Ask the Editor is a resource for our readers and writers in which we review and respond to popular questions about our journal, essay writing, submissions, and literary potpourri type stuff. Have a question you’d like to see answered here? Send it to edg dot longridgeeditors dot com. Chosen questions will be kept anonymous.

This recent question comes from a writer who submitted an essay to the Barnhill Prize contest.

Q: “I’m wondering if essays will also be considered for the online journal outside of the contest?”


A: The short answer is YES, but the complicating factor is we don’t yet know exactly how. We are planning to send up to 10 essays to our judge, and ideally the essays that are not the prize winner will be published online. That is the plan at this point. We don’t know how many essays we will receive, though so far we are off to a good start!

We are grateful to everyone who supports our journal, and we read every essay with focus and care.

Like many online journal editors, we’ve had a range of experiences: Essays we declined, but then returned to the writer with more time to work through revisions and the writer was thrilled; essays we declined and then later returned to the writer to work on and he/she was not interested; essays we’ve accepted with moderate edits, and some with no edits. Some essays could not work for us.

Publishing essays is what we love to do. Thank you to each of you who gives us a chance to read your work.


June 1 opened submissions for the Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

The Barnhill Prize honors Anne’s generous spirit of support for all who love to read and write; her lifelong empathy with those who mine their childhood experience to understand themselves now; the natural vulnerability in her compelling prose and poetry; and her boundless generosity in sharing her writing passions with the world.

Selection process: Editors determine the pool of 10 finalist essays. Those 10 essays will be read by an outside judge who makes the final selection of one winning essay. The author of the winning essay receives a cash award of $250. The winner has ten days to accept the award. More information about this year’s judge, M. Randal O’Wain, can be found here: https://longridgereview.com/2019/04/12/m-randal-owain-to-judge-1st-barnhill-prize-contest/.

Eligibility: The competition is open to writers in English, whether published or unpublished. Previous winners of this award are not eligible to win again. Writers must be residents of North America. 

Essay Guidelines:

  1. Essays should be double-spaced and no more than 3,500 words in length.
  2. The award recognizes outstanding creative nonfiction that reflects our mission: (See About)
  3. Essays are only accepted via our Submittable online platform. No paper, please.
  4. Please be sure essay pages are numbered and that your name is NOT on the document that is your essay.
  5. Please use a standard, easy-to-read font such as Times New Roman in twelve-point size.
  6. Essays may not have been previously published.
  7. Authors may submit more than one essay to the competition for consideration as long as no material is duplicated between submissions. Each submission will require a separate entry fee.
  8. Essays under consideration for this competition may be submitted elsewhere at the same time. Please withdraw your essay if it is accepted by another publisher and should no longer be considered for the Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction competition. Withdrawal can be completed via the submissions manager website. Entry fees ($10 per submission) are not refundable.
  9. The final judge will not be aware of the names or publication records of the authors. If he believes he recognizes the work or identity of the writer, he will disclose that to our editors.
  10. Please forward any questions to edg (at) longridgeeditors (dot) com. Thank you!
© Larry Thacker

As our editorial team prepares for our first contest (The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction), we thought it would be valuable to share thoughts about some essays that “stick.” I love all of our essays, or they wouldn’t be here. But I went over every one thinking about which ones were memorable in that early phase of a first read. I’ve asked our editorial team to do the same, and in the ramp up to our contest submission period we will share our reader experiences with some of our favorite essays.

Today we welcome Suzanne Farrell Smith, one of our amazing writer/editors here at Longridge Review. Please enjoy her commentary on why she loves David McVey’s essay, “On the Wonder of the World.”

Photo via HistoryScotland.com

David McVey’s “On the Wonder of the World” drew me in immediately and made me forget I was reading a submission to Longridge Review. The opening line:

“We teased gravity, suspended above 100 feet of space on the Wonder of the World.”

I needed to know. Who are we? Suspended how? What is the Wonder of the World? Given my proximity to Coney Island and its 150-foot Wonder Wheel and even higher-flying rides, that first line takes on a carnival quality, inviting me to buy a ticket and go just about anywhere.

