You can’t go back home – or can you? There’s something about old home sites that call out to us.
Sometimes all that remains are remnants of a chimney and old flowers left to bloom though the house and family are gone. The old bricks just lie there – waiting to whisper their secrets.
The long connection of a family with one spot creates a lasting kinship between them and the land. Old home sites become spiritual refuges. They evoke curious emotions, even homesickness, and a yearning for the happiness of a place once called home.
Ralph Brown Jr. came home to where he was born and raised 60 years ago. His parents, Ralph Sr. and Beadie Brown (now deceased), raised their family in a quiet nook in Richmond Hill.
“There’s about 20 acres here, which goes all the way to Carlton Gill’s property,” Ralph Brown Jr. said.
“My family and cousins Haynes and Pie Bryant were the only black families in this area. All the other black families were in Brisbon and further down. That irritated me because I didn’t have any black friends to play with. I grew up playing with a neighbor, David Shuman – we were like brothers.”
When George Washington Carver School closed and integrated with Richmond Hill High School, Brown graduated in 1968. He was an outstanding Wildcat basketball player and broke the Wildcats’ rebound record.
Recently, Brown and I sat on his front lawn and reminisced. As he talked about his family, I imagined the smells coming from his mother’s kitchen and the sounds of children’s laughter. Although Richmond Hill was covered in a blanket of heat that afternoon, his yard uncannily was filled with a cool breeze.
“There has always been a beautiful breeze blowing through here in the afternoon,” Brown said. “My family would come out and sit and check it out … just like we’re doing now.”
When he spoke again, the wonder in his voice almost was palpable. “There’s some very entertaining things that happen here,” he said. “There’s a sweet spirit on this property and it catches my attention every time. It’s interesting how the place still has the same vibes from way back.”
It wasn’t surprising when he looked directly at me and asked, “You feel it, too, don’t you?”
As the setting sun cast long shadows onto the front lawn, I felt tugged back to a world I left behind. As Brown talked about his parents, childhood and simple life, I reluctantly put away the vision of my old home place.
“Growing up, my parents had a big garden for many years. It was a lot of work,” he said. “I think about that garden a lot. Every year it was successful. I told my friends in L.A. how I actually ate food right from the ground and, of course, they didn’t have any clue how that worked. My mom would can it up and we ate it all winter.”
The home place hasn’t changed much – just no garden.
“I certainly have no complaints with my life here,” Brown said. “I would love to be the master of growing a garden … and see if I could actually grow some things.”
I suppose it’s true: You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
Brown’s dad was 85 when he died in 2002, and his mom was 83 when she died in 2001. They were married for more than 60 years. Brown’s voice softened when he said, “We all knew when my mother died, Daddy would die.”
“She died first and his spirit died with her,” Brown said. “The two of them were each other – they were just like one person. Although he lived another year, he would not have chosen to, but I guess God decided otherwise, or however that goes.”
His parents, great-grandparents (Thomas and Josephine Maxwell Brown), and the majority of his relatives are buried in the quaint one-acre cemetery near the Richmond Hill Library.
“For as long as I can remember, most people thought it was our private cemetery,” he said.
“Before my father died, people would come here and ask if they could bury their people there. If he knew them, he would OK it. After he died, of course, there was not an authoritative figure to make a decision. The Brown family is not the only family associated with the cemetery. Some of the Clark family is buried there.
“The cemetery actually belonged to a small church in Daniel Siding – Bethel Baptist Church,” he continued. “When I was a kid, my dad elected to take care of the cemetery. Haynes and Pie helped. I guess that’s why people thought it was ours. However, legally it’s not ours.”
After 30 years, Brown retired from the Los Angeles Police Department and has come home for a time. He basks in the solitude of his home place: “Growing up here was good. I had a beautiful life. For me right now, it’s like heaven.”
Brown recalled an awesome childhood experience: “Cousin Haynes had two pet cows in a field near our house – Mary and Patty. They kept the whole field looking like this lawn. I still find it mind-boggling how they could do that. One day, I saw Mary lying down and wondered what was wrong. She got up, and what I saw was destroying my mind. I was alone. Now I’m thinking – should I go back this way and tell mama and daddy or should I go this way and tell cousin Haynes? I didn’t tell anybody.
“The next day there was this pretty little calf,” he continued. “Just to see that happen right before my eyes – I watched it come out in a bag. I was not sure what was in the bag, except a lot of liquid.”
The story unfolded: “Mary licked it all off – that’s when I saw the calf. I was standing about 50 feet away and Mary wasn’t afraid of me. I knew how calves were born, but I had never seen anything like this.
“Mary made it get up because it wasn’t moving. I kept wondering, ‘How is that little thing going to get up?’ But she made it get up! She kept nudging it. It fell and she made it get up again and I think the second or third time it actually stood up. It was wobbly.
“Just to see this happen – it was magic. This is the kind of life we had here.”
Although the sun had gone down, I didn’t want to leave. The serenity of softly rustling leaves, the smell of honeysuckle and shared memories had taken me to a place I almost had forgotten. I wanted to stay just a little longer.
As I was leaving, Brown called out to me: “I won’t be here much longer. Thirty years in a place like L.A., then back to this – the difference is great. I am enjoying it right now because it’s peaceful and quiet, and it’s home.”
Brown surely read my heart when he said, “This place is very warm and embracing. Just stepping on the grounds brings out deep-reaching emotions. It’s home. You will always be in touch with that.”
As we said our goodnights, Brown whispered, “This is like Mom.”
Hiers was born and raised in Richmond Hill. She can be reached at email@example.com.