Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Barn

I spent a heart-wrenching New Year's Eve of the Millennium at my home only a few miles from the capital of the free world, Washington, D.C. But for reasons I couldn't have anticipated.

My husband was staying downtown, part of some emergency contingency planning in case the "worst" happened. An old friend, L., had come up from Alabama to, well, face the end with me and my 5-year-old in suburban Virginia. I'm being dramatic, but like many, we weren't sure what waited for us. We just wanted to pass the big milestone together.

My son was in a celebratory mood. L. bought him sparklers, party hats and balloons. So he decided we must be having a big party. We heard from neighbors that he was inviting them over to the big gala. "Come over at midnight," he cajoled. We had no such plans, takeout for three and TV being on the menu. And the little party planner, wound to hysteria by his prep, passed out on the sofa at 6 p.m., down for the night.

It was then, I got the first telephone call. But it wasn't from my husband, who was in or near "the bunker" or something concocted by people who get paid to think of these things. The call was from my mother, speaking urgently from my hometown. The news was dramatic, far more so than the anything I was hearing from my husband in D.C.

"Your brother-in-law was out burning some brush. It was windy and it got away from him. It's threatening the barn. I have to go back over there and see what's happening," was the gist of my mother's report. And then she was off.

Oh. My. God. Not the barn. That beautiful piece of art, really, behind my sister's big white columned house, the place she wanted her entire life, the one her friends call "Tara." And the barn was not just another picturesque rural structure in the countryside. Home to horses, beside a pond and a sweet rope swing, surrounded by towering oaks on all sides, it also housed a fully lit, regulation-size basketball court on the second floor, installed by the farmer who previously owned the place.

And on Y2's Eve, it was all threatened.

A second call came in about 20 minutes after the first. My mother again. "It's caught fire, the barn. Your sister is so upset. She's out there with him and they're fighting the fire the best they can, with hoses. It doesn't look good. I have to get back."

I was holding the phone to my chest, I remember. Picturing my mother, then a young-for-her-age 80, rushing down the back steps, pushing through the path kept clear through the cotton field to my sister's house. Running to the aid of her youngest child. The one she was helpless to save from grief. But in my mind's eye, I could see Mother standing near, silently, wringing her hands. Just in case.

I was upset too, for my sister, who poured her very self into that property, bought for a song at auction. She studied magazines, talked to carpenters, suppliers. She worked for the federal government to help pay for it. Without architects or decorators, she redid that compound pretty much from a down-at-the-heels rental house to a homesite that rates a Southern Living spread. To me, the farm's metamorphosis reflected my sister's own development, from a somewhat awkward, painfully shy little girl to the very graceful, beautiful woman she became.

I shouldn't have been surprised that my brother-in-law was burning brush on New Year's Eve, he's a worker bee, hyper, runs marathons to relax -- attributes that fuel his considerable business success. But I fretted about it to my friend anyway. "Why?" I asked her, emphasizing the scariness of this particular New Year's Eve. There was no one else for me to rail to about the situation. But L. was not impressed with my concern for a barn. A political junkie, one-time news media veteran like me, L. is a city girl, from a place she could easily take or leave. The place and the people are not burned deep inside her like a brand.

I answered the phone on the first new blast. "It's out of control now, the fire department is there but it's too late. They're just trying to make sure it doesn't get to the house now," said my mother, or something like that.

And these words I remember specifically, I can hear them echo clearly through the years: "Your sister told him off worse than I've ever heard her tell off anybody. Then she went inside. She went to bed with a headache." She hung up again, to rush back. For a second I wondered why she did not use the phone at my sister's house, but I knew. She didn't want my sister to know she was phoning in updates to me. And the rushing around gave my mother something to do with her manic energy.

My husband finally called. The minutes were ticking by, closer to midnight. But I was monitoring a real crisis, not a made up one. I explained quickly, trying to brush him off. "I NEED TO KEEP THE LINE OPEN HE HAS BURNED DOWN THE BARN THE WIND WAS TOO HIGH FOR BRUSH BURNING SHE'S TOLD HIM OFF AND NOW IS DOWN WITH A BAD HEADACHE." And my husband was saying "What, who, what ARE you talking about?"

