I was raised an only child in Eastern Kentucky where oak and poplar crest at hilltops and slope down to hollows of creek beds. When I was six, my toes would settle into the mud of the stream; my hands, reaching into the pool, animating minnows and crawdads to kinetic scatter.
When my mother sang, she would rock me in the chair my grandmother had purchased at Ethan Allen. Now, when I listen to Perry Como sing “Sleep Kentucky Babe,” the precise harmony doesn’t sound right to me. I have to close my eyes and remember her voice, off key. Then I can almost smell her, and I can feel her silk nightgown soft against my cheek.
We lived in the black-veined mountains, because my father was a coal-mining engineer. Where my father and I saw comfort, my mother saw dilapidated houses, smeared on the sides of hills. My father tried to make her happy, constantly moving us around eastern Kentucky. Still, everywhere we went, the mountains trapped her. I noticed an absence of energy for the first time when I was seven. It was as if it she laid it on her nightstand, just out of reach from her position in the middle of the bed.
Before, creative energy ran mad in her seeking mind, exploding in deep guffaws. The tales she spun took over the room—a charm in her voice would lure you in every time. When she banished me to my room at bed time, I would hear the laughter she sparked in her friends in the next room, and wish I could be in there to laugh along with them.
When I was eight, my mother left my father. She carried me south to Nashville’s wide, suburban cradle, where her own mother lived. When my grandmother calmed us in slow, lingering vowels, magnolias blossomed from her lips.
The mountains still surrounded my father, now a barrier instead of an embrace. No more were the Saturday mornings with him in his bathrobe, flipping pancakes—no more, the syrup smearing in his mustache as we watched cartoons. Never again would he greet me when he returned from inspecting the mines in his muddy boots, dirt brushing off on me as he kissed my forehead. I knew when she wouldn’t come out of her room, he wouldn’t be there to make dinner.
In Nashville, at first my mother was again electrified, surrounded by her childhood friends whom she called my aunties. When I was little, they used to come from Nashville to visit us in Kentucky. I did not realize until around the age of seven that my aunties were not related to me. I loved them and grew up with them as if they were—like Auntie Dee Dee who went with us on a family trip to the state line. There’s a picture in the album of us lying together across the white demarcation on the asphalt, our blonde, curly hair sprawling into Virginia, our feet still grounded in Kentucky, while we laugh at the absurdity of our predicament. My mother always surrounded herself with the exotics, as my Auntie Cati would say—women who subscribed to new age thinking. The first time I went with my mother to visit Auntie Cati, she showed us her garage, filled with scattered pieces of half-formed sculptures and the earthy smell of clay mixed with the stale smoke of hand rolled cigarettes.
When I was ten, I survived what the media called “The Nashville Tornado Outbreak of 1998.” I was in school when the first tornado hit. We squatted in the hallways, close to the tile where I examined the dirt the janitors neglected and felt the coldness emanating off the floors. The darkness in the sky, black with a hint of glowing green seeped through the glass door. The wind roared and coiled, clanging debris outside. The lights flickered, electric, then finally off while the sirens wailed. When parents came rolling in to fetch their children, I didn’t think anyone would come for me. I imagined the tornado would tear through the brick and mortar and pluck me from the hall. But she came, charging down the hallway, there to save me—my mother, with her rusted hair and dangling earrings.
When we got to the house that day of the tornado, my grandmother was out on the porch, intent on the green hue, waiting for it to appear on the horizon. “I just want to see if I can see it,” she said, illuminated. Her eyes were wide in their focus, her wrinkles only enhancing the definition of her cheeks as she smiled. She reveled in that moment as a woman who had built a lifetime out of accepting instead of worrying. My response was to run to the bathroom and cower. When my grandmother died ten years later, she was ready. She had a sense about her that could feel the threads of the universe. She believed in angels, and I think she could feel them calling to her, could feel that her string was about to be cut.
The need to analyze the weather devoured me after the Nashville tornado. When thunder cracked, its echo surged through me to the tips of my shaking fingers. At the edge of the couch, I spent hours with the weather channel, examining the squall lines to grasp the science. Atmospheric conditions must be volatile—pressure must be low for the wind to gyrate, for a tornado to rip from a cloud of pounding hail.
When my mother married Greg, we moved in with him and my grandmother moved out. It wasn’t till six months after we lived with him, that she stopped being happy. Then, my mother started introducing me to people like Rita. She came over one day, knocking at the door in tangled hair and grubby sweat pants. When I answered, her left shoulder ran into my right as she swooped by, barreling down the hall to my mother’s room. She knocked on my mother’s door, and squeezed through when it cracked open. I heard them laughing between the words I couldn’t quite make out as I listened at the door. When Rita left fifteen minutes later, my mother saw her to the front entrance, then locked the door behind her.
“What did she want?” I asked.
