I still have dreams about my grandmother's house. In my dreams, it still has white clapboard siding rather than red brick, and wood paneling with dark marks and circles and ovals and striations that my brain always ordered into faces. In my dreams, the only toilet and shower stall are still in the basement, open to all the world, and I can smell the mustiness. Not that the basement was a scary place when I was kid -- all the grandkids loved it. My brother Yancey and I, and our cousins Maria and Crystal would go down there and play, chasing each other around and being chased by imaginary bad guys who would periodically capture us and tie us up with invisible chains to the support columns. The outside of the house had little in-ground hidey-holes that had windows looking out into them from the basement stairs; my grandmother's cats would nest there, and have kittens, and we could watch the brood squirming and mewling from the other side of the glass.
When we weren't playing in the basement, we were in the upstairs "bedrooms," spaces built under the A-frame room, were there was an arc wall lamp with a shade that was perfect for maneuvering over someone's head as a pretend brain-control device. Used, of course, by the imaginary bad guys.
And after we had escaped from the brain control experiments, the front porch swing was a space ship, and the railing on the front porch another place for the bad guys tie everybody up until we could be rescued. Or we'd go up to the top of the ridge behind the house and roll head-over-heels down the swatch cleared by my grandfather.
In my dreams, the crawl spaces leading off the attic are vast, the faces in the paneling move, the basement is dark, and the other side of the ridge edge drops off into the ocean.
Part the Second: A House on the Side of the Hill (July 6, 2004)
Somewhere in my house I have a framed photograph from February 1946. It has been enlarged from the original and "colorized" in soft pastel colors. It shows a young couple with their arms around each other and their cheeks pressed together as they smile at the camera. She's a gorgeous 15-year-old, wearing a checked jacket and hat, chestnut hair around a heart-shaped face. He's twenty-one, handsome in his Navy uniform, recently returned from the South Pacific with a couple of medals and a lot of dark memories that he will never speak about.
They're my mother's parents, Maxine Gannon and Kermit John Phillips, on their wedding day.
Within the next 3 years, my grandmother will have three children and lose one: an infant son, Johnny, whose grave she will visit on at least a weekly basis for as long as she is able to drive herself and walk up the hillside to where he is buried. My mother, Rhinda, and my uncle, Alan, will be 18 months apart.
And a few years after that, my grandmother will leave my grandfather and her two surviving children. My mother remembers finding her mother's suitcases packed on the back porch, and how hurt and confused she was. I don't think anyone but my grandparents know what led up to this -- she was in her early twenties, married too young, with one child dead and another two she felt she couldn't take care of. Maybe it was his fault. Maybe it was no one's fault. The "why," I suspect, is something that will never be explained.
We know there was another man involved, but whether he was a cause or a consequence is a mystery. My grandmother spent some time in D.C. and during that time she became pregnant again, and had another child. Somewhere along the way, the other man disappeared, and for whatever reason she decided she wanted to come back to the Appalachian coal mining community, the white clapboard house with the handpump and the subsistence farming and her former husband and her two children. And my grandfather will agree to take her back -- but not her child.
I can't decide what that must have been like for either of them: For him, unable to make himself agree to raise another man's child. For her, having to decide whether to give up one child so she could return to the other two. Was she "more wrong" to have left the first two in the first place? Or was he "more wrong" to insist that she give up the third? When she visited Johnny's grave, did she also mourn for the one she gave up for adoption?
Somewhere, my mother has a half-sibling. She knows about this not because either of her parents told her this story -- she learned about it from my grandmother's sister, her Aunt Charlotte. Given the family dynamic, it is simply not possible for her to ask either of her parents about this secret. Charlotte would probably give us more details, but she was killed in an auto accident that virtually crippled my grandmother seven years ago. There is no avenue to find more information, and perhaps it is best that way.
My grandmother has always been, as we say, a colorful character in our family. As a child, I adored everything about her. Her house was a marvel to a five-year old -- a dark basement, attic bedrooms, a front porch swing, a hillside that stretched off into forever it seemed. I still dream about that house on the hillside at the end of the "holler", imagining secret rooms or an ocean (in Eastern Kentucky, no less) below the lower slope of the hill, or that the porch swing could turn into a spaceship. She grew roses, and kept cats, and was a terrible cook, and I loved her so much it hurt.
