Wendy Hibbard – I Remember

Wendy Hibbard shares her first story at Tenx9, remembering her mothers. 

PART ONE

I am the oldest child, the middle child, and the youngest child, all at once. Sound impossible? It’s true. I was born in a Milwaukee area hospital to a woman I wouldn’t formally meet for another 27 years. 9 months later, my adoption was finalized, and with my new family, eventually moved to a little town out in the country.

I remember feeling frightened and ashamed in my earliest memory of the woman who would become my mother. Her intensity as she yelled at me from across the driveway was startling. I was barely over two, yet somehow I knew the punishment didn’t fit the crime. I remember feeling innocent, and confused by her strong response. That was the last time in my childhood that I remember feeling innocent. But confused, – and unjustly accused; those were everyday emotions. And guilty, and afraid. So much of my very existence seemed to frustrate and anger her.

Somehow I also knew at an early age, although she never fully filled in the blanks, that she was simply repeating much of the same behavior she had experienced. It was a time when parenting skills were considered automatic. She’d also inherited a distrust of doctors, and after an important medical procedure, refused to go back to the for checkups and the hormone balancing medication that would have helped subdue her temper.

My family are simple folk. Pretty much what you’d describe as anti-intellectual, without much appreciation for self-awareness. Black or white; make your choice. But I was different. I was shades of grey. It’s interesting; I actually look like I should be the natural daughter of my parents. But that’s pretty much where it ended. Genetically, it seemed, my markers were lined up in direct opposition to what was expected or hoped for. It also seemed that those differences caused my mother to feel rejected by me from the start. As I grew, and my natural aptitudes and inclinations emerged more and more, those inclinations were frequently misinterpreted as defiance. They just didn’t understand.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I was never praised, never given special gifts. I was, in fact, given the horse my mother never had as a child, a collie she named Lassie, and a pepto-bismol princess pink room with a pink canopy bed, pink shag carpet and a pink macrame plant hanger. I didn’t want to be a princess. I wanted to plant weed gardens in the bare patch outside my father’s garage door. I wanted the ballet lessons I was “too clumsy” for, and I wanted the Crayola Big 72 box with the built-in sharpener.

I remember when things got really hard, Lassie and I would head down into the woods. We lived on a ten acre plot of land with a sweet little pine forest in the back. We would spend hours upon hours back there. It was the most special place in the world to me. I would lay down on my back upon the pine-needle-carpeted forest floor, and long before I was ever really taught anything about God, He would meet me there. I could feel his sheltering comfort through those tall, tall trees. My heart lightened as I listened to the birds singing amidst the treetops. And that breeze – oh, that breeze – that whirled all around me and danced through the trees, and spoke to me in places deep that felt like history, and hope. At times as I rose from my resting place I’d realize my face was wet with tears that had rolled down my cheeks, but I hadn’t noticed. I always felt refreshed: stronger, and ready to face anything that may await as we headed back for home.

But please, let me be clear: my mother is a good woman, a solid woman; and I am grateful to her for her dedicated service to our family. She kept a clean house, managed my father’s paychecks well, always had dinner on the table at 5, made clothes and crafts for everyone in the house and for sale, raised beautiful summer gardens, canned and baked like nobody’s business, and was an accomplished horsewoman. On long car rides into the city every Friday for groceries, we’d sometimes sing along with the Judds on the radio. I think that’s the closest I ever felt to her, in those 3 ½ minute parcels of harmony.

PART TWO

I remember the day the knock came at the front door.  I was making my way up the stairs from the basement with a laundry basket in my arms. As I reached the landing behind the door, there came a loud knock. I mean, the minute I was lined up right behind that door and the face level window, that’s the exact moment it came. Three hard, fast raps. Bam-bam-bam. It caught me off guard.

At the time, I was not in the habit of opening the door for unexpected visitors, and would probably have ignored it. But there we were, face to face: just me with my laundry basket, and the FedEx guy in all of his brown uniformed glory.