McVey gives us some answers right away, like the fact that the Wonder of the World is a soaring canal aqueduct, nicknamed as such by locals in his U.K. hometown. “We” are McVey and two childhood buddies, just “normal 9- or 10-year-olds engaged on business I can’t recall now.” The boys are out and about, as children are in the summer when school is off and the whole world—the whole wonder of the world—is waiting.

What follows is a story, relatively brief, shaped the same way the actual event was shaped, as a single thread across a chasm, with some breath-holding along the way. It’s that shape that gets me, the way the essay itself is like a bridge, and with the first line I’ve stepped onto it and know, for certain, I will cross to the other side. This particular shape appeals to me as a writer long attached to the idea that writing essays is a way to get to the other side of a question or a problem. Whether they offer a solution or insight or just another question, essays propel us forward. Even as we sit to read and write, we progress.

McVey’s story is detailed only with what’s most salient, and he playfully alludes to what’s been forgotten:

“I can’t remember who, but someone—possibly even I—said, ‘Why don’t we cross the Wonder outside the railing?’”

Who dared is less important than the fact that all went along with the dare. (I’m reminded of the often-charming way Mary McCarthy admits to things she can and can’t remember in her collection Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.) As such, the essay is restrained rather than plodding, and the story seems simple. Young boys wander, young boys grab at an idea, young boys attempt something dangerous without, in the moment, recognizing the danger. Nothing of consequence happens during the attempt. No one slips. No one is hurt. There is no trauma or tragedy around which to shape a wholly different essay.

But in time, the gravity of what could have happened seeps into McVey’s mind. He writes, “The experience has left its mark.” McVey considers the what-ifs in the same way that I do and the same way I know many others do. He questions, so he has to get to the other side.

My mother-in-law lives on the twenty-fourth floor of an apartment building on Florida’s east coast. While visiting with my own three boys for spring break, I sat with my husband, my mother-in-law, and other relatives on her balcony, sipping wine and munching on crackers and cheese and loving how social the boys were being, how interested they were in talking with us grownups about the evening lights, the drawbridge, the Atlantic horizon. One of my sons was wearing vivid orange pajamas. That night, I had a recurring nightmare that he flipped forward over the balcony railing, his tiny orange figure streaking toward the pavement below.

McVey ends his piece asking himself about a thing that didn’t happen that day on the Wonder. And he answers,

“I don’t know, but right now, I’m off to lie down in a dimly lit room.”

I know that feeling well. In Florida, at three in the morning, I lay in our dimly lit room, staring over the edge of the bed at my orange-clad son, whose air mattress was set up a few feet below. McVey’s essay came back to me then, as it has many times since. My son is lying on air, not concrete. He’s just a few feet below, not 100. He’s ok, I’m ok, McVey and his friends are ok. None of us fell. We’re all here, writing and reading and wondering, but none of us fell, except back to sleep.

— SFS

Thinking about sending us your work? Take a look at this post that outlines some of what we look for in what we publish.

As our editorial team prepares for our first contest (The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction), we thought it would be valuable to share thoughts about some essays that “stick.” I love all of our essays, or they wouldn’t be here. But I went over every one thinking about which ones were memorable in that early phase of a first read. I’ve asked our editorial team to do the same, and in the ramp up to our contest submission period we will share our reader experiences with some of our favorite essays.

Today we welcome Mary Heather Noble, one of our amazing writer/editors here at Longridge Review. Please enjoy her commentary on why she loves Anne Noonan’s essay, “Stink Tree.”

Whenever I lead memoir writing workshops, one of my favorite prompts to give students is a scent prompt. I hand the students numbered mason jars, inside of which contain cotton balls saturated with various materials (things like detergent, cologne or perfume, bathroom cleaner, iodine, Hawaiian Tropics tanning oil). We dim the lights and calm our minds, and then I cue them to open their chosen jar and inhale before free-writing about whatever comes to mind. I keep the identity of the various scents concealed on a key, so that students can have an authentic sensory experience.

Our sense of smell is highly emotive, and therefore closely linked with memory. Indeed, doing the scent prompt is a bit like time travel — I’ve had older students from community writing workshops write about their childhood memories of playing hide-and-seek in the boat yard after smelling the petroleum-tinged scent of mink oil, or writing the secrets of an alcoholic relative after catching a whiff of a cotton ball soaked in rum. Certain smells can take us right back to moments in our past, and can serve as portals to our richest, most emotional material.

