Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The impermanence of things

UPDATE: My cousin Kevin just e-mailed an old photo of the cabin I talk about in this post, and one of Aunt Lois doing the dishes in her kitchen in the cabin. I’ve posted them below.
Nearly 20 years ago, I suppose, I came home from wherever I was living at the time for Thanksgiving dinner. After finishing the mid-afternoon meal, I took a walk into an overgrown orchard that had once belonged to my great-great-aunts Lois and Hilda, and which had passed into the hands of a particular branch of the family after the old ladies died. We didn’t have much contact with those members of our extended family, so we don’t know why they allowed the formerly well-tended orchard go to seed, and the frail wooden cabin where Lois and Hilda spent the last years of their lives become a ruin. I hadn’t seen the old cabin since I was a kid, and the old ladies lived there. After they died, I would have been a trespasser had I attempted that.
But on this day, more than a decade after anybody had lived in that cabin, I decided to be a trespasser. I wanted to have a look.
I made my way through what was left of the orchard, but which was now merely an overgrown thicket. Lois had been an accomplished amateur horticulturist, and it stung to see the beautiful japonica and camellia trees she so carefully cultivated now consumed by brambles, briars and overgrowth. The orchard was a ruin, and so by now was the cabin where I spent so many happy days as a very small boy. The front porch of the house was so overgrown by bushes vines I couldn’t reach it, so I climbed in through an open back window. I hadn’t realized how tiny the cabin was — two wee bedrooms downstairs, a bathroom, and upstairs a galley-like kitchen, a small pantry, a sitting room, and a library. The whole thing couldn’t have been more than 650 square feet, but in my imagination, it was much larger. Then again, it would have appeared so to a boy of five.
The cabin was vacant and musty, but it still held the faint aromas I remembered as a boy. Even recalling those memories now, sitting at my desk, I have to fight back tears, simply because those thoughts are so dear to me. Sitting in Loisie’s lap at her worktable in the kitchen, helping her mix pecan cookies, or relaxing on the red-leather couch between the two women, a Rand McNally Atlas spread on my lap, listening to them tell stories of the places they’d been in the world, or bringing in wood from the front porch for them to stoke the fire … all these little things, and many more, added up to a life. I learned to love newspapers listening to Hilda point out mysterious words like “Moscow” and “Kissinger” in the headlines. As I type this, I can remember the quality of light in her bedroom as I sat on her bed staring at a story about Henry Kissinger, trying to figure out why he mattered. I must have been four. Those frail elderly ladies, born on Starhill plantation in the 1890s, and now living out their final years in that shoebox cabin under a rain tree, opened up an imaginative world for young me — one that charted the course for my life. (“You’ll travel far,” Hilda told me one day, reading my palm). It was an enchanted place, that cabin.
And there, as a grown man, I found myself standing in the dark ruined kitchen, wondering where it all had gone. I saw on the shelf there a single item — Loisie’s pale green Depression glass mixing bowl. I held it in my hands, a totem of my blessed youth there. Something must have unnerved me, because I felt the urge to leave. I took the mixing bowl in hand, went down the back steps, and stood for a last minute in Loisie’s bedroom. It was the size of a monastic cell, and now bare. But look, there is where she kept her Honduran wooden bobblehead of a Carmen Miranda figure, which delighted me as a boy. And when a bed was there, that’s where we laid down late one night when I stayed over and read a Wisconsin cheese catalog, me marveling at the bright blue and red cellophane that looked like Christmas tree balls). Out those French doors is the back porch where I used to feed her cats with her, and where, after she was taken to the hospital in her penultimate illness, an evil cousin came one Sunday afternoon, lured all the cats out with their dinner, and killed them all with shotgun blasts — this, on Hilda’s orders. She was tired of feeding them for her sister. All of us, sitting in the backyard nearby, heard what was going on, and went crazy with grief — but could do nothing.
Lois died not long after that, not knowing what had happened to her cats. After she passed, with me knowing what Hilda had done, I wanted very little to do with the surviving sister. The other side of the family moved her to a nursing home at last — not an unjustified move, I must say — and took control of the cabin and the orchard. And that was the end of that chapter in my life.
I put those thoughts out of my head, climbed back through the bedroom window, slogged through the thicket, and squeezed between the barbed wires of the fence, and was once again in the sunlight. I looked across the yard at my mom and dad’s brick house in the near distance, as the evening began to fall, and I realized that one day, their house would be as Hilda and Lois’s cabin is today: a ruin. I could hear people inside, all our dinner guests, laughing and talking, but that too would fade in time. One day, maybe some grandchild yet unborn, or one of his children, would come in through a back window and search for relics of a barely remembered past, or at least totems testifying that the stories told about this place really had happened. That they weren’t rumors whispered by ghosts. Someday that would happen. But not today.
I put my glass mixing bowl under my arm and walked on to the house.
I thought about this memory this weekend, visiting Ruthie and my family. Ruthie and Mike bought part of what was once the orchard from our distant cousins, and built their house there. The rest of the land that had once been Lois and Hilda’s was sold to strangers. The cabin has long been gone; a nice big brick house belonging to someone I don’t know is now where the cabin was. True to Hilda’s palm-reading prophecy, I traveled far in my life. I have now spent well over half my life living away from there. Yet that is home for me, because that is where my family is, and the landscape of my childhood. Now, though, my parents are getting up in years, and my younger sister, at age 40, is battling a disease that may take her life. I hadn’t realized until this crisis with Ruthie how much I had counted on the continuity of her remaining there, even after our parents pass away, to anchor that place as the center of my imaginative universe. She, who has always loved the land and her place there far more than I, and she, whom I could count on to always be faithful to it, however unfaithful I was, sits in her armchair in what was once the orchard, coughing and straining for breath. We hope and we pray for healing, but now the way I thought the world would be may not be the way the world is, or will become. And I am having a hard time coming to terms with that, as both an emotional and a philosophical matter (i.e., trying to understand how to relate to where I come from now that the permanence I assumed would always be there is threatened).
Nothing lasts. It’s one thing to grasp that intellectually, but to live through the impermanence of things is something else. As usual, Auden got it. Excerpt:


