On the last day of the year, we drove to an old family homeplace in Montgomery County. The small town of Biscoe is about 70 miles northeast of Charlotte.
We were there to bury our Jack Russell terrier, Della - named after the devoted secretary Della Street on "Perry Mason," who had been a beloved pet since my husband, Phil, was in law school.
It was about the time that Phil got Della that his family ties began to weaken. There was an inheritance to be shared and not everyone was satisfied with how the property was divided.
All of this occurred long before I joined the family, and by the time we were married there was a well-established rift.
As a result, our children had met only one of their grandfather's siblings, Aunt Marion.
Her place is just down the road from our property, so that morning we decided to stop by for a visit.
Aunt Marion was outside when we drove up.
The kids chased a couple of guinea hens around the dirt yard while Marion showed us the new storage room off the back porch, already stacked with preserves. A layer of apples lined the floor.
Old familiar aromas
The combined smell of new wood and apples was so familiar, as were so many aspects of this family's home - the close, yellowed walls of the main house, itself kept overheated against the cold-aggravated arthritis of its inhabitants; the old jelly jars turned into juice glasses, hand washed and turned up to dry on a tea towel; the slow-moving old man who watched with kindly eyes as my children, first-time visitors, explored every corner.
This was Uncle Jim. Before entering the house, Aunt Marion stopped us on the porch to remind us that he has Alzheimer's disease.
But we don't have enough of an idea of Jim's habits to notice anything out of the ordinary. My kids had never met him. They had never known what he couldn't remember - that somewhere in the distant past of this family, there was a grudge worth holding on to.
The dispute seemed to have more to do with the land than anything else. Why the property hadn't been divided, I don't know. Perhaps it was because my husband's father and grandfather had built the house themselves more than a half-century ago.
Perhaps my father-in-law, the most successful businessman in the family, was seen as the best steward of the homeplace. And the fact that we aren't putting the land to good use, other than as a pet cemetery, has to be a source of some resentment. My husband has never lived there.
Safe and private
For his aunts and uncles, this was a place they knew, a place that was safe and private, a place that offered sustenance and storage and a comfortable familiarity.
For a generation that had grown up as sharecroppers and tenants, the land also offered identity.
But is the rightful owner - of land, of anything - the one who first stakes a claim or the one who would tend it best?
Neither Phil nor his father lives close enough to Montgomery County to put the land to active use. And even though our Della is buried there, will we want to hold onto the land once Phil's dad is gone?
The problem with holding on to things is that you have to take care of them.
Get enough apples, and you need a new room to store them in.
Inherit enough land, and there are others claiming a share.
For some of us, like Uncle Jim, holding memories becomes impossible when your mind refuses to build new rooms, or even to repair the old ones.
Eventually the tending of things becomes too much of a burden.
Eventually you run out of land, or storage space, or memory.
And it's just as well.
Whether we keep the land or not, it is not really ours anyway. The only piece of earth we can claim is the plot in which we are buried.