I thought of this phenomenon when I read Anne Noonan’s “Stink Tree” — how, in a split second, the scent of a tree could take the narrator from enjoying present-day brunch with friends on the porch all the way back to her childhood neighborhood and all the summertime associations that tree-scent carried with it. She writes, “I loved their smell, even though I couldn’t have described it if asked to…Who would understand, then or now, if I said the tree smelled like sun on skin? Or freedom? Or consolation?” Of course we are all familiar with the representations of certain smells — the summertime scent of freshly cut grass and how it reminds us of pleasant, lazy summer afternoons. But what I love about Anne Noonan’s piece is the specificity of her memory, how she zooms right through all the lovely summertime affiliations with the Tree of Heaven scent and lands on one particular memory filled with emotion:

“The smell of the tree meant that soon the park’s enormous pool would be filled by the huge city hoses. And when the pool first opened for swimmers, the smell of the trees would be barely distinguishable from the smell of chlorine on my skin, or on my wet towel as I lay on the concrete to dry off. The smell helped me keep my crying in check that day in the driveway when my newlywed sister and her husband drove away, moving to another state. I tried to be happy for them. It was the beginning of their Beautiful New Life Together, all their silvery wedding cards said so, but it felt like an end for me. The song When Will I See You Again was playing on their car radio as they hugged us all goodbye. I think I was the only one to notice it.”

Aside from its wonderful sensory details, Noonan’s “Stink Tree” is a true essay — by which I mean the writer makes a close observation about a thing (in this case, a tree) and uses it to explore a larger and more universal theme. “Stink Tree” isn’t just about the narrator’s memory of the Tree of Heaven, and its association with summer in her childhood neighborhood; it is also a journey into the symbolic meaning of this particular tree, its presence in lower-income neighborhoods, how she came to notice socioeconomic differences, and her reflections on class and privilege. Yet despite this author’s ability to “pan out” and reflect upon these broader themes,  the author keeps us grounded in her particular details. The writing, of course, is outstanding — making this journey into the nuance of growing up in a poor neighborhood a most delightful trip.

— MHN

Thinking about sending us your work? Take a look at this post that outlines some of what we look for in what we publish.


As our editorial team prepares for our first contest (The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction), we thought it would be valuable to share thoughts about some essays that “stick.” I love all of our essays, or they wouldn’t be here. But I went over every one thinking about which ones were memorable in that early phase of a first read. I’ve asked our editorial team to do the same, and in the ramp up to our contest submission period we will share our reader experiences with some of our favorite essays.

I’m going first with what I loved on first read about Mariana McDonald’s essay, “The Snake.”

“It wasn’t my snake,” she said. “Not really.”

But that had always been the family lore. Moyra and her sister were out walking and encountered a rattlesnake—three whole feet of it—and went for someone to kill it.

I love the first sentence of this piece. Opening with a line of dialogue tells the reader s/he doesn’t have to wait to be in this narrative. That one short opening sentence sets up an immediate presence for the reader in the events. Someone seems to be addressing us.

McDonald uses a technique of talking about someone named Moyra. There is no first person narrator in this piece, no discernible “I.” It seems at first as if the narrator is recalling memories of knowing Moyra, a distinctly separate person, a childhood friend.

©Mariana McDonald

I was and still am awed by how much McDonald gets done in two short sentences. There is a conflict. There is mystery. There is a death. And we know right away there is a family committed to shaping its own narrative against the will of a principal player.

Initially I wrote it as a first person memoir, but found that unsatisfying. What I did like was juxtaposing my childhood experience with thoughts about social and environmental changes. 

But there was something I was searching for in telling the story that had not yet become clear. 

I rewrote it in the third person, not so much addressing myself, but stepping way back and observing. Doing that allowed me, ultimately, to rewrite the ending, discovering that the story was about accepting responsibility and seeking forgiveness.

The story was about separating myself from the actions and rationales foisted on me as a child, ones that made me a co-conspirator in a cruel and arrogant action.  