As I grew older, I learned to recognize the things that weren't quite right. Like her stories about how she and Harry Truman used to meet every morning while she lived in D.C. and take a walk in the Rose Garden. How the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team would come by for Sunday dinner. How she once took off in a fighter jet from the deck of an aircraft carrier. I also became more aware of how she carefully manipulated my mother, and made her feel guilty about the stupidest things, and could use subtle comments to devastating effect.
In 1994, she was diagnosed with squamous skin cell cancer in her vagina. In 1997, she was very seriously injured in the auto accident that killed her sister, the person she was closest to. After that, her connection to this reality worsened. Every conversation turns into a recounting about how she died on the table and saw Jesus and all her lost loved ones in heaven, and how when she awoke her surgeon told her she had been speaking in the most beautiful language, the language of angels. And after that, it quickly turns into a warning to be prepared for the End Days.
In fact, when I called to tell her I was engaged, her response was (and I only roughly paraphrase, "That's great news. You do know that we're all going to die soon, don't you?" It was enough for me not to want to talk to her much after Abigail was born, for fear that she would again turn something joyous into something dreadful.
Today, she is in a hospital in Pikeville, Kentucky. The skin cancer is back, and it's questionable how much tissue is left for the doctors to remove. And after fifty years of smoking, she has been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. My mother wants me to call her and talk to her about Abigail, and about the baby to come. I want her to see Abigail, and hold her, and tickle her and hear her giggle. Right now, it seems unlikely that we would manage the visit, or that Abigail would even be allowed in to visit.
I want to call her and tell her I love her, as desperately as I did when I was five. But first, I have to stop crying.Part the Third: A Complicated Woman (October 4, 2007):
Yesterday morning ...
I wake up to find Evan standing in front of me, holding his blanket, his pillow and his Buzz Lightyear toy. ("Infinbity [sic] and beyond!") Usually, when I leave in the morning, a little after 5:00 a.m., he and his sister both wake up and want to come into our bedroom, settle back down, and sleep -- one of them in the bed, one of them in the chaise. Sometimes they sleep past their father's waking. This morning, I am still here at seven o'clock.
I take Evan into the bed, put his pillow at the bottom, and he climbs in and under the blankets. He won't go back to sleep -- I can tell by the way his legs bounce, by the way he lifts his long skinny arms into the air so he can tickle one with the fingertips of his other hand. He sees me watching, sits up, throws his pillow to the top, and then crawls up to lie between us for hugs and snuggles. His hair was cut two weeks ago, up off his neck, not long enough now for him to tilt his head to tickle his own back. Short enough for me to kiss the nape of his neck, his soft skin against my lips. I slip my hand under his shirt to rub his belly, to touch that spot where his sternum dips in, to feel his heart fluttering.
Down the hall, a shadow passes across the door and back, looking for her brother. Abigail comes in for her own snuggling. She smells like sunlight.
Dogs, breakfast, some cartoons so I can pack. I find myself crying in the closet as AJ hugs me (offer to come with me, tell me you will all come with me), crying again as I hug Abigail when she asks if she can come too. "I could come," he offers. But part of me doesn't want it. I want to be able to drive as fast as I can, without having to stop, without having to try to keep from crying again just because I don't want to upset the kids. (When we spoke on Monday morning, my mother almost begged me not to cry. I think I understand why. Because it's hard to find the energy to deal with your child's tears why all you want to do is cry for yourself.)
I leave at ten o'clock and I do drive fast, except for that one spot on I-76. Frequent signs of one lane closing are, apparently, never enough for Philadelphia-area drivers to understand that they need to move over. Everyone wants to wait until the very last minute, and create a bottleneck.
There are some sprinkles and grey clouds early in the drive, but otherwise it is bright and sunny. Between I-76 and I-79 I take US-220 and wish I had thought to bring my camera. Hours and miles pass. At three o'clock, I text AJ a message ("Phillies!!!"). I call from a rest stop at four o'clock. The last part of the drive on 119 between Charleston and Pikeville is strange. There's one stretch where it goes from Mingo County to Pike County to Mingo County to Pike County to Mingo County before settling back down into Pike County. The road no longer goes over mountains, but through them. But not like the tunnels I went through on I-76 in Pennsylvania, watching the tenths of the mile flip over, amazed at the thought of how these tubes of rock were chiseled out. Here in Kentucky, we blow the mountains up, leaving terraced rock denuded of any vegetation. I can't match it now with the map of my memory. This isn't where I am from anymore.
