of the brush, which was taller than me and I saw the old foundation of a house. Running beside it was a gravel road, the grass between the ruts grown high. This was it. I started that way.
The midday sun beat on my head and shoulders and I envisioned a crystal waterfall, ice cold spray cascading over moss covered rocks, little glittery fairies dancing around in mottled sunlight streaming through the trees. Why, I could feel the coolness of the spring dancing around my dust covered, flip flop shod feet already. Maybe I would even get all the way in. It was surely hot today. Then, I’d lie back on a big rock and dry off, watching the little fairies play among the wild flowers growing on the bank. I was almost to the old gravel road.
A voice halted me in my tracks.
“Better not go down there.”
It had come from above. But it didn’t sound like God, or what I thought he would sound like. I shaded my eyes from the sun and in a Crepe Myrtle, legs braced from limb to limb, was a boy. Older than me, he had a long shock of jet black hair that swung over the blueist eyes in the world.
“Stay outta them woods.” He warned again.
“Then I’m coming up in that tree with you,” I said.
“Naw, you ain’t. You’ll fall and break an arm. You ever break your arm? Cause I have.”
I laughed a little at that because little did he know, I climbed every tree with a branch low enough for me to get a foothold on our property and I hadn’t fell out of any of them yet.
“I ain’t broke nothin’.” I said.
He jumped out of the tree. “Well, it hurts and you have to wear a cast and then,” he mussed my hair, “you can’t play. So, let’s go inside and find your mama.” He put out a hand.
Wary, I just looked at his hand.
“Come on!” he saw my distrust, “it’s alright. I’m your cousin. I’m Raymond.”
And hand in hand we went around the building, back inside like nothing ever happened. Raymond didn’t tell anyone my plan to head into the woods and I liked him from that day forward. Years and time came between us. Social media made his daughter and me friends and for that I am very thankful. She looks just like him.
This morning, cancer, that mean devil of a disease took Raymond. The second cousin I have lost in a little over a month to it. Both were just about my age, give or take a few years on either side. Pieces of my childhood and my foundation chipped away. The picture of Raymond in that tree stays with me forever, maybe because of the age I was at the time, maybe because a strong bond of trust was forged that day when he kept my secret. And even though we had not kept in touch I will miss that boy, the wild boy in the tree, who broke bones and rules, but made me keep them. I will look for you one day, in a big Crepe Myrtle, and this time, I’m climbing up with you, Raymond.