by Tina Firesheets
I fell in love with the blackberry bushes.
It was early June, and most of the berries were red and smallish. But I knew in just another month they would ripen and look like shiny, black jewels sparkling in the sunlight. They beckoned me from the banks of my family’s property in the mountains, reminding me of so many summer mornings when I used to pick blackberries with my grandmother.
A couple months ago I’d written that I intended to sell some land that I inherited when my father passed away. I had spent most of my youth daydreaming about what my life could be outside of the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina. I had little interest in returning there, and my family here could benefit from the money.
As it turned out, the realtor said she could only list it for about half of its tax value. I was surprised. And disappointed. But after she left, I walked around the property and really took a look around. I saw potential.
My parents had moved there when I left home for college. In the years between my father’s passing and now, I had rented the property to cousins. I may have stayed overnight a couple of times before my mother passed away, but most of my visits were brief and task-oriented.
Clearing my mother’s closets and packing her belongings into my car after she died. Trying to pack the things my father might need in the nursing home. Or meeting my cousins on occasion for one reason or another.
I found it very hard to return. There were a lot of painful memories attached to being there, and the trick to leaving them behind was to make those visits as short as possible.
It angered me that my father began seeing someone before my mother even passed away. It infuriated me even more when they married on the anniversary of my mother’s death.
It made me sad to think of my mother all alone in their trailer, near death and struggling to breathe from lung cancer. I thought about how isolated she must have felt, so far from her own family in Japan. I wonder if she fantasized about being with them again or if she daydreamed about her girlhood before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor — before her own childhood became so difficult.
Perhaps my parents connected because both struggled with their own demons. My father’s family was so poor, he wore his older sister’s clothing. His classmates teased him for it. He lied about his age so that he could join the military before he graduated from high school. I loved my grandparents, but I know my grandfather could be very cruel.
Who knows what my father witnessed in Vietnam. I know he had nightmares. I probably never want to know what he had to do there.
My mother’s family was wealthy. But during “the war” (World War II), their money couldn’t buy anything. They moved from the city and learned to be resourceful to survive. My mother also had nightmares.
I walked around the last home they shared, and felt sorrow for their losses. I felt sad for what they endured and how their pain shaped their attitudes and actions throughout the rest of their lives. But something else emerged within me. I looked at the apple trees, the blueberry and fig bushes and the leafy Japanese vegetables that my mother had planted so many years ago, and I saw beauty. Peace. And hope.
A forest of bamboo has grown in some areas, threatening to overtake whatever is in its path. I remember hunting for bamboo shoots with my mother when I was a child. I’m sure she’d find an abundant crop there now.
I’d struggled with some remorse at the thought of selling my family’s property. My grandparents, with whom I had spent so much of my childhood, had lived down the hill. All that’s left of their house today is the brick chimney. The weeds are so overgrown that you can barely see it from the road below.
A few years ago, I drove through Cherokee to look for the campground that my parents managed when I was a child. It wasn’t there. It had been cleared some time ago when the casinos became popular. I’m not sure if it was replaced by a new road, or a hotel or gift shops. But I was deeply disturbed by its disappearance. It felt as if the physical evidence of our hard work and our very existence had just vanished.
Perhaps, even when there are painful memories attached to a space, it’s important for that space to still exist because it allows you to validate your struggle. If you can return to that space having overcome it, the victory feels even sweeter.
Maybe this is the time to start a new chapter in the family history. When I took my husband to see the property for the first time, he was surprised by how beautiful it was. Like me, he could see potential. We could build our own small vacation cabin there. It could be our retreat whenever we need a break. Later, over beers at a brewery in downtown Bryson City, we marveled at the Tuckaseegee River below, framed by a backdrop of greenery so lush that it almost seemed tropical.
I told my husband how different the town is today, compared to when I grew up there. I couldn’t think about anything beyond getting to the other side of the Smoky Mountains. I wanted to be somewhere more urban and sophisticated. I wanted to go to art museums, shopping malls and fine restaurants. I actually wanted to live somewhere that had traffic.
Downtown Bryson City is about five miles from my property. It has coffee shops, breweries, a boutique hotel and, for now, free parking. Our place is up a mountain on a private road. It’s quiet there. There are other homes nearby, but it feels secluded and safe.
“I could be happy here,” my husband said.
I think I could be, too.