I call from the hotel in Pikeville at eight o'clock. ("Are you here for business?" the desk clerk asks. "Personal," I answer.) Somewhere nearby, my family is at services following the first visitation. I don't try to call. (I should have called. At least once. My mom asked me to call, and I didn't. I should have.)
She was a complicated woman.
Part the Fourth: The Porch Swing (October 5, 2007)
I call AJ from my cell on the drive from the hotel to my grandparents. The phone rings, never rolls over to the answering machine. Just as I am about to hang up, he clicks in. “I was just talking to your Mom,” he says. “She called to see how you were doing. I told her you were down there.” That’s how my mother found out I was about to arrive, when I was 15 minutes out.
On the drive, I pass my high school, now a middle school, and think of how I saw the football team out on the field the night before as I drove in, and the 12-year-old whose obituary was first on the list the same day my grandmother’s was printed. According to his obituary, he played on that team. Later tonight, I will meet one of his teachers, who attended his services yesterday, while I was driving down.
I think as I pass, that’s where Robert Maine used to live; he went to Virginia Tech, got an engineering degree, is now the Director of Engineering at a company in Maryland. There, Kyle Gobble; I don’t know where he is now. There used to be a house there where Angie Gibson grew up; she has two kids, also lives in Maryland.
I pass the place where Billy Ray Norman’s house used to be. He was my sixth grade teacher, and drove the bus I took in elementary school. When he stopped driving the bus, his sister Shirley took over (she had four sons, Rodney, Trodney, Mitchell and Trichell. I’m not making this up. I went to school with Trichell from kindergarten through high school graduation. The summer between 8th grade and the start of high school, Trichell and another boy we both had known since kindergarten, Emmitt, started goofing off with a shotgun. Emmitt ended up dead. By the time I graduated from high school, Emmitt’s parents lost their other son Teddy to another gun, this one deliberately fired.) Billy Ray’s nickname for me was dirt-dauber. He was my father’s cousin, and my Dad spent a number of years growing up in his house, those years when my Dad’s father was drinking heavily, was abusive. Billy Ray died a long time ago, of pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed and dead in what seemed like about a day and a half, but was probably at least a couple of months. Before that, his house burned down, his son shot himself in his twenties. The place where his house used to be now holds a church.
The first person I see at my grandfather’s is someone I don’t recognize. Not that I don’t know him, I just don’t know this middle-aged face and grey hair. The June Bug of my memory is twenty years older. Next is my cousin, my grandmother’s nephew, Matt. (For reasons that may become clear below, names have been changed to protect the innocent.) I know who he is, though I haven’t seen him for nearly as long, because he looks so much like his mother. He’s there with his wife and his two daughters (the innocents) – they all live in Knoxville, not far from my parents, but for some reason we’ve never met up when I’ve been there. For a lot of years, I didn’t want anything to do with him -- he was a drug addict and a thief, who stole from everyone who cared about him. His mother and my grandmother made excuses for him, let him get away with things, made it possible for him to steal again and again from his family. “He has a good heart,” they would say, and my brother and I would joke about how it would make a great heart for someone on the transplant list, except for all the drug use. His own brother, my cousin Carl, went 5-6 years without speaking to him.
About ten years ago, Matt straightened up – all it took was his mother being killed in the car accident that crippled my grandmother. And he did straighten up, had his girls, fell in love with them. I meet them this Thursday as well, Beth in third grade, Cathy in second. One has long brown hair and glasses and the face of her father’s sister at the same age. The other has long blonde hair. We play cards – I try to teach them cribbage, but the whole process is screwed up because I can never keep the rules straight. So we play gin rummy, and keep score on the cribbage board, and then we take lots of pictures on the camera of the MacBook, testing all the funhouse mirror effects.
Later, in going through the photos, I will find that Beth used the laptop camera to toy with the photo of my grandparents on my wedding day. She used the “mirror” effect and positioned the camera so that my grandfather’s face, at twenty-six, is recreated with one half mirroring the other. This completely eliminates my grandmother from the photo entirely.
