Friday, September 18, 2009

Lies I Told Myself

I forgot most of the truth I knew by the time I graduated from college. My recovery took a long time even to begin. And it is still a work in progress.

I made up ridiculous things and believed them. For instance, during one of our heated moments, I told Mother that she was "afraid of life." I was in my early 20s and on my way to Paris on vacation, which caused a spat I won't detail. She was wrong about some things, but not others, and if I had remembered even a few truths, I could have saved myself and others a great deal of heartache down the road.

This is what I said during our heated scene: "You and Daddy don't know anything about the world. You hide from it. You are afraid of life."

They knew plenty about the world. Mother, 89 now, admits she doesn't care much for change. She's not alone in that. But the truth is her actions did not teach me or anyone else to shrink from the world.

Take the blue holes, for instance.

My siblings and I learned to swim in rivers and creeks. Mother got us acclimated to the water early, even when the water wasn't really warm. She held us aloft on outstretched arms and talked us through the stroking and kicking. After a certain amount of time, none of us yet school age, Daddy led us into the middle of golden green water rippling in sunlight that threaded through trees lining muddy banks. And he let us go.

We thrashed violently, went under, swallowed water, coughed and screamed. Then instinct and self-preservation took over. As Daddy walked backwards, eyes carefully on bobbing heads, we grasped desperately for the hands he held out just beyond our reach, then triumphantly as the instructions from Mother kicked in and our brains connected with limbs. At last, we were swimming.

Even then, in rural Alabama, there were swimming pools around. But why flail around in small concrete tubs of chemicals when so much sweet natural abundance was available. We never knew what we would find at creeks, rivers and lakes, which were alive with possibility. A heavy summer rain made the water run swift and hard, while a dry spell meant lazy drifting on inner tubes.

A day on the living water never yielded the same result. Were the little round eggs I found peeking from the side of a sandy creek bank snake eggs or turtles? And that little dark snake bobbing his way toward me over the tiny rapids -- poisonous or not? Best to run first and ponder it out later.

And the rope swings and grape vines. Think of it -- holding onto one of these, we would take a running jump and soar from a cliff or bank over the vast water many feet below and then drop. It was exhilarating, making that first jump and surviving. Then climbing up the banks to the top, swinging out over and over again, dropping endlessly into the dark, cold water below.

There were no life guards to keep us from doing senseless things. So we learned to self-police, to look out for each other, to administer first aid with what we had on hand. We kept injuries from our parents and took care to minimize bloody evidence so we could go back. I still carry scars from cuts that should have been stitched up.

So, raised on creek, lake and river swimming practically from birth, we always wanted to explore new ones when traveling. "Mother, can we find a creek today? A river maybe?" She almost always obliged.

More than once, she showed us what she was made of on these trips.

I remember scrambling from the back of a car deep in the Tennessee wilds, bent on beating everyone to the water's edge. I ran clutching a towel, long grass whipping arms and legs, bare feet slapping the cold, hard dirt path.

I heard them before I saw them. Low, coarse voices, curses, a laugh, something making a fast jittery clicking. I stopped, the sweat on my upper lip, neck, forehead running cold.

Men blocked the trail. They wore overalls and rumpled work clothes, squatted, slouched in and around the path, their faces mostly covered by straw hats, crumpled up cloth ones. Some were yelling at a pair of dice on the ground. And nearly all were holding or drinking or wiping backs of dusty hands across mouths after sipping from canning jars filled with clear liquid.

They glared at the girl who had interrupted them. Their break from harsh labor, or forgetting about none to be found, mouths to feed, of the pious and rules they never wanted and chafed under. For a few stolen hours under the cover of brush near a creek nobody bothered to go to much anymore. Until that afternoon. Until that shivering little pest of a girl.

I turned to run, calling for Mother. My voice high and breaking. But Mother, walking a brisk pace in front of her niece, who had also brought her children, did not break stride. She kept her eyes on the water. She was comfortable there and would not be intimidated. She had grown up in that countryside, roaming with older brothers and her childhood friend Bish. Bish, who asked her to marry him before going off to fight against Hitler. But he didn't come back. His plane ditched in the English Channel and he drowned.

That day, Mother brushed by me and walked straight on the path. I remember grabbing her skirt tail, something I had not done for years, probably pushing my sister away from her traditional position. My grown cousin walked behind in silence with her four little children, one of them a baby.

