The Howell House: A Novel
I stood at the bottom of the steps, looking up at the old, weathered Victorian style house. Wondering if I had completely lost my mind. Again. Still, I knew that this deeply felt like home for some subliminal reason. Perhaps I lived here in a previous life. I looked around the small front yard. It was covered in acorns, and there were empty patches of dirt in the grass where leaves had laid for too long.
I glanced first up the sidewalk to the right, and then to the left. The cracks from the roots of the trees were deep in the walkway, but the huge oak in the front yard whose roots were destroying the concrete provided lovely shade and was probably well over a hundred years old. At least a few things would be older than I was.
I heard a bird singing. Glancing up into the tree, I gazed at the branches, looking for the source of the music. Finally, I spotted a cardinal high up, half hidden by the emerging spring leaves. He sang his heart out, hopping to another branch. Gradually, I remembered a story my grandmother once told me. Cardinals showed up when changes happened, bringing with them hope, joy, health, rejuvenation and celebration. I delighted in the symbol of the bird in what was now my tree. I decided to find a special bird house and plenty of bird feed. I needed as much of that as I could get, and I made a mental note to google the best birdfeed for cardinals.
“Hello, Red,” I said softly. “We’re gonna be great friends, you and me. I want you to stay so I’ll feed you well.” I smiled to myself, and wondered if anyone was watching me talking to a bird. I also recalled that my grandmother mentioned cardinals could live fifteen years. I deeply hoped this was a young cardinal.
I closed my eyes and inhaled the fragrance. A bit of honeysuckle tickled my nose. This prompted a memory from my childhood, walking through the woods and blackberry picking with my grandmother, and here it was again in what I believed would be my last home. A bit of earthy leaf rot mingled in the fragrance. It smelled like what heaven must emit.
I could imagine flowers being nurtured by this fertile loam. For a brief moment, I could see the many hands that had lovingly tended this yard, planting flowers, watering and fertilizing, picking them to place in vases in the house, old gnarled fingers of timeworn women, young smooth fingers of youthful mothers. They were all part of the memories that created this home.
The wind blew slightly, and my hair tickled my face. When I opened my eyes, I saw shadow dappling beneath the tree, and the illusion of an elf appeared in my imagination. Briefly, I wondered if ghosts inhabited the home. Were there souls who chose to stay here in the lovely home rather than heading to some unknown after-life destination? If so, I hoped we could be friends and get to know each other. Ghosts carried earthly pain. I wanted to be familiar with their pain. Perhaps they could help me with some of mine.
I gazed at the mauve chipped paint covering the exterior and the faded deep oxford green shutters. The front door was still black, but I intended to change that. I likely would repaint the house, but before I did, I would take lots of pictures of how it looked now. It was vital that I keep records. I shook my head, and wondered again if I was losing my mind. I stooped to pick up my suitcase, and glanced back at the car. Nodding at no one, I tentatively stepped onto the first step, and slowly climbed the few steps that would lead me to my new home. To my new life.
“Here I go,” I thought. Memories threatened like storm clouds, but I shook my head resolutely. No bad memories for today. Honeysuckle memories, yes, bad marriages, no. Today was about the future. I stepped onto the front porch and stopped to look around again. The old boards groaned slightly under my weight. Mental note to have this checked. No matter how old or what the shape, this was mine. My home. Mine to do with what I wanted, and I knew exactly what I wanted.
The world had changed for me. I was now sixty-six years old, and beginning a new life sans husband or children. Grandchildren were also part of my life, but they, like their mothers and fathers, lived busy lives now. It was time for me to move on, to develop a world that I loved and envied when I saw it for others. I still deeply wanted a connection with my family, but I needed more. I was no longer needed as a baby sitter. My grandchildren were beyond that. I couldn’t simply sit at home and wait for them to have time for me. That wasn’t who I was. I understood that it would be difficult, a challenge, sometimes horribly challenging. But what hadn’t been in my life? This was my plan. And if it didn’t work, then so be it. I unwaveringly believed it would. The clock was ticking, but this was a plan that was long overdue. I decided to become my own clock, and make the later moments of my life good for me. Here goes.
