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In the Car with Mother on Christmas Eve

            She is eighty-eight years old, she reminds me, my small, scrunched-up mother, as round as Santa with hair as white and fluffy as his beard.  “The tenth of February, I’ll be eighty-nine,” she announces.
            The car clock says it’s 1:55 as we begin the one hundred-mile trip to my house for Christmas.  This is our tradition since my dad has been gone, six years.  Two years ago my brother David died.  This year I am divorced.  It’s hard to keep traditions going.  I punch buttons on the radio, trying to find Christmas songs.  I settle for a country station that plays oldies – Willie Nelson’s twangy “On the Road Again.” Serendipity.
            “Belle has the same birthday as me, the tenth of February. She’s sixty and I’m eighty-eight,” Mother says.  “She embroidered twenty-seven pillowcases for Christmas presents.  My eyesight’s not good enough to do hand-work anymore.”
            All of this before we leave the city limits.  We pass the funeral home and the Presbyterian Church, and the rustic sign with the words “Visit us again” in faded red paint.  My foot presses hard on the accelerator. 
            “Every night, that’s all Belle does,” Mother says.
            “That’s not all she does,” I say, a gentle reproach.  Lord, I think, what would happen if Belle left?  She moved into the back bedroom over a year ago when Mother needed full-time care.  She cooks, grocery shops, does everything that a dutiful daughter should do so that my sister Doris and I can live in Nashville.  I am terrified by the thought that Belle might lose patience with Mother and quit.
            “Every night, she has to do her hand-work.” Mother does not acknowledge my remark.  She’s hard of hearing on a selective basis.
            We head north on Highway 13, a treacherous two-lane road that snakes through the Buffalo River valley.  A wreath here and a cross there mark the sites of fatal car wrecks.  As we approach a particular hairpin curve, I anticipate Mother’s comment:  “That’s where Nathan Archer died.”  She points to a ditch.  No cross or wreath identifies the spot.
            She tells about that awful night, how the hospital called her after midnight, how she stayed with Nathan’s mother until morning.  “He was always wild, that boy,” she says.  “He came back to town and wanted money from Virginia.  She was scared.  Imagine being scared of your own son.”
            I take the curve at a cautious thirty miles per hour.
            “He burned up in the car.  There’s talk he was killed somewhere else.  Did you know Virginia moved to the new assisted living place?  I miss her.  I used to see her kitchen light go on every morning when I was cooking breakfast.”
            This is how our trip goes.  The radio squawks.  Here in the valley, reception is spotty.  I give up.  Besides, Mother wants to talk. Talk, talk, talk. “I miss Ruby.  She’s been dead a year, will be in January,” she says.  My Aunt Ruby and Mother loved to talk on the phone.  Linda Lou, my cousin who found Belle for us, pointed out, “She’s a talker.  She and Aunt Marie will get along fine.”  I believe they do, generally.  I picture them sitting in the den after supper, Mother in her rocker, Belle in Daddy’s recliner, embroidering pillow cases.  They talk, talk, talk.
            “Where are the girls?” Mother asks.
            The car seems to heat up suddenly.  I adjust the thermostat down.   I explain that Dominique and Caroline will be with us tomorrow, but today they are celebrating Christmas with their dad and his mother. 
            “Oh,” Mother says, as if she has just remembered our divorce. 
             I hurry to fill the silence with something upbeat.  “His mother just turned ninety-two.”
            “Ninety-two,” Mother muses.  “You know I’ll be ninety the tenth of February.”
            “No, Mother, you’re eighty-eight.  You’ll be eighty-nine.”
            “I’ll be eighty-nine, the tenth of February.  Look at those low-hanging clouds.  It might snow.”
            Brown fields lie on either side of us.  Cows, as still as images in a painting, huddle near a split-rail fence.  “That’s Dog Creek Road,” Mother says, pointing to a dirt road that angles off from the highway.  “One day your daddy said, ‘You’ve always wanted to go to Dog Creek, so we’ll just go.’  A smile works on her thin lips.  Her voice lilts.  “It wasn’t much to see, but Malcolm said, ‘Now you’ve been to Dog Creek.’”