“She just wanted to borrow fifty dollars.” My mother’s pinpoint pupils swayed and sweat beaded her hairline.
Rita was never referred to as an auntie.
The Weather Channel encourages viewers to make a plan in the event of a tornado—to hide from the elements in the most interior room without windows. Exposed, a beam from a neighboring house could pierce a torso after breaching an outer wall. A tree branch could shatter a window, glass splintering, shredding into skin. Amidst the cries of the civil defense siren, I would duck in the hallway, covered in blankets.
Within a year, my mother and Greg had divorced. I assumed he couldn’t handle her sadness. My mother and I moved out, living alone together for the first time. Every other day, she would clean. Once she came into my room and handed me a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda that she found while dusting the bookshelf. Grinning wild, her words rushed together, not pausing a moment for air, “This is a great book. You’ll really like this. It’ll inspire you. It inspired me.”
Sometimes, she would blast Joni Mitchell from her stereo while she sang along, “Carey get out your cane,” and her hands would reach down to envelope mine, pulling me off the couch to dance.
But on the other days, she was absent. When she wouldn’t come out of her room, I would go check on her, and find the crusted blood above her lip. I would wake her, screaming, “You promised you’d quit.”
Her eyes would open and her pupils would expand as she turned over, “I did. I’m just not feeling well today.”
When I went to college, I moved back to Kentucky—to my father and a landscape more stable where tornadoes have little chance to gather momentum in the buffer of hills. Storm systems moving from east to west break down in the high elevation of an Appalachian breeze. My father and I would go to lunch every weekend and he would call me almost everyday. “How are your classes going?” he would ask. “Well, I just wanted to check up on you.”
My mother slowed down a couple years after my departure, after her third stay in the hospital, and after her mother died. When I went to visit her one summer, I played Ryan Adams for her, wanting his crawling rhythm to resound for her too. When she heard the lyric, “I was spending money like the way it likes to rain. Man, I ended up with pockets full of cane,” she nodded her head with that type of smile that hides a frown, a slight upward motion of one side of her mouth—a confession.
When my mother died, my father called me and told me the police had found her—heart failure, they said. It was the week before finals.
When he took me back to her house to clean, I unearthed every piece in her collection—letters from friends and family strewn in boxes, Auntie Melody’s paintings placed at a focal point in her bedroom, and William Faulkner’s name in bold capital letters printed across the spine of every book in the top row of a shelf.
I found a journal buried in a box with an entry from when she was fifteen, dated 1976, “What is life but a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It was the conclusion to a short paragraph about her brother, John, who was on a semester abroad in France, “Miles away… see you in the headlines… see you sometime… soon?… France calls you now. You can’t hear my heart…too much worry over you…not enough laughter for you…sometimes I don’t show it but I love you.”
When I read The Catcher in the Rye, my mother told me that before John went off to college, he told her they were like the main characters. He was Holden Caufield, misunderstood by those around him, and she was Phoebe, the little sister, the only one who really got him.
Sometimes, there is no interior room in which to hide. Kevin Longinotti, a senior at Vanderbilt, couldn’t find one—crushed by a tree in Centennial Park. He would have graduated that next month if he hadn’t died from critical injuries. Nashville, itself, couldn’t hide either when the tornado loomed heavy over downtown. When the transformers exploded, they were the only light in the sky as the highrises disappeared into the dark. Gnarled hickory trees, planted by Andrew Jackson, pivoted out of the ground. Sideways out on the lawn of the Hermitage, the roots splayed like fingers on a severed hand. There is no preparing for that burst of spinning wind. Only afterward, can its power be assessed with the wake of debris left behind.
What do you do when you stretch out your arms in anticipation only to feel the extent of the hole?
Your grandmother would want you to remember that moment when she stood out on the porch under the gloom of the sky, and she would say there is beauty in this—that there is nothing left but for you to embrace it.
Powerfully voiced in such a short span of words! You are of another generation. I do not know Ryan Adams, though now that you mentioned him, I wish I did. I certainly know your mother’s Joni Mitchell, though, and “Carey” from her CD (LP when I listened to it) “Blue.” I don’t know when popular music stopped speaking directly to me. It was like suddenly not believing in Santa Claus any more. I was headed one direction, and music another. Reading about your mother’s life makes me wonder why happiness is so difficult for some people to find. I wonder if the problem lies within the unhappy themselves (ourselves) or in the world itself as they (we) perceive it. “I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” I think about the fruit of your mother’s unhappiness, of her whole life, really, and I wonder if it couldn’t be this wonderful voice you have shared with us, so much beauty from so deep a sadness, like Billie Holiday’s vocals can make the listener tremble in the heart. A tempestuous world of tornadoes outside, and a tempestuous world inside too. Art holding the mirror up to nature. So fine, Feagin.