I opened the door. Signed for the envelope. It contained a much smaller, thank you card sized envelope. Something told me what it was, but it couldn’t be? I had filled out paperwork for the agency that conducted my adoption to search for my birth mother on my behalf, but they weren’t going to even open my file for another 4 months.

I tore open the small envelope. My eyes fell on the first sentence of the handwritten card. It said, “I held you only once, but I’ve loved you ever since….” That’s as far as I got before the tears and shaking set in.

It was her– 27 years later.

I called the phone number written on the bottom of the card. She was sweet and soppy and loving and girly and artistic and politically and intellectually minded; and the complete opposite of my mother. In fact, she reminded me of a better version of me. We made plans to get together the next week.

The first several days we spent huge chunks of time together. And among all the heart-warming stories, fascinating similarities, and bittersweet sharing of memories, one thing became painfully obvious: she wasn’t any better prepared have me in her life than my other mother had been.

She was a whirlwind, spewing out love and hugs like a violent force of nature. I’d never known that kind of affection – not quite in that way. And we hardly knew each other. I felt guilty. As my “natural” mother, we had a special bond that could be tangibly felt. But although I experienced an undeniable connection, she was a stranger to me.

I didn’t realize it yet, but I was on a slow burn. It made me mad when she brought me baby toys, and announced that she wished she could just hold me in her arms, curl up on the couch and take a nap together. It hurt me when she showed me the program from her mother’s recent funeral listing all the names of her beloved grandchildren. All but mine, the eldest grandchild. And I remember the feeling of my heart falling into my stomach as I learned that unknowingly, she, my half-siblings, and their father had been vacationing each summer at the campground in my very own hometown.

She returned to her life, and seemingly vanished. I reached out to her with call after call, email after email. No answer. She had become overwhelmed by all of the little fires waiting for her when she returned, and later apologized, explaining she had been too distracted to respond fast enough.

I remember that it was the first time in my life that the knowledge that I was adopted had caused me to feel rejected. I became very sick. I lost thirty pounds in a month, my hair began to fall out, and I held in my heart a stamped, one-way ticket to a nervous breakdown. I saw a counselor who decided to shorten the awkward moniker of “biological mother” to B.M., for some light, comedic relief, and suggested I do the same.

In time she finally returned my call. We talked. I had no choice but to forgive her –  I saw myself reflected in her flaws. And I was intrigued to see if I could find any part of myself reflected in her better qualities too. Above all, I would have forgiven anything, because the most important thing to remember was that she chose to give me life. And she didn’t have to. Because she did, I am here.

PART THREE

I remember walking across the threshold of my biological uncle Ned’s home. So much about his house, filled with crazy, colorful art and music filling the walls, mantels, and shelves, felt familiar to my heart. After struggling all throughout my life for the permission to express my artistic nature, this was transcendent. Even the yard was filled with welded metal sculptures he had made, and an odd little “social art” piece, that to me was the final confirmation of our genetic bond.

I have been known to enjoy messing with people – just a little. Like watching a pen or pencil slowly roll off the table, fall onto the floor, and leaving it there, until the person sitting with me dives down to pick it up in a burst of urgency as though it were about to detonate an invisible bomb in the floor below. It’s my favorite game of chicken. Or walking up to a co-worker, handing them a random object, looking them straight in the eyes, and with a quick pat to the upper arm, walking away.

Ned came upon a cast concrete form of a woman years ago, and he decided the best place to display it in his “sculpture garden” was just a little behind the natural gas tank on the side of the house that flanked the sidewalk. Of course, digging a her shallow trench to lie in was just smart, so she wouldn’t be blown away by those strong Midwestern winds known to carry off cast concrete statues of women from people’s yards. Eventually, the police stopped coming to investigate the reports of the body hidden behind the gas tank, but knowing the calls would still occasionally come was satisfying enough for him.

