That old house
I grew up in the Hillcrest area of Kingsport, Tenn., in the northeastern tip of the state. The home we occupied for all of my life, from the time I was 4 until I left for the Marines, was at the top of a road that used to be named Hill Street before we were annexed by the city and the name had to be changed. Seems that Kingsport already had a Hill Street.
When I was a kid, the road was a dirt road. Later the county covered the road with a thick layer of black oil to hold down the dust. Some years after that, the road was covered with gravel, which was great unless one liked to ride a bicycle, in which case a wreck did far more damage to flesh than a wreck on oil or dirt. Eventually, at the end of my teen years, the road was given a layer of asphalt.
The neighborhood was what I would call, “working class.” Some houses, including ours, was well-kept and well-maintained. Others were allowed to accumulate junk and weeds.
As I was growing up, I assumed that my mother never liked our house or our neighborhood. She frequently referred to the home as “this old house,” or the location as being “on this old hill” in terms that were less than endearing. The message that I received, unintended or not, was that both the house and the neighborhood were unacceptable.
To the south of us, high on a ridge, was Skyline Drive. A couple of miles to the north was Preston Woods. Both, I thought, were desirable places to live. The lawns were well-kept, the houses spacious.
Our home was small. Before Dad added a dining room and a bed room, we had two small bedrooms (one of which my brother and I shared) and a bathroom (no shower, just a bath).
By the time high school came around, my attitude was fully formed: I was ashamed of the house and the hill on which it stood. When fellow students asked me where I lived, I never mentioned Hillcrest. “I live between Skyline Drive and Preston Woods,” was my reply.
My goal was eventually to move out of that old house and off that old hill. And I did. Now, when I travel back to my hometown, I almost always drive up the hill and go past the house. When I look at it now, I have two emotions. One is pride.
My father was one of the hardest working men I have ever known. When he was not working his job or seeking supplemental income, he worked on the house.
He painted it, roofed it, added storm windows, traded the oil furnace for a heating and air system, added paneling, installed carpeting, wallpapered it, tore out the wallpaper and painted it, added fencing, built a carport, built a new bedroom, added a dining room, mowed the lawn, trimmed the shrubbery, and provided a safe home that was full of love and security.
My mother was a relentless homemaker who cleaned, cooked, washed, canned, preserved, and read to me stories from a children’s Bible. She mended clothes, stretched the hard-to-come-by dollars, mended cuts, bruises, and scrapes, and cooked some of the best meals we ever ate. She was there when I went to school and there when I came home. I am proud to have grown up in that home on that hill.
The other emotion is shame. I am still ashamed that I ever looked down on where I grew up.
The truth is that I had a happy childhood, played with good friends in the woods next door, played mad scientist in the basement with a chemistry set, launched model rockets in the street, and loved, cared for, and lost several beloved dogs whose bones rest in the back yard to this day.
I learned to play guitar in that house and was strumming it on the front porch when a pastor and two teenage girls stopped by to ask me to come to the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Mountain View Church where my life changed.
Melissa Lambert recorded a song about a house whose chorus says:
“If I could walk around, I swear I’ll leave
“Holding nothing but a memory
“From the house that built me.”
I think about doing that someday — stopping by and asking to look around that old house. But I won’t.
The people, the family, the furniture, the pets, the aroma of countless meals that made it a life are no longer there.
But I do drive by from time to time. And, every time I do, I offer a grateful prayer that I was raised — and that I was built — in that old house on that old hill.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U.S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]