The house I grew up in – the one I really grew up in, with the lime-green tree-pattern wallpaper in my room and green shag carpet – had a side patio off the hallway between my parents’ room and mine. My mom grew everything imaginable out there. When I was four years old, I found her out on that patio, looking through a box of photos and crying. I went to see her and although I don’t remember the exact order of what happened next, I know she picked me up, whispered something like I love you and smushed her cheek to mine. I remember her smell, too, but it’s indescribable, something I know more from instinct than olfactory response. My knowledge of these events isn’t so much recollection as an imprint of my childhood.
My mom learned what I so snarkily call mommyhood before she ever had Aunt Brookie or me. She was the oldest of six children and she helped raise most of them, and when I was very young, two of her younger brothers died. As a sibling and parent, I find that unimaginable. I don’t remember my older uncle, Larry, but I have some memory of Tim, who we lost when I was three. The day I found my mother on the patio, she was sorting through photos of him. Tim lived on our couch for a while; my clearest memory of him is that he once took Aunt Brookie and me to the zoo in his van. He smoked cigarettes and we went into the snake house. It may not seem like much, but it’s another imprint. Something that happened before I knew how to remember.
Tim died driving a water truck on an oilfield road in West Texas. My first job after college was as an engineer trainee in Odessa (the town that “Friday Night Lights” (the book) was written about and “Friday Night Lights” (the t.v. show) was modeled after). I worked a lot of the same fields. It was my first time to live more than an hour from my parents, and it was a remote, lonely place for a just-out-of-college twenty-three-year-old. I spent a lot of midnights driving down the same roads Tim did, with the coleche glimmering and the endless sky opening 360 degrees onto the flats of West Texas. I can tell you if you’ve never been to Odessa that the sky there will lay your soul bare. Whatever your sins are, they’re hard to hide from a badlands sky.
So I would be driving down these white gravel roads and the air would shimmer in the moonlight and country music would be on the radio and just for a fraction of a second I’d get a whiff of cigarette smoke and the rank alive smell of caged animals and glance in my rearview and justalmost see Tim there in the backseat.
Now, let me be clear. I’m not a new-age kind of girl. I don’t believe in ghosts and vampires and things that go bump in the night (anymore. sort of.). Tim’s presence in my life is more basic than supersition or belief system or scientific rational or bayou hoo-doo. He’s just here. All these (many) years later, I still feel him; right now, for example, I’m pretty sure he’s looking over my shoulder and laughing at me. And possibly wishing for a beer.
Dane’s getting big enough to start having his own imprints. He knows me by my footsteps in the hallway and the softness of my robe. He points to pictures of my mom and dad on the wall and says Mmmm-Mmmm for Mimi and Bumpa for Granpa. He points off into empty corners, too, and when I turn around all I catch is a glimpse of might-have-been. It could be anything: the curtains moving or the shadows and sunlight on the rug. It could be nothing. But I believe that children have grace in the most basic sense of the word, the gift of not having lost sight of things just beyond the midline of our vision. The same kind of openness and clarity that looks down on you from the West Texas sky. And so, I choose to think Dane is pointing at Tim.
We were eating dinner one night a year or two after I found my mom on the patio, and at the time I had a habit of eating my food one “portion” at a time: potatoes first, for example, and then peas, and then chicken (fried steak), etc. Mom was watching me and tears welled up in her eyes, and she said Tim used to eat like that. I think of that now and as a mother and a sister I not only wish I could go back and hold her the way she held me as a child, but that I could go back and see them all together, all six of them. I look at Dane and my nieces and nephews and remember the softness of my mother’s cheek and the acrid scent of an unfiltered smoke, and from those things, I find grace. And how lucky, lucky we are.
p.s. Mom, I love you.