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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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writing

Will there Ever be Something to Show for It All?

They say the routine is important… and I’ve got one of those. A snuggly throw over my legs, a cup of coffee at my side, and the predawn pads of fingertips on keyboard.

I show up. Every weekend, I show up. (Maybe that’s the problem. Two out of seven is just not enough…)

Because I struggle. The words fail me. Or I fail them. I think it’s probably the latter. 

I read last night an afterword from an author talking about how she had this story to tell and found herself trapped. Snagged in a tangle. Me too, mama.

Character failures. Overdrawn dialogue. Dead sentences. Like I’m wading through hardening concrete. It feels almost impossible, and I’m barely slogging through.Am I making progress at all? I honestly don’t know. 

I’ve been working at it for years. Years. I’ve been writing my mind and my matters for years.

It is my innermost driving force. It is who I am. A writer. A puller of words out of the ether and onto the … what? Screen? Isn’t that still the ether? Am I even really a writer if there’s no heft in the hand to say that I am?

My boys see the books in my library. My office full of published works by other writers. They ask which are mine. Which did I write? 

Bless them. They have such faith in me. They see me as a writer. But can you be something without the something that makes you that thing? 

Can you really be a writer without the book?

I mean, if you’re a chef, you’d better have food to back it up, right? 

What about a retailer if there’s no product to sell?

If you’re a ditch-digger, there’d best be a ditch in your wake. 

Still, I keep going. I keep doing. I pull my computer up to my lap before anybody else is awake, and I pad out my ponderings and my plotlines and I persevere. I invoke the muse – like I literally practice the invocation of the muse (if it was good enough for Homer, maybe it will be good enough for me), and I fumble along in the darkness before dawn.

Digging the ditch, making the meal, so I can sell the wares. The words And maybe they’ll come. If you build it they will come. That’s the saying, right?

when you’re brittle and trying not to break (the tale of an introvert in mourning)

Something’s gone wrong with me. I’m impatient. Inadequate. Unmoved. 

I roll my eyes at people who deserve my patience. My sympathy. My empathy. Where has my empathy gone? 

It’s like I’ve suddenly been remade of a very fragile substance. Like I’ve been through the fire and have cooled and turned crisp. Like glass, thin and sharp. Like peanut brittle, but without sweetness. Like dried bones.

Who am I anymore?

Is this what mourning is like? Distancing myself from every feeling so I don’t shatter into jagged bits that will cut someone? 

Because I really think I could. Cut someone. If pressed.

I always thought mourning was feeling everything. Feeling it all so hard and so sharp that it stole your breath and left you drowning in a dense sea of emptiness built from never-ending tears. 

But me, I’ve only truly cried once. The night I buried him. Cried in a fetal position in the floor of my closet until I thought I would vomit — not just the contents of my stomach, but my stomach itself. Cried until bile ran through my veins and tear ducts. Until my intestines flipped and twisted into a knot and wrung out the tears, said, ENOUGH, and sent them packing.

After that, I cooled. 

And backed away. Pushed anything and anyone away who tried to make me talk about it, made me try to feel it.

Leave me alone. Let me alone. Let me.

Who the hell are you to ask me how I’m doing, anyway? Who the hell are you? You have no right to this pain. 

I’m not sharing it with you. I’m not even sharing it with me. It is sacred and not to be touched. It is strangled deep inside my sigmoid colon where it needs to stay. Contained.  Lest I shit all over you. 

Lest I cut you with it, too.

Distance. I need distance. I’ve needed it for the last seven months. 

I’ve put everything and everyone beyond arm’s length. So I don’t get touched. Touch. Feel. I can’t handle it. 

But I know I can’t stay like this forever. I need to get back to what I do. Teaching. Writing. Motherhood. Feeling. 

I’ve always been good at these things. At motherhood and writing and teaching. And feeling.

But I’m still so brittle. So frangible. So far away from who I am. 

How do you teach like this? How do you awaken the minds of your charges when you are terrified to reawaken your own?

And how do you write like this? Without digging deep? Without dipping into dark, muddy shit.

And Motherhood. It’s impossible to mother without shit. Without getting cut. Without feeling. 

Impossible.

I’m an imposter right now. This is not who I am. 