Carl shows up, having driven up from Virginia where he works as a kindergarten teacher and lives with John, his partner of 8 years, whom he met on-line. We exchange stories about that experience, and how John is a grandfather of three and John’s daughter and husband treated Carl like he was a member of the family from the first day they met. It’s like two decades haven’t passed. We talk about how strange it was to come back, how worn down our elementary school looked, how he and my brother used to see who could hold their breath the longest on the bus ride home. We talked about passing places where people used to live. I thought he still lived in Richmond, but find out he’s in Roanoke, where AJ and I usually stop on the drive down when we go to visit my parents. He tells me that he and John have friends who live in Bucks County, and he didn’t realize how close we were to Doylestown. I remember why Carl was always one of my favorite cousins, and think about how I go through life shedding friendships.
During this conversation, when Beth and Cathy are out of the room, I find out that Matt’s wife, the woman I just met, is not in fact Beth’s and Cathy’s mother. Carl tells me how, after Matt straightened up, his first wife – let’s call her Mary -- had a bad back injury, became hooked on Oxycontin, took up with a teenager who lived next door. Matt and Mary split up, had a bitter custody fight; she moved back to Kentucky, he stayed in Knoxville. There was eventually a court order requiring them to meet at the state line to exchange the kids back and forth. Then one day, Matt got a phone call from Mary, who told him she was at a Wal-Mart in Knoxville, asked him to bring the kids over, she wanted to buy them clothes. He met her, felt there was something not quite right, refused to let her take the girls – probably about 3 and 4 at that time – into the Wal-Mart alone. Eventually, Mary gave up, told him where she wass staying with her latest paramour. On the drive back to his house, he got a call from my grandmother, who told him the Kentucky State Police were looking for him.
Or, to be more accurate, Mary and her lover. They robbed a thrift store in Pikeville; the boy cut the throat of the clerk, who bled to death. Matt told them where to find Mary. She’ll be in prison for a very long time. Carl tells me that he doesn’t think Cathy remembers any of this, but he suspects Beth does. He says thank god Matt trusted his instincts. Thank god the girls had one parent who was able to actually be a parent.
My uncle Alan arrives, and his youngest daughter, Vanessa. She brings her dog with her, a pit bull named Chopper (she calls him Choppie) who lays outside on the front porch with his tongue hanging out, wondering why he can’t come in. He’s not used to being an outside dog. He’s cute, and friendly, and all wiggly. My Uncle Alan and my Mom talk about how his ex-wife (they were married for 30 years, have been divorced for 11) remarried earlier in the week to a man twenty years younger than her. “So she’s a cougar,” I say. Neither of them knows what I am talking about. Carl later tells me that John is 19 years older than him. Another cougar, we joke. He sounds like somebody I’d probably like quite a bit.
Matt and his family, and Carl, leave in the mid-afternoon, to go back to where they are staying and to get ready for the second night of visitation. The rest of us have dinner – fried chicken, fried potatoes, green beans and onions, all the vegetables from my grandfather’s garden. We say grace, and even my father and I hold hands in the circle around the table, though neither of us are believers. My Dad leaves early, saying he’ll meet us at the funeral home – he wants to get a visitor’s hunting license. He and his friend Hubert like to hunt wild turkey, and they want to come back to Kentucky in a bit for a hunting trip. My Mom tells me that they saw several hens on the road on the drive in to Kimper, and she and my Dad joked about whether he could swerve to hit one, claim it jumped in front of his truck.
At 6:00, the rest of us leave for the funeral home. My Dad is there already, and with him his cousin James. James is silver-haired like my Dad, with a goatee – a handsome man, and still strutting like a bantam cock as he always has. I tell my Mom that despite the intervening 40 years, he still looks just like that picture of him in one of her photo albums, with the cigarette dangling from his lip. “The one with the hat and the leather jacket,” she says, knowing immediately what I am talking about. We talk about how his kids are doing – Sissy (or Donna); Bub (James Jr.); Woogie (Roger); Frat (Michael) and Frittie (Flora). I think about my earliest memory of Frat, as a three-year-old standing in the front yard of a house up Pritchett Fork (where I grew up), a house without indoor plumbing, without any pants or underwear. Frat was going through a phase where he insisted on going bare; fortunately for him, at the time it was summer.
