A Very Old Picture of a Very Old House

I’m looking at a picture of an old house. A very old picture. A very old house.

It’s the house my mother, Wilma Jean Key, was born in on August 15, 1915. I assume the picture of the house was probably taken a year or two later because another picture, just beside it in the album, is of my Grandmother Key holding my mother in her arms, and Mom is (maybe) a little less than two years old. The photo album was created by Grandmother; my oldest brother just found it, scanned the pages, and shared them with our family.

Another old house and windmill, not much left of them now, and not far from the little place I just mentioned, were both near what was the Edith community, seven miles or so west of Robert Lee, Texas. Grandmother and Granddaddy Key lived all of their lives in Robert Lee. Paint Creek Cemetery, also in what is left of Edith, was within sight of the house with the windmill. That house was the homestead of Alf Key, my Granddaddy Key’s father. For a long time, you could see the crumbling remains of that old house and windmill from both the highway and the cemetery. You didn’t even have climb over the barbed wire fence. Years ago, another of my older brothers did scale the fence and ambled over to the still-standing house. He looked through a window and saw movement—more rattlesnakes than he’d ever seen in one place. That sight was enough to quench his thirst for any more exploration.

Alf Key, who was born during the week in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, donated a chunk of the land for the Paint Creek Cemetery. Alf (along with, I believe, another donor or two) just asked that his family always have plots available there for free. So, I have lots of relatives buried there—Alf and his wife, my maternal grandparents, my sister, uncles, aunts, and many more. I like that cemetery. I’ve never seen more beautiful bluebonnets anywhere than the ones that, on a good year, blanket the earthly remains of its residents who are there—but not really there.

Birthplace. Earthly resting place. All within walking distance. I rather like that.

Grandmother and Granddaddy were married just after Christmas 1911. He would ranch and truck cattle and sheep for all of his life. For years, he had the only cattle truck in Coke County, and he made many a trip to Fort Worth.

Scanned also from the old album are pictures of my grandparents and their young family.  Granddaddy looks like a strong, young cowboy as he holds my mom. Grandmother looks so young and pretty. Both look like they’re no strangers to the strength and character it takes to make a good life. No coddlin’ required.

In 1928 (I think), Granddaddy built the old house I know as the Key Place in Robert Lee. My brothers and I have been meeting there twice a year for around forty years. Dad was with us for a number of those good times. I plan to head that way again next week. I doubt I can do much to improve my three brothers, but it’s worth another try.

I was playfully swatting one of my own grandsons last week at our house, and I told him about how Granddaddy Key would sit, straddling a chair backwards, near an old radio and doorway in the old Key house. He generally held a flyswatter, and the tail section of any grandkid passing through was fair game.

Not that long ago, I was surprised to see Granddaddy looking back at me from a mirror. Not that long ago, I sat on a rocking lawn chair out under a tree as I was watching grandkids laugh and play, and I realized why Granddaddy enjoyed doing pretty much the very same thing.

Right now, I find myself looking at the photo of the first old house I mentioned, Mom’s birthplace. Of course, it’s a black and white photo, which makes it seem even more stark. Were the photo in color, maybe there’d be some little green attempts at prairie grass around the house, but mostly I see dirt. The ground looks hard and dry, and color would seem an extravagance, wasted pigment.

The house is really small. One room? I wish I could see the inside. The exterior walls seem to be of some sort of ancient board and batten construction (long vertical boards butting together with thin boards covering the joints). No paint. The roof appears to be covered with wooden shake shingles. One vent or smoke pipe. Virtually no eaves or porch at all. A very disjointed stone foundation. The sun must be setting. The shadow of a scraggly old leafless mesquite tree falls, as if exhausted, across the front of the house.

Not much to look at, this photo. But much to ponder. And much for which to be thankful as I realize that strong men and women of faith in the eternal living God once lived there. Their bones lie not far away. And their souls are safe with the Father of us all. How many blinks of an eye before I join them? God knows, so I don’t need to. But all will be well.

That old house was never the home of a rich family, but what the residents left their descendants is a precious legacy of faith and hope and love. And that is still very much alive.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

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