A Place That Was

Author: James Behrens

At night as I fall off to sleep, I sometimes think of what transpired in the day. Last night I thought of something my mom recently told me. She has trouble sleeping some nights. She cannot see well so she does not watch late night television, and the radio brings her no comfort. She lies in bed and thinks about things. She avoids as best she can those troubling thoughts that can loom large in the night. She told me that she thinks of good things, warm things that make her happy. She said she thinks of days many years ago when she went to the beach. She liked the beach, she told me. And thinking about it makes her feel good.

I remember when Mom and Dad took us to the beach when we were little. I wrote a piece about that once. I remember Mom worrying as she watched us run in the sand and down to the surf. She knew the dangers of the ocean, knew we might go too far into the surf. I thought it good that she has befriended the ocean these days, if only in her restless nights. A far-away and long-gone beach she can summon at night and take pleasure in it.

I thought of a place I never was last night as I fell off to sleep. The name of the place is Kelleytown, and even though there is still a place called that not far from the monastery here in Conyers, Georgia, the place I thought of was the Kelleytown that once was. It was the Kelleytown where Peewee grew up.

I work with Peewee at bonsai. He is a black man who grew up in Kelleytown, and over time he has told me many things about those early years of his life. I cannot separate my image of Kelleytown from the warmth and friendliness of Peewee.

I took a ride with him one day last week to get some special bags for bonsai soil. The store was in McDonough, which is about a half-hour ride from the monastery. On the way, we passed a street called “Kelleytown Road.” I recognized the name and asked Peewee if that was where he grew up. He told me that it was and that on the way back we could take that road and go there.

We got to the store and purchased the bags. In the store was a big barrel with odd-looking things in it. I picked one up and then read the sign on the barrel. It was a pig’s ear that I held in my hand. The ear was dried and brownish in color. PeeWee said dogs like them. So I bought two for Damian’s dogs. The sign on the barrel said that they cost $1.19 an ear, but the lady at the register gave them to me for a dollar each. She put them in a bag. I wondered for a moment as to where the rest of the pig was.

With our plastic bags, pigs’ ears and each other, we headed back to the monastery. As the car neared Kelleytown Road, Peewee said, “Here it is, Father James. Just go left here.”

I turned and drove slowly down Kelleytown Road. Peewee talked as we rode. He showed me where his home once was. Now there is a field in the midst of large and beautiful homes. There are many developments now in that area. I slowed as Peewee told me about the river where he swam, the school he attended, stores he used to go to. He pointed out the still-standing Kelleytown Baptist Church. It is a small building and has been there a long time. I wondered to myself about the many people who came there to hear the Word of God preached to them when times were very hard down here. Peewee’s family was among them. Peewee once told me that his mom raised him to always be forgiving of those who hurt him. He has memories of the days when blacks were segregated from whites here and throughout the South. I have never heard a word of bitterness from him about those times. The words he heard on Sundays from the pulpit and the words he heard from his mom during the week hit home.

As I drove he told me about people he knew from the old days. “Most are gone,” he said. “Many moved away. Many others died. Change, Father James. That’s the way things go, always change.” He grew quiet, looking at the big houses as we passed them by.

We are about the same age. Our pasts are very different. We do not talk about where we have been and what we have seen all that much. The things of the present absorb us here, and that is good. We talk about those things—the weather and music, the latest news, things going on at the monastery.

Yet at night, I do not think much about the present, lying in bed waiting for sleep to come. I think of things gone by and wonder about them. I do not know why I do that—it is as if by thinking about them I can experience something about them again. Every moment of life bears so much with it, and then it is gone and a new moment comes. It seems to take a while to look at any one day and marvel at all that it brought. Do we only see what we have by losing it?

It is a simple left turn to go to Kelleytown. And it is as simple a turn on my side, looking out the window at night, to summon things of the past.

The beach is a kind memory for my mom. It warms her, and the waves sooth her. Then she sleeps without worries about the surf and her children. She remembers the best of what was.

Things about Kelleytown warm me, too, though I have never really been to the town that was. Peewee tells me all about it, and when I listen to him in the day as we ride, I hear the best of what was. He remembers what was good.

Things change. We move ahead and every now and then take a left turn to a place that was, and, if we are fortunate, we will be riding with someone who was once there and can tell us how good it was. It is a kind of forgiveness, that turn.

Father Behrens is a Trappist monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.