100 years ago, a relative of mine wrote a letter to Santa… I wonder if his great-great-great-great grandchildren will get what they want from Santa this year.
100 years ago, a relative of mine wrote a letter to Santa… I wonder if his great-great-great-great grandchildren will get what they want from Santa this year.
While I will get the words wrong, my recollection is at least correct for tone and content. Many parts of the day I write about are a blur. It was a complex day for more than one reason. Like a few other days, the day sits on the calendar of our minds. I will write around the fringes so as to avoid treading upon the loss which brought us all together. All of our lives are complex. Our memories, reactions, and ability to interact fluctuate with an erratic ebb and flow.
I was in the geography of my childhood, sitting in the church that seems to ‘the’ church in my memories. It sits in silence off a highway between places travelers seldom slow enough to notice, surrounded by the relics which once thrived. Like so many rural places, it fights the bubble of time that envelopes the area. It is the nexus of memories for many people, benchmarking people’s faith and sense of family and togetherness. This church remains, across the highway from the place my dad once ran his gas station. The surrounding field has reclaimed every trace of the station. One day soon enough, it will overtake everything else in the area.
Those who can remember will fade too, leaving dust eddies as they pass through the area and this world. To me, this is a comfort, even as I am unable to exonerate the existential discomfort of the knowledge. We’ll all pass this place, regardless of the velocity of our lives.
In front of me, two older ladies sat, each nervously chattering about the multitude of overlapping recollections in their lives. The further back one went into the wooden upright pews, the louder people felt comfortable talking. Whether it is always fair, funerals serve as a social outlet and gathering place for most people. Oddly, even as we grieve or grapple with loss, we sometimes find our hearts swelling with the smiles and faces of people who were once integral to our identity and lives. Loss ignites our connection to the shadows of our past; the demands of daily life usually blur that enthusiasm soon after.
I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth countless times as I attempt to navigate the mysterious awkwardness of interacting with people, especially ones I either once shared a deep connection to, or strangers who echo an odd familiarity. I later found out that I got roped into a hurtful conversation without being aware of it. I can’t take it back, so I will forever be someone’s anecdote. In a roundabout way, that is also what each of our lives does for everyone else.
“I never attended this church. I only came here for funerals. White Church was the only church for us back in the day,” said the older lady on the left.
“We should get back to the cemetery there. Not today, though. It’s Hell’s furnace out there. The old church was something. I hated to see it go. We lost the community when it left.” The lady on the right half-whispered it with a bit of pain and nostalgia in her voice. “Remeber the potlucks? The summer singing?”
When she said it, I thought of the mosquitoes, the blistering heat, and the discomfort of hot, uncomfortable Sunday-best clothing that churches like the White Church once required of members. I also recalled celery in potato salad, mind-numbingly long sermons sending all to Hades for our indiscretions – and cars with no air conditioning. Nostalgia certainly and capably erases the memories that more accurately convey the complexity of living in the past.
“The last time I was here, it was Carolyn’s funeral. Kak or Kakky they called her. I remember playing with her when she was younger. Their dad was a mean drunk back then. Carolyn took after her papa and married that no-account Bobby Dean. What a mess.”
The lady on the left was unaware that Carolyn was my mother.
The lady on the right nodded her head solemnly. She almost visibly shuddered. “Remember how she looked? That funeral home that got caught stacking bodies in the hallway did her funeral. That place out of up north, wasn’t it?”
I knew what was probably going to be said next. I wasn’t mistaken.
In her best gossipy whisper, the older lady on the left leaned in and said, “That horrible gravestone with the Bud Light can engraved on it is still down there. Can you imagine? Lord knows she was a drunk, but can you picture someone’s daughter thinking a beer car is a good idea for a tombstone?” She laughed.
“That daughter! Remember when she about gave Harold, or was it Howard, a stroke when he tried to adopt those two precious boys?” They both nodded toward one another.
I leaned in and said, “She’s still alive, too. Hasn’t changed one bit.” I told them in case they wanted to know. Neither registered that I might be closer to the people they’d mentioned than they realized.
I was unbothered, however.
