By Mark Allen Scott
The first week of May has always been important in our household. It’s a birthday of sorts. Actually, two birthdays. Both of them new beginnings, centered on a place called home. One arriving, one leaving. Both of them now and forever connected.
Twenty-one years ago last week we bought our home – if a house could have a drink, I could legally give it one.
In 1997, Jerry and I purchased my dream house. It wasn’t our present home. It was a 1920 bungalow on Everett Street in Binghampton. Binghampton is a wonderful neighborhood that I was fortunate enough to call home. It enabled both me and Jerry to make new friends, one of them being Onie Johns. We attended church together and we soon realized that we had similar feelings about the neighborhood and the eclectic groups of people who called it home. We also knew that communities create spaces that are both unique and special, spaces that must be nurtured. And with its double-lot and wrap-around porch, my Binghampton dreamhouse had plenty of room for my garden, and quickly became a gathering place for community and church meetings. It just screamed a sense of place.
I love that about houses – a sense of place.
That peculiarity of mine derives from my intense love of genealogy and history. However, it was cemented by loss. My dad built his dreamhouse in 1977 in what was then the village of Pleasant Hill, Mississippi – now part of Olive Branch. He did all the architectural drawings and was the contractor for the build. He was also a perfectionist. The house, when built, was only a half inch off from the blueprints, which I have been told was close to perfection. He loved the process. It was a beautiful home, but times were difficult there.
I left for college on 28 August 1983. Normally, the excuse for remembering such a date is because of the event – that event being me steaming towards college. But this date has been remembered for something different. It was the day I left my childhood home and never came back.
I had planned to. I cleaned my room. Everything was in place. I expected to come home from college for the holidays. Excited, I had the car packed as my parents slept. I awakened them before dawn, rushing them to leave, thrilled for this new thing, the next chapter of my life.
Finally, we began to leave the house and I screamed STOP. My perplexed parents looked at me as if to say, “What now?” I had forgotten to say goodbye to the dogs – Barney, my childhood dog, and Rhett and Pilgrim. I can still remember the feeling of patting Barney’s head as I said goodbye. I returned to the car and off we went. I watched the house recede from view as my dad drove down his teardrop style driveway and towards my future.
28 August 1983, little did I know that this exit would have a permanence that I had not counted upon.
One week later my dad called. It was gone. Gone. To avoid bankruptcy, sold. He and my mom, living separately and planning a divorce. My brother, in hospital. My beloved dog Barney – he had died. I was crushed.
My parents never really recovered from that loss. In my psyche it would take decades for me to. The sense of place and belonging, something lost, became very real to me.
In 1997, I bought a new house for me and my spouse and we rented the one that he had owned prior to our making a life together in 1995. I loved it. The house, its history, the community. We both felt home. We felt place. We felt belonging. Jerry made the move for me. Somehow, he knew I needed that Binghampton bungalow with the wrap around porch.
Then on 9 April 2000, Jerry saw an advertisement for a home sale in Central Gardens. He wanted to look. We both loved looking at houses. It was a kind of hobby. I told him I wasn’t interested. We already had “our” dreamhouse. Why look at another in another neighborhood? He replied that he just wanted to look and was going. I put on my coat and stated that I wasn’t going to let him go alone. But I was also going because we were not moving, and I thought I might be needed to reinforce that conviction.
I remember driving south on Barksdale towards the corner of Central and stopping at the intersection to find the house for which we were looking. There it was. Much larger than we had expected. The derelict house had a paint job that was so old that raw wood was exposed to the elements. Clover was a foot high in the yard. There it stood, this eclectic brick and stone mass of a house addressing the corner. I still call it “that big pile of bricks.”
It had been a triplex. Eleven people, ten adults and one child had lived in it recently. Some of their things were still within. The landlord obviously wanted it gone. We looked. There were walls dividing rooms, bookcases cutting off doorways and windows, and several strange inverted right angles jutting out into what were once geometrically appropriate rooms. Confusion reigned.
We stayed for hours – five hours – just trying to ascertain what the rooms were and what they had been prior to being converted from a single family to a rooming house and triplex. Several others came in to tour the house that day and left within five minutes. In my mind I believe they left screaming. The house just needed too much work. It had been neglected for far too long. Finally, we too left, made it around the block, and then returned. Decisions were happening and they were happening quickly.
