Menu

Essay

Inherited but Never Inhabited
Story and the Garden

 

MY GRANDMOTHER MARY ALICE kept her big, tissue-paged Bible beside her party-line telephone and flipped through it, reading here and there, as she listened in on the stories being told along the Edmond Road. Even now, many of my kin keep Bibles by them the way city people keep iPods and Blackberries. My mother’s cousin keeps them on the floor of her car, on her kitchen counter, in the bathroom, beside her chair in the living room, on her bedside table. She uses them as practically and unceremoniously as she uses wooden spoons or a pair of pliers. Her mother, though, was given to ceremony. When Aunt Alice, as most people called her, wanted to open her Bible, she held it by the spine, tightly closed, with the edges of the pages facing up. She dangled a skeleton key on a string over the page edges, and as the key swung, it guided the way the pages parted and showed her the word she needed to hear that day. When Aunt Alice’s sister, my great-grandmother, could no longer read her Bible, she went straight to the source. Lying wakeful at night, she talked out loud to Jesus, and he apparently talked back, because one night a man’s voice coming from her room woke my grandfather. He went in to turn her radio off, but it wasn’t on.

§

My family tells stories. As I write that, I hear the childhood meaning of the phrase, and yes, we lie as earnestly as any other family. But true or not, our stories—like Bible stories—are not lies. The Bible was the one written text most everybody knew back when the one-lane Edmond Road was surfaced with red dog, as red gravel was called. My family is as bombarded with information as the rest of the world, but for many of us, biblical text still shapes the rhythm of speech. We savor the shape and sound of its words the way other people might savor a mouthful of chocolate or bourbon. Our lay preachers pour the blood of Jesus over the fried chicken before we sit down to eat at family reunions, and after dinner someone gets out a guitar and we sing that most peculiar of gospel songs, “Great Speckled Bird.”

Appalachian culture is still, for many people, an oral, storytelling culture. Which makes it deeply countercultural in the larger world of information-worship and the casual slaughter of language to fit the needs of technology. But because my parents left the mountains, I didn’t grow up in the midst of the stories or the religion. I inherited them, but I never inhabited them. My storytelling mother used to drive me crazy. Simmering with impatience, I would beg her to just cut to the information I wanted and tell me what happened! Even the simple question of whether there was any mail today was always answered by a story. For my mother, the story was what happened. Whether or not there was mail was only the fact, the excuse to continue weaving the feel—the texture—of the place where the mailbox stood.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the Latin origin of “text” is literally “that which is woven, web, texture.” Texture usually means the physical feel of an object. But in an expanded sense, texture can be understood as the feel of someone’s world, as the many-stranded web in which human perception hangs. Our family stories from the Edmond Road are the text that preserves the texture of the past, the feel of things remembered, the feel of things necessary to know and pass on. When they were first told, the stories wove and repaired the texture of life along the Edmond Road and in the hollows beyond. Now the stories weave and reweave the web of our relationships, binding us together, tying present to past.

The family stories have names. My favorite is “Aunt Alice and the Rabbit Trap.” Aunt Alice, the one who used the skeleton key to open her Bible, was fervently Pentecostal. One Wednesday night in the 1920s, she and her husband and children were coming home from a prayer meeting. As their rattletrap Model T bounced across a shallow stream and climbed the far bank, a great light blazed up in front of them. “Stop, Jake! Stop the car. That’s the angel of the Lord. Everybody get out, get on your knees!” Jake stopped the car and they all tumbled out and knelt in the road while Aunt Alice prayed. The light had disappeared, but they had all seen it. The same thing happened again the next Wednesday night, and on Thursday, too, when they put the angel to the test to see if it only came on prayer meeting night. Aunt Alice’s angel was the talk of the hollows. One afternoon, she came to visit my grandmother and my twelve-year-old uncle overheard the conversation.

“It just comes to that one place, Mary,” he heard Aunt Alice tell his mother. “Just that one place where you come up from the creek. It’s fiery bright as a flaming sword and then Jake stops the car and we get out and everything goes dark as sin, but you know that angel’s still there and you know it’s listening.”

My uncle slipped out of the house and went to the field that sloped up from the creek, where he’d lately been setting his glass-ended rabbit trap. He moved the trap about twenty-five feet farther from the road, far enough away that the lights of Jake’s Model T wouldn’t catch on the trap’s glass ends any more. The fiery bright angel never showed itself again, not the next Wednesday night or any night. Nobody ever told Aunt Alice why.