Ned explained that my biological father was chronically mentally ill. He had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder years ago, at about the same age I was that day, when it began to fully manifest. He generally refused to take his meds, and the Bipolar made life interesting. And dangerous. Ned had become his legal guardian after a couple little stints living in Hawaii, landing in jail for his own protection. He was prone to doing things like placing all of his earthly possessions in a pile on the beach, taking off his clothes and then setting it all on fire.

I got to meet one of his daughters, my older half sister, and she shared story after mortified story of things like driving past the lakefront in Milwaukee while her friends pointed at the “bum” sleeping under the lifeguard boat – whom she quickly and silently recognized as, “Dad”. He would show up at their adult homes and burst into their lives at the most unexpected times, creating total chaos. One time, he walked across a room she was painting, accidentally stepped into the paint tray, and just continued walking, tracking big blue footprints across the entire apartment.

They cautioned me to take some time to think about whether I wanted to introduce myself as his daughter, considering how disruptive his presence often could be. When I met him at the restaurant on Madison’s State Street, above which he lived, he looked like a happy, friendly, homeless Santa with a crazy beard and wild eyes. He was wearing a grease-stained t-shirt and no shoes in the midst of a freezing Wisconsin winter. He seemed well loved by everyone around, and I was introduced simply as “Wendy”. We made a couple minutes of polite conversation, and left. I’m still not completely sure why I didn’t need him to know who I was, but I was grateful to have the chance to meet him.

PART THREE AND A HALF

I remember the tiny little East Side bar I used to hang out at while I was a wee babe going to school at UW Milwaukee. It was called Wolski’s, and I couldn’t explain it, but it felt like home. I’d never felt comfortable myself as a single woman going into a bar alone, yet somehow I felt unexplainably drawn to that place. I would go there to work on my homework sometimes, and the owners and bartenders, who had all become friends, would look out for me. I even went on an accidental date with one of the owners once, which felt very, very odd. I loved the man dearly as a friend, but something was off.

It turned out that the brothers who owned the little pub grew up with my biological father. They all attended the school just two blocks down the street together, and had been best friends until his illness became full blown. In a way, this told me more about my father than meeting him ever could.

THE END

I remember a time when I thought the key to freedom would be learning to forget the pain of what I endured along the way. Since then, I have learned instead, to embrace it. This today, is a rite of passage for me. Not only is it the first time I have publicly shared this part of my story, it’s also exactly the kind of thing the artists, writers, and philosophers in my genetic lineage have been been doing for so many decades, before I ever knew of them. Thank you for allowing me to share. I am blessed.

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David McRay – Going Home

For “I Remember,” David McRay tells the moving story of a patient’s death, one in which David was both attending physician, as well as grandson. 

Going Home: Remembering My Grandfather’s Decision to Stop Dialysis

I remember his last words. Or, at least, these are his last words I remember.

“I’m ready. Let’s go home.”

In the fall of 1991, my grandfather’s physician discovered on a routine blood test that a measure of his kidney function – his creatinine – was elevated.  By Christmas, his discomfort was evident to all of us.  He seemed restless and disturbed, frequently changing positions and quietly scratching his skin.  But, he was certain that his condition didn’t warrant anyone’s concern.

The months following Christmas were filled with additional visits with his doctor, referral to larger medical centers, and, finally the kidney biopsy.  We talked then, as we had on a few occasions before and many thereafter, about his health and the reasons for the various tests and procedures that were being recommended.  I was a young family physician practicing in a small, rural east Tennessee community four hours from his home, and I was eager to help.  I tried to answer his questions and encouraged him to ask more of his doctors.

My grandfather was always aware of the limits of his 8th-grade education.  He was concerned that he could not communicate well with his physicians.  As a result, I gradually began to serve as his interpreter.  I would try to translate what his physicians said into a language he could understand, and occasionally, when asked, provide my opinion about what was happening to him and what he was being told.  He was beginning to understand that he was ill and that his illness would require ongoing management.  He was, however, hopeful, perhaps even confident, that this was an illness that could be cured.

