Welcome to My World

I lay on my mother’s bed on Saturday nights until I was eight and fell asleep to the muffled voices of The Grand Ole Opry. My father in the front of the house working on his sermon, Mama would take charge of the radio as the last shots of Gunsmoke were fired. The Opry meant the coming of a sleep that I resisted, but its distinctive sounds, the shape of songs grown familiar only through those Saturday night shows, filled the space between us until her world was my world and her stars were my stars.

Mama was a big woman, five feet seven inches and fleshy enough, even in her prime, to call herself big boned. She could hide her emotions in a mask as stoical as bluegrass music. But there was a hint of moody sensuality about her as well and mischievousness in her smile. Her eyes, like her hair, were dark brown.

One of twelve children, she grew up in an unpainted house in the hills near the Tennessee River in West Tennessee. The house had neither electricity nor plumbing. It was all bedrooms, three of them across the front, two beds to a room, with a kitchen in the back. She went to grade school at the one-room Doe Creek School where my grandfather taught, then walked four miles to Scotts Hill for high school. It was a hard life and left deep scars on the children, something those romantic songs about growing up poor usually fail to mention.  Still, some of our best times were when she would tell me the old stories about growing up poor, isolated, and in a crowd of brothers and sisters. She would laugh until tears filled her eyes, and I, not really understanding the stories but loving the laughter, would roll on the floor beside her.

She found a way out when my father preached a revival near her home. At 16, she quit school to become a Methodist minister’s wife, first in rural “circuits” of three and four churches with names like Campground, Church Grove, and Palestine and later in a string of small-town churches in Western Kentucky and West Tennessee. She taught herself most of what she needed to know by watching and reading, and she lied about her education and age until there was no need and then out of habit.

Her life, our life, was orchestrated to avoid criticism, about our clothes, our car, our grammar, our manners, our intelligence, about the state of our souls. She rose at five daily and worked until mid-afternoon cleaning the house. In the evenings, particularly in the summer, she often visited with neighbors. As her extensions, my sister and I felt a lot of pressure to make a good impression as well. Violating one of her rules was a major offense, and she would ridicule you no matter how public the situation. Still, not all her rules were about making a good impression.  She was the least racist person from my early childhood, and she insisted I  work at treating everyone the same. She also had a wonderful sense of humor and could be very funny even about all her pretenses.

In 1954, we moved to our first brick house. The house, a four-bedroom Tudor, stood amidst old money next to a matching church on a bluff that overlooked the Mississippi River in Hickman, Kentucky. Methodists move their ministers periodically, so we were used to finding our place in the farm towns of Western Kentucky. What we weren’t used to were the plantation airs of Hickman, the colonial houses, the big cars, the fur stoles. This was cotton country, and the large farms that filled the river bottoms made it seem more like the Mississippi Delta than the Kentucky we had known.

The town was a testament to the power of the river. A seawall, that’s what we called it, stood an alley away from Main Street and wound itself around the downtown and west to the poorer sections to keep out the high water that had flooded the streets in the 1920s. More than a hundred concrete steps climbed from the downtown to the bluff where the town’s ruling class could look at the river from their picture windows but find none of its trouble in their yards.

A few families controlled most of the rich river-bottom land and sat atop a class structure that was mostly poor people, black and white. We were part of the town’s small middle class, but much of the town’s aristocracy attended our church, and our lives straddled the class lines that divided the town. Hickman was both an alluring and foreboding place. Closer to her dreams of the good life than she had ever expected to be, Mama drank in the small town elegance of that sleepy river town and turned off The Opry.  For Mama, Hickman was a place too grand for country music.

In the years to come our lives changed in ways none of us would have predicted. The summer after my fourth grade year, we had to start facing the ongoing problem of my father’s health. Daddy suffered from a number of circulatory ailments that were heart related and were the longtime consequences of rheumatic fever and a shooting accident he suffered as a boy. That summer he had very serious arterial surgery and his health for the remainder of my school years steadily declined. My mother’s mental health deteriorated in step with my father’s illness. She withdrew more and more into herself and increasingly medicated her fears and worries with prescription drugs. The shadow of those years and the ones that followed hangs over many of the stories I tell. But before there was a shadow, a light shined from the radio on Saturday night, the room was full of music and my Mama loved me like a song.