Before arriving at the church, I drove the long loop around Rich. The roads were scorched with heat. Though I half-expected it, I choked up a bit as I neared the place where my grandparents once lived, off Highway 39 near Cook Road. I stopped at Upper Cemetery. An older man was outside in the heat, spraying the weeds and ditches. His dust-covered truck blocked the arch entrance, so I left my car along the artery of Highway 49 and walked out over the slight rise to the place where my parents are buried. As I crossed the top of the rise, my lungs filled with a pungent dust cloud, clotting my lungs and rendering my throat raw. I quickly walked down to the edge of the swamp and pondered the place for a moment.
I noted the Bud Light can on my mom’s gravestone and laughed. I think my sister chose well; some of the reasons for my agreement are based on amusement and aptness. The Bud Light can, at least, is an open salute to an essential truth in my mom’s life: more than anything, she lived for a drink. Even now, so many years later, I’m still discovering the mass of hidden lies and secrets in my parent’s lives.
When I got back to the car, my voice was almost gone. A million little pieces of this place remained in my mouth, nose, and lungs.
The cemetery embodies the communities around it. If the traffic becomes still, you can hear the insects, fields, and marshes for miles as they simply pulsate. Time doesn’t interfere in that place. I can hear it now, feel it in my bones, and feel it call me softly across the distance. I suspect you can too if you focus inward toward the places of your youth.
Truth sits outside of us. Every other person on this planet carries his or her own idea of each of us, independent of the facts and circumstances of our lives. It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to amend their mental biographies of us.
I hope that you can find a good life if you don’t have one, embrace the parts that can enlighten and lighten you, and forgive or ignore all of us who may trespass against you. In this world, it is the only way forward.
This is a guest post.
Each of us has a hometown. Returning brings the blessing of memories and the bitterness of entropy enveloping what we remember.
Trips to my hometown are usually quick and for a particular purpose. Occasionally during these trips, an investment of a few minutes is made to drive past the small house that was home to me for well over half my life.
One of my earliest memories, if not the earliest, is of the day we moved in. I was not yet four years old. We lived next door, and my main contribution to the move was carrying my baby doll’s high chair down the front steps of that two-bedroom house (where a sheet divided one bedroom down the middle to accommodate my brother on one side and my sister and me on the other) to the larger (barely) three-bedroom.
This was home for the next 28 years–until my mother died—when it became a house-home mixture of sorts. It was never the same for any of us with her missing, but my father owned it for several more years before selling it and moving to a new town.
In the bottom right corner of the photo is the front window to my bedroom. It often held a box fan in the summer and was covered with plastic on the inside during the winter to help block the cold draft. During my early teenage years, it held a view to and thoughts of a much bigger world beyond.
The crepe myrtle outside this window was always one of my favorite things about the house. It provided a wonderful canopy for day or evening, and its delicate flowers and flaky bark were a constant enticement to touch. This crepe myrtle has never been subjected to the yearly scalping performed on many crepe myrtles, and so it has grown from the 10-foot (or less) height of my youth to the 30-40 foot beauty you see here. Knowing this tree as a friend from day one makes it feel as though the roots of this tree are deeply intertwined with the “roots of me.”
The photo is from the street in front of the house-taken today during one of those quick trips.
Not all here was beautiful, though. Today brought the unsettling (and a bit devastating, being totally honest with myself) discovery of an abandoned home with a broken kitchen window and No Trespassing/Keep Out signs posted in various places on the property. Barring an unforeseen and unlikely miracle, this house will probably not exist within a few years. Based on the condition the structure and its outlying storage buildings are in, I hope it doesn’t. It would be far less painful to see a clean slate than to see the neglected and abused ruins of a home that held life and dreams for so many decades. Maybe I will drive past again during the next fast dash to the area; maybe I won’t. Maybe instead, I will ask friends who still live nearby to let me know when it is gone. I know this is not a situation unique to me, and maybe it makes no sense to many others who often moved in their growing up years; but, for today, I am sad about what is and miss what was.
The early summer mist still blanketed the encircling cotton fields. Grandpa poured me a cup of coffee and then held the screen door open for me to slither through. Instead of sitting on the long porch swing, we both stepped down onto the cut railroad ties in front of the porch and sat. Grandma’s coffee was always hotter than the top of a wood stove. I was expected to respect the dangers of hot coffee. We could hear grandma inside, fussing with the skillet of salt pork, bacon, and sausage. When I was young and with my grandparents, vegetarianism was unimaginable. Later, as Grandma noted my love for vegetables, she filled my plate and bowl relentlessly with corn, mustard greens, and beans of every kind. After a few minutes, the smell of breakfast filled the damp air. All of our stomachs grumbled in anticipation.