Unfortunately, the biopsy revealed a nonspecific form of glomerulonephritis – inflammation of the kidneys – untreatable and incurable.  Many questions followed:  “What did I do wrong?  Is it a result of my diet?  What should I do now?”  Medications were prescribed, and dietary recommendations were made.  Reluctantly, he began to understand and accept that the condition could not be reversed.  His goals, and all the conversations with his family, focused on the management of his illness and avoiding dialysis.

But, his condition worsened, and by the second autumn, he had no choice.  The itching and fatigue were incapacitating.  If he wanted to feel better – in fact, if he wanted to stay alive – he had to begin dialysis.  He did not understand what was being offered, how it would work, or how it would feel.  He asked very few questions and understood little of the explanations that were offered.  He grieved over what dialysis did to his life – to his freedom, independence, and opportunities for service.  The treatment was never described as a form of life support with all the customary conversations about indications, alternatives, ethics, and options for withdrawal. It was simply the next step in the management of his illness.  A step he felt forced to accept but never really did.

Three days a week, my grandparents would leave home early in the morning and make the one-hour drive to the dialysis center, greet the staff, and submit to “misery,” the word he used to describe the way dialysis made him feel.

Miserable though he was, he made the best of the situation, as he had always done with every hardship he encountered in his life.  For two and a half years, he was able to drive himself to dialysis most of the time.  He still traveled some – an occasional trip to visit his son in Nashville or his daughter – my mother – in Chicago, even a four-hour bus trip to see me.  He maintained his place on the county board of education, but gradually withdrew from his leadership role in his church, a position he had held for thirty years.

Then … a stroke changed everything.  It was an irreparable blow. An ambulance trip and brief evaluation in the local hospital emergency room were followed by transfer to Baptist Hospital here in Nashville, where my grandfather remained hospitalized for two weeks.  He was discharged to a rehabilitation hospital and then an extended care facility, and finally, at his insistence, he returned to his home, in a small, rural community at the foot of Monteagle Mountain. He became dependent, unable to attend to his most basic needs.  His dignity was under attack; his spirit broken.

Many more decisions followed.  The management of any chronic illness requires that attention be given to innumerable details, and everyone thought his illness would be chronic.  His thoughts, however, seemed to be moving in a different direction, ahead of his family and physicians.

I did the best I could to answer his questions.  The conversations were difficult ones.  He did not have the strength to talk for very long on any given occasion.  While all those around him labored to fix his broken story, my granddad began to quietly draft its final chapter.  I think he had, for some time, been preparing himself for the last scene of his life, a scene he would write.  The place was chosen.  He would be at home.  The time was still to be determined.

On October 22, 1996 – six months and four days after the stroke – my grandmother passed away quietly, and quite unexpectedly, in her sleep.  Suddenly, his companion and best friend for the past sixty-one years – his reason to go on living – was gone.  We buried her two days later.  As Granddad sat, in his wheelchair, among the hundreds of flower arrangements that encircled her grave, he was deep in thought and very sad, contemplating – I am certain – the three questions that would organize the next two weeks, his final two weeks.

What will happen if I don’t go back to the dialysis unit?

Will I suffer?

What about the ‘suicide clause’?

The next day, I welcomed, with caution and awe, the privilege of discussing his concerns with him.  I was not a philosopher, theologian, or ethicist.  I was his grandson and a physician, and I was increasingly being asked to be a physician to my grandfather.  The journey we were taking was moving into strange, new waters.  As we talked, I was careful to go only as far as he went.  I did not present new options.  I sought only to accompany him on his journey and assured him that I would remain at his side, no matter what.