Marianna McDonald, interviewed 2019 for this blog post

I also love the structure of this piece. It begins with a rationalization from childhood, then pans out to show us the physical and emotional place where later regret was born. The narrator knows rattlesnakes could kill children, knows that she is supposed to tell about the snake but didn’t have to. She chose to initiate a chain of events that resulted in the snake’s execution.

“Once you found the source of the rattling, if you had a way, you killed it. That way, you were saving your own life, and maybe even someone else’s.”

Beyond the rationalization, though, is a break to describe the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape and the life it supported. That thriving environment is starkly changed years later when Moyra’s (McDonald’s) mother dies. The return to the childhood place is changed; likewise, the reader senses Moyra is in some kind of transition as well.

“Years later, when Moyra and her family went up the peninsula to bury her mother, only a few lady slippers remained. Moyra went to them like a pilgrim to a shrine.”

This is a wonderful line that supports the holy pilgrimage feel to the activity. Yes, a mother has died; yet the sense of homage and mourning extends beyond the parent’s funeral. Something more is pending.

In the final section of this essay, adult Moyra confronts her repressed feelings of guilt. It is not spelled out (the best essays don’t traffic in explicit summary), but it seems implied that grown Moyra is in her childhood home after her mother’s passing. She finds the photograph of herself and the mounted snake, tucked to the side of other pictures in a cabinet.

There’s a sense of Moyra looking at herself and the death of the snake with new eyes. A parent has died, and Moyra seems nudged into a new way of seeing herself and her actions, to be able to get outside of the event and find some compassion for herself.

Perhaps McDonald’s most impressive achievement in “The Snake” is her utter lack of sentimentality, no reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason. Strong feelings permeate this essay, but they never become cliche, simple, or over-wrought. In the hands of a writer with less skill, this same series of events and feelings could become melodramatic and unreflective.

I don’t want to give it away, so I’ll just urge you to read this piece through to the end. Ending an essay can be more difficult than beginning it. The last line of “The Snake” is perfect. It both brings resolution and opens new questions. I think this is one reason I have not forgotten this narrative. Thank you, Mariana McDonald, for placing your essay with us to share with the world.

Thinking about sending us your work? Take a look at this post that outlines some of what we look for in what we publish.


M. Randal O’Wain


We are over-the-moon excited to announce that M. Randal O’Wain will award the first Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

Randal holds an MFA from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. He is the author of Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working Class South (American Lives Series, 2019) and Hallelujah Station and Other Stories (Autumn House Press, 2020).

His essays and short stories have appeared in Oxford American, Guernica, The Pinch, Booth, Hotel Amerika, storySouth, among others.

Randal lives in Alderson WV and lectures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His knowledge of place via WV and NC is a wonderful gift to this work; both states were special to Anne. 

Things to do today:

Special thanks to Jessie van Eerden and Wiley Cash for their encouragement.

The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction

Submissions open June 1 and close July 31, 2019.

The Barnhill Prize honors Anne’s generous spirit of support for all who love to read and write; her lifelong empathy with those who mine their childhood experience to understand themselves now; the natural vulnerability in her compelling prose and poetry; and her boundless generosity in sharing her writing passions with the world.

Read more about the guidelines here.

Read more about our wonderful founding donors here.

This list is developing!

Charlotte and Brian Sweeney

***

Betty Sims Damewood

***

Frank Barnhill

Monica Graff

Sandra Lee Zahrn

Elizabeth Gaucher

Carol Damewood Spann 

Sharon Kurtzman

Kathryn Lovatt

Brenda Remmes

Beth Duttera Newman

***

Bernie and Ken Brown

***

Sophie Perinot

Nicholas Orlandi

Marie Fletcher

***

Molly Maass

Suzanne Farrell Smith

Penny McDonald

Priscille Sibley

Jessica Keener

Ellen Wiseman

Mimi Clark

Jessi Malatesta

Spring is finally here.

Three Trees ©Michael Teel

I don’t know about you, but I thought this Winter might be permanent. Some of that was the weather; more of that feeling was the death of my friend, Anne Clinard Barnhill.