But one-half of the people who made me is now gone. And the person I was came unmoored. And sank. And is buried somewhere in my twisted reality. 

And when I start digging for her, I face hard questions. Not the Did you love me? questions. Because I know he did. I truly, deeply know he truly, deeply did. 

But the other hard questions. The shitty ones.

The Were you ever really proud of me? and Did you ever really know me? ones. The Did you ever really even want to know me — like who I was, not who you wanted me to be? questions. 

All the dark complexities of being a daughter in a patriarchal papa’s world kind of questions.

Will I ever be less brittle? Feel less brittle? Feel? 

Will I be able to reignite the flame that got doused, strangled somewhere inside my intestinal fortitude? Get back to the warm-blooded me who is flexible enough to teach my students the way they should be taught? To mother my children the way they should be and deserve to be mothered? To write about the things I want to write about, that I should write about, that deserve to be written about. To search for the answers to the questions I manage to write out, but still can’t write about. Can’t write through.

Is there a way to tap back into the life forces that pull me through this universe when a major life force in my universe has tapped out? 

It’s all so complicated… and so different from what I expected.

Making a Room of my Own: the Library

Tomorrow marks one full week since moving day – a day that arrived with hurricane force. Literally, in a manner of speaking.

Nine Cartersville Purple Hurricane football players helped get us here. They blessed us with their hearts and their strength. My daughter and son-in-law were here to help too. Without them all, we couldn’t have gotten it done. Words can’t express my love and appreciation.

Since then, we’ve unpacked boxes, set up the kitchen, arranged furniture, assembled beds, unpacked more boxes, unrolled rugs, learned to cook with a toaster ovens (backorder backstory), hung artwork, unpacked more boxes… well, you get the picture. And we’re not done yet. 

But one room is finished: the library. It needed to be. For my sanity and soul’s sake.

A room without books is like a body without a soul

Cicero

Thus spoke Cicero… and he and I, we’re in philosophical agreement.

And this room — it has soul. Lots of it. My daughter and I exhumed an entire library of souls, including Darcy, Dalloway, Celie & Shug, and granted them a new resting place. We even shelved a few who sold theirs — Dorian Gray, Young Goodman Brown, Nathan Price, the Vampire Lestat. And there’ll soon be a new girl named Addie LaRue!

I will feed on these souls like the Vampire Lestat. I will stoke the rich, yellow flame that rests in the seat of my own soul with the content of the greatest of creators. Austen, Walker, Kingsolver, Woolf, and so many, many more. Because, as my famous mentor said:

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

Virginia Woolf

So just this morning, I carved out a couple of minutes to settle in for a seance with the GOAT herself. No, really — Woolf was nicknamed Goat as a child by her family back before GOAT meant what GOAT means today (Nailed it!), and she famously said:

A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction.

Well, I now have the room.

A beautiful room where the beauty of the world with its two exquisite edges — laughter and anguish — may ripple and ripen beneath my fingers. A room where my soul sings to me in concert with the souls singing all around me.

Virginia Woolf and I are also in philosophical agreement. A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction.

Well, I’ve got one covered so far.

Homemade: Now We’re Cooking

Remodeling a home on a strict budget is wicked tricky. Pinching pennies and pleasing our family’s personal tastes is no piece of cake.

To say I’m overwhelmed is an understatement.

Thankfully, we’ve got a couple of builders serving as our master chefs, guiding us through the whole concoction. Cartersville’s own Jennifer and Jeffrey Vann of Native Construction (and their amazing sous chef Tae Henson), are keeping us straight when it comes to ingredients, quantities, and measurements. Without the guidance and support of the Vanns and their crew, this could easily become a recipe for disaster.

Our first order of business was to strip the cupboard bare. Carpets have been pulled up and walls are coming down. By the end of the weekend, the house will have been reduced and rendered and ready to be reconstituted.

Next comes the meat and potatoes of the project: flooring, paint, and tile.

For flooring, we went with LVP – or luxury vinyl planks, for anyone not in the know (I wasn’t either until a month ago). LVP is cheaper and hardier than hardwood (both great qualities for our school-teacher salaries and twin boys’ shenanigans). We selected planks on the lighter side and dredged in warm and cool grains.

