Friday, February 26, 2010

Sometimes, a Half-Life

I took this picture from the plane as it approached the airport in north Alabama two weeks ago. I was flying home to the Tennessee River Valley to help give Mother a 90th birthday party. Mother is the healthiest 90-year-old I've ever known. She is a bit hard of hearing. Otherwise, she is amazingly strong. People ask me, "Is she with it? Does she still have her mind?" I laugh. She has her mind and more.

It was cold for Alabama, but good to be home. I can't wait to go back in the summer. To sit under a shade tree. To claim my spot on the front porch swing and drink iced tea.

When I got back here in Virginia, I did what I always do. I fell into an uncharacteristic silence for a while. I seem to live a half-life for a bit. Alabama is back so thick in my blood that it  takes over again, singing, talking, whispering. In Virginia, people are speaking to me and I am responding, but the truth is I'm not really here.

I probably shouldn't have driven by the old haunted house site, pulling off the road and watching. Looking for what? The place where a mansion rose from an old Indian burial mound. Where a beautiful woman was said to have married seven men. And then, the whispers go, they were murdered and buried on the property. The house where my sister and I played as children because the twins lived there and babysat us. The house burned to the ground years ago. But there are graves still on the property. And the old Indian burial mound still rises gently in the stand of trees off the road.

So, we gave Mother a very successful party. Then, afterwards, I had nearly fallen asleep in the rocking chair when a knock at the door broke the early evening quiet. People from her church filed in with song books in hand. They filled the living room, young and old, too many to count. Little boys not sure what to do with themselves wedged onto the sofa.

I had forgotten about this. The people of this tiny church, hidden away on country roads, avidly reach out to not only the sick and the shut-ins, but to the widows. And they included Mother, even though she drives herself to church (AND the hairdresser) in her own car. I suppose they don't want to discriminate against her on the basis of her good fortune. Or something.
So, they raised song books and began to sing. Someone handed me one. After a couple of songs, a voice said, "Carole, what's your favorite hymn?" I answered, without having to think, "The Lily of the Valley." And then I heard my mother's small voice behind someone say, "That was the song they sang at my father's funeral." And I remembered. It was his favorite too. My grandfather, who died before I was born. When Mother was just 12.

And the truth was my head was bowed because I had been hiding tears the entire time. Because I was so moved by these people spending their Saturdays this way. And then, when they began "Lily," it was as though they had been holding back, or had been unsure, or shy. Because their words and the notes were so strong and sure and true. I wasn't even sure the young people, and the children, would know this song.

But they did know this very old song. Maybe they were relieved it was the last one on the last stop of the night and were within striking distance of the hot chocolate and sweets waiting for them back at the church. And they asked me to go with them and really did want me to, even though I've been gone so long most of them barely know me.

And then they sang with vigor and strength and feeling.

"In sorrow He's my comfort, in trouble He's my stay;
He tells me every care on Him to roll.

"He's the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star,
He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul."

And my mother listened. Imagine. You're a little girl, the father you adore has died after being sick for years. But Mother had many siblings. After two of them died in babyhood, the rest of them lived long, relatively healthy lives. Mother doesn't have a single possession left from her father's short life. But she has memories. She has that song. She has had amazing health.

She also has two grown children who live near her. And she keeps in her mind a third who lives hundreds of miles away. Dreaming of a small house on the edge of a magic woods in the deepest South, where a rushing wind roaring through masses of leaves carried whispers from other worlds that drew that child from bed in strange sleepwalking episodes.

So, like her, I am grateful for many blessings. I have a wonderful life in Virginia. But I have another one too, one that keeps me watching, poised, really, about to spring. Back to the red clay and the porches and swings and the people who always want me because of who I was back when and am down deep and not anything else.

So the half-life always gets put away, eventually. But it is always, always there.


  1. A wonderfully poignant post. What a great experience for your mother and you, as well as the visitors. It sounds like a God moment.

    By the way, there are Indian mounds near my home. I find these ancient sites fascinating.

  2. Thank you, Syd. I love going back there. And those mounds. It was too cold to get close last time, but I'd like to visit the old graves again. I think about the fires that burned there once, the drums. After the house burned down more than 30 years ago, the long driveway was plowed over and the mound was left alone. With good reason! Peace at last.

  3. Just found this (when I should have been writing), and it was so beautiful. I lost my mom just before Thanksgiving, and my sister and I really debated about which hymns to have sung at Mama's funeral -- we'd knew we'd bawl whenever we heard any that we picked.

    Sure enough, the day AFTER my mom's funeral was a Sunday. I went to church, and what was the offertory hymn? IN THE GARDEN, my mom's favorite hymn, and the song that we had picked. And sure enough, I bawled.

  4. That's wonderful, Cynthia, of course you cried. I just love that. Couldn't have been a coincidence. You know, I just think those things mean something. Today I found a paper with my grandmother's middle name written down. Agnes. I'm just sure I never knew that, she died when I was very little. Then, as I was growing up, for years I would joke about a made-up twin, a naughty girl named Agnes. As in, "wasn't me, it was Agnes." I had absolutely no idea until today that was my grandmother's middle name. I can't help but wonder...