The above numbers are the street address for my mother’s mill house. She and her six children moved there in March 1955. For many reasons it was a significant move, but the best were that our mother could walk the three blocks to Cannon Mills Plant 1 where she hemmed wash cloths, and it had an indoor bathroom. In that March move we entered a house, but over the years it became a home.
The house was like all the other ones on “the mill hill.” The rent was $1 a month per room, Cannon Mills maintained it by making necessary repairs and painted it every four years-inside and out. The tenant had to work for the company and maintain the yard and keep it neat in appearance. For workers like my mother, the house was a boon. The seven of us shared the one bathroom, my three older sisters occupied the front bedroom, my mother and baby sister the middle one, and my brother and I had the back one. The large kitchen was our eating and social center with the television sitting in the adjacent hallway, and the front porch was a place to sit and socialize with neighbors or romantic friends as we grew into teenagers . The front room, mostly a passageway to the kitchen, was used for special occasions such as Christmas or a place to snuggle with a date. All mill houses had a garage, but since we had no automobile it was used for other things: a storage space, a “hideout” for a young boy, and a first test for children and grandchildren and great grandchildren who all learned about courage when they climbed the wide door to the roof and jumped into the encouraging cheers of cousins. Those lessons proved useful later in adult living.
Soon after we moved to 312, our mother planted a sapling that she knew, even then, would grow into a mighty oak that still shades her front porch. The gardenia at the corner perfumes the porch with each bloom, and her much loved sugar maples still grace the side and back yards. The three metal posts placed by Mr. Rowland to hold her clothes line stand still; erect, rusting relics that witness to the days of wringer washing machines and cotton clothes, sheets, and towels dried by sun and wind. Sadly, the chinaberry tree growing next to the back alley died, but its memory for a boy seeking a high scouting post still lingers as does the one of the “paint shed” where large containers of SWP paint were stored. Mr. Holtzclaw, one of the painters and fondly called “Hoggie”, would tell us children that SWP stood for “Sweet William Papa.” We would learn later that it was one more tease of his, but it pleased us in that young, innocent time.
Unlike the house on Applewood or Rankin Streets, 312 was near town. We walked to school, Plant 1, the YMCA, stores, and church. Without an automobile, walk we did, but everything we needed or wanted was within blocks. We grew, forged new friendships and romances, attended church each Sunday, graduated high school, worked, went to college, some married, all the things of ordinary lives. And, the center of all this activity remained 312. We always returned, like homing pigeons.
Husbands, wives, girlfriends, friends, in-laws, ex-in-laws, and grandchildren before their own children walked on the pine floors and gathered in the kitchen, to talk while waiting for a pan of mother’s biscuits to pop from the oven. Served with streaked meat, beans, and lots of butter, they became the metaphor of life in 312. And always in the middle mother moved, hands white from biscuit flour.
Now her hands no longer pat dough into biscuits. They hold the edge of her blanket which covers her frail body and strong spirit. Just turned 100, she spends her time in bed, too weak to even move herself. In her mill house’s middle bedroom, she is visited by family and friends, but our family gatherings grow fewer and smaller in number. One day, upon her death, we all will gather one last time in 312 to celebrate her life. Then, 312 will return to what is was before March 1955: a place like a shell plucked from beach sand by an early riser and carried home to realize later that it is just a shell where once a life, which passed like a vapor, lived.