The one-room schoolhouse where my mother learned to read and write was boarded up and stuffed with old furniture the first time I saw it decades ago. But last summer, the place was filled with light and weekend revelers sampling local vintage.
Chords of acoustic music slipped through the heavy door each time it opened and closed.
I'd joined a dozen or so of my extended family members to attend the five-year anniversary of the School House Winery in the bucolic countryside of Dover, Ohio. The charming but sturdy brick structure sits on a parcel of what was once my mother's family's farm. It was known as Oak Grove School from its construction in 1886 until it closed in 1941.
Through the schoolhouse window, I could see the old family farmhouse just across the narrow road. On the corner stood my long-dead Uncle Karl and Aunt Norma Jean's house of glazed yellow block, the chicken coop in back. Karl made wine too — blackberry, elderberry, dandelion. Once when I was about 7, he gave me a tiny taste of it. I couldn't yet place that mysterious essence, at once sharp and sugared. I didn't yet own the word "bittersweet."
Now, as I sipped pinot noir from a plastic wine glass, I studied grainy commencement photos of my kinfolk on the walls. A mere generation before me, my mother and her siblings and as many as 40 pupils at a time found education here, heated by two potbellied stoves kept stoked by a lone teacher.
My mother was whip-smart, with a keen memory and a gift for creative writing. She skipped a grade, though sometimes students were promoted as a matter of convenience then.
Because she was left-handed, a teacher tied her natural writing hand behind her back to correct what was then widely believed a character flaw, some sinister mark of the devil, or at the very least, wrongheadedness. It's a wretched memory for me, a lefty myself, and a bitter chapter of my mother's education. For the rest of her life, she would write with her right hand but do everything else with her left, an ambidexterity born of cruel ignorance. I think it branded her indelibly with the idea that she existed outside the margins of acceptability, somehow less than others.
But not all of the stories from this building make me sad. That summer day in the schoolhouse, I looked around at my aunts and uncles, cousins and sisters and realized: I'm surrounded by true survivors — men and women of my parents' clans who have shown me what hard work and resilience mean.
Year after year, even in the midst of loss — of spouses and children, health and jobs — they've attended every wedding, every funeral, every baby shower, graduation and anniversary party, bearing gifts and the shared weight of each other's joys and sorrows. Whenever we gather, wine or no wine, we laugh and laugh and carry on.
On the way to take pictures of each other against the fence of the old homestead, a few of us introduced ourselves to the busy winery owner, telling him our people attended school there. He nodded politely as he hoisted something heavy in his arms and made for the service entrance.
"We make wine here now," he said.
His voice carried the patient weariness of someone who's heard the same stories a thousand times. Yes, it seemed to say, we will hang the old photos and display the old-school bell and name our wines Teacher's Pet and Book Worm. But that's history. We don't live in the past.
It was an odd moment for me, standing there a stone's throw from my ancestral home, on land my grandparents toiled upon, and in the literal shadow of the huge trees surrounding Uncle Karl's house. I felt the twinge of my bloodline marginalized, distilled to quaint local lore. The ghost of less than, rustling the summer leaves.
Back home that night, the faces of those I came from rose up in memory: steelworkers, soldiers, nurses and teachers. Nannies and clerks, carpenters, salesmen, truckers. A grocer who extended long lines of credit during the Depression. Mothers and seamstresses, widows and wives. Farmers.
A shiver of defensiveness caught me off guard. What about the farmers, who gave back to the soil what they took from it, keeping it rich for the grape growers to come?
That old parable came back to me, the one about workers who come late to the vineyard being paid the same denarius as those who arrived early and labored until dusk. "So the first will be last, and the last will be first."
The new wine from the School House Winery is quite fine. And what a luxury to linger in the spaces of my heritage, sipping and studying these slightly blurred figures in picture frames. How grateful I am that someone with an eye for the future — and for the here and now — brought this old place back to life.
But for me, this place will always be the schoolhouse, one word, lowercase. Here, if nowhere else, my glass will always be raised to the past and to family, the branches of my own ancient vine. We toast the strong spirits in this red brick room, those who tasted a bittersweet harvest but nonetheless carried on. We carry on.