The 'old home place' called me back
Whim. That's the word
That's how I ended up in a northwestern Arkansas field last week, looking with my eyes and my mind at scenes I hadn't witnessed in a half century.
It was on a whim I picked up the phone a couple of months ago and located a cousin I had not seen in 44 years.
That conversation led to my getting re-connected with a part of my family which had drifted away from me in the eddies and currents of time. It happens.
I learned, for the first time, that I'd had an ancestor killed in the Civil War, that my birth was the last one recorded in the Brown family Bible and that my father's "little Methodist church" he always talked about is still standing, not far away from the graves of three of his sisters.
Most of all I learned that I have a gracious and kind cousin, Earline Brown Henry, of Springdale, Arkansas, who showed me all these wonders and treated me as if we'd been visiting every other Tuesday for the past four decades.
Oh, and the self-indulgent part? That's this column.
Out of touch
Time was the enemy from the beginning in my falling out of touch with the Brown part of my family.
My father, Millard Brown, was the youngest boy, and second youngest overall, in a family of 10. He didn't get married until he was 30 and I didn't come along until he was 43.
So, my grandparents had passed away well before I was born and by the time I was 8 or 9 my uncles and aunts had begun to die off at an alarming rate.
Early in my life, my family still made occasional pilgrimages to the "old home place," a farm occupied by my Uncle Grover and Aunt Margie, neither of whom ever married.
As time goes by Where was it? As a child, all I could remember was that it took at least an hour's driving on three dirt roads to get there. It wasn't close to a town although I do remember hearing the grown-ups say it had a Lowell (Arkansas, of course) mail route address.
They might just as well have said it was on the back side of the moon for all my sense of geography at that age.
But I did remember the towns. My Uncle Jeff lived in Springdale and my Uncle Earl in Fayetteville.
They didn't use outhouses in those towns. Did I mention the old home place had an outhouse?
By the time I was into high school all my uncles were gone and my aunts were either deceased, in poor health or, in one case, simply moved away and lost touch. Time, lots of it, went by.
Then I went looking for something on the Internet this spring.
'Give Me Liberty'
I didn't find it and have forgotten what it was but I blundered into an Arkansas agriculture history book. And there it was "Jeff D. Brown, the father of the chicken industry in northwestern Arkansas."
That was my uncle. I knew he was an important man but as I read how he struggled to innovate, create, finance and grow an industry which became vitally important to the economy of the area I was astounded. And very proud.
I honestly did not know the scale of his contributions. That opened the floodgates for those memories I did possess. And I started to wonder if anyone from my family was still there.
And a phrase popped into my head. "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death." You see, my cousin, Earline (my Uncle Jeff's daughter) had married a man named Pat Henry. Get it? Patrick Henry of the famous "give me liberty or give me death" speech. Even at 8 or 9 that stuck in my head.
So, on a whim, I looked up Pat Henr y in the Springdale phone book. Earline answered the phone.
"Isaac Newton Brown"
And she was so nice. We hadn't seen each other since my Uncle Jeff's funeral in 1965 but she offered to show me what was still there if I could ever make it up to the area.
Well, as it happened we had a quick weekend trip planned to the Kansas City area last weekend. We decided to make a detour through northwestern Arkansas.
Earline met us at a restaurant with family photos, copies of pages from the family Bible and lots of conversation. Of course, we had a lot to get caught up on.
I was a bit worried because my wife Sue and I had brought our two teenage girls. I wondered how much of an intrusion the iPod and Facebook generation would be into Earline's routine.
Turns out Pat and Earline raised four girls and have lots of grandkids. And my girls really liked the Henrys. In fact we offered to give Briana and Kayla to the Henrys but it turns out family ties only go so far.
We were on a tight schedule so we dashed back to their home— Pat had been at a civic club meeting and met us there—and got to see family mementoes I didn't even know existed.
Earline had a family photo, taken around World War I, in which my father is a little boy. I'd never seen the photo before.
In the old Bible the first entry under deaths is "Isaac Newton Brown, died Sept. 9, 1861, Clintonville, Missouri." He was 28, one of the hundreds of thousands of casualties in the Civil War.
The "births" page was a surprise because the final entry was me!
I thought it was obvious what had happened. Once the Brown family had attained perfection there was no sense in continuing.
It was then pointed out to me there was no more room left at the bottom of the page and my entry was only squeezed in by writing it smaller then the others.
Picky, picky, picky.
There were photos all over the house. It was like being in a museum but one devoted only to my family. We turned to leave a room and I noticed Earline and Sue staring at me. There was a portrait of my Uncle Jeff behind me.
"We think you look like him," Earline said.
"Yeah, except he was distinguished and you're extinguished," a family member said.
I love my family.
Out to the old home place we rushed. The three dirt roads had been replaced by pavement, the fields and cattle by split levels and swimming pools. There's an interstate highway within 10 miles of the place.
I, of course, did not recognize one thing. Forty-four years is a long time. Earline had thought the remodeled and extensively renovated house was still there at the old Brown home place.
It was not. In fact what was once a farm had been subdivided and there were nice homes on two sides. Uncle Grover's barn was still there and we smiled and wandered around and took photos.
At first I was disappointed that so little remained to trigger any memories. Then something amazing happened. I wanted to be in the same space occupied by the house, after all these years, and I trudged out into the ankle deep grass and turned toward the road.
You know those flashes where the screen changes in movies when somebody suddenly remembers something? That's what happened. It was the trees.
Let me explain. When I was a kid at that old home place in Arkansas we had no television, no Internet, no IPods. But we weren't bored. We'd sit on the front porch and visit, pet dogs, watch the sun set, marvel at the stars and, above all, watch people drive in front of the house. The trees blocked our view to both sides and you could hear vehicles well before you could see them.
You could listen to time. I swear you could hear sand running through some hourglass.
And our vista was always the same. A stretch of road perfectly framed by two big trees. Those trees were still there and the proportions were the same. They were bigger but so was I.
I wa s back on t hat porch again.
'Little Methodist Church'
I almost got emotional. I tried to explain what I was feeling to my family but I think Earline was the only one who really understood what I meant.
They finally pulled me away, back into the 21st Century.
One more stop remained.
Somewhere in the long-gone orchard behind the long-gone house was a stump. It was my father's first pulpit. They say he used to stand out there and practice preaching. Well, when he made the commitment, at age 17, to get behind a real pulpit he went just down the road to do it.
If you ever heard my dad preach you probably didn't have to wait too long before he referenced "That little Methodist Church in northwestern Arkansas." That's always the way he said it, all seven words.
I'd never seen it, didn't even know its name. All I knew was that's where my father made his commitment and it never wavered through 62 years until he passed away in 1986.
The church is still there. Its na me is t he Mou nt Hebron Church. It sits in a little well-kept rural cemetery that contains the graves of three of my aunts.
That little Methodist Church in northwestern Arkansas has a new coat of paint. Somebody is taking care of it. I'm glad they are.
Speaking of preachers I once knew one—not my dad—who said he ended all of his sermons with what he called "the big cosmic so what."
He believed people would go "so what?" until he specifically ended up telling them "so, this." Here's what it all means.
This isn't a sermon but here's what I think it all means.
That old cliche about blood being thicker than water, it's true. Your family is your family and it feels good when you honor those who have gone before.
Maybe you can't go home again. But you can carry it with you.