I walked to the front door, dug into my pocketbook for the house key, found it by its very size – I had chosen a particular key for my own reasons – and pulled it out, a vintage key to go with a vintage home. I looked at it carefully. I had resolved that every action I performed today, I would do with purpose. I wanted to remember every moment, every movement, every fragrance, every sight because this was the first thing I had done in my life with total purpose, complete forethought. April 1, 2015. So many past choices had been about just keeping the boat between the two shores, often navigating in hurricane like winds, just trying to stay afloat. I was now the navigator, the captain of this ship. My life was no longer a small canoe being shunted back and forth in the storms of my life. I now had a motor, and I planned to use it. This had been in the works for months now, and I believed that it was to be – hopefully – my last move. My final home. The place I planned to live for the rest of my life, however long that was.
The first time I discovered Saluda, NC, I was taking a ride from Greenville to Hendersonville when the road that forked off of Hwy 25 looked like a shortcut. It was so much more. This is a disregarded road by the state of South Carolina. Pockmarked and patched, in some places there are no yellow lines, and in others, there is a hint that one used to exist. On either side of the road, you see acres of farmland, and an occasional mobile home along with lots of signs imploring you to love Jesus. As I rode, I wondered if there was a company who produced large wooden crosses with the words, “Jesus Loves You,” “Jesus died for your sins,” or “Jesus Saves.” These signs are ubiquitous along this stretch of road.
The lawns are well kept, with lots of deep green ivy, flowers of many colors, and luscious flowing green ground covers. The farm lands are even rows of well-tended crops – tomatoes, cucumbers, soy, peppers, and corn. Old tractors dot the landscape. A few miles up the mountain, and the brilliant blue and green Greenville Watershed appears on the right. Because it looks like a lake, there are signs preventing one from accessing it. From here, Greenville’s award winning water flows. In the early 2000’s, during a particularly dry season, Atlanta wanted to tap into this watershed. The paper was full of stories of water rights and water wars. Fortunately, the rains came and the battle was delayed. I’ve no doubt that this will rear its head again during future droughts.
I saw a sign to Saluda, NC, and thought, “what the hell?” I was simply joy riding. I turned right on the same kind of poorly kept road. However, once I left South Carolina and entered North Carolina, the care of the road changed dramatically. It was now an even light grey, with the distinct yellow lines well painted. There was no patchwork. I passed bikers going up and coming down. I couldn’t imagine how grueling this ride had to be on the way up, but these people were determined and, based on the numbers I saw, the road must be a well biked route. Once I passed from Polk County into Henderson County, the charming mountain homes appeared each one lovelier than the next. There were terra cotta painted houses, deep green ones, and an occasional light blue home. The yards were overflowing with azaleas of all colors – brilliant reds, deep corals, and light and hot pinks, along with beautiful rows of blue green hosta, bright yellow and orange day lilies, purple peonies, rows of lush tomato plants, varying kinds of ivy and divine deep green carpet grass. I found myself mesmerized.
Then I saw The Howell House for the first time, and even in its disrepair, I was smitten. Of course, that wasn’t the name then. I knew nothing of the area, the tiny little hamlet of Saluda, which I discovered later, was a stopping point for people traveling from the coast to Hendersonville or Asheville in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to escape the summer heat. Sometimes they came in wagons, and sometimes they took the Carolina Special, the train that ran through the small hamlet. In the town, I found The Purple Onion, a café of great fame (and equally great cooking), Pace Hardware, which had been there since 1899, and beautiful artisan shops full of gardening items, stunning paintings by local artists, and history books of the area. My personal favorite became I Remember Saluda, by Charles Hearon, a local man, now gone, who was begged by his children to write the stories of the old Saluda before they were lost. He did so, and in a quaint, mountain vernacular, he weaves you into the historic stories of Saluda now long gone. I was hooked.
Upon doing some minimal research about the area, I learned that Saluda is probably the Anglicization of the Native American Creek word, Suale-te, which means Buzzard People. The language, “Itsate,” was the predominant language spoken in the Piedmont and western Coastal Plain of South Carolina.