We called that friend of ours in Binghampton, Onie Johns, who wanted to start a neighborhood ministry – she was going to call it Caritas – and was in search for a house and yard big enough for such a goal. She had stated before that it would be perfect if she could find one like ours, my dreamhouse. However, to get that she’d have to buy mine, because there just weren’t any others in the neighborhood like it. Of course, I said “not a chance.” Why would I risk losing my sense of place and belonging again?
We asked her to meet us that very afternoon at the “big pile of bricks.” After a tour we asked her for her thoughts. She responded as one might think. It was certainly large enough for her goals, but the location was way off. She wanted to serve the community of Binghampton and Central Gardens wasn’t exactly the right location. Then we informed her that the pile of bricks would be for us, but only if she and this new ministry wanted to buy our house in Binghampton.
She was astonished. As friends she knew how I felt about the Binghampton home. After much talking and convincing that this was an adventure that we desired we hit on an agreement. We were moving.
Sometimes days are boring, and 24 hours seem an eternity, however, others have a way of going by with lightening speed and change the course of our lives. That April morning in 2000, I wasn’t budging one way or another. Many hours later – I was moving. Everyone was surprised. Their main question being- how did Jerry convince Mark to move from his dreamhouse? One of them answered with a comical but somewhat honest answer “it wasn’t Jerry’s dream.” Dreams are like that. They must be able to morph and evolve especially if shared.
The actual process of purchase had all the bumps that one might expect plus some. We made the decision to put in an offer and a verbal decision to sel the house we owned in Binghampton on that very day 9 April 2000. However, paperwork and legal procedures had me selling one house 11 days before the legal transfer of the new one. This wrecked me.
What a process. During the bidding I kept reminding myself of a quote I had read just days prior.
“I am in the place between the sun and the moon, where the lightning flash strikes.”
Now was the moment and place of decisions, of change, of forks in the road – not moments that my mind’s “sense of place” enjoys.
So why did I do it?
It just made sense. The community we left was changing in positive ways and needed new leadership to enhance those positive changes – that was Onie Johns and the founding of Caritas House. Caritas, which is Latin for “Love For All People,” wanted to create a space and place to gather, a place to allow positive things that make neighborhoods not just mere places we inhabit, but communities with a sense of belonging for all who dwell there. Our sale enabled those goals to go forward. It was the best of sacrifices.
The new house, a 1910 Eclectic Four Square, attributed to Memphis architect Neander Woods, needed to be rescued. Jerry and I both loved that type of thing.
It was an old house with lots of scars. I saw them, realizing that they were all evidence of past stories and not just the blemishes and imperfections that they seemed to be. I loved that.
It made sense economically. It was duplexed and had a rented backhouse. Jerry loved that.
Our old house had been owned and preserved by just two families. Every renovation or change we made was done with a reverence for all that history. More preservation than renovation. Even the very wood siding for a new dormer was rescued from changes to the garage. The siding was all original. The new big pile of bricks it had been butchered so many times over the years that it seemed like a clean, new slate. We both liked that.
So, the dream did morph and evolve. It became a dream for two. It became a money pit for two. It became a never-ending renovation for two. It became place for both. A new sense of place. A new sense of belonging. A new garden. A new community that became much needed family on that long slow dip on Central Avenue where the cars speed up trying to beat the light. And even though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a house with a fascinating story, a history that by some quirk of fate I had a yet-unknown tenuous and historical connection to.
The process was very fast, but for me it felt like a decade. Those 11 days of not having a legal place to call home seemed an eternity. A haunted deja vu. It was an in-between time, a sense of floating, listlessness, insecurity. All things that I feared. But by the 5 May 2000, the transfer had been made and I had a new place to call home. A place found between the sun and the moon, where the lightning flash strikes.
Mark Scott is a frequent contributor to StoryBoard Memphis. An undeniable history nerd, it has always been important to him not just teach the past but to make it useful. History, he feels, should be used as a tool to better understand ourselves as well as be better able to react to current events and create a better future. In 2020 he completed his 33rd and last year of teaching high school students in Shelby County. He was a Preserve America History’s Teacher of the Year recipient in 2010, and led a historic project to save the Presidents Island One Room Schoolhouse. See their blog here.