Finally, the line was free. And it was ringing. My mother, of course, and again this was the gist of what she said: "You won't believe it, cars are lining the road, all up and down. People are getting out of their cars watching."


But of course they came. This is the deep south, a very small town, still. And this was big news. "They're reminiscing, about the barn," my mother said. And my sister? "She came out for a little while. But then she went back to bed. She is so upset. This is the most upset I've ever seen her, I don't know if she'll ever get over it."

I was worried the onlookers would be put out about the barn's destruction, that their sense of ownership would make them act a little nutty, seeing a part of their youths go up senselessly in embers and smoke. But my mother said the mood was festive almost, that the crowd was telling one story after another about the midnight basketball games, volunteer firefighters too. The firemen had fought hard to contain the damage and had saved the house, the three-car garage and apartment above it, the other buildings. No one was hurt, none of the animals. It could have been worse. A lot worse.

So, like good southerners, they held a wake in the little village that once had more farm animals than people. For the barn and their young selves and a place where everyone knew each other and the names of the family pets, the number of cows in the field, before the space race brought so many people to Huntsville to the south, spilling over, expanding the town and changing it forever. Cars streamed up and down the road, slowly, some stopping and watching, others getting out and coming closer -- men, women and children.

And they listened to men well into middle age talk about jump shots and dunks, yelling matches, growing younger with each sentence, Mother said. They stayed late into the night, growing quieter as the flames died down. Everyone was kind to my brother-in-law, too.

My sister recovered from her headache and regained her gracious ways. And she quickly forgave the man she has loved since they were teenagers. Insurance paid for a new barn.

And I had my own wake that night, sitting only minutes from the most powerful city in the world, clutching a phone with steadily whitening knuckles, rapt with attention waiting for any word from down south. With a friend who had no idea what I was going on about.

At that point, I had been living many states away from Alabama for 20 years. When I moved away, I thought I was saying goodbye forever. But I never really left that little town. And the night the barn burned, I could see the very notion disintegrating like the embers pulled into the sky by the wind from the flames, a stream of carlights in the distance.

I understood, finally, that my heart was the biggest part of me. And it had never really left at all.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Love Part Deux, And So Forth

*(Special thanks for the contribution of a significant phrase used in this entry to one of the most elegant writers I know, my old friend B.T., author of blog "A Little Guitar")


My husband calls my two-stoplight hometown a cult. "You're one of the few who got away," he says. He's joking. Partly.

But the place has a pull. It keeps the natives home when they certainly could go elsewhere. And draws them back, where a surprising number fall in love with people they walked the school halls with ages ago. Weren't those days supposed to be traumatic? I hear that so much from people. Well, not in my old stomping grounds, apparently.

Old grade school sweethearts are taking another turn on the dance floor in increasing numbers. The best friend's boyfriend is finally getting a shot, the one yearned for, from afar. Or somebody's little sister, even, barely noticed back then.

So, this keeps happening so often that someone in particular has started keeping a list. Because Cupid is striking again with such frequency. I have it on good authority that it is called Hometown Love Part Deux.

Okay, I confess, I keep the list. My sister collects the raw data and I edit the details into nice little bullets. Let's see...

1. M. dated T. forever, but she did go out with the other T. for a short time before they graduated high school. But he broke up with her. They married other people, both divorced. Years later, they got together and now they're married, living in her mother's old house.

2. KA married her high school sweetheart. They divorced after many years, when the kids were grown. KE married, well, at least two times. Divorced. Not sure when these two got together, whether they had looked at each other with yearning in their eyes. But now they are and are thrillingly happily. Are seen everywhere, holding hands like kids, glowing.

3. R.'s older sister D.A. was with star athlete R. forever. The know the type, the golden couple. They broke up, moved away, both married others. Then years later they are both back in town, older and wiser. Now they're back together.

And so it goes.

I keep the list because the new or renewed loves are happening so often that people were asking for the stories. And it's easier to prove my point this way. Skeptics who moved far away early and couldn't imagine themselves ever returning or coupling with someone from our origins are asking to see. I imagine them marveling and conjecturing. What if?

The place is no great shakes looks-wise, a bedroom community in the deep south halfway in between two for-real towns, one in Alabama, the other in Tennessee. It isn't even incorporated, literally a place you barely notice when you drive through.

