Axe and Blaze
I set the axe beside my bag in the car. Leaving Kansas City before dawn, I drove south across snowy Missouri, across Oklahoma’s brown pastures, across the Red River. When I was ten, Grandpa brought me on my only other trip to Texas. He took me to a church and then to a white wooden farmhouse where an old woman sat under a shade tree in the yard. He told her I played flute in the school band, and she, my great-grandmother, smiled at me. Mostly, she gazed out across a cotton field as she sat under the tree with people gathered on her lawn and in her house after my great-grandfather’s funeral.
Grandpa took me into the house to a wall in the basement, a white wooden wall like the white frame house. His hand resting on the wall, he said his grandfather hid a chest full of money in the basement and built the wall to hide it. The wall had remained untouched through hard times. Our family always found a way to get by, saving the hidden chest of money for a time when it would be needed more.
The old woman under the shade tree, Pearl Sarah Johnson Ferrier, lived to age 114, outliving my Grandpa and everybody else. Except me.
I drove to the lawyer’s office and learned that only the farm house remained. The fields had been sold off long ago. They told me the house had deteriorated in the thirty years my great-grandmother had been in a nursing home. Such as it was, the property was mine.
I checked in at a Holiday Inn before finding the house behind a city park. The old shade tree stood leafless in the sunset. Down the street a school, closed for the holidays, stood where my family had grown cotton. At the end of the block, people gathered for a New Year’s Eve barbeque.
The power was shut off at my old house. Shining my flashlight around, I saw a sagging sofa, and a dusty clock sat on the fireplace mantle. At the basement stairs I pointed the flashlight down and went to the wall where Grandpa had led me. Country music from the party down the street filled the old house. I swung my axe at the wall hiding the chest. The effort left me breathless, but it didn’t take long. I hesitated to open the chest. So many years my family had kept it hidden and closed. But it was mine, all mine.
Yes! It was mine! Bundles and bundles of money! All Confederate bills!
Two days later, I got the local museum director to come to the house. He accepted my donation of the chest of money and the old clock. He said the Confederate money was worth something to collectors. I had been getting by without it. I felt like dragging the chest back to my condo would have been like inviting a dead body into my life in Kansas City. I helped him carry the chest up the stairs to his car. Then I went for a walk through the park and down other streets. I wanted to be rid of the past that was not part of who I was. Not reasonably rid of it but somehow rip it out of my life.
I stopped in front of a fire station. I told them I wanted to burn my house down. They said I should have it demolished. But that would take more time. It took a couple of days of begging before the fire chief sent Captain Ferrier to look at the property. I commented it was a coincidence that we had the same last name. He said not really.
I looked him in the face. “Are you saying that we’re related?”
“No, no cause to say that in my family.” He looked across the yard toward afternoon sunlight on the chimney. “When the slaves were freed, our people took the name of the family that had owned them. My family has history around this house.”
I stood speechless. Over 150 years ago his family was my family’s property. I asked if he wanted the house. He didn’t. Two days later I stood beside Captain Ferrier as the firemen burned the house. Several of his family watched, including his grandmother. She wished for something to show where their people had been buried between oak trees now in the park.
Back in Kansas City, I obsessed that I had wiped out my family’s past. I contacted the museum director to ask if he had any information on the Ferrier family. He did. Was there a way to put a marker to show where my family had lived? He said the sale of the Confederate money would pay for it. I hesitated before asking about a marker for the slaves. He visited the Captain’s grandmother and left with stories for another marker. When I crossed the Red River again, I turned off the radio’s repetition of political insults. I was heading toward reconciliation.