It took me a long time to notice that what isn’t said in the stories matters as much as what is said. Timing also matters. The exact moment when something is said is always part of the point, and my kin will wait years for the right moment. The story of “The Christmas Moonshine” starts on a December night in the late twenties and ends on a summer afternoon years later.

When my oldest uncle, the one who moved his rabbit trap, was about fifteen, he needed money for Christmas presents. Those were prohibition years and there was a thriving moonshine business in the mountains. One evening, he and a friend went along to the store at the end of the Edmond Road where the men gathered to talk and smoke and drink. As the boys walked up to the store’s porch, they smelled liquor. Their noses led them around the building and into the basement, where a barrel of moonshine was leaking. Good moonshine—the best came from Shooting Creek over in Virginia—sold for twenty-five cents a Mason jar, and the boys decided that their Christmas money problems were solved.

My uncle’s friend hoisted the barrel on his shoulder and my uncle acted as lookout. They got the barrel out the back door, carried it away over the fields, and hid it in the woods. My uncle gathered dozens of Mason jars and the next night they divided up the moonshine. Knowing that his father would take a strap to him if he found out about the theft, my uncle hollowed out a haystack in a field not too near the house, slid a long plank into the stack, and set his jars on the plank. He did a brisk nighttime business and his father seemed none the wiser. But one night, when there were only a dozen jars left, he crawled into the haystack and there was nothing there. Even the plank was gone. He knew thieves wouldn’t bother to take the plank and was afraid his father had found him out. But my grandfather said nothing, my uncle spent his Christmas money, and things went on as usual.

Then, one summer day when he was about eighteen, his uncle Lovell came to visit. “Come up and see my bees, Lovell,” my grandfather said, and the two men started up to the ridge above the cornfield where the hives were. Knowing that Uncle Lovell had seen those beehives countless times, my uncle wondered what they were up to and followed them. Hidden in the shadow of some trees, he watched his father take the top off one of the hives, fill a tin cup, and hand it to Lovell. Lovell drank and handed the cup back. Looking straight into the trees where my uncle was hidden, my grandfather smiled and said, “This is the last jar.”

Timing and a punch line to die for! But when I first heard the moonshine story, that wasn’t what I noticed. I wondered how my uncle felt when my grandfather said that. How people feel never seems to matter much in the family stories. The point is always what people do. Which makes them a lot like Bible stories. As someone has pointed out, in the biblical narrative God never seems concerned with how anyone feels, only with whether they go or don’t go, whether they say no or yes. Neither the family stories nor the Bible stories are sweet or gentle. Aunt Alice is left to tell about her “angel” until she dies, while the knowing family listens deadpan. In the moonshine story, the clever son who thinks he’s gotten away with theft is set up for a gleeful and public “gotcha.” The texture of those stories is not unlike the texture of some of the biblical stories. The figless tree in the New Testament isn’t lovingly pruned and watered and organically fertilized; it’s blasted dead. The bereaved disciple isn’t given compassionate leave to bury his dead father. Jesus hurls the moneychangers’ tables around with the enthusiasm of a drunk in a bar fight.

Well, an anthropologist might say, your family stories are peasant stories, told by people who deal in unforgiving reality and economic survival, not in moral uplift. The stories’ harsh texture sometimes makes me squirm, given my middle-class sensibilities. But I have an inner working-class hero who just laughs and punches a fist into the air and orders another beer. She and the artist I became stand shoulder-to-shoulder, maybe because they share a deep and fertile sense of exile.

I was born where the stories come from, but even that was only by accident. My parents, who were visiting my grandparents on the fourth of July, started for the hospital, but I was nearly born at the bottom of the New River Gorge. To reach the hospital in those days, you had to wind down a mountain on a one-lane road that twisted like a salesman’s tongue, cross the New River on an Erector-Set bridge, and wind up another mountain to the town. Decades later, when my mother died in the town where the hospital still stands, I stood in the nursing-home parking lot, looking at the shapes of the mountains against the sky and thinking that the horizon was as unfamiliar to me as mountains on the moon.

Some psychologists say that a sense of exile helps in the making of an artist because it develops the essential ability to stand aside and apart, seeing what is and seeing into it, and making art out of that. I am skeptical about psychological deconstructionism, but my own sense of exile, from both place and class, is deep. My parents succeeded so well in making me middle class and educated that, to my horror, an aunt once whispered in my ear, “We love you, honey, because you don’t look down on us.” I am deeply grateful to my parents for my education, but class exile is an invisible mark of Cain, doubly hard to bear because it is well nigh unmentionable in “classless” America.

