“Confessions for a Son,” by McNair Evans
The Unfound Door
By Stephanie Powell Watts
Tthe house looks friendly and familiar, like the homeplace in a holiday reunion movie. Its wide porch holds two rows of black rockers nodding in the breeze; small plaques on the tops of the chairs list the names of the famous Carolina writers who donated them. Even without entering, you know that the floors will sag in places, many rooms will feel tacked on and haphazard like the architect made up the plan as he went along. More than once you will whiff the faintest smell of rot, but that’s part of the charm, too.
A bank flanks the house on one side, with a good-sized hotel practically in the front yard and a community theater and large all-day parking lot on the other side. The only formerly private residence on the block, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial House looks like the last stubborn holdout to Asheville’s progress. The Wolfe family called it the Old Kentucky Home. Not the home where Wolfe was born—that place was leveled long ago— but the boarding house his mother, Julia, owned and operated. In Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe called the house Dixieland—not exactly a place an African-American woman would choose to stay. Who am I kidding? I’m sure few black guests ever stayed in the Old Kentucky Home or its fictional counterpart.
I have wanted to visit this house for years. Like many North Carolina kids, I grew up with the broad strokes of Thomas Wolfe’s story, the prolific, small-town genius who became one of the most revered writers of his generation. I lived in North Carolina for most of my life, but I never took the opportunity to visit. Not enough money, not enough time, too much to do: that’s an old story, I know, and a true one. It is also true that we seldom value the places where we live, not enough anyway.
My own father’s house, where I grew up, is about ninety minutes down the mountain. Like anything not loved enough, it has no name. When I visit, I usually go to my father’s place to see it or maybe to witness it, though no one lives there now. My father stays instead in the house where my grandmother lived, a mile away. She died a few years ago, but that house was hers and contains her mixing bowls and her teddy bears and her high, high bed and too-large kitchen table. It comforts him to see her things and sit where she sat to watch television or watch the kudzu overtake the ravine at the edge of her property. My father and grandmother worked together on a furniture factory line for decades. They ate together at her house nearly every Sunday. We did not take vacations when I was a child; we stay-cationed long before it was a thing. We took day trips to Lake James near Morganton, or Grandfather Mountain near the Boone area, or to Carowinds, a Charlotte amusement park we all adored.We did not leave town much, is what I’m saying. For all of these reasons, I can say with great confidence that they saw each other nearly every day of his life.
Old Kentucky Home was Julia’s business, and she ran it with ferocity and skill. While her husband and all of her children except for Wolfe stayed in the family home just down the street, Julia attended to the needs of travelers. People on the road want food. They want a bed that appears clean. At Julia Wolfe’s, they could get two hots and a cot for a dollar a day. Compared to the needs of eight children and a husband, the boarding house might have seemed like the better deal. But who knows? Maybe she wanted money and didn’t want to depend on her husband for it, or maybe the hard work of caring for travelers made her difficult marriage less hurtful or important, or maybe she needed to keep her mind off the children that preceded her in death, including her infant firstborn. Who can say for sure? Any lived experience reveals that our true motives are complex and strange and often contradictory even to ourselves.
You enter the dark hallway of the Wolfe house into the formal parlor, and it’s all there: polished wood furniture and anti-macassars on the upholstery, hurricane oil lamps. Stories ping-pong around my head, and I expect the white patrons to materialize as characters from improbable romantic scenarios. Where is the lovely tow-headed hired girl? When will she catch the eye of the handsome, wholesome stranger? Shouldn’t the young widow be stepping into the dining room any minute? All the regulars can see that she makes a special effort with her curls when that certain salesman passes through. I know from his writings that Thomas Wolfe was unhappy here in this dirty-yellow house, with the dreaded strangers, with his life sleeping on a pallet on the floor at his mother’s feet, away from the world of his siblings. He was angry for his unconventional life—angry at his mother and his father, too, but mothers bear the brunt of their children’s disappointment. Perhaps he forgot or else didn’t know yet that you can’t get from people what they don’t have to give you. Julia did what she knew how to do and that’s the best you can expect. That’s life’s immutable law.
My father has six brothers and a sister and my mother was one of nine children, and family members often dropped by the seventies ranch-style house. They never came to the front door, though, preferring the door off the carport and entering through the kitchen. Few people ever stayed overnight with us, except my uncle—my mother’s older brother—after his divorce. We kids loved having another presence in the house, the shine of our own company faded long ago, and we treated him like he was an exotic pet, remarking on his large curly ’fro, his hysterical barking laughter at his own jokes, the hint of a gold tooth that flashed when he smiled big. He did nothing extraordinary, but his effect was enormous. Our parents were calm with us then and almost nice to each other during his stays. We children made every effort to keep quiet and attempted statue-stillness so we were allowed in the room with the adults. We felt real pain when my uncle got his own trailer and stopped spending the night at all.
I go through the side door whenever I enter the house. The kitchen still has the round table my father made himself while working at Bernhardt Furniture. His fridge is gone, probably sold, and the doors of the cabinets under the sink haven’t been opened in years. There is a smell of dust and decay and too-long-of-nobody-stirring. No traces of anyone who ever made oatmeal, or stretched a wall-mounted-telephone cord down the hall for privacy, or fought with a wet mop the endless battle between the white linoleum and the red Carolina clay. Some places feel like their people. In their stuff and their messes you get a sense of what and who they valued. I do not believe in spirits, but even if I did, there is nothing shimmering or alive that suggests anybody ever loved here at all.