The paint for the kitchen walls, cabinets, and great room is Sherwin-Williams’ Alabaster, which is warm as a glass of milk at bedtime. We then found a creamy subway tile for the kitchen backsplash, which we’ll seal in a dark grout for texture and contrast (and to pull that admired-and-anguished-over black matte sputnik fixture into harmony).

So far, easy peasy.

But then came the granite, and I suddenly felt like I was biting off way more than I could chew. The choosing gave me so much indigestion and I really can’t say why.

Maybe it’s because the cleanest stones – the ones that look like massive slabs of vanilla ice cream drizzled lightly with caramel and walnut sprinkles – are well beyond our price range. So many of the others look like the crust of an everything bagel to me — hand tossed in peppery seeds and spices.

And while when it comes to flavor, for me it’s usually the more the merrier — in this instance, I needed coaxed and controlled, subtlety and nuance. And with the help of Araceli at RS Solid Surfaces (our hometown stone supplier), I think we found what we were looking for.

With the texture and depth of a creamy oyster risotto, it’s high caloric content without the high caloric cost. RS Solid Surfaces knew just what we needed to complete our kitchen, and I can’t recommend or thank them enough.

Whew!

Now that most of the major prep work has been completed and the house is cored and ready to be filled with creamy goodness, I’m getting hungry for the finished product… but that’s still a long way off.

Until then, I’ll drink deep from the heady bouquet in our garden, just bursting with big, dense, opulent flavor. I get a buzz just looking at it. My heart is as full as my glass is.

Cheers!

The Haunting Remodel of Hill House: Try, Cry, Why, Try?

Consider this: I’ve never remodeled a house before. I find it daunting. Terrifying. All-consuming. Every whisper. Every waking hour. I’m choosing my possessions. Trying to keep up with it all. 

feel possessed. Paint colors haunt my newsfeeds. Floor choices haunt my thoughts. So many hazards, so many missteps, so much room for error. 

What if all these favorites come flailing around and now I’ve done… too much? 

What if they look garish together? Hideous. What if they clash like a room full of drunk uncles? Like I was drunk myself when I picked them all out? I’m haunted by the possibilities.

Case in point, I found this modern sputnik light fixture with jutting black appendages and amber Edison bulbs. It spoke to me of my inventor father and his love of physics and Russia. It’s destined to orbit over the kitchen table. Still… how will vintage space race get along with an apron sink and schoolhouse pendants above an island not four feet away? 

Can I smash centuries together without causing chaos — a wrinkle in time that destroys the peace of the entire project? 

I hate chaos. I like calm. I like soothing and lyrical. Creamy neutrals. Warm whites, muted golds, flat black. 

But along with that daring sci-fi find, I’ve also discovered a saturated paint color, dark and brooding. And I do like me some dark. 

I guess I like my house like I like my literature — soothing and lyrical, but with an undercurrent of secrets, of storied histories. 

But southern gothic meets science fiction?!? 

Is that even a thing? Should that even be a thing? Because Lord knows, I don’t want farce, and parody is not the look I’m going for. I want original and authentic, full of harmony, but with an undercurrent of designed tension. 

I really want this whole design process to be like writing — chasing the best possible word to build the best possible story. And it sort of is, honestly. It’s full of fun and promise and a whole lot of hard work. And a whole lot of fear, too… Will it be all that I’ve dreamed of? Will it be a success?

But then, it’s not like writing either. Because in writing, at least, you can keep editing — rework your mistakes until you strike the right chord, find that ringing, tonal clarity with the perfect, eclectic mix of characters. The one in the corner. The one in the spotlight. The brooding introvert, the flashy aunt, the absent-minded professor, the plump grandmother handing out gingersnaps and hugs. And then you add that one character. That mysterious outsider who brings tension and electricity. The one who’s losing her religion.

In writing, you’re the boss. If somebody does something out of character, or outside your plotline – they’ve said too much, or haven’t said enough — you strike. Their action or even their entire person. You’re god. 

Or… you’re not. The errant character with the giant misstep takes control. Because her mistake, you discover, is pure poetry. So you let her run with it. You go backwards. Return to chapter two and change the trajectory of the entire piece. Sometimes not being the boss in your writing is okay too.

But this is real life. And life is bigger. And I don’t have that luxury. I don’t have that kind of money — to erase my purchases to accommodate the slip of the century. I wish I did. 