My husband, meanwhile, comes from a little village in the Midwest that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. Farmers sit on benches around a fountain in the pretty town square. In the summer, an orchestra plays at concerts on Wednesday nights and practically the whole town shows up. Popcorn and lemonade are sold. It is a lovely scene.

But population drain is killing that place.

So what is it about my little hometown, which I still call home despite living in the D.C. area for nearly 30 years.

There are jobs to be had, certainly. And rediscovering an old love is nothing new all over the world. Class reunions and the internet have made that possible. People say we look at our oldest childhood friends and don't see them for who they are. We see them for who they were. And on my fairly frequent trips home, that certainly is the case for me, with my friends. I don't notice when it happens, but a laugh, a nickname, a certain person's dimple suddenly will erase wrinkles, gray, decades of worry and even soul crushing grief.

But my little village was unique in other ways, I think, a mix of old and new, a chance destiny that resulted in a powerful hypnotic alchemy. It draws us home still, single and otherwise. All of us.

We shared the blissful oblivion of the young. Our parents raised us in the middle of woods and cotton fields, products of the rich red clay of the Tennessee River Valley. Scored by ponds, creeks and streams, nature then had the audacity to surround this lush vista with the storied, sometimes impenetrable Appalachian foothills.

And then this amazing thing happened.

After World War II, German scientist Werner Von Braun and his rocket team were brought to the United States as part of a secret operation. The men were quietly installed in Huntsville, AL, where they developed the rocket that propelled man to the moon on board the Apollo spacecraft.

People from all over streamed into Huntsville and surrounding farm villages to live, including my hometown to the north. School children in that era spent years being drilled to huddle under their desks in case of nuclear attack. But we had another, more heartening experience in our own back yards to distract us from that gruesome possibility.

We weren't just watching images of liftoffs on televisions. Our fathers, uncles, mothers, aunts and neighbors were working in the space effort. The big one we focused on consisted of sonic booms we felt from NASA tests to the south of us.

We were in history's flight path.

Which is the basis of my own hair-brain theory about why the past draws us back to our hometown so insistently, and binds us together, to others who can hear the same wordless song.

We didn't need to be astronauts, soaring over Earth itself, to feel the euphoria and hope of that generation's space exploration. We were living in the land of plenty, God's country indeed. A rural existence infused with the constant reminder of infinite possibility, of life soaring up and away with literally no limits.

Remembering, reliving it even, is easy because there were so many witnesses. And when we are together, and the timing is just right, suddenly we are back there again. Growing up, you see, in the shadow of the rocket.*

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back to the Mundane, Sort Of

I spent the weekend in sports mom mode. My M.O. is not the norm for this area, where helicopter parenting is considered slacking off. My method is somewhat extreme, but in reverse. It works for us.

My son, D., got accustomed to my hands-off style because his dad's work trips kept him away from home so often. He came to prefer it, in fact. Dad is a teddy bear, affectionate, prone to spontaneous hugging and cutting up, shouts of "what about Jiggly Puff?" -- references to Pokemon figures he thinks are hilarious, but are criminal acts to a secure, outrageously loved and cared for now-teenage boy.

In addition, our son is painfully aware of his dad's presence on the sidelines. He makes a play, glances at his dad. Grabs a ball, glance, does something else, another look, fidget. In my way of thinking, even though they are supremely comfortable together -- they are clones -- the same thing makes them too wiggly in a sports setting (I'm a scientist, can't you tell?). This is an irony considering D.'s father is the very antithesis of the nasty sports fathers who spoil the fun for everyone, on the field and off.

When I asked why he preferred my company to his dad's on these trips, D. hemmed and hawed and came up with this: At the baseball field once dad scratched his back on the home plate fence. The fence was there, handy, and my husband availed himself of it with a quick back swipe or three. A friend pointed it out to me and we laughed. No harm no foul.

But oh the humiliation!

So often, I take the boy to his games, matches, whatever. My husband still travels, but even when home usually stays back. He works from home, maybe playing golf, getting things done, calling frequently and telling me to pretend it's not him on the phone. He doesn't like this, at all. But he adjusted. Especially after a travel soccer mom with a son playing goalie gently suggested to me that we "leave dad at home, D. does better with just you here." D. was a defender her son relied on, she was just looking after HER baby.