            Wayne County is full of these tucked-away places that I’ve heard of all my life.  “I’ve never been to Banjo Branch,” I say.
            “Banjo Branch is not much to see,” Mother says.
            We cross the Buffalo River Bridge and head to higher ground.  I know what Mother will say next.  “One day we came up on this rise and all that farmland out there was on fire.  Malcolm and David and me.”  She tells the familiar story:  They stopped, along with another car, established that someone had gone on to find a phone, and watched the fire consume the fields and a house and a barn.  They must have pulled over to the other side of the road because there’s no shoulder here, no guard rail to protect from the drop-off.   I make my left tires hug the yellow line.
            “Are you sure I wasn’t with you?” I ask.  She’s sure.  Maybe I’ve just heard the story so many times, I think it’s a memory of my own.
            Mother seems to draw into herself.  Her shoulders nearly touch her earlobes.  Something about the angle of her head, the way her neck disappears, makes her look like a bird, a little fat bird on a wire, about to sing.  She doesn’t sing.  She is silent for a while.  I listen to the moan of the tires on the rough pavement.
            It was astonishing how suddenly Mother declined after David’s death.  Before he died, she lived alone, drove herself to church and to visit my aunt in the nursing home, paid her own bills.  Sometimes we go to the cemetery, to the three graves in a row.  David and my other brother James Noah who died of rheumatic fever when he was sixteen, Daddy in the middle, a double rock with Mother’s name already inscribed.  These times, Mother says, “My three men,” a kind of mournful blessing.
            “When will you bring us home?” she asks finally.
            “Friday,” I say.  “I’ll bring you home on Friday.”
            “Is today Christmas Eve?”
            “Are the girls at home?”

            At the junction, marked by a ramshackle store and two gas pumps, Highway 13 heads toward Flatwoods, twisting like a ribbon.  We make a sharp turn onto Highway 48, traveling into timber land.  Pines are thick on each side.  The paper company came to Wayne County about the time I left, over thirty years ago now.  They leveled forests and planted fast-growing pines, but the hardwoods are gone.  We pass a stretch that looks like strip mining country, barren and desolate, as far as the eye can see.  More tree farms pop up, row after row of small pines.
            Highway 48 straightens out and I can finally speed up to fifty-five.  We pass a saw mill, the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, R&G Small Engines.  A mongrel dog slouches along the side of the road.  The clouds billow like gray smoke.
            “I went down there once,” Mother says, as we pass what looks like a log road.  “Once when I was working.  I can’t remember the name.”
            “The name of the road?”
            “The name – oh – where I worked.” 
            “Elk and Duck River Human Resources,” I say.
            “That’s what it was.”
            Mother helped the unemployed acquire training for construction jobs and factory work, and she referred low-income families to appropriate agencies for housing, clothing, food stamps, medical and dental care.  It wasn’t unusual to get a call at our house at night or on the weekend, a timid voice saying, “Somebody told us Miss Marie could help.” 
            “I visited a family in a rusty old trailer. Several little kids, poor little things with runny noses.”  Mother squints, remembering.  “Some woman wore old-timey shoes with spool heels.”
            I wait for her to tell the rest of the story.  She plucks at the purse in her lap.
            “What else, Mother?”
            A wrinkle forms just above her glasses.  The memory has escaped.  She says, “I worked there for fifteen years.”
            Hohenwald greets us with a sign similar to Waynesboro’s, except that in recent years Hohenwald has been trying for the little European village look, so the welcome is written in old Germanic script.  Some of the stores have added flower boxes, window shutters, and dark-wood trim, but, like Waynesboro, the town has made no changes to suggest the twenty-first century. Not even the years since 1963, when I sat with George Blasingame in the high school gym, the night after President Kennedy was assassinated.