We shared a faith tradition, one he thought had a “suicide clause.”  Was this suicide?  Was it prohibited?  I did not think so, and I tried to explain why.  I encouraged him to talk with others.  My granddad was not a man given to rash or hasty decisions.  A careful and thoughtful person, he approached this decision in the same manner he had so many others

During the days that followed, we spoke on several occasions, and, to the extent that his condition would allow, we worked our way through the possible answers to each of his questions.  We discussed other situations in which patients make decisions to withdraw life-sustaining medical care such as mechanical ventilation and tube feedings.  He concluded that for him discontinuing renal dialysis was similar to discontinuing a breathing machine in the face of an irreversible, terminal illness.

I spoke frequently with my mother and her brother, and with a close friend – a medical ethicist – who asked the important and hard questions about my thought, emotions, and intent.

The physicians in my granddad’s little town had not been of much help to him since he began dialysis.  His kidney specialist was too far away to provide the care he needed now.  Hospice services were not available in Franklin County, Tennessee, in 1996.  So, signing the necessary papers, I assumed responsibility for my grandfather’s care.  I discussed our plans with the home health nurse.  The day for his next dialysis treatment came and went.

My grandfather’s final three days were filled with very special moments.  He was surrounded by his family, sharing stories and special foods.  On the third day, as the end neared, we took turns sitting on the floor beside him.  I never moved farther than the next room.  When his mouth filled with saliva, I would suction it carefully.  When he awakened and groaned, I eased in a spoonful of morphine and wiped his lips.

His comments became less frequent and less coherent.  He said, “So far, so good.” He spoke of my grandmother, recalled his beloved mountains, and tried to sing a favorite hymn, “The Way of the Cross Leads Home.”  By the afternoon, he was much weaker, and awake less often.  He said, “C’mon, let’s go home.”  His wife had died at home, asleep in her own bed.  He was choosing to do the same.

“I’m ready.  Let’s go home” were his final words; the final words I remember.  He slept after that.  He did not arouse again.  I moved across the room, sat in a chair, and watched with quiet reverence; allowing space for my uncle and aunt and my mom and dad to sit beside him and allowing me to maintain some measure of professional distance.  That was my grandfather dying on the couch.  But he was also my patient; a patient nearing death.  I was the physician managing that death.  Until our task was complete, I wanted and needed to protect my objectivity.

The end came quietly.  Some of those present had never before witnessed a death.  Startled, they looked to me for an interpretation, a diagnosis, a verdict.  My solemn nod unlocked the door to their grief.

Together, his church, community, friends, and family allowed my grandfather to go home and stay home.  With grace and courage, he overcame the obstacles presented by the rural location where he lived.  With hesitation and gratitude and with some sense of urgency and necessity, I overcame my uncertainty about the dual roles I was asked to play.  I was honored and humbled by the privilege of helping my grandfather write the final chapter of his story.  I believe he wrote it well.

Katy Kinard – I Remember What Really Happened

Veteran teller Katy Kinard tells us of remembering what really happened during those times when everyone was praising her–things involving fires and strip poker. 

“(Gasp) I can’t believe this kitchen!  You girls are the BEST kids!  Sara, you need to invite Katy to spend the night more often!”

I stood with my middle-school-best-friend in a room filled with the smell of strong Pine sol and success – and a big smile on my face.  Sara’s mom went on and on about how shiny the counters looked, how clean the floors – all the dishes washed and put away – and we “even cleaned the oven??” What kind of angels were we??  She had given us permission to cook ourselves breakfast while she went off to work that morning… but for us to go above and beyond cleaning up after ourselves… I mean, we were celestial.

But I remember… what really happened that day.

We were watching old re-runs of Saved By the Bell, and they must have been amazingly distracting episodes.  I also remember her dog playing with us and Sara explaining in great detail how the poor little pugs eyeballs had been operated on several times as they kept falling out of his eye sockets, and this was way more disturbingly enthralling… than the smoke billowing out of the kitchen.

Sara’s parents had a gas stove, and if you have one, you know the broiler has actual fire spread out above the food it’s broiling.  WE thought it’d be a great idea to empty an entire package of bacon into the broiler…apparently we were hungry… and we wanted it good and crispy.