All of the names of the original “Lower Cherokee towns” in South Carolina are actually Itsate Creek words. Local histories in the region claim that Saluda is derived from the Cherokee word for “Place of the green corn,” Tsaludi-yi. It is quite possible that the Xuale People were descendants of the Hopewell Culture and a division of the Shawnee. The buzzard was considered especially sacred to the participants in the Hopewell Culture. It is believed by some anthropologists that the “Hopewell” fed their deceased love ones to semi-domesticated buzzards. This macabre tradition is still practiced by some Tibetan Buddhists. Rather disgusting, but that doesn’t preclude it being true. I shivered at knowing this could be the entomology of the name of the town.
I am a very social woman. I discovered that through two marriages, four children, and many moves. My job as a mother was not finished (was it ever?), but was no longer a label that continued to define me. I had a good relationship with three out of four children, and I felt that was as much as I could hope for. I had several good friends, and had managed to remain on friendly terms with one of my exes. Again, as much as I could hope for. Now it was really going to be my turn to develop the life that I wanted, to seek the support I needed, and to do something good for other women in the process. It was a calling of sorts, or so I believed, and I was ready to make it happen.
But to tell this story well, I must go back. Go back to how I ended up at this point in my life. I was interested in knowing myself as well as I could, so I resolved to write about this journey, not an unusual choice for me. I have battled myself for my whole life, between being a writer who wrote and one who talked about writing. I was forcing myself to write this story in depth and with a willingness to face the past, the current, and the future. We all have some of this – that part that we either choose to ignore, forgive, or forget. But do we really do any of that? I was determined to find out, and I would do it here while creating the world I wanted, or at least giving it my best shot.
I became a young southern bride at the age of twenty. Not terribly young for southern brides. But I left behind much potential with a strong curiosity and a deep desire for education. A child of divorce, I had many emotional scars, battle wounds that I attempted to stitch up with tar and feathers. Most of the time, the wounds festered, the cuts came open, and pain oozed out like infected pus. I settled for marrying my first husband’s family – hugging to me an in-law mother and father who deeply cherished their brood, accepted and embraced me into their exclusive group. Let me make that clear. It wasn’t my husband I fell in love with, it was his parents. My father in law was a jovial man, given to telling jokes – bad ones mostly – about women and blacks. Of course those were not the words he used. That part of my world was not too different from any other southerners’ in the early 70’s. I was, of course, pregnant when Phillip and I married. I thought of this as a romantic way to start a marriage – puking my guts up at every stop sign and rushing from any room at the sight of a Campbell’s tomato soup commercial to the nearest toilet. No close toilet? Then I had to get outside quickly. As I today ride around the town of Lincolnton, NC, I can still point out the spots where I lost my lunch or my dinner or the inner lining of my stomach. The odor of a rotten potato or bad meat in the refrigerator could send me to bed for a day. Nothing was digestible during those nine months, and I look back at pictures of a pale waif like woman with a protruding stomach. No makeup and stringy hair. Who could guess how I would change.
My world had not prepared me for motherhood. My own mother had ruled with a hard hand, and used beatings to keep us under control. This was my example of how to parent. Our first son was a challenge from day one, and I had few friends in the newly built neighborhood in which we lived. Phillip, Jr. cried constantly, had tons of ear aches, switched his days and nights for a very long time, and generally loved to pee on me when I was changing his diaper. Again, my example of how to parent didn’t prepare me to handle this well. And there was no internet.
My young husband had no idea or desire to be a husband or young father, and he spent his days building houses for his dad, and many of his nights playing poker with his buddies. Weekends for him were for golf, regardless of whether I was sick, we had a funeral, or the children were hungry. I was expected to be at home for his beck and call day and night, regardless of whether he was there with me or not. I was to cook, wash clothes, clean the house, and care for Phillip, Jr. If he wanted to come home in the middle of the day to have sex, I was to be ready for it. It was hell for me. I hadn’t realized that I was to become my husband’s mother in a manner of speaking. She was willing to offer this kind of life to her husband, and her children. I was not.
