A baby, a ballroom, and a front porch freezer

Posted by on May 6, 2011

Along with the just fading azaleas and the fully resplendent irises, the village of Saxapahaw struts her colors in the high spring season of the North Carolina piedmont. My partner Jeff and I are entering our fourth Saturdays at Saxapahaw season as proprietors of Saxapahaw General Store, but it’s this among all years that I am most struck by the bloom in this place.

I have to admit that though I grew up on a farm and spent much time outside as a child, I became a rather unseeing traveler through the natural world in my adulthood–checking in with the outdoors in too perfunctory a manner as I completed what I thought were more important errands indoors. Now, though, because I’m a new mother and I’ve been learning to be still as I watch my tiny daughter grow, I have suddenly received the blessing of an intimacy with the seasons. I’ve really noticed, for the first time really, the exact bloom times of all my favorite plants, and I’ve learned to wait patiently for each phase of spring to flower, enjoying the potential in the almost-bloom instead of looking at the still-brown and wishing it greener.

Perhaps it’s that frame of mind that has led me to notice that it’s right now, before summer exhausts us in its pulsing, expansive, frenzied heat–now, in the potential energy of new growth–that I find Saxapahaw most alive.

I notice that alive-ness most at this moment especially because today is the eve of our village’s first Saturdays at Saxapahaw farmers’ market and music event of the season–a date which has for the second year running been honored also with the Haw River Festival, an annual celebration of our home river. Each time this date approaches, I find myself preparing the general store for weeks, waiting expectantly for the appearance each week of the families, the couples, and the troupes of friends who will appear here, picnics in hand, ready to enjoy a simple evening together. I hurry about, preparing the store as well as I can to receive our guests, trying as I might to tuck our dust bunnies under the closet doors. And though each year of life here in Saxapahaw has brought the blessing of new relationships, this spring we are newly joined in economic and social endeavors by an artists’ gallery and co-op; by The Eddy, a community pub; and by The Haw River Ballroom, a worldly events space.

In the previous years of my life here, the spring bloom in Saxapahaw has been more modest, offering beautiful bursts of growth while holding some its potential for a later show. For instance, only this winter did a few local fellows build a new hay wagon stage for the weekly music series at the farmers’ market, replacing the old stage not a moment too soon as it threatened to send over-passionate musicians stomping right through its rickety plywood floor. And, of course, the mill building that now features a well appointed pub and a state of the art–though perfectly of-the-place–events center was recently a gutted, deserted old mill.

Similarly, Saxapahaw General Store has matured by degrees. The first spring we were here, we added new foods to our shelves but changed nothing about the physical space save some basic cooking equipment; then we added a basic second register and a chalk board for our special menu items. Last year, we created a website and bought a new register system to replace our blue screen DOS system with a state-of-the 1990′s touch screen outfit. This spring, the presence of the tidier, more artful pub has encouraged a sleeker look in the store, and we traded in our low-slung, paint-over-rust convenience store shelving for taller, upright chrome wire units–resulting in a very smart looking presentation of our Little Debbies, I will say with confidence. We also bought a bona fide bakery case, brand new, which I had delivered just this morning. It replaces an old ice cream freezer which I scheduled to have removed this afternoon.

The coming of the new businesses has super-charged the air in this little old mill town so much that today, as I made my final preparations for the store, I was nearly overwhelmed by the equal efforts of so many other people around me. Dobs of the artists group nailed a shiny new sign on the hill out front of the gallery, while Tom of the Ballroom put finishing touches on the stage, and Claire of The Eddy arranged kegs and bought new dishes. Construction folks swept the gutters, finished planting shrubs, and installed the last equipment for the ballroom. Local Lions Club volunteers hurried to advance work on the grant-funded park that enlivens the surrounds of the community center. Our store staff moved with anticipation as they prepared our mealtime offerings to the visitors.

As I hurried to Graham to gather my last supplies for the weekend, I marveled for a bit at how far we’ve come in Saxapahaw toward a return to the bustling, lively village I imagine it to have been in the days of the mill–but this time with unfolding potential for a more creative, independent spirit to prevail. I began to fancy the place a sort of grown-up version of its previous identity–a place fully coming into its own. For a moment, I thought, we–have–arrived.

Then, as though on cue, I pulled my car back into the lot at the general store and thunked over the gaps in the pavement as I slowed to a stop. I took my rolls of coins, my new brooms, and my extension cords past the compost buckets on the sidewalk and into the store, expecting to see the old ice cream freezer gone from its place at the front of the store and in its place the sparkling new bakery case full of our bakers’ handcrafted pastries. Instead, I found the front of the store just as it was when I left–somewhat disheveled, full of old and new stuff, and a bit difficult to navigate. When I entered, Jeff told me that the plan to have the old freezer removed had failed and it’d be next week before someone came to pick it up. If we wanted it moved, we’d just have to leave it in the front of the store–where all our old stuff resides for a little while before moving on. We’d have to host the festival guests with a freezer half blocking the way to our door.

I sighed–the excitement of the day had led me to the expectation that our little buds of growth were greening more quickly than they were, and I felt the let down that always is the result of impatiently waiting for results. I watched as several of our staff heaved the hulking freezer to an untidy residence just outside the store doors, on the equivalent of our porch, leaving a severe case of behind-the-sofa-dirt syndrome on the store floor in the outline of the freezer bottom. I muttered a few complaints, and then I helped mop the mess away to prepare for the new case to be set in place and went about tucking things away for tomorrow’s crowd as best I could before going home to rest for our opening day. If we are to be perfect in our business, I thought, it will not be this year.

I realize now as I reflect on this time that with each passing year of careful work, we come closer to our goal of operating a mature business that serves its community as a strong, self-renewing organization. Each spring sees inward changes we mirror in the physical sprucing of the space. Yet even now, with new shrubs and shiny shelves and brand new spaces to inhabit, we are only just beginning our work. As I imagine the sun going down on the giant freezer that sits on our front porch, I remember that our continued efforts at renewal will keep giving way to new growth. My excitement turns to calm anticipation, for tomorrow shall bring a new phase of flowering.

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