Anne was a wonderful writer and a beautiful human being. She wrote a recommendation letter for my MFA application. She submitted 3 essays to the early version of Longridge Review, Essays on Childhood. She always had a kind word or an encouraging message for other writers, and it was that quality that made her shine in the writing community.

Anne’s passing slowed me down. She died in January, and we pushed through to publish our Winter issue on time. I also started fundraising to establish a literary prize in Anne’s name. Spring feels like the time to think and dream, to plan and create this next aspect of Longridge Review. The buds, though still tight, are starting to emerge.

One of my favorite aphorisms is, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” While laboring to make something flawless, we often end up with nothing at all. I find myself procrastinating on defining the process for the Barnhill Prize (What? A writer? Procrastinating?!) because I want it to be perfect; but what I really want more than conceptual perfection is a concrete reality.

I am asking you, dear readers and writers, to share your responses to these ideas. If you are comfortable, I’d love to see your comments on this blog post, right here on this page. If you’d rather your comments be private, you can email me at edg at longridgeeditors dot com.

Draft contest guidelines

Dates for submission: Essays may be submitted September 1 to October 31, 2019. Winners will be announced by the end of January 2020.

Contest queries can be directed to edg at longridgeeditors dot com. The $10 entry fee can be paid online via credit card or PayPal when using our Submittable platform.

Selection process: Each of five editors reads approximately one-fifth of the essays submitted to the competition, with an additional reader available if needed based on the total number of submissions. Editors select three finalists each; the pool of finalist essays is read by (judge to be named), who makes the final selection of one winning essay. The author of the winning essay receives a cash award of $250. The winner has ten days to accept the award. More information about our editors and this year’s judge can be found at (provide link).

Eligibility: The competition is open to writers in English, whether published or unpublished. Previous winners of this award are not eligible to win again. Writers must be residents of North America. 

Essay Guidelines

  1. Essays should be double-spaced and no more than 3,500 words in length.
  2. The award recognizes outstanding creative nonfiction that reflects our mission: (See About; add also link to more detailed submission guidelines).
  3. Please be sure essay pages are numbered.
  4. Please use a standard, easy-to-read font such as Times New Roman in twelve-point size.
  5. Essays may not have been previously published.
  6. Authors may submit more than one essay to the competition for consideration as long as no material is duplicated between submissions. Each submission will require a separate entry fee.
  7. Essays under consideration for this competition may be submitted elsewhere at the same time. Please withdraw your essay if it is accepted by another publisher and should no longer be considered for the Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction competition. Withdrawal can be completed via the submissions manager website. Entry fees are not refundable.

Blind review: The intent of this contest is that essays will be considered on the merits of the work and that the final judge will not be aware of the names or publication records of the authors.

Confirmation of receipt and notification: You should receive an e-mail confirmation immediately after submission. An announcement of winners and finalists will be sent to all entrants via e-mail by the end of January.

One more thought: Though there can be only one award winner, we want to include recognition for finalists, a kind of “judge’s choice” acknowledgement. This feels like 2 additional essays being acknowledged in total, but it could be more or less.

Once we complete the contest, we would return to two regular submission periods, maintaining three annual opportunities for submissions, one being the contest now instead of three identical processes.

So this is our start! What do you think? What questions do you have? We hope you will help us make this first competition a success, and not just a success but a positive experience for everyone involved. Thank you!

No Other Way

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.

Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays

Many thanks to our editor, Mary Heather Noble, who shared this quote while reflecting on Mary Oliver; Oliver died January 17. She was 83 years old.

.

Larry D. Thacker is a Kentuckian writer and artist living in Tennessee. He is a veteran of the US Army and seventh generation native of the Cumberland Gap area. His MFA in poetry and fiction is from West Virginia Wesleyan College. Larry served as a guest editor for Issue 11 of Longridge Review.

“Place is so obviously varied among us. But we should wonder on what it means, not just try writing stories and poems with only a sense of place. I think we too often let place remain stationary when it, in fact, moves with us, too.”

This act of constructing our unique place experiences sometimes runs too quickly to the physical. We too often go back to the homeplace and reminisce, assured we can always return to something to jog our memories, that though an old home or barn or neighborhood inevitably changes with time that the skeletal structure remains loyal to us in some mysterious relational way.

