Don and I have had to miss Abel House several times lately because of my work with my sisters to restore our parents’ home in Varnville, South Carolina. I wrote the following focusing on the home God provided us while we were growing and learning.
Sandee, Kay, and I laughed until we ached while we ripped down the pink-striped chintz fabric covering the dining room wall to reveal gold metallic 1950s wallpaper we barely remembered. Then, still howling, we texted a picture to our sister Helen and promised to save every piece of the gold we could for her new home. Her swift reply, “You are mean! You are so mean to me!” echoed her cries back when she was the youngest of the seven children growing up in that house. Some things, like sibling teasing, never change, but others, like houses, do—and not always for the better.
We had first moved into our Varnville Pine Street home on March 18, 1954, with our parents, Jim and Nell Jackson. Thirty-three years old and soon to be parents of seven, they had needed and built a unique, large, comfortable, nearly childproof home! Sixty-two years later, we wanted another family to live happily in that home, but we realized that for that to happen we first had to reveal what only we could see beneath the changes. We were there in March 2016 to keep what remains unique, good, and special and strip away what is no longer right. Thus began the renovation and restoration of our childhood home.
The first question anyone asks upon seeing our house is How was it that one of the earliest midcentury modern homes in the United States came to be built in Varnville, South Carolina, of all places?
Varnville is so Southern, quiet, and traditional that it is the site of Forrest Gump’s hometown! Its Main Street is less than a city block long and home to the same buildings that were there in 1953. The family names that line up on century-old tombstones in the local cemetery are the same family names that students in the schools answered to in the late 1800s and still answer to today. Most of the homes are traditional, red-brick, three-bedroom, about 1500-square-foot, ranch-style one-stories.
But in the Wade Hampton Heights development, the third house built was our parents’ unpainted, stacked-concrete-block, flat-roofed, 3300-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-living-room one-story. Almost everything about it was and is unique to it. Mother found the original idea for stylistically midcentury modern, unusually-laid-out house in Better Homes and Gardens. But it has changed through age, redecoration, and neglect in the years since it was built.
The community, Wade Hampton Heights, has changed more than the house in that time. Streets are now paved and lined with well-kept homes and yards. And they are occupied by strangers to us as most of the homeowners we knew there while we were growing up have moved or passed away. But the house and the neighborhood are still perfect for raising a family.
Wade Hampton Heights grew along with us. First, the Detricks built on the lot southeast of us and then the Crawfords next door—after Daddy sold them half of one of our original three lots. Eventually, the Oglesbys, the Hoods, the Pratts, the Allens, the Calls, the McKenzies, the Williamses, the Rentzes, the Copes, the Johnsons, the Laughlins, the Sinclairs, the McMillans, three of our elementary school teachers (Ms. Clark, Ms. Manuel, and Mrs. Hanks), one of our high school teachers (Mr. Rentz), and three of our high school principals and assistant principals (Mr. Boyd, Mr. Dodge, and Mr. Ware) became our neighbors and friends. Every lot held a home and almost every home sheltered children.
Our large side yard became the neighborhood baseball diamond and the woods between us and Varnville furnished our jungle full of trees and vines to explore (our “jungle gyms”), our western plains to ride while fighting Indians, our urban area for cops versus robbers, our hunting grounds for everything from bears (never found one) to snakes (found many). The patio, before it became an additional living room, was the scene of roller-skating parties, tennis practices, and dodgeball competitions. Sandy Second Street was almost as good as the beach for building sand castles or playing Red Rover, Kick-the-Can, and Freeze Tag.
In a time when children were let out of a summer morning, called in for lunch, and then not seen again until supper, the mysterious sand roads leading from the neighborhood took us to places we were not allowed to go. We sneaked away to watch the prisoners work in the fields surrounding their prison nearby. We slipped off to the dump where we waded barefoot, feeling with our toes between broken bottles and tin cans we could not see, in murky water up to our shorts on fiery-hot summer days. And, best of all on a blistery, steamy day, we ran to the Varnville Cemetery only a long block from our house where we could sit in the shade on cool granite or marble and share the secrets of childhood. Years later, our own children played Spotlight in that cemetery on dark holiday nights and heard the stories of our childhood games there.