Well.

It suddenly hit us that we had forgotten about the bacon altogether, and we ran into the kitchen to find visible flames peeking out of the sides of her oven along with the smoke – and a large pool of grease running out onto the kitchen floor.

We jumped around screaming in hysterics… That didn’t work, so we argued about who would pull out the broiler drawer and who would put out the fire, and we searched for a fire extinguisher.  It didn’t help when we found it, because we couldn’t figure out how to use it, so Sara’s idea was that I would open the oven and she would pour a giant pot of dirty dishwater onto the greasy fire.

I deliberated with her about this proposed plan.  I went into a story about how my mom said baking soda was a good idea to pour on a grease fire… and I ran around throwing every cabinet open, muttering like a mad man, “Baking soda baking soda baking soda!  Where’s your baking soda!  Why do you people have no baking soda??”

Sara, the cooler one of the two of us, thought this was the dumbest thing she ever heard.  “Forget about F-in baking soda – We have to put out this fire!”  She opened the drawer and dumped the water all over the bacon, causing the flames to retaliate in anger and shoot up toward the ceiling, spreading out across the upper cabinets, while grease and water and burning bacon slices flew all over the kitchen floor.

I was very much torn between caring about this problem – and saving my life… as I recalled the fact that this was a GAS stove and could probably blow up at any moment.  I think twice I ran outside into the winter air and the piled up snow mounds and debated whether I should save myself and run – or stay with my friend.

I stopped being cowardly and ran inside to further search for baking soda as Sara pulled out screws and pieces of the fire extinguisher and slammed it against the counter until it finally busted enough to produce blue foam.  At this moment, I found a full bag of flour in the cabinet and ran over as Sara put out the fire with the blue foam and I dumped the entire bag of flour on top.

After it had already been put out.

It was quite a lovely scene at that point.  Pools of grease, chunky flour-water-grease globs and charred bacon, along with blackened walls and cabinets.

I’m honestly surprised the black coating scrubbed completely off, and I can’t believe we got the whole kitchen clean… We opened every door and window and let in the 20-degree wind for 4 hours, but even so, I can’t believe it aired the house out enough to get rid of the smell.  Thank goodness her parents were smokers and thank goodness for the strength of Pine sol.

Fast forward a few years.  My parents are glowing.  It’s right after school and they have just received word that I was voted student of the year by all of the teachers in my grade.  I remember hugs and kisses…  I’m pretty sure my favorite hamburger helper was cooked that night, and homemade peach cobbler – because I deserved it.  I was an upstanding teenager and American citizen and I was in “Who’s Who Among American Students” – a book I think we had to pay for me to be in – (and I think all of you guys were in there too), but anyway! I remember… what really happened that day.

“Come on Katy, we’re not going to get caught.  Just meet us by the bike racks.  Heidi’s coming, and so is Emmy and Sara and your step brother and his friend.”  It was my time to prove myself, you see… All my friends were in the druggie crowd, and I was already ashamed that I didn’t have as many D’s or F’s as they had, or detentions – I had never even been to Juvenile Hall – and I could never seem to rise to their level of coolness – so this was my chance, you guys.

After homeroom was out, I nonchalantly slipped out of the side door around the back of the building, and at the opportune moment, each one of us ran toward the bike racks and then across the wide field toward the woods.

My heart was beating out of my chest, as I knew some kind of city-wide siren was going to go off and the dogs were going to sic us any moment.  We sprinted into the woods out of breath, until the shadows covered us completely, then we crouched down and peeked back at the tiny school between the branches.

I. could not.  believe it.  I was skipping school.  There was no turning back and I had been brave and valiant.

That feeling lasted very shortly, as my friends took out their bags of weed and passed it around for all to smoke.  Suddenly I was the good girl again, because up to this point, I had grown ok with smoking cigarettes but it would be several more months until I graduated within myself to the level of trying pot.