I should not have been surprised by Mother's nonchalance. It had been only recently that a man acting a fool menaced our car on the back roads of Tennessee. The man's car hit ours in the back. I remember being very afraid as Mother pulled over, got out and went to inspect. The man got out of his car and snarled. He was wiry thin, in jeans and cowboy boots. And I could smell the whiskey a car length away.

Then she turned to him. "Why did you hit my car?" A look of surprise on his face and the bluster dissolved. She told him there was no damage. She would not be calling the police or the insurance company. On one condition: That he go home immediately and lay off the bottle. "Yes m'am," he said over and over, "I shorely am so very sorry, m'am, just beggin' yore pardon, m'am." Then he mentioned he was grateful Jesus had spared them from injury and damage. Which was enough. And Mother drove us away.

With that same resolve, she held steady at the sun-dappled creek. She kept her eyes on the water, which was just hidden by lush green foliage in a Middle Tennessee made even more luminous by summer.

Seeing her, the men suddenly began to move away from the path, hats came off, fruit jars wordlessly whisked from sight. Several nodded to Mother as we passed, others averted their eyes. She nodded back, ever so slightly moving her head.

But she kept her eyes on the water and hustled everyone ahead of her, following along last.

Maybe someone recognized Mother. She had been gone from Tennessee only a few years at that point.

But she wasn't about to be thwarted from her day at the creek. Not because she wanted to swim. I've never seen her in the water except when she was teaching us. I think now she was intent on making sure we could swim in all conditions, even in colder weather sometimes, to make sure we could handle it. She said Bish's drowning made no sense, that he was an excellent swimmer. She may have wondered whether the cold killed him.

And it's funny, my brother built a house on a creek bank, another on a lake. I go to the water every chance I get. It breathes life into me when I've hit bottom. And when I'm happy, it is the first thing I think of, getting to the water, I breathe easier there, in every way.

When Mother goes, she sits and watches, like I do. Her eyes scan the landscape, settling on small bobbing waves, then moving down into the depths. She is drawn to the water because she has been searching all these years.

And I understand now, finally, that she is waiting. And that she is most certainly not afraid


  1. My god, you are a writer.
    Thank-you for writing and thank-you for sharing that. It was beautiful.

  2. And from you, that is a high compliment, Ms. Moon. I am very grateful.

  3. I love it when I see your name here. Many thanks you Blognut.

  4. It is interesting, isn't it, how parents are godlike when we are children, become really stupid and even obstacles to us as adolescents and young adults, and then human beings full of faults but worthy of emulation when we grow older. (And *they* have not changed.)

  5. Yes, Elizabeth! And each time, with each person, a lesson learned the hard way, over and over. Painfully.

  6. "M" is for the many things she gave me..."

    She made me take violin lessons. And I played in symphony orchestras (Birmingham, AL was one!) and still do gigs at age 76. Thank you Mom. I never appreciated it back then.


  7. I may have heard you, Steve! And Motherhood -- not a job for the meek.

  8. Glimmer,
    I loved this post. It was so beautiful.

    Water calms me, too. I am never so happy as I am by an ocean.

    Sending love, SB.

  9. Ah, another water lover. Thank you for the encouragement, S.B.

  10. This is a wonderful post Glimmer. Your mother having such courage and strength. And garnering such respect from all. I learned to swim in the river as well. I didn't want to put my feet down because there were so many crabs and other critters that were in the eel grass.

  11. Actually that was a smart thing to do, Syd. I remember my brother coming up out of the river once, blood pouring from his foot after stepping on a broken bottle. E.R. trip for him.

    Still, I'd rather have the smell, sound and feel of a river, ocean or lake than chlorine and concrete. Especially if I can keep my feet up!

  12. This was absolutely marvelous. YOu have a true gift for story telling. I can FEEL the South in my bones. I miss it.

  13. That means so much to me, coming from you, Maggie. Since you know the South, then you understand where it comes from. I'm channeling! The South, the stories, the way they talked. It's my way of bringing it back.

  14. Wow. Wonderful memories and writing.
    I feel the same way about water.

  15. I dropped off my son at a friend's house and then walked along the Potomac River today, down near Mount Vernon. It was so gorgeous. The plant life is incredible.