I bought my grandparents’ house from my father in February of 2019. It sits about a quarter-mile from where I grew up, though my childhood home burned down some time ago. I never thought I would see my granny’s house again. The last time I had been there was Christmas Eve of 2013, and I promised myself I would never come back.
When I visited on Christmas Eve, it was the first time I had returned since papaw died in 2011. Granny died a couple of years before he did. Now having full reign of the house, it looked like what I imagine my father must have felt inside. He had tacked a blanket over one of the doorways to keep the warm air in the living room. He had put a recliner and television in there, which was all wrong — papaw’s recliner and television had always sat in the room that was now blocked off. That’s also where the wood stove sat, and Granny used to bring in firewood from the front porch wearing men’s gloves. She never seemed to mind that chore, which I noticed as a child. I didn’t realize until much later that their home was never cold in the winter and never hot in the summer. Dad had covered nearly all of the windows in thick plastic, so you couldn’t see outside. The heat was dry and made thicker by the cigarette smoke that hung in the air with nowhere to go.
Dirty dishes sat in the sink, and the dirtiness of the house made me certain I wasn’t hungry for the food Dad offered us. The darkness inside was made worse by father’s mood, and I wondered why he didn’t have the usual drugs in his system. I had learned as a child that he could be cheerful, even generous, when he had his drugs. But when he didn’t, there was no ignoring the edge to his voice. I knew from experience that he could explode at any time, and was probably looking for a reason to.
This house was the site of every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner I can remember. Granny made me birthday cakes, which we ate at the round kitchen table that once belonged to her mother. On the best years, the cakes were strawberry with rainbow sprinkled icing. I watched her can the vegetables she grew, putting quart Mason jars into a water bath in the same round, metal tub that she sometimes bathed us kids in. We ate fried chicken or hamburgers at her table after church each Sunday. Sometimes, when my mother ran from my father, we came here first.
Granny kept their wood floors polished and clean. I don’t think I ever saw a mess in her house. She almost never listened to music, and the only sound from the outside world that interrupted the peace of her home came from quiet voices on Papaw’s television, which he usually watched in the evenings. They prayed before every meal, and Granny and Papaw prayed with me next to them when I spent the night there. Their prayers ran like cool streams into my child mind. Dear heavenly father, we thank you… we come to you… help us… help our loved ones… forgive us all.
I went up there on Christmas Eve feeling obligated to the visit that I had put off for a year, making excuses and vague claims that I would come as soon as I could. Since Papaw died, my father had been living in my grandparents’ house with my teenaged half-sister who was about 15 years younger than me. My half-brother was also just a teenager and used to live there, but he didn’t move back in after the last time they entered the foster care system. Their mother was still in prison.
I was in my early thirties and took my 12-year-old son and five-year-old daughter with me. I drove up there thinking that despite all the pain he had inflicted on me, my siblings, and my mother, my father would never hurt his grandchildren. I thought I was giving them an important piece of their family — an imperfect one, but also a vital connection to the holler where I had grown up. I had been pushed and pulled by the dominant forces of that place, some impalpable and some visible, as it formed and forced me into the imperfect person who eventually became a mother. I brought gifts for my father and young siblings. My father gave my son $20 and told him they would go camping soon.
Dad smoked inside, which was never allowed when my grandparents were alive. The house was filled with shadows where before, light and cool breezes had swept through, refreshing the haven my papaw and granny created through their quiet labor. When Dad started talking about his guinea hens and the neighbor, and how he would shoot that neighbor, an old, familiar panic rose inside me. Does he have a gun? Surely he’s pawned them all for drugs. But what if he hurts someone in front of my kids? How will they ever recover? What am I doing here?
We left soon after that, and I decided I would never go back.
* * *
The first time I heard my dad was shooting up, my brother told me how he watched. They were in a trailer where Dad lived, not far from the mouth of the holler where we had grown up. Our father took a needle from another man who had just used it, plunged the brown liquid into his arm, and offered the needle to my brother. I wasn’t sure what was worse — offering his son heroin, or offering him a dirty needle. I wondered how it was that heroin had come to our small town in eastern Kentucky. Growing up, I knew that heroin was a city drug, and I associated it with all of the filth and crime and danger of cities in movies I watched in the 1980s. But the best pills had changed — you couldn’t crush them up and snort them anymore. You couldn’t even crush them and shoot them. Though my father had been an addict my entire life, his willingness to use needles seemed to mark a new low.
How is it that a region known for its outlaws became so dependent on pharmaceuticals and the welfare state? Some would have you believe that it’s a natural progression for an entire population to move from fierce independence and lawlessness to slinking around doctors’ offices for every shady prescription a person can get. They would have you believe that an entire group of people can be ignorant, morally bankrupt, and irredeemably lazy – and that those qualities have nothing to do with educational systems that were broken from the beginning, economic disparity, or even the cumulative experience of being told that your people are lazy, stupid, unimportant. You would think that Appalachia had the market cornered on poor character.
