There was a moment a few years back when as an old man I looked back on my mother’s life and who she came to be, understood the difficulty that coal miner’s daughter must have had living far from kith and kin with her husband’s family, confiding in me as her little man because there was no one else, and knew why she taught me to see myself as a stranger in a strange land. I was her link to the east coast, via my birth in Virginia, and she had me stand whenever Dixie played on the radio or television. She loved the Shenandoah valley. I am told I had a southern uncle who once told me my navel was my Yankee Shoot. I have been sojourning in that strange land ever since, more often than not an outsider, the shade of my mother playing Virgil to my Dante. She is with me even now.
I was born in a hospital that no longer exists not far from the Potomac River, baptized in a Catholic church whose somewhat Byzantine domed interior reminds me a bit of an Orthodox cathedral. I have few sure memories of the time we spent in the Fourteenth Street brownstone where my mother learned to cook shrimp fried rice from a Chinese neighbor (dark brown wood, perhaps, and narrow hallways), and where we sweltered in the summer in the D.C. heat (the only memory I have from that time is a doctor’s visit in the Midwest to have my fingernail removed due to a mishap – the reality of it was confirmed by my mother – I was eighteen months old, and it must have happened during one of our trips to the Midwest prior to our move). That was a time when all Roman Catholics were required to fast from meat on Fridays, and we had my mother’s shrimp fried rice at least once a month while I was growing up. I still love shrimp fried rice, though today I am particularly fond of the Peruvian version, arroz chaufa. Today, that brownstone is a halfway house for recovering addicts and no trace of anything remains that suggests a young married couple began their life together there, and began the process of raising their firstborn.
We moved to Rock Island, Illinois, a town on the Mississippi River directly west of Chicago, where the River make a great bend to the west for miles before continuing to the south. I have a vague memory of waking from sleep in the car in mountains outside a motel, with lights strung around it. I suspect that was during our move, when I was a toddler. Down the street from our new home, the sun rose from the River to the east, and set into the River to the west. Our house (today a vacant lot) was five blocks from the River, and between them in those days were a few streets with residences, then what I called the Chicken Place which sold live chickens they killed and stripped of feathers on the spot for Sunday dinner (horror and fascination mixed for a young boy), then the old courthouse that featured the skeleton of one of Colonel Davenport’s killers in a glass case – amber translucent cartilage still attached to the ribcage (more horror and fascination). Across the street to the west was our family church, and the grade school where I would spend the first eight years of my education (the county jail now squats there in its place). To the north of the church was the dairy where we would get ice cream in the summer (I favored peach, or lemon custard with little bits of lemon candy in it), then walk down to the lighted fountains by the bridge. We would walk down to the levee and watch the riverboats come in and dock, and see what strange things the fishermen on the shore were catching. All gone now, the old neighborhoods unrecognizable, the area’s economy in ruins, and the stately American elms that lined our street long dead to the blight that brought the species to the verge of extinction. I no longer woke to the summer sunlight green through the leaves of the elms, but to a raw glare that taught me nothing is permanent, even century-old trees.
Palimpsests. The streets we once walked are replaced by other streets, the people who lived near us gone to the grave and replaced by other people, the places we loved or were appalled by long forgotten except by the few of us who still remember. It is the same with our memories, our identities: I am the child who dreamed of summer only to wake to bitter cold and ice outside my window, I am the teen who pined for secret loves now grown old or gone to the grave, I am the arrogant and self-absorbed college student who walked away from God and spent decades hurtling through life with hands clenched as though life were a trip down a mountain roads with no brakes, the steering wheel comically attached to nothing. All of these selves are there. Many years ago an elderly great aunt told me that she was the eighteen year old girl pining for her lover, that self buried somewhere inside her. I don’t want to get old, she said. I don’t want to die. I didn’t understand her then, though I thought I did. I do now.
I am seventy three years old today. I live here in Greenville, South Carolina, in the upstate a little more than an hour from the mountains. Although it is late January, spring is stirring in the woods around me. I’ve seen two dandelions, and early blooming shrubs are already showing their flowers. In a few weeks, I will hear the spring peepers calling love love love in the wet areas behind my apartment. Am I aged? Ancient? I sometimes think: I am the same person I have always been. But truth be told, I’m not the same – I like who am now and would probably be uncomfortable spending time with the opinionated and faithless young man buried inside me. Within the buds, leaflings shroud smaller leaflings, and those still smaller leaflings, on and on to the unseen primordia. Beneath the budding flowers, the litter from last year’s growth. Below that, the decomposing litter from the year before. And on and on.
