This week, I went to Covington. And Mimi's house is not there anymore.
Covington, Tennessee is my father's home town. It was also the home town of my grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents.
My grandparents were called "Mimi" and "Papa." For whatever reason, and meaning no disrespect to Papa at all, their home was always - to all of us grandchildren - simply known as "Mimi's house."
It was not a large house. I never knew it in its smallest stages, but I do remember when it had only one bathroom. It stood on Highway 51, on the western end of the farm, down a steep hill from the highway and behind the stately old tree. In the summertime, we would sit under that tree in folding chairs. At Christmas time, Papa would string the lights and put those tacky plastic three-foot-high candles on the front porch. We loved that.
Since Mimi was only 16 when my father was born (fourteen months after she was a blushing 15-year-old bride), she was a rather young grandmother. She lived well into my adulthood, dying just months before the birth of my first child in 1993. Papa died eleven months (to the day) later.
My father and his two brothers inherited the property. One of those brothers is gone now, but his children, along with Dad and Uncle Steve, sold some of the real estate - specifically the old house and land along the highway. I heard that the house was torn down, and I had never really wanted to see that. I didn't think I was ready.
Until now. I was in court in Jackson this week, and I flew home out of Memphis, and I had some time to kill in between, so I went to Covington. I went to the cemetery first, visiting the headstones of those great great grandparents and great grandparents and grandparents and uncle and other relatives. I laid flowers on Mimi's grave. I drove by their old church and the house where Gomma, my great grandmother, had lived. Then I headed south down Highway 51 to the intersection of Robbins Road, where the house had been.
I almost missed it. They have filled in the front yard with dirt to bring the land level with the highway. A Burger King stands where the driveway was. There is a Wal-Mart across the street. There are a couple of strip shopping centers - one has a liquor store and a tanning salon and a medical supply; the other has a Shoe Show and a Mexican restaurant. The grand old tree is gone. Were it not for the little road heading down to the (old now) telephone substation (the street sign saying "Robbins Road" is gone), I might not have recognized it at all.
I parked in the Burger King parking lot and walked through what used to be the front yard, trying to find where the front porch used to be. I tried different spots, trying to duplicate the view I remember from my childhood. I don't think I ever really found the exact spot. The only thing I got out of the walk for certain was muddy shoes.
Everything has changed.
The memories are still crisp. I remember the smells of Mimi's cooking and the feel of the linoleum in the kitchen. I remember the frustration of trying to beat Papa at checkers (I was 0-for-life). I remember hearing my parents and Mimi and Papa playing pitch (that's a card game for you uninitiated) in the other room after I had been sent to bed on the fold-out couch. I remember how the living room looked. I remember the sounds of Mimi's Elvis records. I remember the closet where my cousin Crystal and I used to scare her little sister. I remember watching Papa and Dad and Uncle Jerry take turns adjusting the color on the big old TV during countless football games. I remember the Easter Egg hunts. I remember the "kids' table" at Thanksgiving. I remember how the phone sounded when it rang. I remember it all, with precision.
Mimi's house is gone, and it turns out that's ok. I don't pretend that it wasn't jarring - weird even - to see things so different. Jarring, but not sad. You see, Mimi and Papa are just where they need to be, and their memories are safe with me. Burger Kings spring up, and front yards turn into muddy fields waiting for something else to be built there. They call that progress. I don't know if it is progress or not, but I know that what that house held is just as real to me as is the Wal-Mart across the highway.
It should not have taken me so long to go back. I was reluctant for no good reason. Mimi's house will always be - as it has always been - a great gift of memory to me. Once I figured that out, I was OK. I went over to the Shoe Show and bought some new shoes, and I threw the muddy ones away.