My husband, Bob, took me to Sugar Tree for my birthday last week.
“Martha, don’t be disappointed if you can’t find it. Places change.”
“I know,” I say. My voice trembles as I watch the flat fields on either side of I-40 roll by. “It can’t be far; we’ve already crossed the Tennessee River.”
“How long’s it been since you’ve been to Sugar Tree?” Bob asks.
“A long time,” I sigh. “At least thirty, maybe even thirty five years.”
We ride in silence for a few more miles. There’s not much of anything on either side of the interstate. West Tennessee doesn’t look nearly as densely populated as East Tennessee. Mother used to call Sugar Tree ‘the back side of no where.’
We speed past fields of wintry brown stubble and bare limbed trees. It’s still a little early for spring green.
As we drive, I recall the birthday parties of my childhood; playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, opening presents and eating cake and ice cream at the picnic table in the back yard. Some times, spring arrived early and we had perfect weather for an outdoor party. But other years, winter lingered late, damp and cold and the party had to move inside.
Today, my 66th birthday, the weather is sunny and warm, perfect for traipsing around fields and graveyards. This little trip is Bob’s birthday present to me; he’s taking me back to Sugar Tree to look for my mother’s roots. She's been dead nearly ten years.
An exit sign comes into view. “That’s it! I say. “Exit 126!"
“Are you sure?” Bob asks.
“No, but it feels right. I know it's close to Parsons. When we get to the stop sign, turn left,” I say. It’s on the other side of the highway.”
As soon as we cross the overpass, I start searching for the old Stuckey’s gas station and candy shop. I’ll know how to get to Sugar Tree if I can just find that old Stuckey’s. I recall the tiny gravel road behind the building that wound down to the fertile black fields of Tennessee River bottom where my mother and her people lived and farmed so long ago, a place they called ‘Sugar Tree.’
As Bob drives, my heart sinks. There’s not a Stuckey’s anywhere, just a sketchy looking strip club on one side of the road, an adult book store on the other. “You want to go in?” Bob jokes.
“Let’s go over there and ask,” I say, pointing to a Marathon convenience store a little ways down the road.
A middle aged woman with shoulder length blond hair is just pulling out of the parking lot as we pull in. I jump out and run to her car. “Excuse me,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a cemetery. Are you from around here?”
“I’m from Camden,” she says, rolling her window down a little more. “Do you know the name of the cemetery?”
“No,” I say. “But it’s in Sugar Tree. The cemetery’s next to a little church called Wesson’s Chapel. It's on a hill. And there’s a school there, too, or there used to be, a little one room school house. My mother was born and raised in Sugar Tree. Have you heard of it?”
“Oh, I know where you mean,” she says, her voice warming. “My Daddy’s buried up there too.” She extends a heavily inked arm and points. “You go up there,” she says, “and turn right. You’ll find the road.”
“Your daddy’s buried there? “ I ask. She nods.
“What was his name?” I ask. “I wonder if he might be kin. It was mostly a Wesson family cemetery.”
“My Daddy was a Bell.” she says. I shake my head. “I don’t remember that name.”
As I turn to look where she’s pointing, I have a eureka moment! “Is that white building the old Stuckey’s?” I ask, incredulously.
“The same building?”
“Yep.” She nods.
The walls and even the windows of the old building have been painted over. Seductive black silhouettes of nude dancers pose frozen against the white cinder block facade. A big sign out front reads, ‘Burgers and Babes,’ a smaller one, “Teazers: Gentleman's Club.”
“Oh, my God!” I say. “I bet the old folks in Sugar Tree would be shocked to see that!”
“I knew it was behind Stuckey’s!” I say, feeling elated. “Is the gravel road still there?”
“It’s still there, but it’s not gravel anymore,” she says. “It’s paved. “
My heart is racing. I’m so happy, I could do a little dance right there in the Marathon parking lot. “Oh my God, I say, pressing her plump arm. “Thank you. Thank you so much! You don’t know how much you’ve helped me.”
“You’re welcome, she says. “Good luck. I hope you find it.”
“That’s it, over there,” I say, breathless and excited, as I hop back in the car with Bob. “That used to be the Stuckey’s. It even kind of looks like the old Stuckeys. I remember the shape of the building.”
As we turn into the Teazers parking lot, I ask Bob to stop the car. I want to snap a picture of the sign, a souvenir of this improbable moment.
“I knew Sugar Tree would be changed,” I say, “but I never dreamed there’d be anything like this. Lord a Mercy. Mother would be so shocked!”