But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

Comments read comments(25)
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Caroline Nina in DC

posted April 12, 2010 at 12:58 pm

This is a lovely and haunting meditation, and one I can relate to well, as a Mississippian who left for boarding school at 13 and more or less never went back. My mother is dying of Alzheimer’s right now, and every day I recall something I wish I had asked her. There was a wonderful story she told of fording a river on horseback during a thunderstorm during the Depression, and now I can’t remember all the details, and there is no one in the whole world whom I can ask.
So, thank you.

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted April 12, 2010 at 12:58 pm

That was lovely…

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posted April 12, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Oh you are so right. And nothing like illness and possible death to focus the mind, is there. Especially when beloved siblings are involved.
Beautiful writing. Thanks for posting this.

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Russell Arben Fox

posted April 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Sad and truthful and tragic and wise, Rod; my thanks.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 1:24 pm

This is precisely why I keep coming back to this blog. Thank you sharing it, Rod.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Sad beyond all reason and beyond most kinds of hope. The true cost of the Fall, THIS impermanence is our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. We do have some hope, in Christ, but it does not lessen the grief, in my experience. That still must be borne.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 1:27 pm

To paraphrase Jeffrey Steingarten, I’d pay to read this post.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Completely lovely, and heartbreaking.

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Lord Karth

posted April 12, 2010 at 2:03 pm

A very touching post, Mr. Dreher.
Your servant,
Lord Karth

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posted April 12, 2010 at 2:15 pm

I know there are significant obstacles to you returning to your home parish, but perhaps it will work out for you. It seems like it might be something that you want, deep down.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I just got back yesterday from California. My dad’s mother died a week ago. She was 93, but had just been clothes shopping the day before with my folks. She was supposed to be at the Grand Canyon with them today.
Instead, I was with the rest of my extended family who I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years, going through Grandmommy’s and Grandad’s effects of a lifetime spent raising three boys and loving eight grandchildren and who knows how many great grandchildren.
Most of the family pictures and dishes and such had been cataloged, but a few things had not been opened yet. I was told to watch out for envelopes of money that had been found here and there. I found that the old drawer/desk near the kitchen hadn’t been touched yet, so I looked inside with unease. Letters to campsite mangers in Eureka and Brookings dated from 1982. Some recipes. Boxes of staples. The things you never think about and leave in a desk for thirty years for your children to find later.
I felt like an invader. I felt ashamed. I closed the desk and went into the laundry room and started crying. My Grandmom was gone and I was pawing through her things. My Grandmom who I spent the summer with when I was twelve, up in Northern California. One long, glorious summer that never seemed to end and filled with walks on the beach at Crescent City, picking wild blackberries, canning salmon caught by Grandaddy and eating ice cream floats with the heater on because it would get so cold at night by the ocean.
I now have my Grandad’s 5-string banjo, and some china plates along with three pretty German crystal bowls of the sort you see at TJ Maxx.
I have my memories. It isn’t good enough, but that is what we all get left with.

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Roland de Chanson

posted April 12, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Une belle élégie pathétique. Vergil sang sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. Your poignant vignette too touches the soul.