©Larry Thacker

We often speak about place in the writing world. About how vital it is to preserve essences of our home worlds, our life experiences both past and present, how that assists in preparing for and appreciating a future. Much of the concept of place is a memory-dependent act. A sensual act. An act indwelled of mind, body, and spirit. Place can be a hard thing to locate. To describe. To conjure upon the page. Simple at a glance, varied and challenging from one writer to another.

I ventured out once to the old property where my grandfather built his cabin and raised my father’s older siblings. My aunt talked me through it via my mobile phone: out along a hollow, a dead-end road, down a trash-strewn four-wheeler trail, a trickle of a trashed creek, up a hill, to an approximation marked by what I described to her as probably the foundation of the cabin she knew as her first home. There were bricks and stones and decaying mortar and earth upon which to stand. I took a brick home with me. Though most of this “home” was gone, I could imagine what growing up was like for my two aunts and uncle. What visiting there was like for my father when the cabin remained. When crops grew there. When the boys were chored with moving the outhouse. 

What happens when even the earth beneath your feet goes missing from a place? When it becomes impossible to walk the literal old grounds of a homeplace? When you’re left with memory. No landscape. Photos may persist. And stories, yes. But how does the literal vanishing of the landscape up the ante when we’re dealing with a concept as important as place?   

Here is where I ate my first Paw Paw with my grandfather. We planted a seed and we watched that new tree grow for years.

©Larry Thacker

The rumors of the Food City wanting to expand back in my hometown of Middlesboro, Kentucky, started some five years ago. Before long we knew it was true after a realty representative from the corporation started feeling out property owners surrounding the store. They were eyeing an entire two-block area. That space not only included where my mother and father lived at the time, but also my mother’s childhood home, built by my grandfather, and the house I grew up in until my sophomore year of college. What’s more, the house my parents lived in at this time was owned by my sister for almost 10 years as well; in other words, this potential expansion of a grocery store seemed to require what I remembered as most everything I associated as my neighborhood – my home. How else would the store eventually vacate its current building, build another larger facility, expand parking, and add a fuel station, if not by buying up close to 20 homes and two businesses?  

I wrecked my bike here in this ditch after a yellow jacket struck and stung me in the eye. 

Of course I was concerned when my mother and father complained about the growing drug problem up the street. Sure the house they were in was haunted. It had problems with “visitors” back when my sister lived there. Sure the idea of them selling that tiny place and moving across town was appealing. Sure the idea of my mother finally getting away from reminders of where she grew up that also reminded her of her deceased father would be nice. Yes, the incentives for getting the hell out were there. But at what cost? What would require sacrifice for a prettier place to buy groceries, the town’s first Starbucks, and yet another fuel island? 

We grew gigantic Korean tomatoes about here, and strawberries somewhere over there, and corn from here to there. The dog house was here.  

From the time I was six until my sophomore year in college we’d lived in a home my grandfather had bought from the Baptist church. At the time we were renting a house across the street from my grandfather’s house. The house he bought was a two-bedroom, one-bath sort of wreck sitting behind the church parsonage down the road a bit. They wanted it gone. My grandfather obliged for a paltry five-hundred dollars and arranged to have it moved on Halloween afternoon, 1975. 

I sometimes still smell that mix of horse manure and tomato vine in the summer air. 

©Larry Thacker

It fascinated me how an entire house could be dislodged from the earth and dragged two blocks, across a field I was accustomed to playing in, and parked on half of my grandfather’s garden plot he’d given us. That house was like a dryland ship creeping up the hill looking for some final port. We’d be his next door neighbor, right across a tiny road we called the alley. 

It needed so much work. My mother, father, and he would spend the next few years toiling on the house while we lived in it. It was home. The first dwelling our family owned. Behind us rested what remained of my grandfather’s garden, the barn he’d built in 1933 out of rail road ties, where he kept Smokey the horse we always called a pony. It was the perfect micro-farm in the middle of town.  

My grandfather found the World War I French bayonet hidden on a rafter here when he and my father were building onto the back of the house.  

