You can feel out the emotional portrait of an event you were not around to witness solely through the memory pointillism of others.
You hear fragments of things. You witness a tender reaction. You note a heavy silence. That all forges into something whole and you piece together what happened.
It’s like an inherited memory. An experience that is not yours slowly, over the years, becomes a living past.
With Arkansas, you get a crown of hills above a flat land filled with cows and cotton.
Mom’s side of the family is from those hills, the Ozarks. Dad’s side is from further north, the Missouri Ozarks.
Before mom was born, her people moved near the center of the state, the cows and cotton part. That’s where she grew up. That’s where I grew up.
Dad’s people stayed put. Only after finishing a stint in the army, at a base there in Missouri, did he leave the area. He went south for college- a seminary, actually, one I would attend later on. He met a pretty blonde lady in town and that’s how our family deal got started.
For forty years, grandmother- my mom’s mom- was a fry cook at the local high school. Mom went to that school…I went to that school. We both looked across the sneeze guard every school day and saw her back there doing her thing.
Grandmother was a sweet lady. She did exactly what you would expect a sweet grandmother to do when working in the fry line- she put extra stuff on my plate. Extra fries, extra chicken nuggets. Students noticed and were a little irritated. Her co-workers noticed, but none of them ever said anything. They had all worked together a long time. They were a tight crew. They were a dozen tough ladies who looked out for one another.
Grandfather was a hospital janitor with a welding habit. In his free time, he would buy carloads of random stuff at a junk auction and then weld it together without a clear purpose. Sometimes he made yard art, sometimes he made us home-made bicycles, but most of what he put together was tangled beyond what we could figure out. The welding thing was how he spent all of his free time and it blurred past hobby into compulsion. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me, growing up. I developed my own set of interests that confounded others, so I’ve been re-thinking a lot of things about family.
Grandmother was pleasant and chatty. She never stopped talking, but it was an auto-pilot style of communication where she never really needed much feedback. There was never a pressure to respond or chip in. She would just talk and talk, quietly, mostly to the empty spaces in the room.
Grandfather was introverted and taciturn. He had an old shop behind the house that he did his welding in and that’s mostly where he stayed. He never seemed to like people. In the distance, you’d find him at ease, but once you walked close enough, you’d see his shoulders sag and his face would drop and he’d start yawning repeatedly. Just being near another person wore him out.
Mom turned into her mom. Sweet, though quieter. She just, on occasion, takes to narrating local gossip in the 3rd person, like a robot newscaster. This happened, that happened. The following people were involved.
She’s not personally interested in gossip, you understand, she’s just passing along information in case it’s of any use to others.
She was mostly a stay-at-home mom, but she would work various jobs as needed. Secretarial work, often the front desk at a church. For a few years, she worked in the high school library that I was attending, with her mom in the next building over, doing the fry cook thing.
The principle at that school was my mom’s age and they were neighbors growing up. Their childhood homes were a two minute walk past the school entrance.
I ended up in the principles office a lot because I made a habit of skipping class, and would get caught a fair number of times. I was never sneaky about it or doing anything worth trying to hide. I was just uncomfortable in class, sitting so close to so many people. My mind would soak up every gesture, word and sound, until I felt painfully tired. It was the beginnings of a thing where just being around people was hard to manage.
I was turning into grandfather.
Starting in tenth grade, to get away from the discomfort of others, I began to skip class. I would just roam the hallways, aimless, going in big circles around buildings and yards. I imagined that I was the school ghost, not realizing that there were probably hundreds of kids there who imagined the exact same thing. Nothing is more communal than isolation.
Once caught and walked into the principles office, I could tell that I was getting a softer reaction than most students. There was never any official punitive measures. The principle would just say, “I’ve known your family forever. I know you’re better than this.” He would put a lot of disappointment in his voice. Then he would take me to mom in the library, have me sit at a desk until the next class. He and mom would small talk. And that was it. That was the only reaction I ever got for skipping. It felt strange to me, like they were the ones breaking the rules by putting shared history before duty.
The principle, he had a tragedy in his early life. Mom had a role in it. The high school even had a role in it. I would learn about this later and all of those free passes would make more sense.