Whether or not it has helped make me an artist, the sense of exile, of not quite belonging anywhere, seems to show. One day when I lived in New York City, I was looking for something in a shop and a smiling stranger approached me and said, very clearly and slowly, “Are you enjoying your stay in this country?”

“Yes,” I said, when I got over my astonishment, “I am enjoying it very much.”

Some years later, in a choreography class I was teaching at an upper Midwest college, a European student sat down beside me and said quietly, “What are you doing here? You belong in New York.” Recently, in Switzerland, an Englishwoman began talking to me in a cafeteria line and was nonplussed, after several minutes of conversation, when I told her I wasn’t English.

§

After my first career in the arts—as a dancer and choreographer—was over, I confronted class exile head on and became a police officer for a few years. From the outside, this career change seemed a complete non sequitur. But one reason I chose it was to prove to myself, my fellow cops, and all my ancestors that I could do a “real” job, a blue-collar job. Being a female rookie police officer who was also a dancer with a doctorate was far from easy. Nonetheless, I felt as though part of me finally had permission to come out of its middle-class tomb. I usually worked night shifts, dealing with low-key, small-town incidents, stopping at SuperAmerica for coffee and chatting with long-distance truckers, driving slowly through deserted neighborhoods, pulling at doors on Main Street businesses to be sure they were locked tight. Entrusted for a few hours with keeping the peace of that small, plain place, I was at peace and oddly at home.

One thing that made me feel at home was the stories. Cops continually shake their heads in rueful amazement at what happens on the street and tell each other, “You can’t make this stuff up.” Every cop has a string of stories. One of my own is about arresting a drunk Hispanic man who was threatening to kill someone. As my partner and I handcuffed him, I tried to calm him a little by speaking Spanish. The town was mostly Scandinavian and, thanks to my Teutonic ancestors, I am as tall and fair and blue-eyed as most people in town were. But my prisoner yelled at me, “You can’t arrest me! You’re just a Chicana from south Texas!”

Exiles often comfort themselves by drawing a rosy veil over what has been left or lost or never possessed. They tell lost garden stories, Eden stories, about the perfection and beauty of the original place. The most successful dance I ever made was a lost garden story. Called Mary Alice’s Magnificat, it was a long, mostly solo piece about my grandmother Mary Alice on the Edmond Road. The music was old hymns, without the lyrics: “He’s the Lily of the Valley,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Jesus Loves Me,” “I Come to the Garden,” “Walk Through the Valley,” “Shall We Gather at the River.” By the time the pianist, also born in Appalachia, reached “Shall We Gather at the River,” he would be standing up at the keyboard, playing his heart out. The piece was commissioned for a modern dance lecture-demonstration in Berkeley, California—not the obvious venue, one might think, for Mary Alice and “The Old Rugged Cross.” But we got a standing ovation that first night and on many other occasions. I did the piece in theaters and church services, at conferences, seminaries, colleges, weddings, nursing homes, even at a funeral, and the response was always the same. After the funeral performance, a young African American woman said to me, “That’s not your grandmother—that’s my grandmother!”

Does exile help give the artist access to that elusive quality of universality? Or is it only that in creating or recreating the lost place, the exile offers an image of everyone’s lost place where some longed-for tree of life grows? We never stop telling each other lost garden stories, about the place we lived in before we spoiled it, the place we might reach if we get things right.

Though exiles like me often create soft-focus tributes to the lost place, as I did in Mary Alice’s Magnificat, the stories told by the people who live there are about as sentimental as an aluminum colander. They are full of laughter, though, and warmth enough to raise the dead.

The day my mother was dying, a circle of aides and nurses came and went around her bed, holding her hands, rubbing her feet, stroking her hair. They had known her family all their lives, and their older siblings and some of their parents had gone to school to Miss Lena, or Miss Martha, or Miss Louise, my mother’s schoolteacher sisters. As my husband and I sat by the bedside, the gathered women told us funny things my mother had done and said during her time in the nursing home, stories that were welcome small gifts, because her dementia had made her last years mostly grim.

