There is no hospital in my mother’s home town. There’s not a gas station, a bank, a restaurant, a hardware store or dime store, either.
There is a U.S. post office. It’s across the street from Roberts Chapel Baptist Church and a mile down the road from Willis Hare Elementary School, which doubles as the polling station on Election Day.
Along with the cemetery, these things in Pendleton, N.C. — the church, the elementary school and the post office — serve as the center of community life.
In 2000, Pendleton’s population was 842. Today, online estimates put it at 590 — down 30 percent.
People are dying faster than they’re being born in Pendleton, an unincorporated town six miles south of the Virginia state line and about 120 miles inland from Nags Head and Duck, the beachside enclaves most people in Washington have heard of. When Pendleton’s young people go away to college (education has always been a point of pride), they rarely return. These days, it doesn’t take many people to run a farm, so there’s little for them there.
As a result, Pendleton’s population skews older than that of many places. More a crossroads than a town, Pendleton isn’t on a lot of maps. The sign that reads “Pendleton” when you arrive from the north on Route 35 also reads “Pendleton” on its opposite side. Pendleton is so small that the moment you arrive, you have left.
The post office will be leaving, too — it is on the list of 3,700 nationwide that have been targeted for closure starting in January to save $200 million toward an $8 billion annual deficit.
Loss is nothing new in Pendleton. The train depot was built in 1883 but was shuttered so many decades ago that no one living can recall a time when a train actually stopped.
Airey’s Store — where my brother and I bought Atomic Fireballs and Push-ups when we visited our grandmother — is long closed, too.
There’s no trace of the old brick elementary school my mother attended. For a time, it had a second life as Ellis Ray’s Junk Store, musty rooms stacked with old mantels and headboards, chairs with missing slats, and boxes of porcelain doorknobs and rusty hinges. But Ellis Ray got tired of opening for business. Apart from my mother, no one ever bought anything. Then one night a tornado came through and demolished Ellis Ray’s and everything inside.
But just because there was no place to go in Pendleton didn’t mean there was nothing to do.
Along with our cousins we’d lie stock-still in the fields pretending we were dead until the crows circled and swooped low over our carcasses. Then we’d pop up shrieking. We’d dig giant trenches and hurl dirt clods at one other, pretending we were soldiers in Vietnam tossing grenades from our foxholes.
If we were really bad, my grandmother threatened to “cut a switch and tan somebody’s hide,” though no stick ever smacked my bottom. She never balked when I asked for the keys to her Ford Fairlane even though I was only 13. I’d head down the road, her dog Bud sitting on his haunches beside me, practicing my driving. There was no way I could hit anything; there was nothing to hit.
At night we’d catch fireflies in Mason jars or dance with sparklers in the front yard.
That was back when Pendleton still had mail delivery. It had home delivery of the Raleigh News and Observer then — or the “News and Disturber,” as people called it whenever its politics diverged with theirs.
These days my mother has to drive to Pendleton’s post office to pick up her mail and magazines each day. Out front there is an American flag, one regular parking space and one handicapped space.
Although her mail gets placed in her box in the lobby, she steps inside to speak with Lillie at the counter, to find out who’s sick and to fret about so many days without rain.
For years my mother has asked me to buy my stamps at Pendleton’s post office to boost business so it wouldn’t be shut down.
Maybe now that it has been targeted for closure, Lillie will have a run on stamps for a letter-writing campaign. But even if every household in Pendleton wrote to save it, that would be only about 400 letters.
So I imagine that sometime next year, when my mother is 83, she’ll start driving a few miles farther to Conway, the next town, where she already goes to buy the newspaper, do her banking and pick up the cat food she forgot to buy in Murfreesboro.
And what will remain in Pendleton?
The sound of the freight train passing by at dusk. Fireflies in summer. And the stars — millions of brilliant stars — that fill the sky each night.
I bet most people in Washington have no idea how many stars are up there.