The giant oversized three story house; four stories if you included the attic, winked at all of the cars passing it by. This house was more than a home. Nestled in the sloping mountains of Montreat, North Carolina stood a retreat home that had hosted over a thousand people in its day. The community of Montreat was a conference community. Youth conferences were held in the stone churches in the center of the town almost every week of the summer. My grandparents hosted many youth groups in their house up until the last year they lived there. Now the house is owned by a different family. The new owners don’t host groups anymore. The whole house belongs to them and the rooms and gardens are all rearranged. My secret hideouts belong to another kid now. Looking back on it, the house was so much more than just a retreat house to me. It was the place my grandparents lived; a part of my family.
Every July my family pulled up in front of the house’s terraced garden for our family reunion. One week a year the house transformed from a retreat center into a gathering of 40 plus family members. The greens, reds, and yellows of tomatoes and peppers would be starting to spread throughout the garden. A crisp mountain breeze ran through the small valley we parked in. The trees swayed in their own dance; tapping out the beat on the panels of the house. Fog covered the mountain tops and the birds chirped in unison overhead. A sweet smell hung in the air and mixed with the aroma of roast beef coming from the house. Everything was how I left it the year before.
In my younger years, I would weave my way in and out of the lettuce plants and green bean plants that made up one-fourth of the garden. I picked off the beans and snapped them in my mouth. My sister, Kim, liked them raw so I forced them down to be like her even though the pieces felt like lead going down my windpipe. I crouched down so low that the people in the road couldn’t see me, but I was still visible to my great aunts rocking on the porch. I could always feel eyes on me and always kept the house in sight.
From my hiding place, I could see the front of the house. The gray paneling on the lower level needed touched up and vines clung desperately to the walls. Above that, the porch wrapped around the front and halfway along one side. The paint had started to chip in places, the roof was low, and the gutters were full of damp leaves. The tiny attic window peaked out from the top of the tree line like a porthole on a ship. My grandparents’ apartment on the bottom floor (where they lived year round, the upper floors were used for the retreats and our reunion) had enormous glass windows looking out towards the road. I could see their counter with my favorite spinny chairs from where I was perched in the garden. Grandpa was hustling about the apartment fixing the blankets on the couch my brother, Danny, slept on. Grandpa’s tall lean frame was soaring past the window at his supersonic speed. He always whistled to himself when he was in his straightening up mode and I could hear his usual song playing over in my head.
“Hi, Grandpa!” I yelled after I sprinted from the garden through the glass door. The scent of mint and mountain musk from a 100-year-old house hit my nostrils.
“Oh! Who’s there?” He spun around and grinned at me. “You about gave me a heart attack, Beth.” He said putting his arm around my small shoulders.
He handed me a lump of green fur and the biggest smile plastered onto my face.
“Froogle’s! Where did you find him?”
“I told you I’d save him for you this year,” he said with a wink. “Just don’t show Danny. He tried to find him in the attic when you first got here.”
“Thanks, Grandpa,” I said squeezing his legs. I flung the frog backpack over my shoulders and bounded out the door to the porch stairs. The stairs had faded from years in the weather. It’s once vibrant blue was pale and peeling, but it had a very cozy feel to it. Laughter floated down the steps and someone was playing a piano just inside the squeaking door. The game room was full of the middle generation circling a small table and screaming out “BLUFF” every few minutes (our version of the card game B.S.).
A few years later nothing much had changed. The porch was still that faded blue and the screams of my parents’ card game still came from inside the house. My great aunts’ Dodo (pronounced doo-doo), Fran, Dot, and Carolyn were in their usual spots swaying in their rocking chairs watching the mountain tops and reminiscing about the “olden days.” The creak of the rockers on the floorboards was like a lullaby playing over and over again in my head whisking me off to Hushaby Mountain. Every time we came they sat here. The “prime spot in the house” they called it. They watched the sun set and the rain fall from those chairs. The rockers had some sort of magical pull on these older women. They were drawn back year after year to that same spot on the porch.
I ran up the steps of the porch like every year and was met by Aunt Dodo’s velvety voice. “Come give your Aunt Dodo a hug,” she said as soon as she saw me and I ran into her wrinkled arms and added myself to the folds. I enclosed myself in the safety of her arms and hid my face on her petite shoulder. “How is my little Bethy?” she cooed, and I grinned up at her.