Here’s a dad thing:
Dad sang gospel music. Bass. He has a handsome voice. He sang at church mostly, but for a few years, when I was a kid, he had this other deal going. Every few weeks, he’d drive to this old radio station out in the country. He and a few other people would get together, sing, record all of this traditional gospel music. The radio station would then make dozens of cassette tapes out of these sessions and mail them to Baptist missionaries all over the world.
Mostly the radio station broadcast sermons, locally, but for a few hours late at night, they would play music. Sometimes, I’d hear one of my dad’s songs. AM radio…always past evening…faint static…dad’s voice low, plunging…songs about grace and sin and suffering.
He has been a little down lately because modern churches no longer feature gospel music…the church scene has transitioned to a more contemporary sound called “praise” music. It’s a lighter sound, pop influenced. It’s catchier.
Singing in the church choir is one of my dad’s primary passions…but in praise music, there is no vocal bass component. He literally can’t sing the songs, at least not in the range he’s most comfortable with. His voice falters in the higher registers.
He recently left the choir (or “praise team”, as they’re called now) after his voice broke during a solo, all in front of a Sunday morning service. Mom said he was embarrassed. Later, on the phone, he told me, “I’ve been in church choir every year since I was five years old. But it’s okay. People like praise now, and that’s okay.”
He sounded hurt. Things change…people want lightness now. I don’t know what you do when your voice is an old sound…a low sound tinged with faint static.
Anyway. That’s a dad thing.
Mom has always had this habit where, if she is driving and a storm sweeps in, she pulls over to the side of the road. She waits until it passes, at least the thundering part. She squeezes the steering wheel until her knuckles go white. She won’t speak, even if you say something to her.
As a kid, it scared me, especially when she would silently cry. I would just sit there in the car, blanketed in a confusing discomfort, not understanding. My mind would take in the sounds around me; they were so stark. That metallic drumming of rain on the car roof. Traffic droning past us. Mom tense, rigidly breathing.
Once the storm eased, she’d drive off and play the radio to break up the tension.
Her mom and dad had similar habits, but I was rarely in a car with them. They weren’t driving people too much during my lifetime.
I played at their house a lot because they lived within walking distance and they had livestock that were entertaining to be around. I could throw acorns at chickens and observe their scattering or hunt lizards with dogs and…well, baby goats. Baby goats were magical weirdos that I could watch for hours.
When it stormed, my grandparents would stop whatever they were doing. They would settle into the living room, sit at a table and wait, perfectly still and grim-faced, until the thunder passed. Here too, their change and quiet scared me. I usually couldn’t handle being in the house with them when they were like this. I’d stay in grandfather’s workshop alone, steeped in fear, hiding from the memories of others.
We lived in a small community, all of my mom’s side of the family. Any time a relative left town, even if just for a day, grandmother would go into worry mode. She’d call them multiple times a day, ask when they were coming back. All of her conversation would revolve around that person. She would mutter to herself, repeatedly, “Wonder if they’re back yet?”
Everyone would feign annoyance and refer to her as a “worrier”. It just became so routine that people stopped noticing how profoundly frightened grandmother was, on a regular basis.
Mom has three brothers. They’re all elderly now and everyone gets along, they’re a close group. To this day, they all live in the same small community that they grew up in, all near the high school grandmother worked at for forty years.
Mom also had two younger sisters. I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of times she has referred to them.
She would only ever bring them up if we were cleaning house and we happened across a photograph from mom’s childhood, one with the whole family together. Mom would look at that for a moment and say her sisters names and then continue whatever she was doing.
Less frequently, she would refer to what happened, to how they died. So I at least developed some frame of reference for this event that has clearly impacted my family, but that no one was ever willing to discuss.
When grandmother passed away in 2007, mom spent the days before the funeral reminiscing. It was the only time she said more than a few things about her sisters.
She said, “I still remember everything.” She said that after they passed, grandmother was bedridden for a year. And grandfather went in and out of deranged states for a long time…that sometimes he would vanish for days, until neighbors would go out looking for him. They would always find him in the woods, mute, dehydrated. They would walk him home.
And she said that she and her parents had never spoken about it. Not once since it all happened. It just became this shared terror that you had to never let yourself think about or speak about.
The high school library, the one my mom worked at…it had a small row of microfilm readers. These old machines that projected glowing newspaper clippings like paper ghosts.
