I have often wondered about the ancestors on my father’s side of the family, the ones whose family crest featured a simple, austere tree—one with leaves but with shallow, almost nonexistent roots, as though the tree had been quickly torn from the earth: Or, a tree eradicated vert the motto says. Were my ancestors wanderers traveling from place to place, looking for some sort of freedom? What had they left behind, and what did they find in its place? Of all the family crests that one family can have, this is the one I felt described mine best. We would live in a place for years, sometimes for a full generation, spreading our branches and reaching out with our leaves into our adopted towns but remaining outsiders, transplants, never fully rooted to our adopted homes. And then for one reason or another, when it seemed almost unlikely, we would leave to begin again. So, it’s not without a little irony, or maybe audaciousness on my part, that the place that I decided I would never leave, that I would live for the rest of my life, was on the outskirts of a tiny Georgia town called The Rock. It is a place in the Piedmont region of the Appalachians known for its outcroppings of hard granite. In fact, on the land I settled was a piece of the rock from which the town got its name, a part that was sandblasted through to make way for a modern road—not exactly the simplest place to plant roots when you’re from a family line that has none.
When I moved there, I was still married to my son’s father—in fact, our marriage lasted for many years after. This was land owned by his family where he claimed to have had many happy memories exploring the property each summer. Our son, Sam, was thirteen, and it seemed a perfect place to continue raising a teenager. It was a place that he could have freedom to safely roam, to bring his friends over, to enjoy this piece of rustic nature. We built a small ranch house in the middle of a pasture that looked out to a neighboring ranch.
This property may have belonged to my husband and his family, but I soon belonged to it. They may have spoken of this land with pride, which considering its beauty, they had every reason to do so. But it was I who would stand at the edge of the old pecan orchard mesmerized by the young deer and foxes playing, the deer leaping in large circles, the foxes with their rasping barks chasing them. It was I who would walk in the woods and identify leaves the way my father had taught me—or watch armadillos or opossums crossing my path, ancient species seemingly unaware of me. It was I who told the bow hunter, an acquaintance of ours, that he could not hunt on our property because I wanted the deer protected and would watch the look of contempt on his face. It was I who sometimes laid on the grass, my ear to the ground, listening hopefully for the hum of the terrestrial and sometimes imagining this land before it became a living quilt of patchwork squares of orchard, field, pasture, and hardwood acres and was one dense aboriginal forest, home to native peoples. Inside our small house, I took delight in decorating its rooms, even purchasing a large, extravagantly priced maple highboy. I joked that I could never leave because it would be too difficult to move this huge piece of furniture.
Of course, with time, things changed. Our son finished high school, then college, and began his own life away from The Rock. When he came home, though, he found that it bore little resemblance to the place he spent his teen years. The ranch next door had long been sold to a well-known businessman who eventually began turning the quiet property into a 1,500-acre agritourism center complete with Conestoga wagons, corn mazes, fireworks, and family values. My husband, his father, had had his own metamorphosis—a mental breakdown brought about by the memories of childhood trauma. The Rock had not been such an idyllic place for him, after all. Still there was hope. My husband sought help for a while so I reasoned that he would get better, and surely, we could adjust to the changes of the ranch next door.
Sometimes, though, we fail to seek freedom from unhappiness, because we love the memory of what was, and think that somehow, miraculously, it will become reality again. Eventually, though, there was no pretending what my reality was. I failed to hear nature’s sounds because the ranch’s miniature train traveled the length of our adjoining land, its raucous horn sounding at every stop and every waved hand by the visitors who came by the busload. I never saw my foxes anymore and realized later that the ranch manager was trapping them and selling their pelts because the foxes supposedly ate the chickens in the ranch’s petting zoo. When I walked for solace among the hardwoods, I would find deer stands—not rickety, hastily made ones made from branches by errant trespassers, but ones of fine aluminum construction and cushioned armrests placed carefully by friends of our wealthy neighbors who thought this land was just an extension of the ranch next door.
Then there was the inside. Untreated mental illness had met paranoia and fundamental Christianity. Loaded guns stood sentry in every room because my husband said we never knew who could try to take away our freedom and we needed to be prepared. In the hardwoods at the back of our house surely lurked strangers wanting to kill us. Hoarding guns and ammunition wasn’t foolish, my husband said, it was smart—who could possibly know when the enemy would strike, and we would be defenseless, unguarded, unsafe. Only God knows, he would say, and he chastised me for not embracing his religion as he had. There was only so much intercessory prayer he could do for me, he explained, before turning on the TV to listen to one of his favorite preachers whose voice would fill the air with hellfire and brimstone.
There was only so much I could do, as well. On weekends, after teaching school, I would clean the house of the never-ending dust of Thou Shalt Nots and try to sweep out the door the endless out-of-context quotes from the Book of Leviticus. I contacted his doctors, but they couldn’t talk to me because he’d never given written permission for me to discuss his health.
I listened politely when people stopped me in the grocery store to tell me how blessed I was to be married to such a good man of faith, knowing that these well-meaning people would never comprehend my growing unease. I pleaded daily for him to find a place to store his guns safely, only to be finally told that he would not. And to the world I pretended all was well until I could pretend no longer.
When I moved out, I left the highboy.
I learned that freedom can look like a small apartment with paper thin walls and that it can feel conspicuous, for when you are the newcomer in a small town, you are also more or less the stranger in a strange land. I learned that freedom can look ugly and raw, but that it still feels relieved and safe. I learned that if you loved the memory but not the reality, you weren’t free, and that freedom is often rooted in the resignation that something that once had value was lost and that it was futile to keep looking for it in the same, still spot. I learned to appreciate my ancestors whose travels somehow originated a family crest of an almost rootless tree. Maybe they too had once loved a beautiful, rock-laden land that they had had to leave, and maybe they would indulge a future descendant who would have to learn the lessons they tried to teach all on her own.