So. My method? The appearance of deep apathy. I'm also smaller, and it's easier for me to disappear.

I grew up in a sports crazed Alabama, ruled by the Alabama and Auburn college football teams. I've been at weddings where family members sat in the car listening to the radio during the actual service because the Crimson Tide game was still on. I mean, these people MISSED the weddings of their relatives!

I was not immune to this religious fervor. But that was back in the day.

I remember lying on the floorboard of our car in the driveway, curled in a fetal position, pilfered key in the switch, listening to the Alabama games. I couldn't take watching or listening inside with my brother and father. They were intense, grouchy, explosive about distractions. Athletes both, they critiqued the plays with the authority of men who had played the game well. Besides, I had work to do.

I prayed. I needed God to give the Bear just one more win. Every single Saturday. For instance: "Jesus, we really need that national championship. We need it really bad. I'll be good, I won't pretend to be sick on Sunday mornings anymore. I'll sit still in church. I won't mark my sister's arms with a pen. Well, I'll try on that one. If you and God can just help the Tide out just a little bit. Maybe you could send the Holy Ghost. I just hope he's not too busy."

Those were some of the most intense times of my life, praying the Crimson Tide to victory. Because we did need those wins. Even as a child, I knew Alabamians were pariahs for the searing images portraying our racial shame: George Wallace's stand in the schoolhouse door; horse-led charges onto a bridge of peaceful praying demonstrators; beatings and firehoses; Ku Klux Klansmen, flaming crosses, lynchings. And I can barely write this although I should every single day lest we forget -- the bomb that exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing choir girls Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, and injuring 22 others.

So, amid the horror we grasped for relief. And there it was, on the pages of the newspapers -- the Crimson Tide, the national championships, a nudge from the Bear that led to the eventual desegregation of the South's football teams, these were good things, happy things. So in my mind, sports was crucial, vitally important, and not just for the usual reasons.

So, last weekend I sat in the bleachers at my son's basketball games, huddled under a lime green pashima, hoping it hid the novel I was reading. I got lots of time for that. I also sat at the very top of the bleachers once and meditated a bit, eyes closed, hoping no one could see me. My son did, but he's used to his mother the non-fan. He prefers it, even. He's sorry for the players who chafe under the scrutiny of yelling parents, who dread the tense rides home.

He had great games, I was told by other parents who kept me updated on his scores, and then I did peek a bit (don't tell D.). So here is my analysis.

The Irish, solidly whipped all season, pulled off a win for the very last game. After being asleep at the switch for so long, the boys had plenty of energy banked, even though they barely managed enough players to field a team for the playoffs. The Irish had caught fire. The team incredibly won the first playoff game, which I had not predicted, saying "don't worry, we have plenty of free time this weekend since your team will lose the first playoff game."

The win was unexpected. The Irish were supposed to be pushovers. Tempers flared. A technical was called on a boy who threatened mayhem on the court. The foul-er argued, mightily. The ref was yelled out and he yelled back. The kid stalked out of the gym in a huff, followed by his mother. Fueled by righteousness, the Irish then won their afternoon game. But they couldn't keep it up. With only one sub (the other team had plenty), the Irish barely lost the championship the next day in overtime. But yeah, they still got trophies.

Then, this week, my son had the first scrimmage of his high school varsity tennis career. He's a freshman, ranked fourth on his team, whatever that means. I managed to make it to the courts after he had played his singles match. He lost, 7-10, but the coach was happy -- D. had turned in the best performance of any other player on the team, even the returning varsity veterans.

I'm a happy sports mom. It's easy to be at games these days. Not that I watch.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


A man with the evocative name Bishop Bone apparently lived sight unseen in my home when I was growing up. The name was rarely spoken. Although occasionally one parent or another quietly mentioned "Bish."

It took decades for me to comprehend the significance of this man.

Bish's first real "appearance" for me came when I was a bored teenager. My mother took me on an endless car ride into the Tennessee wilds, a place more remote than the Alabama countryside where I grew up. Mother was an eerily quiet person back then, before my garrulous father died. She said we were going to see "a friend." This was all I got in response to steady wheedling.

We arrived at a cottage almost entirely blanketed in wooded green. I channeled my faux well-raised Southern girl self and recited polit-ceties (*short for polite niceties, an example of the Ridge Talk specialty of my mother's family).