I feel like a hurt, lost and blinded fool, and I don’t know if I can do this. 

Carpe Diem and the Soggy Bits

I woke up this morning at 4:14. I didn’t want to. I wanted to sleep. I’m beyond exhausted. I feel like the soggy bits at the bottom of a garbage disposal… all churned up and left to be washed away. But I couldn’t go back to sleep. I lay there tossing and turning, trying to quiet my mind. My mushy, damp, mushroom filled mind. 

It wallows in darkness all the time now. After all, this is the year of living with mortality. From the five hundred thousand and counting deaths due to Covid, to the traumatic cardiac event that cost my father his life, to the long-suffering, slow loss of  my aunt, it has been a tough year. 

I was going try to fight through the wakefulness this morning. Try to lie there, mind churning, stirring and slicing my thoughts, leaving me anxious and exasperated. But then I remembered the article I read this week… about how we need quiet time, Me Time. Time with no interruptions, no pressing obligations (well, they’re there… but nothing can really be done about them at 4 AM), and how those simple solitary hours can be some of the most important, and most difficult, to find. Especially for a 54 year- old grieving daughter and niece, who is also the mother of twin soon-to-be-seven year old sons, as well as adult daughters, who still pull at the strings of my heart and the thoughts in my mind, no matter how grown they get. Plus, I’m the wife of a coach getting geared up for spring ball, and the teacher of 160-plus students. In a pandemic year. All of this. In a pandemic year. 

Let me say, this year has shown me why teachers retire after 30 years. I get how if you start your career straight out of college, a dew-skinned, wide-eyed, tenderfoot, that by the time you hit 52, you’re spent. You’ve developed thick skin, side-eyes, and calloused heart. (Let it be known I work hard every single day not to let my heart grow hard. My conscience is a pumice stone, grinding away the calcium deposits and thick skin. But also let it be known that tenderness makes my job way harder. It leaves me wide open to wounds and weeping.) 

But alas for me, I was never a 22 year old teacher. I am a product of a nontraditional trajectory: back to school at 32, graduated at 34, 20 years a teacher, and way beyond spent. Emotionally and mentally. 

And I know it’s not all teaching that’s done it to me — because my nontraditional trajectory didn’t stop at my late-blooming career path. I also decided to have a second set of children, twin boys no less, at 48. Boys who didn’t sleep for sixteen months – which may be partly why (nearly seven years later) I still can’t seem to catch up… and why waking this morning at the ass crack of day’s beginnings was so incredibly insulting.

And I know it’s not all parenting primary-school twin boys that’s exhausted me.  Because the pandemic has saddled me with all sorts of extra weight too… the five-to-ten pounds worth of stress eating because, hell, carpe diem, for tomorrow we may… well, you know. I mean, after all, 500,000 have, plus my father and aunt. And then there’s the return of teenaged acne from the fabric masks I wear faithfully, and the lack of smiles from my students (maybe just because I can’t see them under their own faithfully-worn masks or maybe because they aren’t smiling either). And the continual waves of students leaving for quarantine and returning from quarantine. And my asynchronous classroom adaptations so hopefully they don’t feel as lost and forlorn as I do. But they do…

And I know it’s not all pandemic. Because I’m also executor to my father’s estate. Which means I haven’t had time to truly mourn because I’m dealing with the load and stress and anxiety of dealing with finances and legal matters that are completely alien to my being. It’s like handing a toddler a buzzing chainsaw and telling her to clean out the underbrush. It’s too heavy. There’s way too much room for error. There’ so much I could do wrong. Chop down the ancient oak or the beautiful dogwoods, get tangled up in poison ivy, raze my legs right out from under me.

I need supervision every step of the way. And thank heavens I’ve had it. I have a family of experts in various arenas and they’ve all lent a hand. Me, all I’m good at is the grunt work. The clearing of the debris. I guess that’s why I have the chainsaw, after all. But, have mercy!

So here I am, typing away my innermost thoughts on my computer (at now, 6 AM), the warm glow of a lamp next to me, warm coffee in my favorite mug,and nothing to keep me company but the quiet hum of the boys’ white noise machines and the keyboard recording my inner-most thoughts. 

