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Front steps

Posted: November 7, 2013 9:06 a.m.
Updated: November 8, 2013 5:00 a.m.

The small boat slid quietly from the soft, muddy bank and righted herself in the anxious waters of Lake Moultrie. She was eager for this return to her element and the buoyancy made her feel at home as she waited patiently for her crew and belongings to be gathered and stowed. Feet and hands clamored aboard and small eyes became big with anticipation. They were on a short journey, some 75 years in the making, to the old house at the bottom of the lake.

The small outboard cranked on the second pull and hummed to life, the marriage of displacement and horsepower enabling the old boat to glide like Neptune across the murky but familiar water. She had been eager to get back onto the big lake, to run openly, to push the big, long wake behind her. Small waves lapped at her bow and sprayed her occupants with mist and laughter. It was late fall and cold, but not bitterly so.

Beneath the little boat was a world known only to memory: tall pine forests teeming with deer and turkey, horse trails winding through dark woods and open fields, long dirt roads leading to stores and schools and churches and front steps. Her current passengers had no recollection of this world beneath the water. They were all too young. They had heard the stories, though: stories of the past, of inevitable progress, of the water, of the old house. They peered into the depths with imagination and attempted, in vain, to recreate the world they had heard so much about.

The water had come around 1940 and required the family to take what they could and establish a new life on higher ground. The house was named Somerset after the southern English county of the same name, and was stationed at the end of what is now the long finger-like peninsula of Pinopolis, S.C., where my mother spent the early years of her life. Although the old house had been an icon and lifelong gathering place, a replacement would have to be found. She had been grand for her time and although the old black and white pictures still don’t do her justice, the memories and stories make up for the oversight. She was, indeed, a member of the family and she would have to be buried as such.

So the furniture was packed and the cupboards were emptied. The mantles were removed, the bricks disassembled, the boards pulled. The trucks and wagons were loaded with all that could be carried and the rest was either taken by extended family or given away. In the end, all that remained were the bare foundation and the old front steps. The steps were our destination.

A perfect storm of air pressure, wind current, heat and chance had given us an opportunity which would most likely never come again. The rain had stopped seemingly months ago and the cloudless skies had kept the moisture away, allowing unimpeded sunlight to dry out everything in sight. The record drought had brought the water down to historic levels and the lake began to reveal her treasures. Trinkets sacrificed on the altars of clumsiness and bad luck were found beneath docks and sea walls. A cousin found an old boat he had sunk in high school. The old house once again revealed her steps and foundation.

We knew from old pictures and anecdotes and family history that we were in the right place. The old steps were intact enough to compare to the old photos we had brought along. We clamored off, small eyes still big, took seats not occupied in a generation, and staked out our small claim to the happy, but shortened history of the old house.

From this vantage, we looked back upon dry land and coaxed imagination and memory. We could not see the front yard or the driveway or the worn dirt road. We could not hear the sounds of tears and hurried laughter and promise. We could, however, feel the lingering activity and bustle and we could see the faint ripples left long ago in silent waters as they drifted to the banks of their new destination.

And then the small boat slid noisily from the rocky, brick shallows. She righted herself in the anxious waters, pushed the big wake behind her, and welcomed the spray at her bow. As we made our way to higher ground, we thought about the empty steps, the pulled boards, the old dirt roads and the silent waters which had claimed those last ripples of an enduring age. We thought, too, of our rare encounter, and realized that even droughts and rainless seasons can still bring opportunity and that solid foundations can always hold you up, no matter how long they lay buried.

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