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All my tired flies out the window when I see Grandma Faith standing in the mountain mists that drift in and out of the trees. She's as she was before, like one lick of fire hasn't touched her, whole and alive and wanting as she beckons to me. Grandma whispers her wants as she's done all my life.
I put my hand out the car window as Momma used to do, and say "Wheeee..." then holler to the owl flying in the night, "I'm Virginia Kate, and I'm a crazy woman." He keeps his wings spread to find his supper. I don't feel silly one bit. I rush headlong into the night in my gray Subaru, a tangible addition to the darkness. The tires seem to hover above the road as if like the owl I am also flying. I could let loose my hand from the steering wheel and my car would find its way to a little holler that lies in the shadow of the mountain. Inside the unused ashtray my cell phone lies silent, for I've turned it off, pushed it into the little drawer, closed it as much as I could. I am in no mood for voices telling me any more bad things.
The last time I allowed it to ring, Uncle Jonah had called and said, "Come home and fetch your momma." I haven't called West Virginia home for longer than what's good, but I left before light to do as he said without giving myself time to think too hard on it.
Grandma Faith used to say, "Ghosts and spirits weave around the living in these mountains. They try to tell us things, warn us of what's ahead, or try to move us on towards something we need to do. But most of all, they want us to remember."
Momma never told stories much, since it hurt to do it. She said looking behind a person only makes them tripand fall. I understand why now in a way I didn't as a girl.
I touch the journal Momma sent two weeks ago. I should have gone to her right after I read her letter, but I was too ornery for my own good, always have been. I didn't want her to think she could crook her finger and have me scurry back to West Virginia after she gave me up as she did when I was a girl who needed her momma. I had set my teeth to her words and carried on with my own business.
Momma wrote, I know you'd want to have this diary from your Grandma seeing how you are two peas in a pod. I made a few notes alongside hers. She didn't have everything written down, so I had to fix parts of it. Come soon. I got lots to talk about. Things I reckon will explain what the notes in the diary won't.
I wrote back, Dear Momma, I'm busy. You can mail my stuff to me (I'm enclosing a check that should be more than plenty for postage). You have your nerve writing me after all this time and expecting me to drop everything. That's all I have to say right now. Signed, Virginia Kate.
I didn't open the diary until a week later. And only then because Grandma took up to poking at me until I had enough.
Now I'm full of regret. Momma didn't tell me she was so sick; how was I to know? And the diary notes would have changed things, changed the way I thought about my momma. I'm almost to the West Virginia state line, but I already know it's too late for Momma and me.
In Grandma Faith's journal is the story of how Momma and Daddy met. How I began. In the pages are tucked pictures--one of Grandma with me on her lap, another one of Momma when she was a young girl of seventeen, and one of my parents after they were married in 1954. The journal burns my right palm warm as I rub the tooled leather and pass the sign that welcomes me to the state of West Virginia. But I don't need the sign to tell me. The pull of my mountain calls me home. Oh, how I've missed these mountains, even when I didn't know I did. They'd been tucked away inside, hiding behind my heart, pulsing with my blood. Waiting for me.
Between Pocahontas and Summers County, where Momma was born, where Grandma Faith lived and then died on her own mountain, I look up and beyond at my heritage. All the mystery, all the secrets, all the loss and gain of our lives.
When Momma was a girl, she ran on the mountain wild and dirty until my daddy came to fetch her away. I can well imagine Momma the day she met Daddy, from Momma's scrawled notes off to the side of Grandma's slanted ones. I see my momma just as clear as if I were there myself. The old house perched on the mountain, and Daddy walking up to knock on their door.
I shake away the memories so I can concentrate on what's ahead. The address Uncle Jonah gave me is easy to find, right off the highway. I park, go inside to fetch Momma, walk with my head up and my feet clomping hard. There's no one else here. I'm alone.
Grandma Faith says, "No, you are not alone. I'm here."
