Welcome to our home, Acorn Hill.
Acorn Hill was built for a Great Man nearly two hundred years ago. Most people see the house as a monument to him; its columns uphold his legacy, the tall windows reflect his vision, the walls of rosy brick were fired of the same red Virginia clay he was born of. He’s long gone, though. Now my family, the Stewart family, lives here, in thirty-two rooms under a vigil of oaks.
People, history buffs mostly, like to come visit the house and get the tour.
“A lot of history here,” they’ll remark, these tourists, our guests, fondling the banister or tapping a knuckle on the desk. They mean, this room is where the Great Man worked late into the evening, scratching out his gospel by quill and candlelight. This is the window he looked through as he chewed his breakfast. Just think, on such-and-such date in 1832, this humble chair supported the visionary buttocks of so-and-so. Behold, the relics!
But that’s not the real history.
Acorn Hill has been the scene of weddings, burglary, paleontology, foreign occupation, cover-ups, fire, rape capers, trespass, birth, death, and resurrection. You can find some meager mentions of these events in a few books, in footnotes or asides, but I’m here to tell you: most history isn’t written down, and none of it is incidental.
For instance, in the spring of 1999, under the smoke tree in the terraced garden, my sister’s best friend Jen startled her classmate Andrew by relieving him of his virginity. Now, has anyone bothered to make a note of that date? I don’t know, maybe it’s in his diary, maybe he has “Jen Forever 5-21-99” tattooed on his bum, but probably not, and that’s my point.
Take the history of our great Commonwealth of Virginia. Your fourth grade textbook might have given you the impression that that particular history rests in peace. Lifting the cover of your book was akin to lifting the lid of a coffin for a gawk at the ink-embalmed body within. Balderdash! The corpulent body of our history can’t be bound in cardboard and glue. The most you’d have found in that tome was an empty hat, a knuckle bone, a false mustache (real history is wily and often walks around concealed). History is much more than names and dates and troop movements and men of vision. In some of these books, history can even seem dull! To pick out a few particulars and discard the rest of the story is an act of violence. It’s a mugging.
Real history is history told aloud. It’s recollected. Or rather, admitted. Or maybe boasted. It’s coughed up and spat out. At least, that’s how my family tells it, over and over again. The old words are polished in the telling and retelling, like family silver; the tarnished names and places get rolled in the mouths of us living, licked clean until they shine again.
See, Southerners don’t have history. We have relationships with history.
Let me give you the real tour of Acorn Hill, one you won’t find in any pamphlet. Ours is a history as true as any other, which is to say, partly.
As Acorn Hill evolved from house to home to landmark, it got a history of its own, independent of the people sheltering within. It’s what people mean when they talk about the soul of a house. The sound of footsteps, heartbeats, orgasms, dying breaths, curses, clock chimes, serving bells, simmering soups; it all murmurs in the mortar, echoes in the floor. That might seem romantic, and it is. But it’s true, too. You think all that noise doesn’t change a place? History is chemical, friends, and some of it is outright radioactive. Our stories have half-life and decay; we act in them, they react with us. Some we agree on and distill into facts; some we dispute and dilute into rumor. Some stories have been kept bottled up by separate people, because if they were mixed together the truth might start to smoke.
A lot of people know about our home, and where it is on the map, and about the Great Man who lived here. But that’s not history, that’s just the past. I’m going to tell you the history. So, welcome. Come inside, Credulous. Skeptics, take your hat off. You’re in Virginia now.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.