Callaway

Caleb’s dad passed into glory early in the morning on April 13th. We are so sad to be starting this stage of life without him, but we rest in the hope of seeing him again one day!  

Judy Schneider Photo

Below is something that Caleb wrote while we were in the States this past month. He has an incredible gift for writing (just like his dad) and I am always so thankful when he gets the chance to write down his thoughts and share them with others. 

Thoughts on a recent visit to Callaway, a Georgia Plantation

Shauna leads us through the back door (“Can’t let y’all go up the steps”), through the ground floor, and out onto the porch. Her first task as our tour guide is to educate us on the special events at the plantation. The fires are lit at Christmas (and only then, to prevent the place burning down), and they bring a mule in to turn a cane mill in October, cost of admission $7 (“unless the prices go up this year, which they may do”). As we out-of-towners oblige with nods, Shauna directs our attention to the view.

Across the highway, beyond a tiny municipal airport, stretch the hills and fields that once belonged to the Callaway family. They were granted the land following the revolution as a reward for their service to the infant country. They proved industrious stewards: from the late 1700’s onward, they (and, at one point, around 100 slaves) sawed and plowed their way to prominence.

The house is an appealing red-brick structure with that cool equilibrium of austerity and regalness that defines the early antebellum plantation home. Six immense white columns support the porch ceiling (the sixth replaced by the City of Washington following a bad storm). The dining room boasts three closets, an unusual display of wealth in a period when closets were taxed as rooms when enclosed with doors. Other than that, there is little else to say that cannot be said of any other home of the period.

This is not my first visit, though losing my father a few days earlier has caused everything to seem new (brushing my teeth, petting the dog), and I find I experience everything through a lens of numb intensity. I came on this field trip with a few family members, including my two-year-old daughter, Jane, in order to take a break from funeral arrangements, to escape for an hour, though from what I am hardly aware.

Our little group wanders from room to room and admires the furniture we are encouraged to admire, each seeking that balance every tourist must while on a guided tour: neither bored nor so inquisitive as to make the tour uncomfortably long for our co-tourists. We learn that the Callaways who built this particular residence (there are three or four other houses on the property) were Aristides and Martha. Their portraits show a bearded, solid looking man who, despite his name, looks largely unimaginative, alongside a much younger woman with puffy, receding Mediterranean eyes. My sister-in-law says that Martha is prettier than other women from the 1800’s whose portraits she has seen. Perhaps she is right, though Martha’s eyes look tired to me. Shauna tells us the Callaways had more than a dozen children together before Martha died at 48. She points out a black leather physician’s bag in their bedroom. “The doctor would stay here when Martha was going to have her baby,” she says decorously, before intimating with both kindness and humor, “So, that would be about every nine months.”

On our way up the stairs, Shauna points out one of the more remarkable items in the house: an enormous mirror that hangs on the halfway landing. Shauna explains to us that the mirror has a highly practical purpose. It reflects the front door and hall, so that whole area can be seen from the second-floor landing. Through this arrangement, whoever was on that landing could see who was at the front door before committing to receiving the visitor, a sort of 19th century closed-circuit video surveillance system.

I pause before the mirror as the others go ahead up the stairs. “Look, Jane, it’s us!” I say to my daughter, who is strapped to my back so as to keep her from toppling vases off of spindly-legged hall tables. She sighs and kicks at my side, unimpressed. I think of the tremendous crash the mirror would make if it were to fall, the glass breaking into a billion fragments all down the steps, from unity to disunity in one of those shockingly irreversible instants that alter the trajectories of our lives. Then, in an inexplicable leap of the imagination, I remember the scene from Gone With the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara shoots the Yankee intruder. Startled by these combined impressions, I rejoin our party on the floor above and we all admire the nursery.

But I cannot shake the image of the mirror; instead, it shakes me. The mirror is wavy with age, and looks as if it were raining heavily on the other side of the glass. When I look into it, I am looking into the same mirror Aristides looked at as he ascended the steps, perhaps on his way to kiss Martha one last time as she lay on the grand bed, her life an early mist rising through the gauzy curtains and seeping through plaster and red brick out into the wet Georgia morning to be burned by the sun. We are two men, alien to each other, looking into the same mirror. And yet what we read there, the signature of loss signed across our own faces, is the same. The pop music writers are wrong, I think. The grief that springs from love is perhaps more powerful than love itself to connect people across not only the invisible boundaries of current society, but also the unspannable chasms of time.

Wandering through these rooms, it is easy to forget that the Callaways are absent from them. For all I know, they could be moving from one room to the next, one step ahead of us, in a sort of children’s game. I imagine them leaning against doors, Aristides careful of Martha’s hair, listening to our conversation. Was that a blue satin slipper disappearing around that corner?

The detritus of their lives is everywhere, in every corner and shelf and wall. But biblical orthodoxy is unequivocal on this point. The soul enters into heaven, and the body awaits resurrection. I do not believe in ghosts, but I do believe in something that lingers, though I hardly know what to call it. In the absence of body and soul, however, a space remains, and this empty space is as real as the former presence, and for a short time at least it feels almost more real. I’ll call it the nimbus, the force of personality which, once imprinted indelibly on our own consciousnesses, will never dissipate entirely, no matter the time that elapses. It lingers on in the rooms the departed once inhabited, on their belongings, in their closets. We cannot ever have our loved ones with us again in this life, but we can have their pen, their book, their walking stick.

But the nimbus is as weak as it is strong. We can only do so much with it, and I fear we try to do too much, as if we could bring them back. I wonder what Aristides and Martha would say if they could see us now, peering into their rooms, gawking at this or that piece of furniture, assembling anecdotes as if they were ligaments and bones while we try like Frankenstein to bring life to the silhouettes in our minds. I am convinced that the fragments that remain are not enough to reconstruct an Aristides or a Martha or anyone else. We may touch the items tenderly, hoping for some warmth to emanate, some tone or timbre that recalls a voice. But they are only artifacts, the physical emblems of a person, and though something precious may hover over and around them, they are never really more than artifacts. They disappoint. Perhaps this is what makes archaeology so futile a pursuit. The best we can get is only a fragrance, a murmur, a shadow which, upon investigation, dissipates into the night.

When the nimbus belongs to a stranger, it evokes discomfort (ever spend the night in an unfamiliar, old house?), but when it belongs to a loved one, it evokes a far wider range of emotions, among them grief and warmth. As my aunt said as we visited in my cousins’ 18th century farmhouse, “If there are ghosts in this house, they are family members, which is fine, right?” And the nimbus is a comfort, a gift, of sorts. It is an aid to grief, to reflection on life in all its complexity and beauty, and the overwhelming power of Providence. And this gives hope not only for the life to come, but for this life, the hope that something in the one we loved stays with us as we continue our own race.

The telephone rings as we make our way down the stairs. “Most times I’m the only one here,” says Shauna, “so I just got to let it ring. There is only one of me. And I sure am glad there ain’t two of me!” We laugh at the joke, identifying with the sentiment as our minds turn to our harried lives. But as I reflect on the Callaways and on my father, I realize that at our deaths there is a sense in which there are two of us. There is the self that is united in heaven with the Father, and there is the “self” we leave behind, our legacy, a combination of artifacts and memories, words and wishes. The amazing thing is that we each of us is actively creating that legacy now, and it is both frightening and beautiful that one day that legacy will remain in our stead. And while I doubt my home will be open to tours long after I am gone, I do wonder what impression will be left, what people will say as they wander the rooms of my life and sort through my things. This, I believe, is an insatiable curiosity.

~ Caleb Sutton

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