            The sign in front of what used to be the high school says “Lewis County Middle School,” but everything else looks the same.  I had just turned fourteen.  George, a year older, was my first boyfriend. He wore a leather jacket and slicked his hair back like Fonzie long before Fonzie came into our living rooms.  The night was heavy with shock and loss.  I remember the panicky feeling that gripped my chest:  If this could happen, what else was possible?  Today the 9/11 tragedy is still fresh in my mind.   I believe that anything can happen.  I believe that evil and ignorance go hand in hand.  “What were you doing when you heard?” I asked George, and he had to think about it before he remembered he was in his fourth period class, general science.  “I didn’t much like Kennedy,” he said.  Like a camera freezes time, my mind framed the moment – the smell of cigarette smoke and chewing gum that clung to George’s leather jacket, the sound of the basketball bouncing, and the lights that seemed suddenly too glaring.  I remember thinking, I will not forget this night.
            “There’s the bus station,” Mother says as we pass the café that used to double as the Greyhound terminal.
            “The bus doesn’t come through here anymore,” I tell her. 
            “What does that say?”
            Above the door in hard-to-read lettering is “Das General Kaffeehaus.”  I explain that it’s German for café.
            Mother shakes her head.  “Things are getting so complicated.”
            A video store and a convenience market have joined the establishments on this main street, but already they have taken on a down-and-out look, like the men in the doorway of the pool hall, like the shabby Christmas decorations on the light poles.  Mother points out where Ruby’s brother-in-law used to have a barbershop.  “His son committed suicide,” she says.  “Remember?”
            “Yes.” I am amazed at the things I remember.
            On the outskirts of Hohenwald the road dips into a hollow.  We pass an L-shaped motel with two cars in the parking lot.  We’ve always called it the Pay-by-the-Hour Motel. 
            “Is it Christmas Eve?” Mother asks.  I tell her yes.  “I didn’t do a thing for Christmas,” she says.  “I meant to bring a box of candy.”
            “We’ll have candy.  Food, presents, everything.”  The house will be full, I tell her, with the girls and their boyfriends, and Doris’s family.  My sister has a new grandbaby, Mother’s first great-grandson.  They will all be there.  “And pets - a puppy that annoys the older dog and two boring birds.”
            “Sometimes I ask Belle, ‘Who is here?’” Mother says.  “She’ll say, ‘Just you and me,” but it seems like there ought to be somebody else – Malcolm or some of you kids coming in and out.”
            She says this as if it is a puzzle.  I feel obliged to reassure her.  “Sometimes I forget, too.”  I think about the times I wake up, startled to find myself alone.
            “Sometimes I think I’ll go to the phone and call Ruby.  Then I say, ‘Oh.’”  Mother crosses her arms and shivers.  She’s wearing her coat, but I imagine goose bumps on her flesh.  I turn the thermostat up.  The fan comes on, a welcome noise.
            I check the clock on the dash, but I don’t need to.  I know every landmark on this journey.  Milan Cemetery, where we turn onto Highway 100, puts us fifty-five minutes into our trip.

            Coming up the steep grade that levels off in Centerville, I ask Mother if she needs to stop.  We often stop at the Shell station and buy coffee or cokes.  The Shell is one of the few service stations in the area with a clean restroom.
            Mother says no.  Just as well.  It’s hard to get her in and out of the car.  The last time we stopped at Breece’s and ordered their plate lunch for $3.99, meat and four vegetables, it was a challenge to get Mother and her walker upstairs to the restroom.   I have wondered how they get by the ADA regulations.  The restroom is the size of a small closet with a sink and toilet, no lid on the toilet.  Once, I changed my baby’s diaper in that second-story restroom by sitting on the toilet and laying her across my lap.  It was that or the dirty floor.  All these memories flood my mind.  They are not necessarily unpleasant.    
            I remind Mother of Breece’s meat-and-four.
            “I don’t eat that much anymore,” she says.