When I say I grew up within this two-block area, I mean it. After school I’d pick up my newspapers from the Daily News which was located behind our home. Many of my customers lined these roads. I had an empire of yards I mowed regularly. I learned to be a kid in the big field behind our home. Learned to throw a football there, to fly a kite, throw Frisbee, taught our dog, Snoopy, to fetch. Played hide-and-seek there. My father timed me in the 40-yard dash there when timed trials were coming up during summer football practice. When a portion of the field was paved for a parking lot, my sister and I learned to drive there. When my parents bought the house my sister sold them (right next door to the house moved by my grandfather – a third house in a row on the same street, mind you) and began hosting annual 4th of July reunions, family members parked there and walked the few steps to the back yard where we’d barbeque, talk all evening, and wait for the city fireworks.      

I would begin my paper route here, then head down the alley, turn left, then hit Cumberland. Almost everyone had porches then. I liked that.     

I learned to plant and harvest a garden with my grandfather behind the house. Tomatoes, corn, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries. I was his “little buddy” when he made his rounds about town on errands. I learned so much of what I am today from just being around him. He died my freshmen year of high school. His house was sold. 

I hid here and shot my BB gun at the crows pecking at our corn. I never hit one, I don’t think. 

One by one the families and property owners agreed to fair market values for their pieces of the puzzle and reality started setting in. There were a few hold-outs at first, either against the idea of it all or for better money, but eventually, everyone agreed to sell off and move on – including my mother and father. I heard about much of what was happening from a distance. I’d moved on, two hours away to where I live now in Johnson City, Tennessee. 

From this spot I can see where seven generations of my family have lived since the 1770s. 

As deals closed, properties started emptying. Once the grocery corporation owned a property the former owners had X number of days to clean out. In fact, you could strip a property down to almost nothing, even having a sell off of the interior and exterior, leaving the property looking like locusts had striped the green from a field. They didn’t want your house, your trees, your flowers, your front porch, your furniture. Moving trucks appeared everywhere up and down the blocks. Plants and trees were dug up from the ground. Windows disappeared from houses. Piles of domestic junk, identifiable and not, accumulated along sidewalks. It was picked through like a dump. The police had to step up patrols to keep thieves out. This went on for months. 

I learned to drive a stick-shift over there. 

I’d visit home. Go to my parents’ place before their move. When the house was an upheaval, a mix of sudden late-life reprioritization, of unexpected optimism. The packing up process evident in every glance. Boxes sitting and stacked everywhere, empty, full, being filled. Drawers, the same. Trash bags filled with discards. Memories, reminders, everywhere, everywhere. 

My best friend, Kurry, and I were watching the lightning from here just a few minutes before the tornado of ’88 hit. It hopped over our house and went tearing up Cumberland Mountain. 

Our old street lined the outermost border, so right across the street was “safe,” depending on whom you asked. Those neighbors, many of them friends over decades, just watched. Some of them worried what the end result of all this mess would look like, how close the new build would be to their front doors. Some were jealous of who was getting to escape the old neighborhood. Some acted like they weren’t noticing. Others were simply entertained by the ruckus. 

A lady down the street had so many cats you could smell them from the sidewalk. 

My parents’ home was situated on the highest rise of the entire footprint in question. The deck my father built on the back of the house offered not only a sweeping view of town, but of this unfolding process. As more properties sold, the neglect set in. Sheer abandonment, even given unto an apocalyptic mood. It morphed with every visit I made. 

©Larry Thacker

Here is where my grandfather’s room was, here where I would stay on weekends when he was the sickest. 

As much as I tried to avoid dwelling on what was really happening back home, it gnawed on me constantly. Who knew what the final landscape would ultimately look like, but I suspected it meant an entire removal of what I knew as my physical space of upbringing. It would, indeed, eventually require that literal of an excision. My imagination just couldn’t do justice to how horrible it would be. I was glad to not live in tow, to watch it happening bit by bit every day. The occasional visit, the updates by phone or a photo, spared me the bleeding out of what I knew was gone one square foot at a time of “my old stomping grounds.” 

The handprints of my sister and me are here in the sidewalk concrete. 