Grandpa pointed with his right hand as a reddish grey coyote bounded through the periphery of the cotton field to our left. It stopped in the gravel drive, his head sniffing the air. To me, they all resembled foxes. After a moment, he turned and ran through the mist and across the road. We watched as the mist above him churned to mark his passage.
Grandpa sloshed the remainder of his cup onto the grass and stood up. Just as I stood up, Grandma hollered from the back of the house, “Woolly, come on!” Because of the way she talked, I found it hard to believe that she was calling him Willie; my young ears could not distinguish the subtle difference.
Grandpa shrugged his shoulders and took my cup and sloshed it into the yard, too, indicating we’d better get inside before the call to eat intensified.
Salt pork, sausage patties, bacon, and buttered toast greeted us as we sat at the table. It was Tuesday, but looking back, it was a morning for kings, one of many that summer of 1975. The mist of that early morning over forty years ago still swirls in my mind. I awoke this morning with it fogging my senses.
It turns out that the story I wrote regarding my dad and Oct. 23rd, 1993 might end up being ‘the’ thing.
A torrent of people wrote to me after reading the story in other places, wanting to know the rest of the story or asking questions about Bobby Dean – or the history of the place I once called home. I’ve done my best to answer them. My dad would get a laugh from the idea that so many people, almost all of them strangers to himself or his hometown, might want to read about his life. He would also struggle to understand that it would be his younger son who valued nothing of his contribution until it was too late who would ultimately be the culprit responsible for softening Bobby Dean’s character. I opted to shed myself of his name and yet the residue of his shadow eternally lurks just behind me.
Better writers, better singers, and better historians might recount a more compelling tale; from their absence or application of effort, however, they’ve yielded the floor to me. I don’t know what writer’s block is and I seldom let the undertone of misbehavior break my pencil. Our lives are all stories, even as we fail to see it or wish them to be unwritten.
For anyone who has looked past my imperfect and stubborn way of writing and reached out to me to let me know they found something of value in it, I thank you. I still believe that our lives and the internet would be more understanding if everyone could find a way to share stories, even those tempered by our lesser natures.
It’s maddening and rewarding to find an audience out in the sea of strangers on the internet, in the place allegedly most hostile to sharing one’s life or story.
This picture is of my dad in a moment brimming with happiness. The house is now a hunting lodge off of Highway 49. I’m not sure what music might have been playing in the background, but Schlitz beer was powering the occasion. Dad, whose dance moves ran the gamut between A and all the way to B, danced with glee in front of his friends. It’s worth noting that Bobby Dean would have never danced in front of other men had alcohol not been involved. Delma Lee, the wife of one of dad’s friends, snapped the picture. She was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Her voice was as supple as a whispering angel, one with a drawl long to reach across the room and cause people to listen.
It’s still difficult for me to believe that dad wasn’t even 30 when this picture was taken. 25 years after his death, people who never shook his hand or cursed at his antics are thinking about his life. It’s a romanticized version, of course, but the majority of our memories are culled from the husks of things that many times should remain at rest or fuzzy with the passage of time.
In the early evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 1993, Bobby Dean stood by the tan surface of Highway 49, in a community sometimes called Rich. He watched as the last glimmers of the sun reflected from one of the windows of the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church across the state highway. The church itself had no front-facing windows, something that always drew his attention. Due to Bobby Dean’s connection to farming in the Delta of Arkansas, he knew that the official sunset was technically 15 minutes ago, slightly before 6:30. Like so many from that part of the state, he didn’t need a calendar or weatherman to predict the weather for him.
It was a warm day for eastern Arkansas. Not that Bobby Dean typically wore a jacket, but on this day, he had left his grease-stained jacket on the hook in the garage all day. The day had turned out to be perfect, rising to the upper 60s. The gas pumps were busy for most of the day, then activity tapered substantially as people headed home to eat before either venturing out again of staying home to watch the world series or Hee Haw. In the last ten minutes, only two cars had passed. Neither had stopped, probably on their way to Helena or Tunica. The casinos had recently put their footprint on the area and Highway 49 was quickly becoming a rapid corridor to find them. Locals argued relentlessly about whether they’d bring life back to their area or further drain it.