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bill holston

posted April 12, 2010 at 4:34 pm

very nice Rod. Maybe you should find an old iron stove and move it into that old cabin…Perhaps a Second Coming.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Nothing to add that others haven’t — just admiration, love and prayers for your talents as a writer and your complexity as a person. Thank you for giving us this little window into your past.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Lovely and poignant.
I left the beautiful lakes and forests of Michigan over 20 years ago.  Although I have lived in one place for most of those 20 years, I still feel like a visitor in my adopted home.  
There is a tiny cemetery, along a dirt road, next to a cornfield in Michigan.  It’s within sight of the house where my grandfather was born.  It’s the only place that makes sense for me to be buried one day, unless I were to have my ashes scattered in a tiny, but beautiful, trout stream  in the same county.  Being buried where I live now would seem so out of place.  Literally.  
Yet, what about my kids?  All they know is this new place where I am raising them.  I’ve broken the thread.  What is home to me and all of their kin is now alien country to my children.              

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Randy G.

posted April 12, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Hang onto those imaginative universes, and the depression-era mixing bowl. I remember 20 years ago, when we broke up housekeeping for my widow grand-mother. The one thing I wanted was her multi-colored pyrex mixing bowls -I have no idea of their era. As the eldest grand-child I also got the bedroom set, but it is the mixing bowls that I use at least twice a week as I make bread.
Randy Gabrielse

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Paul Pfaff

posted April 12, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Beautiful post, Rod. Good time to listen to “Impermanent Things” by Peter Himmelman.

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Aiming Higher

posted April 12, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Extremely evocative story, Rod. It got me thinking about how societies spent millennia working to create and preserve knowledge in order to survive and prosper and how so much of our society now feeds on constant churn in order to sell more stuff. Finding the right balance between preserving the past and embracing the future is hard…

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posted April 12, 2010 at 10:06 pm

When you cast aside catastrophism and apocalyptic reveries, and you give voice to the mysteries of the soul, you become a writer whose prose encapsulates unspeakable beauty and undying wonder.

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amba (Annie Gottlieb)

posted April 12, 2010 at 10:18 pm

This is pertinent somehow.

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posted April 12, 2010 at 10:25 pm

My Dear Little Pedro,
Bittersweet memories. …I, too, have such fond & aromatic memories of playing at Loisie & Mossy’s house (usually with Mulla). To this day, I LOVE the smell of nutmeg and joke with my girls that they can occasionally sprinkle some on my grave. I remember the crackling fire and the small clay animal figures on the mantel. And, of course, the yard smelling of sweet olive and jonquils. And, let’s not forget Loisie’s soft peppermint sticks….smells evoke so many memories for me! My dearest memories, however, are of my times (of which there were many) spent at Mulla’s house….at the kitchen table making pound cake (and licking the beaters); Sunday dinners on the front porch with the big fan; doing random school/art projects at the dining room table; occasionally playing up in the attic; watching the Wizard of Oz that one time of year it came on one of the only two channels available; and my favorite memory…having hot tea, toast & bacon brought to me in bed! Who would want this world to ever end?! While it is sad to grow up & come to the realization that the people & places we so loved as a child do not remain forever, I am so thankful to have my sweet, sweet memories. We, at least, can close our eyes and go to our “happy place”…not everyone can do that! So you just hold on tight & cherish the memories of those wonderful days…they are yours to keep until the end of your time! In the meantime, we will all love our sweet little Ruthie with all of our hearts & lift her up with our prayers & any other way we can every single day.

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Rod Dreher

posted April 12, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Readers, my cousin May’s calling me “Pedro” is a family joke. When I was a really small boy, I learned to read at an early age, and would insist that everyone call me by the name of my current favorite storybook character. My favorite name of all was Pedro, a resourceful little burro in one of my books. My father — salt of the earth, practical country boy that he was — was irritated as all hell by this. But I wouldn’t budge.
One day he said to four year old me, “Pedro, we brought Rod home from the hospital. Where is he?”
Not missing a beat, I said, “Daddy, he’s in the top of the sweet olive tree at Aunt Lois’s house.”
“Well, let’s go get him,” Daddy said, then marched me up through the pecan orchard to the cabin.
If you look at the photo of the cabin, on the far left side of the image you can see a sweet olive tree, just off the porch. I stood under that tree with my Dad behind me, calling “Rod! Ro-o-od!” at the unseen kid hiding in the top of the tree.
“Daddy, he’s not coming down.”
“Keep calling!”
So I kept it up. I remember Lois and Hilda standing on the porch, tittering at Daddy. When I finally started to climb the tree to shake the limbs, Daddy gave up and took me home, defeated.
One day, we were driving down Plank Road in Baton Rouge, and Daddy pointed to a sign outside Pedro’s Tacos, and said, “Look Pedro, it’s you.” On the sign was a man taking a siesta in a sombrero. What a stupid hat! I thought. And from that moment on, I was Rod again.
Yeah, May, the soft peppermint sticks at Loisie and Mossie’s house were something special…

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posted April 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Brings to mind Truman Capote’s wonderful “A Christmas Memory”, thanks for sharing.

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The Spokesrider

posted April 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm

When you went back and looked at the overgrown cabin and orchard, did that destroy your earlier memories of it, or make them less intense? Or did it enhance them?

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