Updated: May 16, 2022
My Granny Pearl thought her husband, my Papa, gave too much money to the church. This was an ongoing conflict between the two of them, which meant she lectured, and he stayed silent until she finished and stalked away. Then off he went to give more money to the church. This was easy for him to do because they lived next door, and Papa could go knock on the pastor’s office door any time of day with a check or some cash. Gran died before Papa, so she never knew that his last act of faithfulness to Concord Baptist was to leave his house to the church. It was in his will. He had talked it over with his two sons, my dad and uncle, so it did not surprise us when there was a peaceful transition of the deed. Papa had intended it to be used as a parsonage, a mission house, or maybe extra Sunday school space. I can imagine him running through the possibilities, feeling that this was the pinnacle of giving, over and above the many envelopes he slipped under the door or laid on the pastor’s desk. Soon after Papa died, Concord Baptist leveled my grandparents’ three-bedroom brick house and put up a parking lot.
I loved that little church. When I go back in time to Sunday mornings sitting next to Gran on the slick pews, my senses kick in. I am squeezed between my grandmother and her cousin, Jewel, who slips me spearmint gum from her boxy white purse. I can still smell the rose lotion and the inside of the hymnal when we open it to sing the old familiar verses. Above all the voices, I can hear my grandfather, who sits on the back row of the choir loft and is slightly off-tempo. He loved that little church, too.
Every time we travel back to Arkansas, we make the rounds to the cemeteries and the old homeplaces, which means when we pull into the driveway of Gran and Papa’s house, we sit in the car and stare at a grassy lot and a few ground markers still in place. The neglected parking lot is rarely used because the church hasn’t amassed the crowds they expected when they took Papa’s gift and tore it to the ground. I’m still not over it. It was probably the practical thing to do since churches don’t provide parsonages anymore, and who wants to leave their house to attend Sunday school in a house? And yet, I still always feel righteous indignation when I imagine the intentional destruction of my grandmother’s beloved kitchen and the living room where we gathered on Christmas mornings. What was going through the minds of the old-timers who knew my grandparents as they watch the house violently disassembled and the rubble carried away? Did they celebrate the next weekend and dedicate the new parking lot?
The point of Joni Mitchell’s, Big Yellow Taxi, is not so much about paving paradise to put up a parking lot, but that we never seem to know what we have until we lose it. And worse, we often destroy the thing before we realize the value it gave us. I have no illusion that if my grandparent’s house was still standing, our visits to the old homeplace would be different. Maybe it would be harder to pull into the driveway and see it occupied by someone else, and we’d still be left staring at something that was gone. The last time I pulled away from the grassy parking lot, Mitchell’s song ran through my head, and the final line reminds me it’s not supposed to be about the house—or whatever paradise we imagine. It’s about the moments, days, and seasons that vanish and can’t be replaced.
In the middle of Christmas afternoons in my childhood, at least fifteen people would gather in my grandparents’ house, eating dinner leftovers, tossing a football in the long front yard, and exchanging family gossip. There are a few old home movies where we’re squinting at the bright light of the 8mm camera, laughing and waving blindly. I have photos of myself in the living room, kitchen, backyard, and garden of my grandparent’s house, and I can track the years of a younger me by laying them out from beginning to end. The beginning - me in a row of strawberry plants with chubby legs and a cherry red scarf tied around my head. The end - taking our firstborn to see my grandparents in their Concord house one last time before we moved them to Tulsa and away from their “roots,” as Papa liked to say. I now only have photos of my grandparents, the house, my parents. The people have all vanished to places I can no longer reach, and the house is a distant memory, as if never existed, just a hazy dream. In my life, there is no old homeplace. We’ve moved our family eight times, and my parents sold their home a year before Mom died. I obsess over old photos and hoard useless items that belonged to my parents, but I long for the old homeplace, any old homeplace.
Maybe, when the church decides that its best days are over, they’ll sell the property to someone who will build one of those trendy, stark white farmhouses. Until then, I’ll keep visiting the overgrown parking lot, humming along with Joni, and reminding myself to cherish the moments within the walls of my transitory homeplace.