In Julia Wolfe’s kitchen, I covet the long rectangular oak table low enough to work seated while she peeled potatoes or apples for pies. A small bedroom off to the side of that room is where Julia and young Thomas slept. Thomas was her last child, her baby, and she was already in her forties when he was born. We are sisters in our old motherhood, Julia and I, though she had many more pregnancies than I—at least seven. I have only one child, but had two pregnancies.That’s the bloodless way to say it. My body hasn’t forgotten the first one even more than a decade later. I do not believe in spirits.
Perhaps Julia couldn’t stand to be apart from her baby. Maybe she thought her husband and surviving older children were ill-equipped to care for a young child. Whatever her reasons for having Thomas with her at the boarding house, I’m sure she did not imagine that she would live to bury him. I wonder, since Thomas lived much of his adolescence and adult life away from Asheville, if, when he died at the age of thirty-seven, she imagined him overseas or on some ship headed someplace temporarily unreachable. When people are far away you don’t have to believe in death. Death is simply distance, a few hours in a car, a dreaded flight. When you live apart, you can believe your people live still. It is your schedules that don’t synch. Any day you will see them again.
Down the short hall at my father’s house on the left is the only bathroom. Three small bedrooms are on the right. Three of my brothers slept in bunkbeds in the first room. I was the only girl and had my own room, and the baby boy slept (probably not much) in a bassinet beside my parents’ bed. When I visit the house, I do not open the bedroom doors. This is not from the pain of remembrance of things past but because those rooms are now crammed full of stuff bought from yard and estate sales and thrift stores for my father’s flea market business. God only knows what vermin might lurk there. Any variety of spider or rat or snake might be nesting in all that junk. Yes, I said snake. How can you tell the difference between a Southerner and a Northerner? The Southerner is the one with the snake story. I have enough of those stories to last a lifetime.
Julia turned big rooms into much smaller ones, landings into sleeping spaces, and the second floor of the Old Kentucky Home is a jumble of bedrooms stashed in every available nook. Thomas slept in a side bedroom when he returned to the house as a grown man, though nothing here announces it as the room of a writer. No papers or books or journals. Nothing that appears to be his, not even a comb on a bedside table. There is a bed, a dresser, and a large window with white curtains that I’m sure billow like a cartoon ghost at the slightest breeze. On the other side of the house, facing the street, is the room where Ben, Thomas’s beloved brother, died. Ben’s room is the best of the bedrooms, large with a fireplace and a small picture of him in an oval frame on the mantel. A fictionalized version of Ben Wolfe’s death is reimagined in Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Ben of the novel is joined with light, and at the last moment all the confusion of life slips away, passing “scornful and unafraid, as he had lived, into the shades of death.”
In a very literal way, all of the rooms in the house are death rooms. It is highly unlikely that anyone who ever stayed there as a guest, and certainly none of the Wolfes’ immediate family, is still alive. Probably more than a few people died in the house. I have been in the rooms of the dying and dead. I don’t linger there.
The public rooms in my dad’s house have the delightful wood veneer paneling so popular in the seventies. (They say everything comes back with time, but I will believe this revival when I see it.) I used to wish that we had an upstairs so we could race dramatically down to the tree at Christmas, or sit on the steps to overhear adult conversations. But like most of the kids we knew lucky enough to have a house at all, we had a ranch. When my parents built it, it was a dream to them. I can remember my mother polishing the walls with a cloth that smelled like lemon, though what feels like a memory could be a TV commercial I have stuck in my head. I do know that nothing of my mother survives here to summon her to the room. My parents divorced decades ago. She remarried and her home is somewhere else. An old story, I know. I have not seen her in years. That is an old story, too. Motherhood does not suit everyone and there are many reasons for this—my mother’s motives are no less complicated than Julia Wolfe’s. This is the way of the world. I am no longer ashamed.
When I leave the Wolfe house I must reacquaint myself with the current century, with the galleries, fantastic bookstores, white people with impressive dreadlocks, good buskers on every corner, and many, many places to eat fancied fried chicken. Wolfe called it Altamont in his writing, which is so much more lofty and grand than “Asheville.” Wolfe must have loved it, too. But I know from his writings that he never cared about the town in the same way after Ben died. Of course he didn’t. Wolfe got back to Asheville in 1937, just months before he too died. But in that final view, that house he hated must have looked just fine with time’s fuzzy focus. Love is not static in any circumstances.
Like everyone who has ever visited Asheville, I want to stay. Haven’t you heard about those people who become marathoners, or master chefs, or move to houses they foolishly renovate themselves? I could be one of those shakers, those movers. I could be an overcomer, too. When I was a child my mother and her sister took us kids with them to a tent revival. I saw people give testimony to the enormous crowd about their healed bodies. I saw grown men fall backward, faint dead away when touched on their foreheads by the bouncing preacher. I wanted to feel what they felt—that renewal, envelopment—though I was very afraid. Yet I still want revelation. Wolfe wrote in Look Homeward, Angel that “we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.” We are always looking for revelation—even in our most known places and our most loved people.We hope to find the undiscovered in ourselves—the window into everything. I feel the open window in beautiful spaces. I start to think about myself differently and imagine that I can become new. I travel to remember this. I travel to forget that my foundation is set and unmovable.
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