When my husband left the room to make a phone call, the women watched him go and then moved closer together. “There’s a story we want to tell you, honey,” the head nurse said, “but we couldn’t tell it with him here. Now, you know your mama had an eye for the men.” Yes, I said, I did know that. “Well,” the nurse went on, “one day Dave was painting the hallway.” Dave was the nursing home’s young caretaker. “You know your mama always liked him. She was standing behind him that day and talking—not making much sense, but Dave just acted like she was and went on painting. And then, next thing he knew, your mama had reached around and grabbed him! I mean she grabbed him right where it’d do the most good, and she hung on! Well, Dave just froze. ‘Now, Miss Ila, let go of me. Please, Miss Ila, just let go, you hear?’ We were laughing so hard at the nurses’ station, we could hardly stand up, but finally we went and pried your mama’s fingers loose. And she was grinning ear to ear. Honey, she was one happy woman!”

When I arrived back at the nursing home the night my mother died, the staff was already telling a story about her death. An aide stopped me in the hallway and said, “Honey, don’t worry about your mama. Beulah called and said she saw an angel in her kitchen, right about the time Ila died.” Beulah was a young aide who was close to my mother. “Beulah said to be sure and tell you your mama’s all right.”

I went to my mother’s room and sat beside her bed. A sheet lay over her body, like a fall of snow shrouding the hills and valleys of my first horizon, and when I drew it back, I saw that someone had put lipstick on her, fire-engine red, her favorite color. Whoever had done that knew my mother. She’d left religion behind when she left the mountains, but she was always one to hedge her bets, and wherever she was going now, she wouldn’t have wanted to go without lipstick.

My mother’s cousin took me once to the church at the end of the Edmond Road, where she and my mother had gone as children. The occasion was Wednesday night Bible study and we were late. When we got there, the class was standing on the porch, looking out for us. My mother’s cousin hurried us inside, we sat down in the pews, and the lay preacher, a retired miner who’d bought my grandparents’ house and land, stood up. His text was from Revelation. As he took us through an apocalypse complete with Russian and Israeli intrigue, I slid lower in the pew and kept my eyes on my Bible, feeling as though I had a neon sign flashing “theologically appalled left-wing liberal” over my head. The preacher gave us the long version of the End Times, and after a while I started looking around the church. A baptismal tank held pride of place at the front, and behind it an amateur mural of forested mountains and rocky creeks shone with improbably golden light. I kept looking at the painting, wondering why the landscape seemed so familiar. Then I saw that the trees and mountains and creeks were the trees and mountains and creeks outside the church windows. The heaven awaiting the baptized was this place where we already were, bathed in the shimmering light of the lost garden.

“Streets of gold and walls of jasper,” the lay preacher said, nearly singing. “Rubies and diamonds and emeralds and every kind of jewel you can think of.” Shaking his head in wonder, he fell silent for a moment. Then he said softly, “It’s gonna be beautiful, buddy. It’s gonna be beautiful!”

He had tears in his eyes and suddenly I did, too. The neon sign over my head sputtered and shorted out, and if there had been an altar call, I might well have gone forward. The old miner had touched my exiled heart and the mural behind the baptismal tank had seduced my theological imagination. And maybe, I found myself thinking, the Bible study group’s embarrassing and alarming Jesus was after me and my somewhat jaded theology.

On the way out of the church, two old men stopped in front of me and peered into my face. The oldest one said, “Now, whose girl are you?”

“I’m Ila’s girl,” I said. “I’m Will and Mary’s granddaughter.”

He grunted and nodded. “That’s right.” They moved on, having asked the only question that mattered, whose girl I am, where I belong in the web of connection, in the texture of the landscape behind the baptismal tank.

Religions call the lost garden by many names, but most of them agree that wherever and whatever it is, in this life, we never inhabit it. But my husband and I decided to try. We decided to buy a piece of family land near the Edmond Road and build a cabin. The middle-class exile would return on a seasonal basis. My mother’s cousin suggested that, if we would take over paying the property taxes, she might give us my great-grandparents’ land on Beauty Mountain. Could there be a more perfect name for the place of the exile’s return to the lost garden? And to make it even more perfect, Beauty Mountain is on the edge of the New River Gorge. But when we got there, we saw that my mother’s cousin had neglected to mention the flaming sword at the garden’s entrance. A humming electrical plant stood at the edge of the property, because when my great-grandmother needed money after my great-grandfather was killed by a train in 1905, she sold a right of way to the fledgling electrical company. We also discovered that my great-grandfather had died intestate and that the land now belonged to every living soul of the last three generations, a crew unlikely to agree on anything, especially selling the land. So my husband and I turned our attention to a property adjoining the hollow behind my grandparents’ house. It was my grandfather’s old timbering land, mostly steep-sided ridge, with an access road running up to it from the hollow where distant cousin George lives. Though George is legally bound to share the access road, he doesn’t see it that way. He made his point of view clear to us by patrolling the hollow in his pickup, with a shotgun across his lap and his two large sons sitting in the truck bed. You can’t make this stuff up.