I knew there had been a flood and that mom’s sisters had drowned. And I knew mom and grandmother were there, had witnessed it. That was all I knew.
At the time that I looked up more information, Arkansas had two competing newspapers. So, the microfilm section was filled with archives from both sources.
One day, I sat at the machine and sorted through those old paper ghosts and found two articles about the drownings. It had much more information than I had ever been aware of. For example, I didn’t know that mom was fourteen at the time. This was in ’64, I think.
The articles began with a description of several neighbors in a nearby community, about 20 minutes north from where my grandparents lived, calling for an ambulance. They said a storm had come up and a passing car had been washed off the road in a flash flood.
In one article, the neighbors describe watching the car drift out into a field, completely submerged. In the other article, my grandfather was able to get free of the vehicle and he was the one who asked the neighborhood to call for help.
So, there’s a small discrepancy between the two articles regarding grandfather and whether or not he was actually in the car when the rest of it happened. They both seem to suggest that he was conscious during the whole thing.
The remaining details are the same in both articles. Folks from the neighborhood pulled five bodies from the car, none of them breathing. They were able to revive two: mom and grandmother. The other three, all young children, never regained consciousness.
Mom lost her two little sisters.
It was a surprise to learn that there was a third child in the car. Apparently this was a neighbor kid. He lived directly across the street from my family. I couldn’t help but notice that he had the same last name as my school’s current principle.
I learned from the article that my grandfather was driving them all to a nearby high school basketball game. It was an away game, in the next county over. I don’t know if one of mom’s brothers was playing in that game; no one ever discussed that day, so I couldn’t ask. I just assume that the neighbor kid was tagging along…maybe his older brother played basketball. I don’t know.
I just remember reading about this in the library, with mom busy at her desk on the other side of the room. I didn’t tell her what I was doing. I tried to hide what I was feeling. I sat rigid and grim-faced and realized that I looked exactly the way they do during thunder.
2007: the day before grandmother’s funeral, mom said, “I’ll visit my sister’s graves tomorrow.”
All of mom’s side gets buried at the same old church. It’s a drive…it’s out in the sticks. Even the most country of my relatives refer to this church as “out in the country”, so that tells you something about it.
Every time someone passes, we go out there and you see all of these depressing stories engraved in stone, chronologically ordered. I try not to go too much.
After mentioning her sisters, mom said, “Your grandmother; I think today they’d tell her she has PTSD. I think she was probably sick all of these years from what happened. You know? We never talked about any of it. We never said a word.”
She was silent for a moment, then quietly added, “I don’t think it was good, keeping that in. I think that made us sick.”
Grandmother passed away from a kind of strangeness. She was always a sweet lady, always looking after people, worrying about them. That was her whole life, at least when I knew her. Then, one day- she was in her 80s- she began to hallucinate; she became delusional. She never recovered from that, she was hallucinating the last few months of her life. And she did it all very pleasantly. She was happy with her visions, which were mostly of the past and mostly involved preparing cobblers for never-ending pot lucks at church.
The medical folks, they didn’t diagnose her with anything. I guess the way her symptoms played out, it didn’t fit any one specific diagnosis. She was herself…then she wasn’t. She hallucinated a few months, then slowly lost motor function. Then she slept for a few days and died quietly.
Grandfather died in ’87, when I was 12. He had a heart attack out of the blue and died instantly. It caught everyone off guard.
I was told that he was fishing on the banks of the Arkansas river that day. He didn’t die exactly there…it would have been overly poetic if he had passed away in the river. Instead, he packed up his gear and began the drive back home. He pulled over at a gas station. He opened the door to his truck, died, and fell out onto the concrete.
I’m sorry these memories are so out of sequence. That’s how I remember them, though: disordered and without much relationship to time.
Fragments of things. A tender reaction. A heavy silence.
I just know that when I line up events chronologically, they lose their sense. It’s only when I shuffle through them carelessly that I find a semblance of order: matching textures; hidden stitches that perfectly line up; disparate patterning that suddenly rhymes.
And sometimes you get these flaws in the fabric that people spend a lifetime avoiding. Memories that people weave silence around, day after day…memories they hold distant.
A reverse pilgrimage we traverse through forgetting.