As the last car passed, Bobby Dean had been inside the station, closing the old register, the kind featuring mechanical rolling numbers. For no particular reason, he looked out one of the two wide front windows and saw the Reverend from Our Savior Church pull out on to the highway and point his vehicle toward Brinkley. As was his custom, Bobby Dean instinctively waved at toward the departing pastor, unsure whether the preacher could see his silhouette inside the station. Much to the surprise of many, the preacher and Bobby Dean had become well-acquainted. He performed Bobby Dean’s remarriage, as well as his funeral. One of Bobby Dean’s jokes was that remarriage technically could be considered to be a funeral, depending on one’s perspective.
As Bobby Dean looked to the north and south, the highway lay silent, its straight strip of asphalt pointing the way to wide expanses of farmland and house dotted along its perimeter. The tilled-under fields now waited, dormant and marching toward winter lifelessness. For those who admire such austere landscapes, it was meditative. Bobby Dean was certainly no one to ascribe to such silly words. To him, it was simply peaceful.
A younger Bobby Dean had lived in Northwest Arkansas and a short time in Indiana. He resided in Pendleton Correctional facility in Indiana as well, for his part in a robbery of a truck stop off of U.S. Highway 20. His heart always beat strongest in Monroe County. He was anchored to his wild youth, his family, the soil, and the freedom that such wide open spaces always presented to those willing to live inside them. Unfettered freedom and wide stages often led people like Bobby Dean to run wild.
He took an unfiltered Camel from his front shirt pocket and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs. As he exhaled, it formed a small cloud near him. The day’s light breeze had weakened. Bobby Dean always smelled like a blend of one or more of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, dirt, mints, and whiskey. Those who knew him could often read his potential behavior based on the prevalence of one scent over the other.
Looking back at the small church across the highway, he recalled that he had remarried there only 8 months prior. Strangely, it reaffirmed where he’d started: married to Carolyn and living in the small farming community. Carolyn would undoubtedly be at home just a bit up the road, near Cypress Road. The last time Bobby Dean ran this service station, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial and he and Carolyn had lived in a trailer almost touching the rear of the gas station. For a second, Bobby Dean wished they still lived behind the station. He could imagine the scent of freshly fried catfish in hot oil, the shouts of people congregating, and time before family began succumbing to inevitable biological frailty. His weariness enveloped him. His dream of coming back here to live and to work was realized but his bones were weary. Bobby Dean’s idea of a metaphor was the type found in Louis L’Amour westerns or demonstrated in the slitted, watchful eyes of Clint Eastwood.
Tonight, his demon fed by whiskey would not rear its head. Lately, Bobby Dean could not sustain its aftermath. His hard life was dealing out hard consequences. His namesake son, X, had surprised him last weekend with a visit. Bobby Dean had been driving his pickup along Highway 39, heading toward Monroe. His son had pulled alongside him in his roommate’s borrowed car, hogging the entire road. Carolyn was in the passenger seat, smiling like an idiot and shouting. “What’s up, #$%#$%#$%$@#$ ?” Bobby Dean had shouted back, laughing. He pulled over so everyone could exchange greetings and cleverly-worded obscenities as they laughed. Bobby Dean managed to salvage a few normal moments with his son during that visit until the urge to drink overwhelmed him. Like so many, he had no way of knowing that it would be his last chance to build a narrow bridge back toward his son.
He finished his cigarette, dropped it to the pavement, and smashed it out with his boot. Bobby Dean turned and walked over to the three gas pumps. He leaned against the outside pump, watching.
The October sun had disappeared entirely. The edge of the highway and all that surrounded it now lay in a blanket of time and silence. Waiting.
38 days later, Bobby Dean walked his last step.
His bones now rest in Upper Cemetery along the same highway, near one of the areas where Cypress Creek and its thick, muddy waters crest near the road. If you drive by at night, you can hear Bobby Dean’s shouts trailing behind you. You’ll fight the urge to floor it without knowing why. Instead, you’ll roll down the window and listen more closely. Tilled earth, smoke, and whiskey will greet you. It’s my hope that you’ll find only the wild, enthusiastic side of Bobby Dean as you pass; may his violent undercurrent forever be at rest.