But if the stories, the nuances of exile, and the sheer sensuous inherited love of language grab you a certain way, you do make stuff up. After my brief sojourn in law enforcement, I was playwright and actress, performing my one-woman show ResponseTime, which was more or less telling stories onstage. Out of that came the desire to go back to writing stories and see if I could do better at plot than I had when I was six, when I wrote my first story, admirable for brevity if not for action: “Once there was a dog named Skipper. Skipper was a sailor. He sailed on the sea in a boat. And that is the story of Skipper.”

My first two novels (unpublished) were mysteries, set in an imaginary town in central Florida. In reading up on Florida history, I learned that after the Civil War, settlers from Appalachia drove their oxcarts south and started growing oranges and hunting gators. My imaginary town of Moccasin, and the rural Florida around it, had more in common with the Edmond Road than I’d realized. Most everyone who read those two manuscripts fell in love with Moccasin, and more than a few told me they wanted to go and live there. When the books weren’t published and I had to leave them behind, I grieved, as though some natural disaster had destroyed my subtropical Eden and all my blood kin were dead.

My third try at writing fiction, a historical mystery called The Rhetoric of Death, set in a Jesuit college in Paris in 1686, was published in October 2010. It isn’t a lost garden story, though the past can easily be used as a lost garden, since it remains in soft focus, no matter how meticulous our research. (All it takes to avoid romanticizing the distant past, however, is to imagine yourself back there with an urgent need for a good dentist.)

Not only have I written several mysteries, the novels I most enjoy reading are mysteries. Since my third try has been published, I’ve been asking myself what this predilection for mysteries has to do with the stories I inherited but never inhabited. As I’ve said, the family stories are more deeply about what people choose to do than about how they feel, and they also sometimes include the working out of a certain rough justice. Good mystery fiction is also centrally concerned with what people do, with the moral choices they make, and it is certainly about the working out of justice. In mysteries, justice is always embedded in and achieved through the tissue, the texture, of a community. The crime or sin, whatever the community calls the violence that has torn through its careful weaving, has to be exposed. The person responsible has to be identified so that the rest of the community is safe and can recapture trust. And then there must be retribution, or at least amends. The damage done to the texture of the community’s world and relationships can only be repaired if truth and its story are told. The mystery writer’s art—and perhaps the making of all art—is part of the dogged human effort to reweave the texture of our world into the beauty we remember, or dream, or imagine, the beauty we know is still here somewhere.

The spring after my mother died, I went to the grass field county airport and asked Five Dollar Frank, said to be the oldest licensed pilot in the country, to fly me over Beauty Mountain. He took my five dollars and showed me how to buckle myself into the copilot’s seat of his old Cessna and how to hold the door shut on my side. He settled himself in the pilot’s seat, took out his hearing aids—explaining that the engine noise was too loud if he kept them in—and we rattled and bounced over the grass and into the air. As we swung out over the New River, past abandoned coal tipples and old mine entrances in the cliff walls, the Cessna’s nose dipped sharply toward the foaming water. “Don’t put your feet on them there, we’ll crash,” Frank shouted over the engines. I jerked my feet off the copilot’s pedals where I’d been bracing them, and the plane leveled out.

We flew past Fern Creek, the creek my mother and her sisters were baptized in, whose water tumbles out of the woods and down to the river in a long white fall. We flew past Jacob’s Ladder, where the Fern Creek miners drove iron spikes into the sheer cliff face and climbed up and down, to and from the mine. We flew over Beauty Mountain, where my great-grandmother’s roses grow wild among trees that were old when the roses were planted. From the air, the trees covered almost everything. Except for a glimpse of the electric station and the bright colored rafts of the river runners, we might have been flying over the original lost garden and God might have been down there, walking under the trees and shaking his head over the doings of my kin, maybe even wondering if it had been wise to make all this stuff up. As Frank dipped a wing and turned the plane to head back, he yelled, “Beautiful, ain’t it, buddy?”

 


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest