As I stand at the foot of the hill leading to the ruins of an old rundown farmhouse I pause and look around, wanting to absorb my first impressions. It is early fall and all along the roadside the goldenrod is in bloom with its clusters of tiny yellow flowers. I notice their drooping feathery plumes gently swaying in the breeze. The yard, having been abandoned many years ago is a mix of wild and domestic plants, showing both habitation and neglect.
There is evidence of people having lived here once upon a time. I notice an assortment of irises planted long ago growing along the fence. I don’t know their colors and wondered if I will make a spring trip when they are in bloom. Along one outside wall of the house an old rose bush has grown wild and out of control. There are late summer blooms of deep crimson flaunting their gaudiness with an abandon and glee that makes me smile at the thought of someone, many years ago, trying to tame it, and maybe cut some blossoms to adorn the kitchen table. Scattered about the overgrown yard are wild blue bachelor buttons and purple ironweed and pink phlox. They are the wild things and yet I sense they too were planted by the birds and the wind and nourished by the rotten leaves that make their way in the cycle of life, with a purpose unknown to me.
I looked down at the rocks in the road and imagined children playing in the late dusty day. This was the house where my mother and father, Edna Lee and Ashby once lived. It was where they loved and laughed and found joy in each other. It was the house where my mother would sing and dance and make music and hope that her happiness would last forever. It was the house where my brother was born and where I was conceived. It was the house where they lived when my mother was told she would not live to see her babies grown, that there was a darkness inside her that would devour her dreams and bring her sorrow and pain and death. It was the “borrowed house” where my family lived as my father sharecropped the tobacco farm down in the valley.
I know that down behind the back of the house runs a creek. I know this, not from memory, but from family lore. It got its name, Otter, from back in the olden days when the river otters were plentiful along the creek and trapped by the native people and pioneers alike for their rich fur until the sound of their low frequency chuckling was silenced forever.
I listen and strain to hear it as it gurgles and murmurs and meanders its way to the Kentucky River. But strain as I might I cannot make out the sound of water as it rushes over rocks and shelves of limestone and shale deposited here millions of years ago. All I hear is a roaring in my ears and the beating of my heart.
I feel lightheaded and faint and the house shimmers as if it is a mirage and I close my eyes and will myself to see that life that once filled that house. I want that fallen down ruin of a house to disappear. I want to have it replaced by a freshly painted, well-kept house. I want that which has been denied me….the memory of my mother.
I don’t want it to be autumn with a chill in the air and the leaves falling from the trees with the wind making them dance a dance of death. I want it to be spring and April and my first birthday. I want to see the rose bush neatly pruned and smell the heady scent of wild violets. I want to see my mother smile at me and look into my eyes with the laughing eyes of a mother’s love. I have been told mine are hazel just like hers. My father once told me that when I throw back my head and laugh over some inconsequential thing that he sees her in me and remembers how easily amused she was. I long to hear her voice. I want to hear her sing. She can sing an old hymn, or some long forgotten ballad, or recite some silly little poem she just made up. I need my mother’s voice. I want to hear her call out after Ashby as he leaves for the fields at the break of day. I want to hear it as a memory, even hear her pray for more time, for mercy, for forgiveness for the folly of her youth, for grace.
I walk over to the twin black walnut trees still standing in the side yard. Wasn’t there a swing between them once upon a time? I cannot know if this is an actual memory or just imprinted from countless recounting of happy days from my grandmother.
I sink into the grassy hillside and press my face into the ground and my heart cries out for what might have been. I beg her not to leave me alone. I am so scared. The world has made me weary and forlorn and I long to walk in the sunshine again. I want her to wrap her arms around me and say
“Hush little darling. Don’t you cry. You try too hard. You must let it go. You cannot know the joy with the sorrow in the way. I never left you…not really….I have only gone on the other side of the mountain. Now wipe those tears and blow your nose. Here is one of Granny’s old handkerchiefs embroidered with violets. Pick yourself up, lift your head and tilt your face so you can feel the warmth of the sun. Now, that’s a good girl. Mama loves you.”