And not gonna lie, it’s kinda nice. (Not saying nice enough to attempt on a daily basis because, by GOD, I’m running on dregs.) But still, kinda nice. Like the distinct pleasure of low tide. There are tiny, sparkling bits of peace unearthed or deposited there in the newborn damp.

I guess there are gems to be found in the soggy bits once the churning has paused after all. 

So, right now, I’m actively searching for them. I’m using these newborn, wet moments of my day to write my memoir, to chase my future. To birth yet another nontraditional career inside the trajectory of my nontraditional life. 

I’m believing in myself. For at least a hot minute — before the sun comes up and the boys wake up and the day’s demands start rising again… leaving me fighting for life. Not just my life, but all life. My boys’, husbands’, girls’, students’, society’s. 

It makes for an exhausted life. But a worthy one. So carpe diem it is.

Death’s Door and Other Existential Thoughts

Death steals everything but our stories.

Jim Harrison

I heard that line on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and it stuck with me. It’s the final line of a poem called “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” about a young girl gored in a pasture. It really speaks to me — as in, it speaks lies to me.

Because unless we record our stories, Death steals those too.

In the last three months I’ve lost two loved ones — and countless stories. Their stories. And my own.

I’ve had massive writer’s block. I try to dive in. I try to ride the smallest wave of an idea. It fizzles and fails. I fizzle and fail.

And then there’s all the stories of theirs that I’ve lost.

My father’s stories, wrapped up in gullible goodness and bland bouillabaisse. He told fishy tales. Suspect ones, full of adult idealism and fairy tale naivete. If he were a character in a comic, neon bubbles would circle his words — citrus and magenta shades for his grandiose schemes and shooting star aspirations. Don Quixote tilting at windmills — so chivalrous and sometimes so sad. Folks took advantage of his inert, innate goodness. Neighbors took advantage. I wish I could remember the details. I’d hold them accountable for their sins. But I tuned him out, so I’m holding myself accountable.

And then there’s my aunt’s stories. Stories of her ER escapades; the trauma bay dramas. The bludgeonings, bullet wounds, foreign object removals. Those foreign object ones were my favorite of hers, and she had so many. The fellow arriving in an ambulance still sitting in his driver’s seat, impaled by tomato stakes. The fellow arriving with the ice pick through his brain, talking, animated; until he wasn’t. The naked sunbather wheeled in on a trifold vinyl lawn chair, his testicles entangled and swollen amongst a twisted nest of spaghetti tubing. I wish I could remember the specific details of those stories, her blue lilac eyes, so animated as she recounted them; until they weren’t. Until dementia dulled them. Her eyes and her stories. And the details were gone.

So many stories tuned out. The soundtracks of their lives, the background noise of ours. And now they’re gone… and I can’t remember.

Remembrance. It’s a motif in Hamlet that pairs with the theme of “What Happens After We Die.” Legacy. The Ghost, Hamlet’s father, begs him: Remember me. Hamlet begs Horatio, his most loyal confidante, to tell his story: Report me and my cause aright.

And that’s what I need to do too. I need to tell their stories. Report them and their cause aright. And mine too. Before it’s too late. Before it’s all lost forever, behind death’s door.

Because that Harrison poem’s FIRST line is a doozy too:

Death waits inside us for a door to open.

Damn. What a line. What a truth.

That Harrison poem speaks lies AND truths. Which is why it really, really speaks to me. Right now. At this moment. This moment where death’s doors have shut so recently on those I love so dearly. And because none of us is getting out of here alive. There is a door waiting, a doorknob made of flesh just waiting for the twist.

Morbid, I know. But then, Life is morbid. And what happens after we die is why Shakespeare wrote in the first place. And Spenser. And Keats. And any author, really. (Me too. That’s why I write too.) To tell our stories, and to be remembered.

But I have let my loved ones down. I should have listened more. I wish I’d listened more.

But I’m telling my story. Stories. All of them. And I’ll keep at it till I get them right, writer’s block be damned. It seems the devil really is in the details… but get behind me, Satan. I’m ready to dance.

Because the rest, as Shakespeare says, is silence.