I was burning to get back to my grandmother's, who had a neighbor I had just discovered, the blond, beautiful Teddy, who was 14ish like me. Teddy was my new hobby while visiting the folks in Tennessee. I only wanted a glimpse of him, but was willing to spend hours in that pursuit, while pretending to not know he was alive.

But I had to survive the visit to a woman I had never heard of in my entire life. But was suddenly so important that my mother drove us a long distance on dirt roads through the wilds.

I do remember the uncharacteristically intense hug my mother gave this tiny, ancient woman in the cottage front room, which swelled with emotion that affected even the unpracticed heart of a put-upon 14-year-old.

They sat close in the sunlit room, speaking in low voices. Someone produced tea and sweets. The visit was soon over and we stood to leave. The woman of the house then picked up a framed picture of a young man in uniform from among the antique pieces in the room and handed it to my mother. And my mother burst into tears.

I had never seen that happen. Ever.

But my mother hugged the woman goodbye, hustled us out of the room and we were off. She would not talk about it, sticking to her version of the story: The woman was an old friend, the man in the picture was her son. They were people she knew growing up. End of story. Period.

Years later my father died at 80. Bits and pieces of their lives before us had come out. I knew, at this point, that my father had been a gunner-engineer on an Army Air Corps bomber in Europe during World War II and survived many missions. In fact his plane, or what was left of it, was in the Smithsonian for a while. I was able to take my son to see it. And my mother and brother came up for a ceremony dedicating a plaque with the names of the men who flew that aircraft.

My father knew my mother's brothers growing up. But she was 10 years younger and they did not meet until the day he sat beside her on a bus, after the war. They struck up a conversation. And the rest was history, as they say.

Their marriage seemed to be a practical one. They cared for one another, certainly, but there was no evidence of great love or passion. My father ruled the roost and my mother complied. The usual for that time and place.

But after my father died, the presence of Bish grew.

My mother started to talk. "Is she seeming hyper?" my brother asked one day. We'd never known her to be so verbal. And finally the story of Bish came up. A little bit here and there, but finally this man was fleshed out enough for me to see him.

My mother grew up with Bishop Bone. She was a tomboy, the youngest of a large family, a girl with many brothers who lost her father at age 12. As the two got older, love blossomed. But there was a war on and Bish and her brothers were going.

They would marry when he returned. Although they both had been born and raised in that tiny place, he wanted to see what waited for them outside the limited circumstances of a farming community in Middle Tennessee. He thought they would maybe move to Chicago. Then see the world. Oh yes, she said, she would love that.

He left. Mother waited. And then the news came. Bish had died. He had drowned in the English Channel. He was with other American soldiers who had survived the ditching of the plane into the dark cold water. But they were waiting for enemy troops to move away before climbing to safety on the shore. Belgian troops or townspeople, I don't remember the details, were creating a distraction to help the Americans. No one could explain what happened. Why Bish slipped away.

Details were still murky, more than 60 years after that shattering death. And Mother could barely lodge the words up from her throat.

I will never understand it, she said. He was the best swimmer. He could swim in any kind of water.

My father also knew Bish. And he had fought and survived that war, which also claimed the life of one of my mother's brothers. And then my father came home and sat down beside a pretty young woman on a bus. A woman who underneath her quiet way was consumed by too many losses.

My mother is as loyal as they come. When my father died, she arranged his wake, funeral and after-services lunch at our home. Then we drove the nearly four hours to their hometown in Tennessee for another round of funeral festivities. And she buried him there, as he wished.

And then she waited the recommended time, built another house, and started dispersing Daddy's belongings. She handed over his watch and class ring, his rifle and shotgun, his dress white straw hat, his medals from the war.

The flight wings were tarnished so I cleaned them and another pair I had found with the set. I thought maybe my father had two for some reason. Some people order another set after misplacing them and then the original shows up.

But when my mother saw me rubbing away, she picked up one of the wings, startled. She said, "This is your father's, you can have it. But this one is mine."

And I knew who had worn those wings, a young man long buried in Belgium. And I knew what was next. This woman in her '80s clasped the silver piece tight in her hand, then to her chest, and rushed from the room, refusing to talk about it, as always. The 60-year-old grief as powerful, present and stifling as its initial blow.