The Wash House: Part 1

Eating a cheap, soggy barbecue sandwich in that yard, wincing at its vinegary-hot taste on my tongue, memories known and unknown to me present themselves, at the right time and place in my life.

The last time I walked into the wash house I was five years old. Nearly 40 years ago. But the last time I touched it with my hand was in 2018, when I returned to my ancestral hometown of Belhaven, North Carolina. Funny how some buildings stick with you like distant kin who don’t know you, but totally know you. The waterfront street is lined with Victorian, Southernly-muted Queen Anne, and Georgian homes, the grander residences of sea captains and well-to-do merchants of another era, and many, many screened, wraparound porches that still conceal their share of joyful memories and dark family secrets. But the wash house, a tiny, rickety stamp of an out building, the color of green-ish 1970s toothpaste, is the one that is a totem in my palace of memory.

My great-grandmother (my Meemaw), Alma Ruth Wilkinson, lived in a large boarding house next door. I visited her in that residence until I was about 6 and, having outlived all but one of her six daughters, was moved unwillingly to a nursing home in the D.C. suburbs. It was also that uncomfortably-bright color of muted aqua, among a phalanx of columned, grander homes. But it was her spot. Where she cooked in that hot, cramped kitchen, straight out of postwar efficiencies jammed into turn-of-the-century bones, where the screen porch banged shut every few minutes, and she managed the remainder of her life at Home. Once an early 1900s store, she moved into this more modest place after she was widowed in the 1940s and the prettier house could fetch a sum to get her by. The big house was a tall rectangle, with clapboard all around, and raised above ground to accommodate the ebb and flow of the Pungo River’s stormy moods. Next to it was a small, tin-roofed garage, and a square wash house, where the laundry was carried and cleaned. An older gentleman with leathery skin, who I was told was “slow,” lived in a shack in the woods, among the oaks, loblolly pines and wild fig trees, with his pet raccoons. His name was Burley. Meemaw talked to him every day and shared what she cooked with him. He hugged us kids and one of his raccoons bit my sister when she put her finger in its face.  To the left of the wash house was barbeque shack and take-out window, where you could get a $1.00, vinegary, peppery Eastern North Carolina pulled pork sandwich, and a Styrofoam cup of Dr. Pepper. If you had extra money, a red and white gingham print paper tray of hushpuppies could be passed through the window, too. The barbecue place was built of plain, flat bricks, the kind the toughest of the Three Pigs used to build his house, most ironically.

The big house was bulldozed years ago, long after she passed. The garage is now partially collapsed, but a few empty, rusted kerosene tanks and an unraveled wicker chair now adorn its ruins. The old, slapping screen door is frayed and warped but placed high in the rafters, likely a home for bats or a content nestling. The lives and stories have passed before our eyes, but the wash house is still intact. Blinds drawn, with a lock on the door, it cannot be opened. Cinder blocks hold up some of it, and the remnants of a frayed power wire protrude between its planks. The grass around it is too uncomfortable to walk on bare foot. No, this is parched, short coastal turf, and feels like a wire brush between your toes, peppered with dreaded tiny cacti, about the size of a pea. But from this unpleasant earth shoot up rigid but almost-spectral white spider lilies. Like the shut-up windows, their spindly petals pull back and harbor so many memories and warm seasons and ancestral seeds.

Eating a cheap, soggy barbecue sandwich in that yard, wincing at its vinegary-hot taste on my tongue, memories known and unknown to me present themselves, at the right time and place in my life.