We were close enough to Varnville’s Main Street to walk or ride bikes to Andy Belger’s store or Pat Brown’s grocery or Orrie and Sissie Varn’s ice cream and soda fountain. We even walked or rode all the way to Sidney Varn’s Varnville Pool by the time we were teenagers. How could even young children not be safe in a town where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone looked after all the children? A town where all stores closed after noon on Wednesdays so everyone could go to church Wednesday night? A town where funeral processions stopped all traffic as drivers pulled over and bowed their heads in respect and prayer?
Our neighborhood was as close-knit as the town. The women in the neighborhood bridge club moved from house-to-house at least once a month for more than forty years to play bridge, eat delicious specialty Southern desserts, and catch up on the latest news. Rachel Laughlin taught me to play the organ at Varnville Baptist Church and organized Christmas caroling every Christmas with Mother providing refreshments to the carolers as they sang their rounds. Marilyn Allen introduced me to mysteries through her membership in the Mystery Book-of-the-Month Club—sparking a lifelong habit. Bob Laughlin located meteors in his telescope for the enlightenment of all the neighborhood children.
Tom Crawford knew to take a second swing of his hammer with great caution so as not to injure any little boys, especially our brother Ricky, who had arrived running to see what he was doing for his latest project. Frances McMillan drove Mother and us children to Dr. Hayne’s office when eighteen-month-old Ricky lovingly pulled two-week-old Philip off the bed, leaving him unconscious in Mother’s arms. Likewise, Norman Rentz drove my sister Kay and me to the hospital when four-year-old Kay jumped off the same bed and split her head open.
Mother entertained the Varnville Baptist church choir following our Christmas cantatas year after year with dinner at our house. Birthday parties filled the patio and yard with kids of all ages. Cousins, aunts, and uncles as well as neighbors and friends surrounded our holiday tables in a dining room and living room large enough to handle crowds. Once when living in Kansas, I stopped in Kmart to chat with a stranger, a young man wearing a Clemson shirt, only to learn that he had joined my brothers and one of the Rentz sons, all Clemson students, for her famously delicious turkey and dressing at Mother’s Thanksgiving table the year before!
Our world, stretching from our elementary school to our high school and encompassing our home and our church, was the center of the universe for us, the provided home into which God had lovingly, firmly placed us.
And thus, when we were ready to renovate that home, thirteen years after Daddy’s death and six years after Mother’s, we decided to restore it to its roots there in Varnville. We stripped away the changes made to the house and hired local contractors to take it back to its beginning.
Jim Mixson, Varnville contractor, said while adding to the house many years ago, that the house would survive anything except a nuclear attack, and even then a bomb would have to land directly on it to damage it. We reroofed it anyway because we want to be certain that it will last at least another thirty years, nearing its one-hundredth birthday by then.
Inside and outside, we repaired the broken, restored the worn, and modernized the dated. And in a move that would have shocked and amazed our mother, we painted the gray, stacked, concrete blocks for the first time ever.
We also exposed the house to sunlight and joy again, clearing away the trees that had grown to towering heights, the 60-year-old azaleas intertwined with ivy, young oaks, and pine straw, the window coverings, the wallpaper, and the carpets. In the brightness, we can “see” once again seven children running, playing, reading, laughing, and telling stories.
Our parents lie now in Varnville Cemetery only a short walk from our home, surrounded there by many of their friends and neighbors. Just since we began the renovations, one of the neighbors of our generation joined them and days later another of their generation. As their generation has passed away, the neighborhood has welcomed newcomers to the homes the post-World War II families built.
We remember lying in our hot bedrooms at night during the 1950s and hearing the sound of the train as it whistled for crossings all the way from Early Branch to the Brunson side of Hampton, the sound punctuated by the warnings of barking dogs that accompanied it through our open windows. It’s a sound we don’t hear anymore with houses shut tight for air conditioning. We miss it. We remember the families and the closeness of community from that earlier time. We miss them.
But as we renovated and restored the house in Varnville, we became convinced that other little children will come to live there and frame their own memories from life in an atypical midcentury modern dwelling in an ideal Southern town. Even with the changes, they will find the spirit of home that we still find there and forge their own closeness of community and family. They will find that what makes a place “home” never changes. We were reminded of that by our restoring laughter. We do not know why it was built there, but we do know that the only explanation we can give is that our home is in its perfect place as are all of God’s provisions for our lives.