Birmingham, Alabama

This Old House

By Lanier Isom

My life story has been defined by the place my family has called home for four generations. Referred to as the “McCullough house” by my mother’s generation, it is one of the oldest in Birmingham. Because I’ve lived here almost my entire life, I’ve been immersed in the braided narratives, known and unknown, spoken and unspoken, of family history, events and personalities, as well as the story of the city’s growth and change. Here, for the past century, my family has celebrated milestones and mourned losses, honored life’s natural unfolding, and survived unexpected turns of fortune. Over the years, my family’s experiences have cemented themselves into the very mortar of the house itself.

In 1917, when my uncle was almost run over by a car near my grandparent’s house on Southside, my grandfather, Daddy Mac moved from the city to the country, where he bought 40 acres. The surrounding pine woods, pasture and dairy farms eventually became the suburbs. But in 1937, when my mother was 5, Robert Browning, who worked for my grandfather around the house and property, took a mule, a drag line and a bucket, and turned the corn field into a swimming pool, a 55-foot rectangle barely 6 feet deep in the deep end and only three feet deep in the shallow end. Daddy Mac owned a slag and concrete company, McCullough Industries, so he filled the hole Browning had dug with concrete to create a cement pool for his seven children.

As my aunts and uncles began to marry and create families of their own, Daddy Mac portioned off nearby parcels to his children and later sold most of his land. My mother inherited the house, and in 1971, after my grandmother Mama Joe died unexpectedly in a car accident and Daddy Mac moved into a nursing home, my family moved in. This old farmhouse is where I grew up.

During my childhood, summer began the minute we drained the pool of the murky muck that had turned into what looked like swamp water during the winter. Filling the large pool with cold spring water gushing from a black pipe connected to the 130-foot well in the pump house took days, but once the water was ankle deep, my three older brothers and I started splashing around. Every summer my friends and I spent countless hours swimming in the pool, playing Marco Polo, hosting underwater tea parties and making up games like “The Poseidon Adventure,” where we navigated treacherous waves on an orange rubber “lifeboat.”  

When I left for college, I never dreamed of returning to Birmingham for good, but after I graduated, I moved back home for what I thought was a temporary stop before I started my adult life. By then, my mother had moved downtown to a loft apartment, and my father lived in Washington, D.C.  Little did I know my temporary layover would become permanent. Twenty-eight years later, I’m still here. Imagine having the same phone number at the ripe old age of 50 you had when you were 6.

Living here, I am surrounded by memories of all that’s been honored and lost, all the times life bloomed and withered for generations of my family. Paw prints from my mother’s Airedale are embedded in the concrete steps on my front porch. The day before my four uncles went off to WWII, my mother’s family posed for a picture on these same steps, all together for the last time. Only three boys came home.

Here, time is fractured. Remember taking Kodak film to get developed at the pharmacy? Every once in a while, I would accidentally rewind the film, and take pictures over pictures I’d already taken. When it was developed, I had a strange collage of faces and places imprinted in layers over one another. Now, decades of my family’s dramas are imprinted upon each other, embedded and merged together, film rewinding images over itself in this one place.

My husband Hugo and I married right after college and began renovating the house, neglected from decades of deferred maintenance and damage my father’s alcoholism had visited upon my family. We eventually bought the house from my mother, and each time over the years Hugo and I have embarked on a renovation, it’s been similar to an archeological dig, an excavation of sorts, uncovering small treasures, discovering new stories and stumbling on puzzling mysteries.

So my childhood home became my starter home, then the sacred space where I have raised my family. Living here has been a gift and an honor, and I have become the archivist, the curator, if you will, of my family history. At this point in my life, I can see how I was subconsciously driven to create the home I needed and wanted as a child in the exact same place with my own family.

But living here has also been a challenge as the past collides with the present, a perpetual living memory of hurts and grievances, triumphs and accomplishments, secrets and shame. The darkest moments of my life, born of alcoholism’s destructive nature, occurred in this house, and as I accept my son Clint’s departure for college on the West Coast, I also face the sobering fact that despite being in the same place, I’m closer to the end of my life than I am to the beginning, the pages of the last chapters turning a little too fast.

In many ways, living in the family home has forced me to deal with unfinished business, and in others ways, I’ve held onto ways of being and seeing that no longer serve me – my exaggerated sense of responsibility, for instance. Trying to carve a separate family narrative from the official canon of my family’s history in a place so many people have called home has been frustrating at times. Think about that piece of heirloom furniture or set of china or silver your great aunt or grandmother bequeathed to you. Now, think about the personal and collective associations, sense of ownership and potential controversies associated with it.

So here I am today still, living in a place where all of the dogs I’ve ever loved are buried. I write in my home office at a large desk once belonging to Daddy Mac, cars whizzing by on Montevallo Road, now a superhighway compared to the chert-gravel road it was when my mother was a child. Outside my office, a sapling my Aunt Shirley gave my grandmother 85 years ago has grown into a giant magnolia tree my daughter Frances now climbs. Every spring I wonder when the cherry tree Mama Joe planted God knows when, its trunk almost hollow, its few limbs left twisted and distorted, will ever stop blooming its dazzling pink blossoms. In late July, Hugo gathers figs from Mama Joe’s fig trees to make fig preserves. Each year, he and I marvel at the trees we planted when Frances and Clint were born.

Today, my children, their cousins and friends have spent summers swimming in our strange-shaped pool, seeing who could hold their breath the entire length. The cracks in the concrete floor snagging my young toes are long gone, covered by a liner, any physical remnant of the time the pool was painted black during my teenage years erased, thank goodness. (That was also the era of the neon yellow kitchen.)

I don’t swim much anymore, but when I do, I flip underwater, losing all sense of time, merging into the endless afternoons of my childhood. Here, I swim in waters sprung from the same mysterious, underground springs that have filled the pool since 1937. Here, I swim, always submerged in four generations of stories flowing from this place, this wellspring called home.