From the beginning I wanted Sandhill to feel like an old house. One with roots deep in the earth. One that reflected my family's history with this corner of the county. One that told a story. Or stories.
To that end I rejected a brick exterior, included a front porch and a fireplace, and set aside the idea of a separate dining room. I wanted a kitchen table, one where people could sit and talk to me while I cooked for them, a place where I could read the newspaper and still watch for the boiling pot, a spot for game-playing and puzzle-solving. And when it came to the mantel, I knew exactly how it would look.
Shortly after we moved to the farm, Daddy began tending the farmland of our neighbors. About a mile up the road, at the crossroads that was really the only landmark to give people who wanted to find us, sat the old homeplace of Mr. Dight and Miss Marian Olliff. The house hadn't been maintained, but, even with its broken windowpanes and rotting floors, it had remained a popular place for Miss Marian's grandsons, boys who went to school with me, to bring their friends to camp out. In the field beside it sat another old house, even more dilapidated.
The Olliffs told Daddy to do with it what he would.
And what he would do was tear it down to make a bigger swathe of open acreage, a bigger space in which to plow straight rows without the necessity of maneuvering large equipment around it. While tearing the house down, he came across a couple of huge heart pine timbers, close to 20 feet long and as thick as a grown man's shoulders. A few years later, when my brother and sister-in-law built a house on the farm, they used half of one of those timbers for their mantel. And a couple of years after that, I didn't have to think twice about what to use for my own.
There was no way to know just how old the timbers were or how old was the tree from which they'd been cut, but the house itself was at least 70 years old and, most likely, older. If that didn't give my house (I'd not yet settled on the name Sandhill.) an air of history, I wasn't sure what would.
I told the contractor about the timber and explained to him how I wanted the mantel to look. He drew a rough design on the newly hung drywall and from that came the mantel on which, at Christmas, I would place the ceramic angels given to me by my friend Bonnie, hang the teddy bear chain that Adam and Kate made when they were about 5 and 3, and string white lights through branches of holly from the trees at the corner of the porch.
In the years to come it would hold acorns and pine cones, bird nests and magnolia leaves, sea shells and sand dollars, each a treasure. Candles placed among those treasures would light birthday parties and high school reunions and quiet conversations.
Almost without notice, Sandhill has become that old house that I wanted it to be. It needs some attention, as old things often do. There are walls that need painting and windows that need replacing and lights that do work anymore. But the mantel? It remains the same, a constant reminder of the durability of the heart.