            Centerville’s sparse, faded Christmas decorations make Hohenwald’s seem festive.  Cold as it is, a few ancient, toothless men sit on benches in a crudely-built gazebo in front of the courthouse.  One of the men is whittling.  One leans forward, his chin on his hands, his hands clasped on his walking stick.  “Malcolm used to play checkers over there while I traded in the stores,” Mother says. “The Mennonites used to bring their goods to the square.  We would buy their molasses when we took James Noah to Dr. Frist.” 
            The senior Dr. Frist, father of the senator, treated my brother in the 1950’s when rheumatic fever was usually fatal.  The doctor wrote my parents a long letter after James Noah died.  Mother used to read it periodically, then tuck it back in the drawer with a baseball cap, an autographed photo of Marty Robbins, and a pair of blue pajamas.  Someday I will read the letter. 
            “The old Mennonite had a long white beard,” Mother says.  “You wanted to know, ‘Where’s his mouth, Mama?’ You were just five.”
            “I remember,” I say.
            As we leave the square, we pass Moore’s Jewelry.  “Roy Moore owns that store.  Edith’s boy.  His sister gave him a kidney a while ago.  Norma Alice.”
            “I remember her.”
            I remember.  Mother remembers.  So goes our trip.  The past and present, the living and the dead merge in a mystical way in Mother’s mind.  All those she has loved are with her; those who have gone on are as vivid as the grandchildren she’ll see tomorrow.  We pass the Fish Camp Restaurant where Mother and Daddy used to meet us and take the girls home with them.   I have traveled this road so many times, for so many reasons.   I wonder how many more times I will make this journey with Mother. 
             Past an old wooden railroad trestle, the landscape begins to change.  Highway 100 moves us quickly toward modernization.  The farms give way to housing developments with names like Pioneer Estates – brick-box houses that have sprung up in pastures.  Oh, the signs of progress.  Next to the marker pointing to the Bon Aqua Hoedown, the New Life Assembly of God has a brand new building.  Past the new 840 bridge, commercial strips crop up:  Dollar General Store and Sherry’s Tanning Salon.  I slow down for the Fairview speed trap, ten minutes at 30 mph, I’ve learned the hard way.
            Mother and I have settled into a comfortable silence now, mesmerized by the hum of the car engine.   Thirty minutes from downtown Nashville, a clump of house trailers with trash in the yards nest at the base of a hill.  Horses poke their noses into a pile of hay.  I tune in to a station playing “Silver Bells.”  Mother’s head bobs almost imperceptibly to the music, and she smiles.  I imagine she’s remembering all those Christmases, all those sweet faces.
            Somebody is singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with a country twang when Mother asks, “Are the girls home for Christmas?”
            We wind up the long, twisting driveway to my house in the wooded suburb of Nashville.  Home.  My first home, two hours away, seems like a distant planet now.  I point out the den where foxes live.  “We had five baby foxes last winter,” I say, catching myself.  We –  Lord, I’m sounding like Mother.
            At the top of the hill, the engine falls quiet.
            Mother is visibly weary as I help her out of the car.  She grasps her walker and tries to stand, to straighten her arthritic spine.  “I don’t know,” she groans, leaving me to wonder what she doesn’t know.  Maybe it’s whether she’ll live to see another Christmas, to make the trip again that she made first in a T-model.  Maybe she doesn’t know why it’s her lot to be so crippled, so riddled with pain. 
            “I take my medicine at four o’clock,” she says.
            “We’ll make it,” I tell her. 
            She lifts her face toward the blustery sky.  “How will you get us home if it snows?”

            It will not snow.  The sun will break through on Christmas morning and the nephews and boyfriends will play basketball in their shirtsleeves, but I don’t know it yet.  I don’t know that the dogs will reach a truce, the birds will sing a glittering tune that will make us turn our heads, and Caroline will get an engagement ring on Christmas night.
            “Wonder how many times I’ve traveled that long road,” Mother says, as I pull her coat snug around her neck. 
            “Let’s get you inside,” I say. 
            She asks, “Is it Christmas Eve?”
pgallaher @ copyright 2019


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