Let me explain that for me, smoking cigarettes was actually slowly blowing on the cigarette – and it would burn up the end and look like I was smoking – My friends didn’t know the difference – and they were impressed with my strength and resolve one day when I courageously quit my addiction. But back to the woods.

We walked along back roads and into deeper woods to reach the private property of Thunderbird Ranch, which included my house.  Ours was one of several cabins that used to be part of a camp, and one of those cabins was a chapel.  We ran inside, shut the door, and played strip poker.

…yeah.  I’m not sure why lightning didn’t crash down upon us… but I will say the worst that happened was Heidi stripping down to her bra and underwear, and I don’t remember having to remove anything exciting.

We left in time to get back to school for the last class of the day.  I’m not sure why we even returned, but I remember sitting calmly in my seat at the start of algebra when I heard the dreaded words over the intercom:  “Katy Kinard, please come to the office.”
I froze and sank in my seat, the thoughts turning over and over about the consequences that would soon follow.  My classmates stared at me and reminded me again what was just said over the intercom… so I got up and took the long walk of shame to the front office.

I sat and waited – the receptionist explaining that the principal himself wanted to talk to me in private.  I rehearsed what I might say and tried to think how brave I could be if he asked who else I was with… I would try to say as little as possible and hope for the best.

“Katy – please come in.”

I sulked in and sat down as he walked around behind his desk and pulled out a scary, official-looking paper of some sort.
“Congratulations, you have been chosen student of the year by the entire staff of teachers!  I wanted to tell you myself of this great honor…”

I remember… being way too lucky growing up.

Jeannie Alexander – A Bee’s Dream

At Tenx9’s “I Remember” night, Jeannie Alexander spun a masterful narrative about remembering her grandfather–his grace, words, and beekeeping. 

I remember my grandfather’s smell. It is my first memory. My second memory is of being carried by my grandfather through his backyard. So carefully we considered the apple trees, muscadines, figs, and plums, but far back in my memory we first considered the mud puddles.  My grandfather was a brick mason and he and my grandmother made their home in Stone Mountain GA where both of their families for several generations before had planted their homestead; the modest dreams of sharecroppers. Their plots of land were stitched together like a quilt: my great grandmother Annie-bell’s home, my great aunt Irene’s home, my great grandfather Doc’s home, my grandparent’s home, my great uncle R.L’s home, and Uncle Pete’s home. One winding twisting piece of property divided into artificial plots. A geography of tragedy, toil, love, and grace. Why is it that we think the modest dreams of the poor are any less grand than those of the wealthy? Surely they are no less holy.

When my parents were first married they lived in a small trailer that my grandparents had moved to the back of their property behind the main house.  When I was two I would kneel on the bed, my face pressed against the window screen of my parent’s bedroom window each afternoon, waiting for my grandfather to return. His old burgundy car would pull in and before his feet could hit the deeply rutted dirt path I would begin shouting “Papa come saaavvveee me!” This was our daily game. He taught me how to unlatch the screen and push it out so that he could then lift me through the window.  This is where my first memory erupts, the smell of sweat, and the taste of masonry dust stuck to the roof of my mouth as I pressed my nose against his neck to identify his scent every afternoon. His hands were the roughest gentlest hands I have ever known.  And each evening as he pulled me from the window he did so with the purpose of connecting me to the earth in the daily baptism ritual of dunking me into the dirty muddy water that always seemed to exist in the large rut in the middle of the driveway. It was a child’s ecstasy that I experienced in those moments. I would not undergo true baptism again until many years later when I tried to drown myself.

As a teenager embarrassed by rural ways and honest poverty I immersed myself in the alternative political and drug culture of Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood.  Heroin, cocaine, LSD and the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade ironically threw me into the intellectually bourgeoisie disaffected punk rock culture of angry youth, often from wealthy families, supposedly fighting for the rise of the proletariat peasant class, a birthright I had abandoned.   Sometimes the universe laughs.