I am not very good at making prayer a regular part of my routine. In the morning I wake to sun or rain or clouds, and I try to remember to be grateful for another day – to try and get things right, to repent, to undo some of the evil I’ve done in my life. Or just be grateful because the world is good, and I am truly grateful for every day that’s given me to love what I have been given. Grateful for the love of friends, and for reasonably good health. If I could, I would choose to live a hundred and fifty healthy years, then die a peaceful death. I would do so mainly because I’d like to see how things turn out: Will w build a colony on Mars? Will we find life elsewhere in the universe? Will the good the future holds outweigh the evil? I try to be grateful for whatever I have and whatever will be given me, but I’m greedy. I probably love this life too much.
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I look at what over seven decades of living have done to my body. Scars, here and there, along with other defects — the big scar in my left eyebrow where I ran into the corner of a brick building one drunken night in Charlottesville, Virginia; others where I cut myself cooking or picking up broken glass over the decades; crepey skin on my arms and a blood tattoo on my leg when I had a hemorrhage due to the coumadin I’ve taken for years. Small scars from operations. Loose skin and sagging muscles from the bouts with weight gain and loss over the years. The ten or fifteen pounds I’d still like to lose but that stubbornly remain around my middle. A lot of the hair on my head gone, what’s left pure white. I don’t really like my old man’s body. I suppose I should see it as evidence that I’ve survived so much and be grateful for it. My body is for me a memento mori, a reminder of what is to come, the lines of the skull just beneath the aging flesh of my face. And yet – I see the same mole now next to my nose on the left side that I see in a picture taken of me at the age of five. In spite of all the layers of damage and repair, something remains of everyone I’ve been, and the selves I’ve tried to forget. I am responsible for everything they’ve done over the decades, and everything they’ve not done. I need to own that.
To my seven year old self: things will sometimes get better in your life, sometimes not. You will survive it all and look back fondly on who you’ve been. I see a sadness in your eyes that wasn’t there when you were five. There will be more sadness to come, but also much joy. People will love you, not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are. To my thirteen year old self: you will make many friends, and some of them will be with you for life. Some will not like you, and there’s nothing you can do about that. To my twenty-five year old self: dump the bitterness and attitude, it doesn’t become you. Learn to find belief in something greater than yourself again, and practice humility. You may think you know it all; you don’t. To my forty-five year old self: marry again, and father children while it’s still a possibility for you. Pursue those things that lead to holiness, and let the rest go. Save more and spend less. Your remaining years will fly by, leaves tossed in the wind.
It is raining and windy today outside my study. Lenses of rain speckle the remnants of the spider’s web on the screen, place of horror to last summer’s insects. The sky is steely grey and unrelenting through the leafless trees. The little space under the maple where the neighbor’s cats sought shade during the summer heat is now a red puddle of mud. Out another window, the spot where a child chose to make a short-lived snowman during a brief snowfall over a year ago. A few stubborn leaves blow off the oaks and stick in the hollies outside my window with the other detritus that has lain there for months. Winter will end soon enough, and we will find some other aspect of the weather to complain about here in the upstate. I should go out soon, but it’s easier to stay here writing than to go outside and deal with the cold rain and the damp.
My gaze passes over a quartz pebble on my desk. I picked it up on a beach in North Carolina years ago because its dirty translucence caught my eye, and because of its shape – like an oversized guitar pick. The iron it contains gives it an ochre hue. It fits the hollow in my hand perfectly, which is I suppose why I kept it rather than throwing it down on the beach. It feels comfortable in my palm, like it belongs there. How many years did it take to wear it to this comfortable and rounded thing that feels like it was made for my palm? How many storms did it weather, and did anyone else pick it up over the centuries, or am I the first one? It carries the mark of every wave that washed over it. When I die, I suppose whoever goes through my things will come across it, puzzle over it for a minute, and give it to their child or throw it in the garden. It is marked now indelibly with the decades it has spent as a sojourner in my house. I pick it up and place it in my pocket, next to the heart.
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