“Fine” was usually the only reply I gave, and that was all I ever needed to say. The greats’ went back to their conversation and I moseyed over to the picnic table in the corner half listening and half daydreaming. They talked about their old house with the wooden swing in the back yard and the times they went to church as a family, but my mind was usually miles away from where I huddled in the corner on the porch.
Right below me was the stone table. It was a formation of moss covered stones formed into a circle with one enormous stone in the middle. The stones felt like damp towels but I never got wet sitting on them. They always smelled like rain and grass and made me feel as if I was secluded from the world. I loved to spend hours sitting on my stone table pretending I was King Arthur and my younger cousins and my brother(who had all grown considerably) were my knights. (Ethan and Isaac loved Zelda, and in their minds they were Link and I was Zelda.) We would use sticks as swords and ward off any fly that came too close to our hideout. I sent them on secret missions to spy on an older cousin (usually TJ, the lazy one you could always find on the couch). There was always two purposes to the spying. I hated being left behind by the older people in my generation and it got the younger ones away. I had my space. Usually, I curled up on the ground between the rocks invisible to the boys if they didn’t look close enough.
Sometimes, when the younger cousins were gone, the cool stones served as a race track. I ran around the small circle jumping from stone to stone pretending the gaps were hurdles and the stones my track. When Danny, Ethan, and Isaac came back arguing the stones transformed into a holding cell. The middle slab served as the prison and the outside rocks were traps. If you touched them or the sandy dirt in between them you would be snapped in half or fed to the sharks. They would all be trapped inside the cell until either they proved they were one of us, or I got tired of the game and left them by the rocks alone. I would run around the house twice dragging my hand along its surface, then on the second lap sneak through the back door and into my favorite spot, my secret bathroom.
I was usually left at the house when my sisters and older cousins went out and this was usually one of the times I hid from Danny and Ethan in my secret bathroom, the bathroom under the stairs. The back wall sloped towards the floor and there was a small shelf behind the toilet. I climbed up on the toilet and wriggled my way onto the shelf. This bathroom, like the stone table, had many purposes. The toilet became my driver’s seat and I was a racer in the Indy 500. I never won but I was always a crowd favorite. The shelf behind the toilet was my chariot and I raced my finest steed, Lightning, all around the mountains. Lightning and I made a good team. We always won our races and eventually we upgraded from chariot races to riding races. When I was eleven we made it out of the bathroom and had races on the multi-terrain track in the yard. A few years after that Kim started inviting me to come with the older kids, and Lightning was saved for the rainy days.
Once I started hanging out with the older cousins I had to split my time. I loved being included with them, but I missed all of my old playing spots. I was still on the outside with them, so when they decided that all they wanted to do for the day was lounge around in the TV room and tease people with the twenty dollar bill on a string trick I disappeared to the stone table and Ethan, Isaac, and Danny usually followed. They decided that I couldn’t be Arthur anymore and we’d only be Zelda and Links’ (which created a ton of drama for the three Links’). They never seemed to notice how much I loved being in the prison cell because, as Zelda, that’s what I was supposed to do. Wait for them to rescue me. Laying on that stone table was so peaceful. It took me out of my mind and I just stared at the green above my head. Sometimes I even had conversations with the tree, the stones, and on many occasions the house. Those split years were the best years, though they were few. I was free to choose between my hiding places and my cousins. Everything was perfectly in place and I became connected to the stone table, the secret bathroom, and especially the house. I had the best of the house and the best of my surroundings.
It has now been ten years since I’ve seen the house in Montreat. My Grandpa had a stroke and the house became too much trouble for them to keep up, so my grandparents decided to move to Indiana to be closer to family. Their years of ministry were slowly coming to an end, and with it came changes to something that I never would have thought as a part of my family. That house had a soul of its own and was filled with memories; good and bad. My grandma told me once that a cousin stopped his car and came back up that hill to kiss the house goodbye one last time before he and his family drove away. It had its own function as a part of the family, and it served as a friend to us all. I felt like I was leaving behind a piece of me the last time I looked back at that house, and now I realize that I was. I was so ingrained in this house and it was so ingrained in me that no matter how old I get I will never forget that sense of acceptance and safety I had when I was at my grandparents’ house.