I grew up surrounded by my father’s extended family and customers from my grandfather’s store. This young marriage was a lonely and static life with little conversation and less stimulation. Soap operas became my best friends, and I slogged through many depressing afternoons gazing at perfectly cleaned houses and even more perfectly groomed women. Mornings were spent feeding Phillip, Jr., cleaning my house – daily – and dressing. Who needs to clean their house daily? I could take a walk with the Phillip, Jr. in the stroller, but few women were available to offer me comfort or conversation or to teach me how to be a young wife and mother. Many of those women worked, and those who didn’t had their own lives and friends. I wasn’t willing to reveal my inadequacies.
Finally, I made friends with Joan, a back door neighbor who incessantly looked at me with terribly sad eyes. I couldn’t understand why she felt so sorry for me, and it was years before I discovered her sadness was for her own pain and loneliness with her distant and unresponsive husband. After months of getting to know each other, we were finally able to commiserate about our shared unhappiness, but it took a long time to develop that trust. Once she became a close friend, she also became one of my closest allies, and in fact was my witness in court when it was time for me to dump Phillip. I’m not sure she ever forgave me for that.
I lasted four years in this marriage. I look back at the woman in that life and I don’t recognize her at all. I see the pictures of a quickly aged twenty to twenty-four year old. I don’t know where she came from, or where she went after it was over. But she continues to be an enigma to me. In many ways, I felt that she was one of the several personalities that reside inside of me. The personality with the least amount of self-esteem, the neediest one who traded in everything she believed in for what appeared to be a support system. Someone else’s support system. I have never regretted her demise, although I have thought that there were parts of her that offered some tenderness and vulnerability that I could likely use. However, I believe that she brought me through an extremely difficult time and was terribly wounded in the process. The important parts of her were lost for many years. Lost to the more brittle and cynical sides of my personality. I have endeavored to discover the better parts of her – of me – and bring them back to life in way that I can cherish. I still struggle with that.
In the third year of this awful marriage, my second son was born. He was the antithesis of his brother. We expected a girl. I thought the reason was that my pregnancies were so different, but now I think it was simply because I so desperately wanted to have a collaborator. I didn’t want more men to control me. Foolishly, I felt that a little girl would be on my side. I don’t know what side that was now. But it felt necessary, and the discovery at his birth that the new baby, Bobby, was male threw me into a deep depression that lasted for months. I didn’t learn for many years that this was likely also post-partum depression, the baby blues, and that I probably could have received some much needed help. But I didn’t, I struggled along with no preparation for motherhood, less preparation for being a wife, and knowing that I was sinking ever so slowly into the abyss of a difficult and male-dominated marriage, and that the person I strove to be was not in any way related to who I really was. The effort to get up on some days took all my energy, and I wept through many afternoons.
The marriage itself had taken a deep dive during my second pregnancy, and by the time of Bobby’s birth, my husband was spending most of his evenings drinking, playing cards, and partying. On one occasion, I showed up at the bar where he had gone for his usual Saturday night binge, and was quickly and frantically escorted out to my car, while he angrily explained that I should be home with the children. I meekly left without considering why he shouldn’t also be home with his children. Years later, I began to wonder who he was meeting there and where she had hidden while I was walking into the bar. Even after the divorce, no one came forward to tell me that he had been involved with other women. But a week after we separated, he moved in with a big haired blonde woman who owned a great sports car, and even I was smart enough to know that a relationship like that rarely develops enough in one week to be a living arrangement. The marriage ended long before he left our home.
Because I was still frightened of how he could hurt me, I remained quiet about my depression after our separation and entered my first therapy. When Phillip found out, he accused me of being crazy. I think it was then that I finally found my voice, and I assured him that indeed I was crazy. Because I had lived with him for four years, I was completely loopy. I allowed the hatred and anger to surface, and I found that I could say things to him that I had only imagined a few weeks before. I became angry and bitter, and lashed out at him every chance I got. It took me year to stop cursing him out every chance I got. After six weeks of therapy, I convinced my therapist that I was cured, and I left the mental health department knowing that I had a long way to go to be mentally and emotionally healthy. But it was my first effort at becoming healthy. Little did I know how many years it would take.