I find Beth and Cathy, and we play with the camera in my phone, taking pictures of the two of them by the flowers, and in a pair of high-backed chairs with gilded trim and dark red velvet upholstery. We read all the cards on the flower arrangements, and talk about which ones are our favorites. I meet my third-grade teacher, Alma Ramey, who I thought of as old when I was only eight, and who I hated as a teacher at the time. Thinking back, I realize she was actually pretty good. I meet Treena, whom my mother grew up with – they were students in the same one-room school house when they were in first grade. She’s the teacher who knew the twelve-year-old; she had been to the funeral the night before. I meet my cousins Ben and Daniel, both of whom are mining engineers in charge of mining operations for two different coal companies in West Virginia. They are the sons of my grandfather’s sister, Nola (or “Nolie”). They tell me stories of how my Mom would bring my brother and me to their house. “You probably don’t remember,” Ben says, “you were still in diapers.” “Oh,” I say, “so it could have been when I was seven or eight then.”
The casket is open, surrounded by the flowers. My grandmother is dressed in a light blue satin robe. As my mother had said, the funeral home put a lot of makeup on her. “Not that she wore makeup. But it makes her look fifteen years younger.” It doesn’t look like her at all. It might as well be the body of a stranger.
Barb arrives. She was my Mom’s best friend from age 11. (She tells me that they became friends “because we had a big fight. There was another girl I didn’t like for some reason, and I thought your Mom was standing up for her on something. And I got really mad at her and we had a fight. And then I felt really bad about it, and decided I had to apologize and make it up to her. So I’ve been her friend for almost 50 years now.”)
She is my Dad’s 1st cousin, and James’s sister. We sit on a couch to talk, about her kids (two of her own, three stepkids) and her grandkids. Her daughter, Roxanne, is the one who lost a baby last summer. Barb tells me Roxanne still can’t sleep some nights, always wondering whether she did something to cause her son to die in utero. But she’s better, Barb says. “He’s with god.” I nod, and hug her. Even though I am not a believer. I ask if Roxanne will be coming, because Carl mentioned how he was hoping to see her. (“She sent me a lily when my Mom died in the car crash,” he told me. “I still have it.”) Barb says yes, she’ll be coming for the funeral tomorrow, and she’ll be bringing her two girls.
Barb tells me stories about my grandmother. “Maxine always wanted prestige. You know, her father’s family, the Gannons, had a lot of property. But they didn’t get much of anything from the other Gannons, and it was like they always felt like everyone was looking down on them. She was always trying to get your Mom to hook up with someone higher up the social ladder.”
As if the social ladder went all that high in Pike County. But I guess every community has that ladder, even if it’s just a step-stool compared to the wider world.
“When your Mom was 14, Maxine wanted her to go the prom. There was this boy, Jimmie Dale who asked her, and Maxine pushed her into saying yes. And she’d ask me, ‘Has someone asked you, Barbara?’ Knowing that no one had. That made me so mad,” Barb laughs. “I told your Mom I didn’t approve of her using Jimmie Dale that way. I knew she didn’t really like him, she was struck on your Dad. When Jimmie Dale would want to talk around school with her, she’d tell me I couldn’t leave them alone. That no matter what, I had to stay. And Jimmie Dale would make comments about third-wheels, and drop hints about how he wanted to be alone with your Mom. And I’d have to just pretend I didn’t hear him, or that I was too dumb to understand. Because I promised your Mom I would stay with her.
“There was a time when we had a National Honors Picnic at the Breaks [a state park]. Maxine was one of the chaperones, and she kept talking about how Jimmie Dale would be joining them for the picnic. So we decided we needed to find a way to ditch both Maxine and Jimmie Dale, and Rhinda and I said we needed to go to the bathroom. And we ducked out a back way and hid from them. And we met a couple of other fellers and spent the entire day with them. Maxine wouldn’t let Rhinda come see me for a long time – she blamed it all on me. Whenever Rhinda did anything wrong, she thought it was because I was a bad influence. Because I was a Ward.”