But in the early hours of barely light mornings following nights of insanity, I would pull myself together and return bruised and disoriented to the gardens of healing, the waters of remembrance, my grandfather’s section of plowed earth.  I was 19 hungover and standing by my grandfather’s side, a cup of coffee in my hand, watching his honeybees swarm in and out of the hive in the already hot humid air.  “Aren’t you afraid of getting stung?” I asked. “No never” he replied, “you just have to learn to think like a bee.” As we moved from bees to fig trees to chickens I knew to my shame the truth; that the sacredness of connection was to be found here or nowhere on this earth, and all of my endeavors to find truth through separation would lead me back to this yard.

My grandfather died while I was in law school and I was so furious with grief that I refused to leave NY and go home to GA to attend his funeral. The fury has long since turned to peace and gratitude and my grandfather keeps speaking to me, slowly softly tracking my often tumultuous life. My friend Bill has bee hives now. A few weeks ago he removed the top of the hive so I could look inside the secret world into the feeding tray on top. The bees are fed sugar water. They moved slowly in the cold wet morning air and most stayed inside the wooden hive box, but a few came cautiously out of the small entrance hole in front and moved slowly, their thick stout golden honey bee bodies covered with fine hair, so very beautiful.  I hear my grandfather’s voice “The entire source of food for the whole world rests on the backs of these bees. All of this, everything around you is connected so you can’t do nothing to these bees this land that don’t affect you. These bees are you and you are the bees.” I think about this when Bill shows me the old feeding trays that he had discarded because they were death traps for bees, too deep, the bees drown caught between metal screen and water. A simple mistake, but the cost was dear and I ran my finger over the screen and over the tiny hairy corpse bodies trapped inside.

One of my last conversations with my grandfather was about bees.  We stood staring at the hives while I ate a fig pulled from the tree. I had focused on the bees to avoid the truth that his once robust body was being wasted by the cancer growing inside of him.  “Pa-pa What do bees dream? Do they dream together as one, a collective sigh? What happens when the light goes out inside of a bee? Do they have souls, and if so are they little golden sparks of light that make a snapping pop noise. Do trees breathe in the souls of bees?” He put his arm around me, pulled me to him, and I kissed his cool cheek.  I still do not know these things.

So I am buying a house and planting a fig tree. Both acts of faith.

Wendell Berry writes that “The relentlessness of the tragedy is redeemed by the persistence of grace.” My grandfather did not trust books he trusted lived experience and his life was the embodiment of the persistence of grace. Our ancestral ties are reinforced through daily lived sensory experience; the way light changes slowly through the progression of a year, the sounds of animals, birds, bells. The way the smell and taste of lake water and river clings to the air and shrouds us after a storm. What my grandfather tried to teach me throughout my whole life is that this lived experience cannot be purchased or owned, and if we tend our imaginations and memories properly, then home in its deepest truest sense is always accessible to us, for it is us, dwells within us. It is old memory. It is what is meant by living a good life. Its roots plunge deep into the waters of love, and nurture within us an affection and tenderness that I think perhaps can only be lived not described; one can only point and nod and say “Ah yes, that.”

I Remember: The Understory

Raise a glass

In remembrance of

Fire and strip poker and getting away with it,

The parents that raised you and the parents that gave you life.

Here’s to forest floors and downtown bars

To women and their stories,

The defiantly political and the depth of the personal.

Those who came by dust and water, nourished by figs and bees

Remember grandfathers

And wars, cold wars,

In memory of the chaos after wars

And personal wars,

And burning the past:

Here’s to rehab, recovery and strength.

In remembrance of trains and schnapps and naps

Here’s to the sound of choirs and standing in the rain.

In memory of worn lace and the soft security of comfort,

Of mothers. And of magic.

For lost words, last words,

Last chapters, final scenes:

For stories and understories

The told and the untold,

In reverence,

We remember.