Wednesday, October 17, 2007


A facsimile of a 1907 map of Union County, North Carolina, hangs over our telephone cabinet. We have two phones: one has a French number, and we use it to make local calls at a somewhat shocking expense, and the other has our U.S. number, and we use it to call everywhere else for free. My great-grandparents and their families in Union County a century ago would have been more than suspicious of such gadgetry and more than puzzled at our decision to come to a place so far from home.

The map shows an overwhelmingly rural world. The county seat is marked, with its two cotton mills, as are all the churches (of which many, some of them noted as "colored," and none of them Catholic; synagogues or temples existed only in the Bible) and school houses (not as many as churches, but a respectable number). "Land Owners Residences" are marked with a square, and "tenant houses" with a cross. The rural mail routes are listed. The place names are either geographic--Marshville, Lanes Creek--or biblical--New Salem, Olive Branch.

A hundred years later, Union County is a suburb of Charlotte. Almost all the farmland is gone; the land where my family farmed cotton and planted vegetable gardens for two centuries has been paved for subdevelopments and 7-Elevens. Extraordinary change in just a couple of generations.

On a walk the other day I met an old man who was collecting his morning copy of Nice-Matin from the newspaper box at the end of his driveway. We admired each other's walking canes and he told me he was 80 years old.

Have you lived here long?

He gestured to the tumbledown farmhouse, almost overtaken by blackberry vines, a little ways down the road. I was born in that house. I had six brothers and sisters, and my family farmed all this land, from here (the edge of the road where we were standing) down to the valley (his arm took in the side of the hill).

Olives? I asked, eager to keep him talking.

But no, not olives. My parents grew jasmine and roses, for the perfumeries in the next town. When I was a little boy I helped them. (Now he began to hit his stride and all I had to do was sound encouraging.) My brother and I would walk up the hill to the village school every morning, walk home for lunch, and then back to school in the afternoon. We had a few olive trees, enough to make oil for our family. In the fall we would harvest the olives and take them to the mill over there (he gestured to the far side of our hill; the mill still makes olive oil).

Was this road here then?

It was a path, between my parents' farm and the neighbors'. When the town decided to make a road, they took more of my parents' land than the neighbors. (He showed me, with his cane, where his family's land had stopped--two thirds of the way across the road.)

A car passed us. Those people, they are English.

I am from America.

Not England? American? He was startled, and for a moment I felt like part of some latter-day expeditionary force. But you speak French.

I try to speak French. It is very difficult, but it is a beautiful language.

He nodded, accepting the compliment as his due. It is the most difficult language to learn. Where do you live?

I told him, and he told me whose farm it used to be, and who used to own the farms around us, and what they farmed: jasmine or roses or lavender or olives. The farms are almost all gone now, broken up by the families to give a piece of land to each child, or sold off to Parisians or other foreigners for second homes. But my neighbor, this old man, remembered all their names, some of them his schoolmates, some relations, remembered some fondly and some less so.

I went home, watered the dogs, and read a little more in Braudel. He was talking

about the French landscape, how it bears witness to what it does not show,...helps to reconstitute the balance of former times, gives meaning to the remarks of travellers, famous or
otherwise, who have been there before us and seen almost the same things--ah, but it is that 'almost,' the often tiny differences that plunge us back into the life of the past. (Braudel, The Identity of France, 1985, p. 42)

The often tiny differences that plunge us back into the life of the past
: my neighbor drawing his family's property line from half a century ago on the road, the memory of that perceived injustice as strong as if the town was going to have a hearing about it that night. Now I follow that disputed line every day on the road. When I look at the map over the phone table, I see the jasmine that grew on the hillside. If I can find out how to harvest the olives on our trees, I'm going to take them around the hill to the moulin, and hope that someone is putting in a few rows of tomatoes in the yard behind her new house in Union County.

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