I comment that I’ve heard before how my grandmother didn’t like my Dad, that the Wards weren’t considered a good match. “It was more than that. You know that your grandparents were divorced, right?” I tell her that I do, and that my grandmother had run off with someone to D.C. when my Mom was little. “Maxine was gone for a while. But eventually she either called or wrote a letter and asked if she could come back. She said she wouldn’t run around on him again, that she’d be a good wife and mother. Your grandfather was engaged to someone else – my cousin Romey Ward. She’s here tonight, with her second husband. Your grandfather decided that it would be best for your Mom and Uncle Alan to have their mother back. So he told Romey he couldn’t marry her, and told Maxine to come back.”
“But he didn’t take her baby, did he?” I ask.
Barb sighs. “I’ve been thinking about that baby, not knowing her mama is dead. She must have been about a year old. Maxine’s mother, Ludie, told Rhinda that Maxine gave the baby to a preacher. I can’t say it was because of your grandfather. I don’t think any of us can say why. But I’ve been thinking about that baby a lot.”
She waits a bit while I cry.
My Mom joins us on the couch. I ask her whether she thinks Rita – my Uncle Alan’s ex-wife – will show up. Both Mom and Barb laugh, and joke about how that would be one sure way to raise the dead, my grandmother clawing her way out of the coffin to chase Rita away. My grandmother hated Rita after the divorce, wouldn’t let her name be mentioned in the house. We talk about how funny it is that when Alan first married her, my grandmother considered it a social coup, having her son marry a Stratton.
I think about how, on the drive to the funeral home, my grandfather had given me directions to take the new extension of Route 119, across the high bridges that were put in after the mountain tops were blown to hell, supported by massive columns that have been planted like giants’ legs, covering whole hollers, stamping family communities out of existence. One of the bridges is named for Rita’s father, or grandfather. Another is the Pinson Family Bridge, named for the family land that it claimed hundreds of feet below.
The services start with the singing of three songs. I can’t remember the first or the third. The second is, of course, Amazing Grace. And then the preacher, Morgan Chapman, gives a sermon of some sort that I tune out, because I am not a believer. (The obituary had three mistakes in it – it called my grandmother the “son” of the late Louie and Luda Gannon; it misspelled her sister Charlotte’s name; and it identified the officiant as Morgan Freeman. Earlier in the day, I asked my mother how they managed to get an Oscar-winning actor to preside. My Mom laughed, and said she couldn’t imagine my grandmother’s reaction. “You know how racist she was.” But we both agree, it would be really cool if Morgan Freeman were there.) I am on automatic, thinking of nothing really. Then the preacher brings out his guitar and sings Wayfaring Stranger. He’s not Johnny Cash, but he’s pretty damned good. I completely lose my shit.
After, there’s more visiting by people. I guess it’s the Baptist equivalent of sitting shiva. I meet Romey, the cousin my grandfather almost married. Beth and Cathy and I suss out which flowers they might be able to pull out of the arrangements. When they express some doubt about it, my Mom assures them that my grandmother would prefer that they take the flowers and enjoy them. We yank out some roses, some bleeding hearts, a stargazer lily or two.
My grandfather drives back with my Dad. I take my Mom back. There’s a debate in the parking lot about whether I should go back over Town Mountain Road, hitting all the traffic lights, or whether to go over Buckley’s Creek. For some reason, my grandfather can’t handle the thought of the Buckley’s Creek bypass, even though it was there before I graduated from high school – at least a good 23 years now. At the same time, he prefers the new 119 route, through the blasted mountains, over the windy twisty roads that go through Meta. As I pull out of the parking lot, I tell my Mom that we’re going to go through Buckley’s Creek, and they can either follow (if they can keep up) or go whatever way they want.
Later, my Dad tells me that they lost me by the first light; my Mom and I make it back to the house before them. On the way, we pass the house just below my grandparents, the one that still belongs to my grandfather’s sister, Lurlie. She moved out a couple of years ago, after her husband Cecil died. They used to own parrots or cockatoos or something – I can’t really remember. She lives in Georgia now, with her daughter, Annalee. She can’t make the trip back for the funeral, because she falls a lot, is often confused, and has panic attacks when she can’t understand where she is.
