My grandmother's house in Tennessee looked a lot like a trailer with its metal siding and the astroturf covering the front porch and carport where the car was never parked, but where we would sit on the woven nylon and metal folding chairs on hot summer evenings waiting for the fireflies to begin their magical dance. Up on the mountain, in full view from the front yard and the living room window was the Elizabethton version of the Hollywood sign, "JESUS SAVES," shouting down to all 14,000 inhabitants of the former mill town. It was the first image I saw through the lacy curtains when I woke up in grandma's house after a night spent trying to avoid the metal springs of the sofa bed, sweating on top of the handmade quilt.
I didn’t much enjoy visiting Tennessee as a child. The house was always stuffy and hot, the food was too salty and the tea was too sweet. The dark wood paneling of the kitchen and den felt claustrophobic and there was never anything to do once we'd tired of climbing the knotted apple tree in the front yard or skipping rocks in the Doe River at the end of Barker Street. I was just a kid so I didn’t fully appreciate the value of extended familial connections, and it didn’t help that my city-born Yankee mother always framed the trips to my dad’s childhood home in the mountains as obligatory rather than fun.
But grandma did have interesting knick-knacks on every flat surface throughout her home. Plastic grapes in ceramic bowls, angel statuettes, china candy dishes sometimes filled with butterscotches or mints and others filled with dusty quilted strawberries, snow globes from Grandfather Mountain and Myrtle Beach. Many trinkets were from places she never visited herself, but that someone brought back for her as a souvenir from their trips. My brother and I would spend hours playing with the ceramic alligator from the Okefenokee Swamp, having him attack the angels or the piglet salt and pepper shakers. We'd make up games where the Elvis bobble head from Graceland battled my brother’s GI Joe or married the Barbie that I brought from home.
My annual trips to Tennessee ceased after I moved west, but when my daughter was a baby, I flew to North Carolina a couple days early for Thanksgiving so we could travel with my parents to visit my Grandma and introduce her to her first great-grandchild. My mother had been battling breast cancer for a little over a year at that point, and was doing fairly well, just getting used to her wig and happy to have a break from the chemotherapy until after the Turkey Day feast.
Walking around Elizabethton and breathing in the crisp fall air connected me to my East Coast roots as I kicked my way through what was left of the fall leaves, the colors and crunch not nearly as vivid in Southern California. Pushing the stroller across the covered bridge, I showed my daughter the ducks along that river where I’d spent countless hours during my childhood trips to the mountains.
We were packing up to leave when my father decided to check in with his brother, John. If he was home, we’d stop by for a bit on our way out of town, he said. Daddy called the Richardson house, located on the property that was his birth parent’s old homestead.
“Hey Carliss. It’s Bill. Is John there?” my dad spoke into my grandmother’s marigold-colored handset. “Well, we’re down at Rose’s and thought we’d drop by for a quick visit,” Daddy said. “Oh, no, don’t bother, I’ll get in touch the next time we’re out this way.”
My father got off the phone and explained that John had just left to go hunting. His wife, Carliss, had offered to run out and try to fetch him as he backed out of the driveway, but daddy decided that wasn’t necessary.
We drove the four hours home to Raleigh and awoke early the next morning to a call from one of my father’s sisters. John had not returned home from his hunting trip. There was a search party out looking for him and Carliss was really worried. This was not like John.
The woods in those mountains where Jesus Saves are thick and brambly with oak and hickory trees. Farther up along the blue hued ridges, the stand of spruce and firs is dense. White tailed deer, black bears and wild turkey draw hunters to the Great Smoky Mountains on game trails that are old as the Cherokee. My Uncle John could be anywhere, his own Cherokee Indian blood led him into the forest whenever he had a little time on his hands.
Hours later we found out that John had either been accidentally shot by another hunter and fallen out of the deer stand, or his own gun had gone off when he hit the ground. Someone speculated that John had broken his back and another hunter came along and shot him like Old Yeller. It was a big story in a small town. Deemed an accident so that his widow and son could secure the much needed insurance money, it wasn’t investigated further. No one spoke of forensics. There was no "CSI East Tennessee" team on the case. I’ve asked my father why he didn’t further inquire about the truth to the story, and he said that however it happened there was nothing more that could be done about it. His brother John was dead.
We returned the next morning to Tennessee. Another four-hour drive each way, this time with three cars filled with family members dressed in black. My dad said very little, but you have to figure he was haunted by the what ifs. At not setting up time in advance to see his brother. At not calling ten minutes earlier. At not asking Carliss to flag down the truck. No one would bring it up such painful thoughts. Pretty much no one but the baby made a sound during the long, agonizing drive.
And my father, the human “map quest” before there was GPS, the man who always includes his location rather than emotion in his description of how he is:
“Hi Daddy, how are you doing today?”
“Well, I’m at the corner of Buck Jones Road and Bashford Avenue and it’s drizzling a bit”
He got lost on the route he had traveled countless times before. We were three hours into the trip when we realized dad had taken the long route through Asheville. We now had more than two hours to go and the funeral was set to start in one.
Our family arrived late. They had reserved the first two pews on the right at Sinking Creek Baptist Church for us and held off on the service as long as they possibly could before we walked in midway through. It was raining during the burial and there was no wake. No after party. No celebration of life. No sitting around talking about the deceased and sharing memories and the personal stories I craved about the Uncle I didn’t know very well. No fellowship with the other relatives we hardly ever saw. I’ve always been the family’s party planner, but it never dawned on me to step in, struggling as I was with an 8 month-old who’d spent seven hours on a plane and thirteen hours in a car over the past four days while one of my sisters was occupied with her own colicky three month-old.
We went back to grandma’s house and stayed for a bit, all elbow-to-elbow in the tiny living room. But there were too many of us to stay overnight, so we got back in the cars and headed home. Again, very little was said. No one seemed to think it was weird that this family didn’t use John’s death to come together and make up for missed time.
Dad’s family had already lost so much time together over the years. My father’s mother died of breast cancer at 35 when my dad was just nine. He was the oldest of four children and his own father was 79 at the time. He couldn’t care for four younguns at that age. My youngest aunt wasn’t even one yet. So they were sent off to be raised by different families. Three were adopted. One was a foster child. They only occasionally saw one another during the remainder of their childhoods. At first their father would come by the homes where his children were once a month with a bag of apples, but he passed away a couple years later. My father spent much of what was left of his childhood in that house on Barker Street under the sign on the hill.
The next day was Thanksgiving and no one spoke much at the dinner table either. No one talked about what they were grateful for, though there were two new babies by our sides. Afterall, at the head of the table, our mother was celebrating her second to last Thanksgiving and our father had just lost the brother he hardly knew.