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.

Smooch -s

p.s. Mom, I love you.


50 thoughts on “Grace

  1. “Whatever your sins are, they’re hard to hide from a badlands sky” – what a fantastic line. And what a fantastic tribute. lovely.

  2. Oh, my. And here I thought I was just signing up for funny (well written) kid stories when I claimed you as my bff.

    This is just lovely. And the line quoted by the commenter above is the on that struck me, too. Stunning.

    • thanks! i promise i’m still a spoiled brat that loves unicorns and backseats that lay ALL THE WAY BACK (and if you remember that SVH reference I swear you truly are my soul mate. my husband will be so disappointed.).

      it’s been nice writing for yeahwrite – sort of inspiring to write something different. but i’ll be back in the business of snark and bitchiness in the next day or two, i promise. 🙂

    • thanks! i actually thought of you several times when I was considering my grammar. i have a deep-seated fear of ending up on the wrong side of any english teacher. 🙂 odessa is a strange place – an ugly little town with it’s own kind of beauty. glad you enjoyed it.

  3. What a fabulous post. My daughter points at one specific area in our house all the time and says “hi”. Not sure what to think about it but I’m hoping it’s her guardian angel.

  4. “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.”—Yummy writing!!

    Anyway, I love Friday Night Lights and this piece conjured that universe for me. This piece was more than a lovely tribute to family, it brought to mind some non-fiction essays that I read and loved in college. There is a style of journalism that I response to called literary non-fiction and this piece fit in there reminding me of Annie Dillard with a hint of Joh McPhee. Nice, Erin

    • so i don’t know if i’m more delighted that you used my favorite word to describe this (yummy!) or if that i was compared to Annie Dillard in even the smallest sense. that’s high praise. thanks!

  5. I saw Tara and Erin quoted this too…”Whatever your sins are, they’re hard to hide from a badlands sky.” I just sighed when I read that. So beautiful. All of this.
    PS I love FNL (the TV show).

    • thanks! writing this i was trying to find the right way to describe the sky out there without sounding overdone, but the truth is there’s very little to describe how it feels under it. i hated it at the time because i was so young (and stupid, frankly), but as soon as i left, i missed it. and i still do. and i have VERY high standards for tv shows about texas but fnl hit the nail on the head – so much so it was sometimes difficult for me to watch. 🙂

  6. I’m thinking that maybe you should write country music because those images are all kinds of powerful. Lovely, evocative, but not sentimental. Kids have grace and I think sometimes our job as parents is just to stand the hell out of the way so that they can hang on to that grace as long as possible.

    • ha! excellent idea although i’d have to throw in something about mama, trains, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk. that sounds like quite the literary challenge…

  7. Very powerful images. I love the imprints you talk describe…I never before could think of a name for them. Also when I was a kid I ate one type of food at a time…and I still do it sometimes out of habit.

    • oh yes. we call my dad once every day or two and all dane will do is say “bumpa! bumpa!” and then beep the buttons, and it is wonderful. glad you enjoyed it, tx sister.

    • Thank you! I said it before, but it’s strange how much you can miss someone you never really got to know. I wish Dane could know him (and Larry), too. Glad you enjoyed it!

  8. I lived in SW Oklahoma for awhile and I know exactly the sky you’re talking about. This was beautifully written and really captured my attention for the entire piece. I agree with you that children can see things we cannot. My older sons used to do that same thing. Great post.

    • thanks so much. i’ve spent some time in oklahoma and i know what you mean. glad you enjoyed it and that you’ve had the same experience – at least i’m not crazy!! 🙂

  9. This is gorgeous writing. I often wonder what my kids can see that I am too busy washing dishes and folding clothes to notice. I also wonder from time to time what they would remember of me if I were to vanish today – just vague impressions, like the ones you describe? Or nothing at all because they’re too little? It haunts me, really, to think they wouldn’t remember or know how much I love them. But maybe they’d keep that bit of grace and knowing longer than I think.

  10. This was – pardon the pun – gracefully written.
    And it gave me the chills.
    That spooky road you were driving on, with Tim in your backseat. Of course it was him, esp. because you are not a new age girl – chills.

  11. You are an incredible writer—honestly. I loved every word in this post, and I could feel your mother’s cheek as she pressed it to yours. You are so talented, and in case you were ever unsure of that, I just needed to tell you. Thank you for sharing—you are inspiring.

    • thank you so much. that was one of my personal favorite parts of writing this – remembering that closeness between myself as a small child and my mom. luckily, some things never go away. really, really appreciate it.

  12. I love you, my precious child.

    Oh,and Tim & Larry say to tell you they’re still looking after you and Aunt Brookie.


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