My grandfather locked the doors before we left; Mom tells me to just go ahead back to the hotel. She will sit in the dark, on the porch swing (it’s not the same one that played rocketship for me and my brother and our cousins when we were kids), waiting with my grandfather’s dog, Betsy. (Betsy, not Paddlefoot or Princess or Bear, the dogs he had when we were growing up.) On the way back out, I meet my father’s truck coming the other way, and have to find a place to pull over. It’s still a one-lane road the entire way. I wave at the dark windows, not knowing whether they can see me, and let them pass, so they can go meet my mother, to let her back into the house where she grew up.
I drive as fast as I can back to the hotel, almost laughing at how it feels to whip around curves and turns of the road where I first learned to drive, cutting off the edges by crossing the center lines without knowing what might be coming from the other direction. I pass houses where no one I know lives anymore, the mouths of hollers that no longer go anywhere, and probably never did.
Part the Fifth: In Which the Dead Get Buried, Though Off Screen (October 6, 2007)
Friday morning, I sleep longer than I intended, and find myself juggling my weekly 8:00 a.m. conference call with trying to remember the new way back to my grandparents' place. At the house, everyone is busy cleaning, to prepare for the after-funeral buffet and socializing. Members of my uncle's church are going to come while we are at the last services at the funeral home, bringing all the food, and they want the house to be in order when they arrive. My father and mother are in the process of cleaning the kitchen counters and stove, the refrigerator, the side tables in the dining room -- every surface that my grandmother hadn't been able to clean for years. While my Dad scrubs the counters and stove-top, I start with the china cabinet.
Cleaning it out, I find old yellowed sheets of paper, poems, songs written by my grandmother in the 50's and 60's. My Mom tells me to take them, so I do, carefully folding a sheet of paper around them. I will read them later. I also take an unopened letter from Phyllis -- she was married to one of my grandmother's brothers, and was at visitation the night before. I intend to return it to her today, though I will forget.
I sort out all the paperwork my grandmother had been saving for the 2007 taxes -- my grandfather has to make sure to keep everything together now. Unused books of crossword puzzles go into a box by themselves, perhaps to find a home somewhere else. There are half a dozen decks of playing cards, so worn with shuffling some of them might have been the ones she used to teach me solitaire, to play Go Fish. I go through all the medication on the kitchen counters, throwing out things subscribed to my grandmother, or over-the-counter bottles that are long expired. Numerous doctors' appointment cards are scattered through the plastic bottles, the oldest more than ten years old. We take the glasses and dishes out of the china cabinet to soak them in soapy water and wash away the grime. So much of it is cheap glassware, light and insubstantial, that when one turns out to be real lead crystal, the weight of it is a surprise, and I hesitate, unsure how to hold it.
Eventually, my mother has to stop, to take a shower and get dressed and get ready to go. My grandfather and my Uncle Alan are talking about whether it is okay to leave the house unlocked, for when the food-bearers arrive. "I guess it's okay," my grandfather says. "After all, if you can't trust church-people, who can you trust?" I sit on the bed in the family den -- it is one my grandfather built, and he moved it into that room to be next to the hospital bed that my grandmother slept in for the last years, maybe a decade, of her life. There is a picture hanging on the wall that I know well, one that used to have a place of honor in the living room. It is a black and white photo of my Uncle Alan, in his mid-twenties, and my Aunt Rita, holding together their first daughter, Maria, when she was less than a month old. The picture was moved when Alan and Rita divorced ten or so years ago; a sheet of paper has been placed under the glass to cover Rita, leaving the infant Maria held only by her father and a disembodied hand. I suppose whenever my cousins visit, they must see that photo, with their mother blocked out. Though perhaps not Maria -- she hasn't been home to Kentucky for many years. She lives in Sydney, has for years. She moved there with her husband a long time ago, and stayed even after he died last year. She shouldn't have been a widow before she was 40.
When my mother is done with her shower, I go into the bathroom to see what might need to be cleaned out. There’s too much to take care of before we have to leave, so I make a note to tell my mother to check all the medications in here before she leaves. I open the side mirror panels to angle them on the center one, like I did when I was kid, to see the endless reflections.
