Vol 8, Num 14 :: 2009.07.02 — 2009.07.16
Norman was 82 and sick. I had to see him. Ask him questions. He knew things about me — about the Van Emans — that I didn’t know. Perspective thickens history and I needed his perspective.
“Norman, what was it like being my family’s neighbor for the past sixty years?”
You have to be ready for answers to that sort of question. Before I tell you what he said, you ought to know how important such a question was to me. I’m the fifth Samuel. The first, born in 1816, moved to what became known as the Van Eman Homestead when he was only two. For the next 178 years, we owned that property. A few black and white photos
- like the one here - tell stories; a few relatives and county biographical records fill in blanks; my grandpa (Samuel III) provided a little, but not much, because I didn’t care enough then to ask him much while he was alive; and my dad (Samuel IV) kept all but silent. Whatever good past existed for him got smothered by his own troublesome present. That left Norman, who, for sixty years, had lived just across the lane.
Norman began our two-hour conversation by shaking his head. “Do you know what the Homestead was like in its heyday, Sammy? People made reservations to the restaurant your great-grandfather and great-grandmother ran there. The diners rode the old trolley to Van Eman Stop and came early just to walk the grounds in their suits and dresses before dinner. You never saw such an enchanting place and never ate better food.”
In a nineteen room house, I knew such dinners could take place. Chandeliers lit the air and heavy French doors led the way from one splendid space to the next. Fire places and stained glass windows and no less than a grand piano, parlor organ and cabinet-style Victrola stood by to set appropriate moods. And outside? As a boy who spent some years living at the Homestead, I only saw shadows of its former self, but how imagination pieced those shadows together: yard after yard lined with blue spruces and grape vines and ornamental fruit trees; stone paths graced by giant hydrangeas and lilies; vintage rose bushes climbing and cascading over the long trellis, providing shade and fragrance for numerous bench sitters near the garden pond. Five acres of enjoyment made early trolley rides well worth it.
But something happened between Samuel II and Samuel III, and by the 1960s (in case you’re doing the math, a James interrupted the sequence between Samuel I and Samuel II), the Homestead had begun its decline. Neglected roofs, as you perhaps know, behave like ruinous infections. They eat slowly, cursing almost imperceptibly in hidden places until the wounds surface to reveal death. The barn showed illness first. What once housed the horse and carriage sagged to the east, inch by inch into the ravine until you could walk up the western wall. The shed, or “stone building” as we called it, succumbed next. Its field stone walls did nothing to protect the now-rusted tools and useless garden supplies housed under decay. Only dad and grandpa were allowed inside and they made sure to get out quickly. The house endured longest but suffered visibly throughout. Warped windows stuck fast and chandeliers competed for attention with exposed ceiling lathe and plastic sheets hung high to catch water and plaster.
Then in 1996, my grandpa, Samuel III, died. Nine hundred and some-odd thousand dollars of unpaid taxes, a ten-thousand dollar unpaid gas bill, and other unbelievable illnesses, warranted a long-overdue transfer of the deed. Only 22 years shy of a second centennial milestone of ownership, the entire Van Eman estate — house, out buildings and nearly 100 acres of valuable real estate — got leveled.
“Do you know what happened to the old Homestead, Sammy?” Norman shook his head again as he asked, this time staring with unbelief. “Your grandpa went to the horse track every day. Never gambled much at a time, only a couple dollars here and a couple dollars there. Your great-grandparents gave him what he wanted as a kid and he never appreciated any of it. He left his education behind, left his jobs behind, neglected his family and lost the restaurant as well as the family hardware business, and he lived off of his inheritance until it was gone. Now it’s all gone.”
Some days I hate what Norman had to say. I hate going through the old boxes and seeing faded liens stuffed in forgotten envelopes. I hate that so much was squandered and that I have to start over. I don’t think I can, really. Maybe I simply don’t know how to start over. I’m thirty-six and I live with my wife and two daughters in a rental three hours from the middle-class development that now stands atop the Homestead like a crass headstone on a grave where not a resident knows or cares about the deceased. At this pace, it’s unlikely I’ll ever have an “estate.” That doesn’t mean I’m not restless for another promised land.
It’s ironic that before I knew the extent of my family’s history, I assumed we were a transient clan, not homeowners or property dwellers. See, I’ve moved 18 times in my life. That averages once every two years since birth. Three of those times were at the Homestead, a place with generations of stability and memories and rooted stories. And yet I thought we were transients.
Beneath the noise of address changes, however, settling sounds good to me. Even on our landlord’s .17 acre sliver, I tend to my small plot of annuals and perennials like a hen with chicks. Suits and dresses don’t travel here, but visitors like what we’ve done to the place and often relish a few moments of enjoyment in the back yard.
I’m glad for our little rental and my small sanctuary of blooms. I’m very glad to be debt-free. In a somewhat desperate attempt to be optimistic, I sometimes say that I’m nine hundred and some-odd thousand dollars ahead. Most of all, I’m glad that God redeems. Redemption may not end up resembling the Homestead and I may not end up being a hero in our family history, but God, nonetheless, redeems. And I can settle on that.