Two Barns

My grandparents’ barn is a purely southern entity: a functional, rustic memory-generator. This barn has served every possible purpose. It held my grandparents’ farm-animals decades ago. Empty stalls became the place to dig for worms before my grandpa and I went fishing. After losing its structural integrity, the original barn was torn down and rebuilt, now serving as a storage unit and a giant memory box for my grandpa’s military mementos. This barn represents both the authentic and nostalgic characteristic of the South, leaving behind memories of its functionality and preserving memories of the Griffin family past.

They returned to the place they knew, where memories of their childhoods transferred to their own children.

My grandparents are both from Monroe, Union County, North Carolina. When my grandpa entered the Air Force, their family unit moved to multiple places in Europe before finally coming back to my grandpa’s family house in Union County. They returned to the place they knew, where memories of their childhoods transferred to their own children. When my grandpa was a boy, his family raised livestock and farmed their acreage. The center of their lifestyle was the old barn, complete with an attic for storing tools and an ample number of stalls for animals. My dad says he remembers the barn as a bright, lively place, although it did not serve as many traditional farm functions in his childhood as it did was when my grandpa was a boy. Dad still helped with some farming and they had a few cows, but nothing near the scale that the farm once was. Grandpa Phil was adamant in retaining the southern ideology of “southern sweat,” preserving a reliance on hard labor.[1] My experience with the barn is peppered with memories of the narratives I have heard and the memories that I have made myself. The barn, for me, is an avatar of my southern experience.

My experience with the original barn was one of true childlike authenticity, an honest quality indicative of the South, akin to Harper Lee’s Scout; getting my hands dirty with no worries I would spend many slow afternoons on the ground floor of the barn, sunlight streaming through the boards of the attic above, calling for the barn cats to come out. This was, each time, a futile effort, but to me these cats were like the fairies of the barn, darting back and forth through the stalls and under the tractor.

barn
The new barn

When it was time to fish, my grandpa would divert my fairy-searching to a less glamorous activity: digging up worms. He would get his old, rusty shovel out of the first storage space on the right, till up a hunk of wet dirt, and I would sift through it, picking out worms and placing them into a mason jar. I distinctly remember the earthy smell, the soothing cool feeling of the dirt between my fingers, the acceptance of the discomfort of dirt under my fingernails, and the fear of my grandpa possibly cutting a worm in half. One day, our fears heightened to much more than an accidental worm bifurcation. My grandpa was looking for a hammer in the attic of the barn, when the floorboards broke and he fell to the ground. That very day, my grandma scheduled the barn to be torn down. There was a 3-month liminal period between the demolition and rebuilding, in which the yard looked barren and the place as a whole was incomplete.

Once the new barn was built, it made me quite nostalgic for the old one. This new barn is the embodiment of the “barn imaginary”: red with a black roof, two windows on the front. In short, it looks forced and unauthentic in spirit, a stereotypical southern design that is no longer southern to me. However, what this barn lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in memory and nostalgia. The whole first floor is dedicated to my grandpa’s military career, with shadowbox after shadowbox filled with rifle contest medals and badges. Black-and-white pictures and yellowed newspaper clippings depict a younger Phil Griffin and transport me from a physical place to a mental space, one that highlights southern ideologies of honor, duty, and pride in something bigger than oneself.[2]

While the old barn embodied the Southern imaginary of honest, practical charm, the new barn embodies the tendency of those from the South to remember the past fondly.

My grandparents’ barn has changed both as a physical place and as a southern aesthetic. It served as an avatar for the southern imaginaries of nostalgia and authenticity, as well as a place to make new memories. The South lives in the hard work my grandpa did in that barn when he was a child, it lives in the tilled soil from digging worms, it lives in the memories of my grandpa’s tour of service. The South lives in that barn.

Sarah Griffin

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[1] Bernard L. Herman, “Southern Salt,” (lecture, Introduction to the American South: A Cultural Journey, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, January 20, 2015).

[2] Bernard L. Herman, “The South,” (lecture, Introduction to the American South: A Cultural Journey, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, January 8, 2015).