And here’s that poem in its entirety, for those of you who want lies and truths to rattle you as well…

“Larson’s Holstein Bull,” by Jim Harrison

Death waits inside us for a door to open.
Death is patient as a dead cat.
Death is a doorknob made of flesh.
Death is that angelic farm girl
gored by the bull on her way home
from school, crossing the pasture
for a shortcut. In the seventh grade
she couldn’t read or write. She wasn’t a virgin.
She was “simpleminded,” we all said.
It was May, a time of lilacs and shooting stars.
She’s lived in my memory for sixty years.
Death steals everything except our stories. 

So I blog…

My full-time jobs keep me up to my eyeballs in busyness. Motherhood, teaching, wifedom. It doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for writing. But writing keeps me true to me. To the spark that makes me, me.

I am a writer. I was born a writer. It’s just taking me a long time to get there. I have a book I’ve been working on for a couple of decades now. But Life kinda took hold of my writing hands and put an Expo marker in them and a whole bunch of students in front of me.

And then Life kinda took hold of my writing hands… and took one ring off them, filled them full with adventures and struggles — and eventually a new ring and three new male hands to hold — all producing lots and lots of real world fodder in front of me.

But just not a lot of time to write about it. And definitely not a lot of time to devote to that book.

So I blog. It keeps me plugged into my creativity and my passion for words. It helps me record my progress as a teacher, a twin mom, a veteran mom, a citizen of this great and currently tumultuous country, and a human.

Blogging is also how I sort through my thoughts — on my past, my present, and my future. It helps me filter and find my way through so many things. To dig deep and sift and sort. I find my kernels of truths. My truths. Sometimes others share them. Sometimes not.

That doesn’t mean we can’t still share. Sharing connects us. Sharing smiles, sharing hugs (some day again soon, I pray!), sharing feelings, sharing stories.

I love sharing stories the most. I love hearing about the events, the small and large, that unspool inside the lives of my friends and family. And I love telling mine.

But I’m shy. And I’m awkward. And feel like I’m hogging the stage when nobody really wants me up there. So I tend not to talk much, especially in crowds.

So I share my stories in my blog. Where folks can choose to read them… or not.

And I share my stories so I can feel like I’m doing what I was born to do, which is write.

So while my I spin crazily through the joys of family and teaching and life, and while I spin crazily through the dark and tangled mysteries of life — I blog.

This is my sixth year of doing so. I’m proud of that. I’ve kept myself disciplined. I’ve paid attention to the details, the tiny whorls and ridges of my life and her events. And I’ve written about them.

And maybe some people feel like its weird, or self-absorbed, or uncalled for, or they roll their eyes or run their mouths about it. That’s their prerogative. It may sting a bit, no lie. But I’m still going to do it. Because the one good thing about blogging is nobody else has to pay it any mind. And honestly, if I’m going to become the butt of jokes, I prefer they not.

But I’m still going to put myself out there.

Because it keeps my spark lit. The spark I was born with. Each of us has one — a spark and passion, a gift created just for us. Whether its playing the piano, throwing a football, painting landscapes, counseling hearts, tending vegetables, decorating interiors, stitching needlepoint… there’s so many tiny gifts we can hone and nurture to keep us healthy and happy.

But some of us lose them along the way. I am determined not to lose mine. I am determined to keep its flame burning, even if what I produce is tiny and seemingly inconsequential. It’s not so to me.

And so, I write. I blog. I put words to screen. I do it diligently. Baby steps. Especially now, while my heart is struggling to find lightness again. While I’m too much in darkness to do much work on my big work. The work I am determined to unearth in the end.

So I blog.

Layer Cakes and Legends: My Apocryphal Appalachian Roots

Today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted in roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it reminded me of my grandmother.

Not because she used to bake blackberry jam cake. (She didn’t.) Nor because she loved to bake at all. (She didn’t.) There was only one cake she ever made, and she made it every fall for Thanksgiving — a German Chocolate Layer Cake, triple-stacked to heaven and beyond. It defied natural laws.

Baking my own triple layer cake this morning somehow conjured up my grandmother’s spirit. Out of nowhere, a warm fragrant memory slipped in — a peppery whiff of Scotch snuff amid baking layers — and I was instantly transported back. Back into the warm half-circle spotlight of her bifocals, where she peered up at me with love and adoration… and then demanded I write down a select few of her stories.

Yup. Demanded. And Grandma always gets her way — even from beyond the grave. (Compromise was never her middle name.)