I used to hate it that my father found pills at such a young age — in his late teens or twenties, just a child compared to my age now. But I think about the prospects he faced as a young man working at a gas station. I think about the mockery that still spewed from the television at me when I was a child, and how I still hear it and see it now, long after we’ve supposedly outgrown that kind of class humor. I think about the nights we went to bed hungry or afraid to lose our home, and I think about the kids I went to school with who were living in a school bus, and I wonder sometimes why the whole world isn’t snorting pills.
After I learned my father was shooting up, it would be a while still before I heard anyone talk about the opioid crisis and I would wonder what it was that had happened in our holler and in my family and in the families around me for at least 30 years before anyone noticed. And I will admit that I felt no small amount of disdain when I realized the news stories — the tearjerkers, the ones that are supposed to spur lawmakers into action and inspire new school programs to save our children — they still didn’t talk about people like my father: a high school dropout who was in and out of jail, who has been lost to us for at least 40 years now.
But our family needed and wanted him to be a husband and father and son when we were just poor and poorly educated in our little holler, before any of us knew what an opioid was or how the pharmaceutical industry works. Long after we knew so much about the different kinds of pain one person can feel.
* * *
When I went to see the house right before I bought it, I didn’t expect that he could have made the place even worse than when I had seen it six years before that. Garbage and forgotten things covered the property. Chicken coops and a cruel version of a doghouse, made out of chicken wire and a metal roof, sat in the yard. A large dog that seemed both aggressive and afraid greeted me. I knew it would have never been to a vet. I wondered if my father hit it with his belt, like I had seen him do to other dogs when I was a child.
When I stepped through the back door, I saw two filthy stoves in the kitchen. Another kitchen stove sat idle on the front porch. Every surface in the house was dirty, but every surface was also a thing — old mail, dirty dishes, empty cigarette packs. The gloom was worsened by the plastic and curtains that he had tacked over the windows and by the soot that covered the walls, ceilings, and doorways. He laughed as he showed me the large burned circle in the living room floor. “We were wild on pills,” he said. “We let the kerosene stove get out of hand and it caught the couch on fire.” I later found out the fire had happened years ago.
He went to jail shortly after he moved to a trailer I bought him as part of my payment for Granny’s house. He had only moved a few of his things, and I was left to move everything else he deemed valuable, as well as all of the garbage. For the next six months or so, I drove the hour and a half to Granny’s house every time I possibly could. I didn’t know what to do with the house I had bought, but I decided that I could honor my grandparents by cleaning the evidence of my father’s sorrow from the property. Not knowing what the result would be, I would just serve the land and the home that had served me so well as a child.
For months, I found myself directing a crew to restore this sacred site as best as we could. We burned some of the garbage — books, furniture, even my papaw’s clothes. Another man cut down the bushes and brambles that had grown up in front of the house, right next to the creek. An electrician removed the live wires that went from the house to the outbuilding and from the outbuilding to the cellar. His father bush hogged the field. I paid a septic tank cleaning service to come empty the septic. “It hasn’t been cleaned out in 20 years, maybe never been cleaned,” he told me. I thought about that later, wondering what kind of poetic justice there was in me cleaning out my father’s literal shit, and all that had accumulated from people I held dear for so long.
I tried to scrub the soot off the walls. White ovals and squares dotted marked the spaces where my grandparents’ photos of us had hung before the couch fire. Dad took the majority of the photos with him. He left dirty dishes in the sink, full garbage bags in the cellar, some chickens and guinea hens, and Luke, the dog I was afraid of.
Eventually, I sanded the walls and painted them all. The guineas died pretty quickly, and I would discover their bodies and the smell, and move them with a shovel so we could continue working and cleaning. We took out the old carpet from upstairs — the carpet my granny kneeled on next to her bed as she said her prayers and I listened, knowing there was power in the words she spoke. The same carpet my father let his dog use as a bathroom. The chickens disappeared one by one, just as I got one of the chicken coops ready to fix up. Somehow, I thought I could save them all.
I wondered if I was doing something crazy, trying to fix all the things he had broken and clean his messes, save the creatures he had forsaken. Was I driven by a sick, sad need to right my father’s wrongs? To erase his sins? Or could I actually give something back to the home, the land, the grandparents who are gone, through sheer will and lots of sweat? Maybe I’ll know, eventually.
I considered moving into the house more than once, but I knew my father would eventually come back, expecting it to be his home as well. I had dreams where I had moved in and my daughter was taken from me. In others, Granny came to me in a panic, telling me not to stay. Whether they were prophetic or simply reflections of my anxiety probably doesn’t matter.
The irony was not lost on me that I found myself cleaning up my father’s mess the year I turned 40. I had spent decades trying to clean up the mess of my own self, left full of fear and anxiety after an unstable childhood. As I worked to reclaim the house and land that used to be the only place I felt safe, I slowly realized I was giving myself the gift of transformation. I was assuring myself — once again — that what has been neglected can thrive, what has been forsaken can be saved, as long as I keep trying, not knowing the ending, but trusting that something beautiful will triumph.