If you drive the highway to visit the area where the station once stood, you’ll find the small church still patiently marking the days of its members. The station, though, is long gone. In April of 2009, someone removed the subterranean gas tanks. Not long after, the building was gone. Now, as you pass, you’ll note almost no remaining footprint for the gas station. The two telephone poles which once aligned with either end of the property still stand, along with a very narrow strip of pavement. The rest, however, has surrendered to the relentless fertile soil of the Monroe County landscape. The last couple of times that I passed where the station once stood, I resisted the urge to stop and stand in the field there. I couldn’t be sure that time itself wouldn’t grab me and whisk me back to a distant decade, trapping me in nostalgia.
I fear that the entire area might be slipping into non-existence, reverting to a time before railroads, lumber, and commerce; one inhabited by natives.
I fear that Bobby Dean might be dissipating, too. He’s been dead for over half of my life and I’ve survived this place longer than he did.
Each of us only survives in actuality as long as a living soul still remembers us.
Somehow, I received the curse of being the historian of the family. Despite my untrustworthy memory, the only honor I can bring to the history of those who preceded me is to hold my hand aloft and swear to tell the unflinching truth. Some facts slightly disjoin in my retelling, without a doubt.
The mood and temperament though? These are my promises kept.
Nothing is entirely real, not even much of our memory. We revisit the places of our past and often find our footing slightly unfamiliar.
Emotion and bias tinge everything, a spreading patina of ink from a single drop. The more desperately we cling to our version of events, the less firm is our ability to live a life worthy enough to satisfy us. The emotional context which surrounds us shapes our ability to recall objectively what precedes us.
My parents were a volatile mix of temper and tantrum and no one could be an innocent bystander. To be a witness meant participation was mandatory and choosing sides wasn’t optional. There was no Switzerland in the households of my youth.
Yet, my parents chose to marry each other again, despite their long and violent history and while ignoring incredulous scrutiny from friends and family. Both had married other people during their marital hiatus and neither found adversaries willing to suffer and share their scarring.
I’m guilty of allowing my own history with them to cloud my ability to see that somewhere out of my reach, they shared a connection with one another. While it was forged in years of anger, it was real to them. Alcohol, jealousy, and unhappiness were the fuels of their mutual fire. Both of them were adept at stockpiling these lesser tendencies for the upcoming fires that would rage. None of us was equipped with the right tools to combat their wildfires. Each of us tried and failed.
Mom and dad married on Feb. 12th, 1964 and again on Feb. 12th, 1993. Dad died 9 months later, once again with mom in his life and while trying to make his dream work, in a rural little gas station on the edge of highway 49. The gas station is gone and a field has enveloped even its memory. If my father has a ghost, these greening acres along a nondescript highway are one of its homes. Most of these stretches of rural America certainly feel as if they are inhabited by lost souls.
This picture is of us in 1993, at a small Lutheran church that still manages to survive today. Mom and Dad had just exchanged vows for the second time. Although Dad was visibly uncomfortable in the suit he was wearing, he was at home with mom once again in his corner. Twenty-five long years have intervened. The church sits defiantly and almost directly across the road from the gas station dad attempted to make successful during two tries in his lifetime. Small communities need churches to bond them, serving both spiritual and mundane connections. Many of us in this world converged upon that small church in different stages of our lives; most of us have at least a few memories that are rendered opaque and wistful by having done so.
None of the facts has changed, but I have. I’m a stranger in the lands of my memories and I take comfort in my distorted reflection.
Somehow, experience has wrapped me in its strange embrace and violently shaken me. Not only is the sum of my parts now more than whole, but things I knew and things in my field or ignorance have exchanged residency.
I’m not certain of anything anymore.
Yet, paradoxically, I think that it might bring me greater happiness to see a fuzzy world instead of one sharply focused by my own opinions and experience.
The gas station and church both left footprints somewhere inside me, just as my parents did. I struggle with the same forces now that tormented me when I was younger. I learned ways to mitigate the disaster of my upbringing. There was no easy road or prolonged escape from the lessons I learned involuntarily.
I can see immeasurable violence in those whispering the word ‘love’ openly in the world and compassion in the eyes of someone with snarled lip and ready fist. I saw both in Carolyn and in Bobby Dean, the people who played the roles of my parents.
Love’s mystery is that it flourishes at all, as we teeter on the edge of loss at every moment.
“My dad taught me to swim by throwing me out of a moving vehicle. He was a master of incongruity.” – X