My mother would call: Sew-n-Sew sold theirs yesterday. Those others are holding out still. You should see the mess down the alley right now. They clean out the Johnsons last weekend. They’ve moved over the mountain already. My father would call: Sew-n-Sew Salvage is coming in a few weeks, so you better tell me what you want before they strip this place down, son. You want any of these tools?   

I was mid-stream through my low-residency creative writing MFA at West Virginia Wesleyan College at this time. I took an entire semester to write only on what was happening to my home neighborhood. And while I may have been lamenting the demise of the map of my youth, the writing I found within was as much a chronical of those years as anything. I was bringing back memories I’d forgotten. Re-remembering in the loss. It was the only way a part of me managed getting through the idea of my helplessness amid it all.  

Here was the tallest banana tree my father ever grew – taller than the house. 

Once all the homes were sold and vacated, real change came, and quickly. The new building – eventually twice as large as the old one, which, by the way, wasn’t being torn down – required flat land. This part of town was a sweeping hill. Heavy equipment hung ’round for months leading up to this stage. With the homes absent of life, the mass destruction commenced.  The earth-moving started. Backhoes and bulldozers went to work knocking down houses, crunching it all down into a fine splintery mess enough to scoop up and haul away to some landfill. My mother witnessed her childhood home, built by her father in the early 1930s, laid waste. The house next door where I grew up was next, down in a day. Then the house my parents had just moved from. As if that wasn’t enough, several acres of topsoil, some of which my grandfather’s little garden plot contributed good ground to with all those years of horse manure, was scraped away carefully and hauled off to who knows where.

The weeping cherry tree grew just outside my bedroom window. My father brought a tiny limb to transplant here from Chicago. It’s two feet thick now.

It’s the rainy season. The bare earth is orange and tan, void of that dark and healthy soil, dotted with pocked-craters of little mud lakes like a World War I no-man’s land or an Agent Orange-poisoned field of fire you’d see in Vietnam War photos. I wonder if the scene reminds my father of that aesthetic. 

We’d catch the bus at the stop sign down at the intersection, visible from our front porch

A step further, the final stab into the heart of any lasting physical place within the land, is how the machinery dug dozens of feet down under where all our homes were in order to flatten the land and make ready a massive retaining wall. The back of the new building, its roofline eventually only at the height of our old road, will line up nearly perfectly along the old sidewalk. 

I can see the steeple of our church from the back yard. 

In other words, even the ground, for up to twenty feet deep under everywhere I wandered around as a child through adulthood, is removed. Carted off. Where my grandfather’s old barn stood is near the indoor Starbucks now. I stepped it off. Where his home stood is bisected by the very back wall of the new store, just like my old home and where my parents lived. 

©Larry Thacker

Where I ate Paw Paws off my grandfather’s trees. Carted off. Where we planted gardens. Where our dog, Snoopy, lived. The pony, Smokey. The field. So much of my old newspaper route. All the spots we’d Trick-Or-Treat. 

My kite always gets hung up in this one large tree down in the field. 

Yet how is all this any different than the family homeplace deserted when a coal company needs to blow the top off a mountain to get at that little seam of coal? Or how farms and towns are lost when a valley floods with water for a dam project? Or when the erosion of tides and storms eats away at the sandy ground under your family’s beach home? 

We lived in a rental across the street for a little while, but the day my mother saw the snake crawl across the kitchen floor was the day we moved out and back in with my grandfather. 

Two thoughts stay with me in my continued mulling of this experience: First, that our definition of place is a malleable thing; and second, that we ought to embrace an improved awareness of our feet on the ground more often. Place is so obviously varied among us. But we should wonder on what it means, not just try writing stories and poems with only a sense of place. I think we too often let place remain stationary when it, in fact, moves with us, too. What’s more, we should slow our lives enough to connect with the land and other natural elements. What anchors us. This helps feed our memories. Photographs and heirlooms are important. Family stories and songs, essential. But our grounding in the landscape feeds something mysterious within us. 

We should talk about this mystery of place. Like anything important to us and to our mutual culture, perhaps that which we assume is immoveable, can vanish.    

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You can find Larry on Twitter, @Thackalachia. Follow him, he likes to chat about writing, place, art, and large red clown noses.