And she really was quite the storyteller — I like to think that’s where I get my passion for words — and her tales were always tall. As impossibly tall as her German Chocolate Layer Cake.  She told some doozies, but there was always truth in the pudding, er, batter… batter thick and sweet and loaded with flavor.

Her stories infused every room in her small house. They found you in every corner. You couldn’t escape them. Through the darkness of night, she was sitting on your mattress while you slept, telling you a story.  Through the closed bathroom door, you were sitting on the toilet while you shat, she was telling you a story. No exaggeration.

Her stories were a never-ending narrative. I’d heard them a thousand times. I thought I could recite them backwards. They were a constant. Like a beating heart. Always there. Always.

Until they weren’t.

I took them for granted. I tuned them out. I never wrote them down. I really wish I’d recorded them, old cassette ribbon winding like stretched caramel from one receptacle to another to help me transcribe her words from one era into another, today. Alas, I did not.

But this past summer, my family celebrated her oldest son — my Uncle Pal’s — 80th birthday. My two aunts and my father were there, too, rounding out her initial genetic contribution to this world.

The four sat atop a green, overstuffed sofa and held court, flipping through old pictures and regaling the second and third generations with Grandma’s tales of our Appalachian roots.

peters

Most of the stories I recalled immediately… their familiar cadence returning to me like skip rope chants learned in my childhood:

My grandma the buxom beauty — her breasts swelling so large when she contracted mumps at twelve that they never returned to what she considered a respectable size. She and her sister Margaret would mash them tightly in scarves, trying to achieve the ideal body image of her age — flat-chested flapper girl — to no avail.

grandma

My grandma the axe murderer — her one and only victim, a Harley Hog my dad bought knowing she hated them. Her brother had almost died on one; her son would not have the same opportunity. The Hog died instead, a quick, violent death from hatchet-strike to the fuel tank. Dad wept as his full-fendered baby girl bled out in front of him… the original chopped Harley.

My grandma, the exile — sent in her early twenties to country music legend Mama Maybelle Carter’s house, her childhood friend and neighbor. My great grandfather sent her away to keep the clambering boys away from the self-proclaimed prettiest girl in five Virginia counties. (Humility was also not her middle name.) Grandma spent an entire summer dancing the Charleston, little June Carter running between her flashing legs while Mama Maybelle scratched her guitar.

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Keeping Grandma away from the boys worked for a while, but she finally managed to run off and marry the love of her life at the ripe old age of 25 — an old maid by Appalachian standards. Grandpa was years younger than she was, also unheard of in that time period.  (I guess I get that from her, too.)

My aunts and uncle also told us a few tales I’d maybe heard, but had long since forgotten.

Like the seven-foot tall distant relative named Pleasant who was so small when he was born they could fit his head in a tea cup, and who slept in a Singer sewing machine drawer next to his parents’ bed. Pleasant grew up to be large and in charge, and was famous for once throwing a man out a second-story speak easy.

I also heard about an ancestor who, at 98-years young, could stand and do a somersault in the air. Backwards. That’s a back tuck, by the way. Cheerleaders drool for that kind of skill. He could do it at 98. Unfortunately, no one remembered his name.

But a whole lot of other names were remembered in my uncle’s living room this past July — names summoned from my grandmother’s looping cursive, scrawled in her black-papered memory book. Names like Viney and Velma, Tom and Tate, Willie and Chapman, and Emmy and Spencer, and Pleasant, of course. (I kind of wish I could have another kid, simply so I could name him or her Pleasant. No, scratch that. I’ll leave that up to my girls…)

Those names, written in Grandma’s looping penmanship, lassoed us all and pulled us back — back to our childhoods and beyond. Back to the crags and coal of the Virginia mountains. Back to the looping, sprawling deep-settled roots of our family tree.

The tree itself juts high and strong these days, with limbs spread far and wide. From London to Phoenix, her descendants are scattered like leaves in haphazard drifts of color and contrast in a beautiful, autumnal haze. We, indeed, have a glorious family tree. And her stories — our stories — deserve to be told.

* * *

Yes, today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted with roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it conjured my grandma, who channelled my fingers and hijacked my blog  — to write about an Appalachian beauty with a penchant for layer cake and a story or two thousand to tell.

My guess is, she isn’t quite done with me yet.

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