When I come out, the discussion about whether you can trust church-people is still going on. My grandmother never liked leaving the house unlocked. Last year, when we were back for Thanksgiving, she had told me that several times, obsessed about it because of a rather macabre discovery my grandfather had made on the top of the ridge over the house. He had come upon a coffin, complete with body. The story, if I recall it right, was that some kids had dug up a decades-old grave on a lark, and then dumped the coffin and the body, a woman who died in her twenties, on the Dinky Road that runs across the ridge-line. Another reason to keep the doors locked, my grandmother told me – I wasn’t entirely sure she was more worried about the grave-robbers than the corpse. But who knows – maybe none of them were church-people.
The decision is made that to reassure my grandfather, my Dad will stay at the house. I guess that maybe you can’t trust anyone then. I don’t have time to go into the basement, to remind myself of the smell. Or upstairs, under the eaves, to find the boxes of photographs. I will have to come back, but not today.
My mother and I drive together to the funeral home. There’s not much time for mingling before the last services, but I do find Beth and Cathy and we take some pictures with my cellphone, pictures that days later I will inadvertently delete before copying over to my computer. Phyllis's son Phillip is there, already wearing the white gloves of the pallbearers. I remember Phillip as a gangly fourteen year old – and how another cousin, Steve, once attacked him with a two-by-four at our high school. (Steve would later go one to kill a man in a parking lot, beating him to death with a baseball bat.) Matt and Carl have the gloves as well.
As we enter, someone asks my Uncle Alan if my grandfather has been warned about the closing of the coffin. Before the services start, my Uncle Alan shows me the worn Bible my grandmother always read, the pages where she recorded her parents and grandparents, and her grandchildren – five of them anyway. The last three didn’t make it in for lack of room. She has only three children listed, my Uncle Alan, my Mom, and her third child, Johnny Ray, who died as an infant. The fourth isn’t there; if Alan knows about her, he doesn’t say anything, and I don’t ask. He puts the Bible back into the coffin, next to her, where it will be sealed.
I don’t remember much about the service itself. At some point, they close the coffin. My Mom’s cousin Ben gives the eulogy, and although it has quite a bit more religion in it than I care for, it is … well, quite moving. Ben talks about how my grandmother was best with small children, and how she was with his son, Aaron, who has Down Syndrome. They would watch cartoons together, and Aaron loved her. Another thing I didn’t know about her. Hell, I didn’t even know Ben before yesterday. Somewhere along the way, my cousin Roxanne arrives, sitting in the back, recognizable by her curly black hair and the fact she looks just like her mother Barb.
The pallbearers carry the coffin out the back and people start filing out. Beth and Cathy and I hurry to select more flowers to filch before the arrangements are taken out. I am not going back for the burial, so I have to make hurried good-byes to my grandfather, my uncle, my mother. This is the wrong thing to do, I know it even as I do it, but I do it anyway. I should go with my mother, to bury her mother, but I don’t.
I linger anyway in the parking lot to talk to Roxanne, hugging her and telling her what I hadn’t been able to write, how sorry I was about the loss of her baby last year. She stands with her older daughter and her mother, and I think about how I could tell her daughter that Roxanne – Roo, we called her and still do – looked just like her when she was a little girl. And how, when the daughter is in her fifties, she’ll probably look just like her grandmother Barb. We promise we will write, we will call each other, both knowing we probably won’t. It’s strange to realize after so many years how easy it is to remember how much you loved someone, and to realize at the same time that you’ll probably let yourself lose touch again.
I should stay, to talk. But I need to get going, I need to get back, I need to get away.
It was ten hours down, and I try to see whether I can do it in less going back, through the stretch of 119 that goes from Kentucky, to West Virginia, to Kentucky several times. Fast through Charleston, through that sliver of Maryland, onto 220 towards the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I find myself intermittently on automatic, and crying. By the time I reach 220, it is dark and I follow tail-lights through the countryside, tired and almost dozing. Until a deer comes barreling out of the darkness from the left. I slam on my brakes, he runs into the side of my car, bounces off and bounds away.
On, towards home. At midnight, I come in. The dogs wake Abigail up, AJ gets up to carry her to the chaise – she’s too big for me to carry easily anymore. I climb into bed, fall asleep almost immediately and dream of the ocean. In a few hours I will wake again, as morning comes, and will find Evan asleep in the floor, curled up on the pillow he carried in, his blankie draped around his head. They both will wake, and come into our bed for hugs and snuggles, the two together too much wiggle for my arms to hold.