The summer after our father died, my sister and I crossed Big Black Mountain, driving west from the Virginia side toward Lynch.
We loaded husbands and children into a van and navigated the steep ascent over Kentucky’s highest peak, past hairpin turns, perilous drops and dazzling overlooks, until the road leveled into the narrow seam where I was born and experienced my first, deepest loss.
My father and I had traveled this highway of memories together a few times in the twenty-odd years after he retired from a furniture sales job in Nashville and moved back to his paternal grandfather’s farm in Lee County, Virginia, near Cumberland Gap. But those quick, sporadic visits focused on his memories, not mine.
Now, Rachel and I planned to find the house where we lived together, the four of us, for three years, two months and twenty days. That was my age on November 7, 1950, the date my beautiful young mother died. Rachel was exactly two years older, minus nine days, which turns out to be a significant span of time. She remembers things I do not, a look, a touch, a moment, a laugh. Mother has, for her, a physical shape, a form. For me, mother is a black-and-white photograph, a concept, an eternal longing, a swirl of energy just past the edge of consciousness that can never be grasped or contained, try as I might.
We found the house. No one answered. We posed for photographs, forced the children to take note, embraced our husbands in a circle of nostalgia and drove on. “Wait,” one of us corrected the others moments later. “That was the wrong house.” We had just reached the Lynch schoolhouse, boarded against vandals, where we used to play and where Rachel dreamed of entering first grade. In this company-built coal town in which every home followed one of a dozen models, ours was still to come. Now we saw it, the familiar rectangular box containing four rooms, a living room to the right where you entered, the kitchen behind, two bedrooms on the left, how plain a repository for so much vitality and life.
This time, an owner answered our knock, inviting us in. The room was cozy, nice, unfamiliar. In the bedroom that my sister and I once shared, we paused.
“My crib was against that wall, I think,” I said. “Your bed was there.”
“That’s right,” she answered.
In the front bedroom, my heart raced. Here my mother lay confined to bed rest on doctor’s orders many of the months after I was born. “I have the vaguest memory of climbing into bed with them one night,” I said. I was between them, safe, secure.
Was that real? Imagined? A dream?
Impossible to know.
“You’re toddling along when you’re three, and suddenly, wham. Your whole world is turned upside down. You don’t know why,” a therapist once told me.
I had come to her because of a paralyzing anxiety that sometimes gripped me when I envisioned the catastrophes that could befall my children. In most ways, I have a certain bravery, or at least confidence, toward life. I have knocked on strange doors in low-income housing projects in the middle of the night because I needed to find someone. I have explained calmly to a robber why it would be helpful if he took the cash and left the photos and credit cards behind. After my father’s stroke, I learned to administer crushed pills through a feeding tube, to dress and undress a man unable to stand, to handle blood and vomit and human waste, all because I loved him and it had to be done. But when my children failed or suffered heartache or strayed, I saw less the promise of growth than the potential for an unraveling, a collapse from which no one—neither they nor I—would rebound.
The therapist smiled, amused no doubt that a woman of reasonable intelligence could be so dense. “Have you ever mourned your mother?” she asked. Well, sort of, sometimes, not really.
At my next visit, we arranged photographs and lit candles. She read from Kahlil Gibran and talked about the pictures, how my mother’s arm encircled me in one, how my parents stood glowing during their courtship days, filled with the promise of life. She talked; I sobbed. Improbable as it might sound, that was one of the best hours of my life.
I was fifty years old at the time.