The Folklore Project

Carrboro, North Carolina

Just an Old House

By Art Menius

It is just an old house near I-40, in the rural buffer. A house I last entered 40 years ago this past spring. Early the fall semester following, I walked from my room in Granville Towers across Franklin Street to Walker Funeral Home. I joined my family at the funeral of the house’s occupant, my Aunt Molly Clarke. They included her older sister, my grandmother, who grew up there before marrying and moving to McCauley Street on July 4, 1917.

Aunt Molly lived alone for some 30 years after her parents died. She got electricity and indoor plumbing in 1965, possibly as a result of some Social Security earned working in the Alberta Mill in Carrboro when it was a weapons factory during the Second World War. Otherwise, I never knew of her doing “public work,” as distinguished from farming. I sat on her porch as a child watching folks prime tobacco across the road. I met older rural African-Americans I called “aunt” and “uncle.”

Going into Chapel Hill, when Weaver Dairy and what was then called Airport Road were partially gravel, was a long trip for a small boy with his aunt on a Saturday morning. Same going the other way when she took a notion to sell to the A&P at the brand new Eastgate instead of to Fowlers. Either place, her week’s worth of produce rarely brought much folding money for her black change purse.

When I happen to go past that house or reach the low point on West Franklin, where Fowlers was Chapel Hill’s grocer for decades, the memories hit me, and I think about family. Not that I have much anymore despite living where my roots run deepest. I have a first cousin in Charlotte from my father’s side, another in Arizona on my mother’s, and a couple of second or third cousins scattered about. 

I do have a family mystery — my grandfather from Calvander. That he died in the late 1930s was all my mother ever told me about him. I want to know why my grandmother and aunt never mentioned him and my mom only that once. From my mother’s death certificate, I managed to learn his name, Roswell or Rauswell H. Varner. The LDS genealogy website said he was born circa 1890, and that he does not appear in the U.S. Census after 1930. After many searches, I found online that “Ranswell Howard Varner” died on March 15, 1939 (a year before his father’s passing) and was buried two days later at “Christian Church.” Now, I had a date, but still no cause of death or reason for the silent treatment.

I did have enough info, however, to make the 15-minute drive to the county offices above Weaver Street Market in Hillsborough. A pleasant young woman came back in less than five minutes with my 15-cent photocopy of ol’ granddad’s death certificate. Age at death was 48 years, two months and 15 days. It gave “occupation” as “mechanic and service station operator.” Finally, the certificate blew my theory about an auto wreck out of the water. Cause of death was a stroke brought on by hypertension and arteriosclerosis.

There hangs the tale, because I just left a job I loved dearly to deal with a set of maladies that included those two, so as to avoid dropping dead of a stroke myself. Genetics do matter, but in this case they just made the mystery of the silence even greater.

Lacking any place to turn for that answer, I pondered if all this meant anything other than that after six decades, I am beginning to get something of the perspective of age. Despite such deep roots in southern Orange County and living within 15 miles of Carrboro for 33 of the past 41 years, I had no more local family than the transients who have settled here. 

More shocking, however, was confronting the fact that every day, I live as if a dreamer in a Carrboro, a Chapel Hill and an Orange County that existed a half-century ago. I think in terms of what used to be: “Nightsound is where Cat’s Cradle used to be, behind where Dip’s used to be.” What I actually seek in the past is family, my grandfather’s service station and Aunt Molly’s skillet cornbread. What I understand now is that these towns, this community, this place and my friends here are my extended family now. 

South Orange is the place where, when I go there, they have to take me in.