(Some of this material appeared in “That Same Lonesome Blood,” Oxford American Music Issue, 2001.)

 

29 thoughts on “Welcome to My World

  1. I now long for a county ballad called, “My Mama Loved Me Like A Song.”
    Even at the expense of your protracted woe, I enjoyed every word of that.
    And here in Madison we’re having the kind of day that accompanied the
    story so completely.

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    • There is a song titled “Love Me Like A Song” but it didn’t fit here. You may have written a better title than I came up with. I really struggled with the title. Maybe Nashville is calling you. My title came from an old country song.

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  2. David,

    This is a great piece. My favorite part is this juxtaposition “…and turned off *The Opry*. For Mama, Hickman was a place too grand for country music.” A wonderful piece of literary subtly.

    Keep pressing on,

    Brad

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  3. What you are doing is driving me back to my days as a kid. Matching my house with your house; my mother with your mother; my music with your music. I was too far north to find my home filled with country music, but every day I walked to school I passed the home of Ray Fortune, and his mother loved every note played by those good old boys. And it was loud enough for me to hear a block away going in both directions. As for me, I could hardly wait to get out of school and head down to the drug store for a nickle cherry coke and Sinatra singing one of those sweet love songs.

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    • Marvin,

      The Cherry Coke reminds me of a story my father told. He grew up on the country so when he was in school, he started stopping by the drugstore. The first time he went there he went with another boy who ordered a cherry phosphate. My Dad said he ordered a cherry phosphate for a year because he didn’t know what else to order. The kindest compliment I get is that my writing makes the reader feel parts of his or her own life in mine. Feels like a justification of sorts for the kind of writing I do.

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  4. This is the clearest and most poignant of your recent series of essays that opens yourself to the reader . . . who you are and how that happened. There were a number of things to which I related from my own story. Thank you for this gem! Jim Reeves’ comforting voice played in my head all the way through.

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  5. David, I left my mother buried in Tucson, Arizona, and now that I’m back living in Michigan, I wonder if she’s lonely way out there in the Sonoran Desert. It’s probably true that I think of her more now than at any other time in my life. At times, too, I want to turn to her to ask a question about our collective past or about her life, or maybe about our father. But of course it’s too late.

    As I think your essays make abundantly clear, now is always the time to share our thoughts and feelings.

    Thanks, once again. It’s not just that you say it better than anyone else I know, which is true, but that you are able to say it at all.

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  6. I have been trying to identify something I found uncanny about your recent writings. I think I have it. You take a very familiar format (the autobiography) and re-tell the often-told story (discovery of self through one’s past) but you give the reader something beyond your story. You spark personal memories and raise the significance of events in the reader’s history that have no relationship to your life as you describe it but come to be seen in a new way by the reader in reflecting on their own lives. That is a remarkable, and rare, skill. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that Joseph Heller was the master of this literary accomplishment. Heller re-told the personal World War II story in Catch-22 and also gave us all clarity about the ultimate paradoxical nature of living. Then he re-told the “man in the gray flannel suit” story of middle-class, white American dissolutionment for the zillionth-time in Something Happened but also left us without judgment or recrimination about the surreal, ultimately insane, nature of our “normal life.” I think your writing does this as well. Maybe it’s just the authenticity of your personal struggles that cues this personalization in the reader, but I think it is an unusual gift. Much credit to you.

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    • This is a very kind reflection and I hope it is true. Sometimes people ask me how I can be so honest about my life, but my thinking is that in a way when the blog really works I become transparent, no matter how revealing I have been, as people look through me to see themselves. Thanks again for this.

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  7. I just read this to Marion and she said only one thing—“beautiful”. And then she added. “This is really good for him. Good for anybody”

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  8. These stories of times past, give me a greater sense of how the past has formed me into what I am today. It is a lot of information for me to take in, some I knew, but a lot I didn’t. I enjoy the clarification these bring to my life.

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