When I see how it is with Momma, I'm relieved she made Uncle Jonah take care of things before I got here. But it makes her even more unreal as I put her in the car with me and set my wheels turning towards the little white house where we all lived for a time, where Momma stayed behind alone when she let us go, one by one. I take her around the curves, down the long weaving road, between mountain and memory. Then I'm there. The two hills stand guard over the holler; my headlights glow before me as I pull into the dirt driveway.
Nothing has changed.
My sweet sister mountain waits, mysterious in the moonlight, rising up as it always did. I get out of the car and take deep breaths of clean summer air, listen to the night insects and frogs call to each other, and remember a lonely girl, who grew up to be a hopeful woman. Holding tight to Momma, I walk into the door of my childhood home and the ghosts of a thousand hurts, loves, wants, and lives rush against me. I hug on to her so I won't drop her, and say, "Momma, I'm home again."
She doesn't say, "Stay awhile."
"You can't send me away this time, Momma." But I know she can. She sent me away twice before.
I hurry through the shadowed house, straight to my room. I'm stunned. It's still the same. I place Momma on my dresser, say, "There Momma. There." I turn my back to her, head out to my car again. Outside, the cool air clears my head. Once my bags are from car to room, I don't bother unpacking. Now that I'm here, I want to leave soon as I can.
I open the window and breathe in earth and childhood smells. A breeze lifts my hair and plays with the strands. The mountains are shadows in the distance and I shout, just to spite Momma, "Hello! Remember me? I'm home!"
I hear an echoing, "Stay awhile, Virginia Kate." Maybe it's only the rustle of leaves, the blowing of wind, but I smile to possibility. Pretending I'm brave, I open the journal to the page with my parents' picture and read Grandma's slanting words, along with Momma's scrawled additions, by moonlight.
Our mothers and their mothers and the mothers before them do the same things over and again, even if in differing ways. Not me. I close the journal. A blast of wind rushes in, pushes against me, and causes something from the nightstand to fall over. It's the Popsicle-stick photo frame Micah made me. My hands grow warm and tingly. The photo inside is of Micah, Andy, and me, grinning without a bit of sense. The Easter picture. We're all dressed up--with bare dirty feet--and my bonnet is tilted on my head ready to fall off. We look so happy it makes my stomach clench.
Grandma urges, "Go to the attic, little mite. More waits."
I put the frame back, and go out to the hall. The stairs make the same loud scrangy sound as I pull them down, the same rattle as I climb. Daddy's old flashlight still hangs on the nail at the entrance, and I use it to look around. There are Christmas ornament boxes, book boxes, unmarked boxes, and a box with Easter written in big black ink.
Inside Easter, folded in tissue paper, is Momma's green dress, her hatbox with the wide-brimmed hat, and her white gloves. I recall Momma sashaying down the church aisle while everyone stared at her, dim bulbs in the bright shine of her light. I press Momma's dress to my face and inhale deep. Shalimar. I still smell it. I put everything back before too many things are remembered too soon.
Shining the light in a corner, I find the dirty-finger-printed white box. My Special Things Box. I pick my way over to it, and cradling it in my arms like a baby, take it down with me. Up and down the rickety stairs I go with pictures and mementos, until I have the things I want scattered about my room. I know now I'll stay until I finish the remembering.
When I open my dresser drawer to put away things from my suitcase, some of my childhood clothing is still there. Underneath the white cotton panties there is more--letters, notes, and smoothed creek stones, tucked away as if I just put them there. Inside the cedar robe are two dresses I never wore unless Momma made me. I pick up the Mary Janes and see my sad in the shine.
The room is filled to overflowing with the past--like a broken family reunion. It's hard to suck in air; the bits of ghost-dust choke me. My eyes water, but I know it's not time to cry. Grandma Faith wants me to remember, not to weep. She knows about truth and the pain it can heap on you if you keep hiding from it. Momma knows now, too, I bet.
I say in my croaked voice, "Crying is for weaklings. Crying is for little girls in pigtails." I know I speak strong to the spirits who are watching me. I want to show them what I'm made of. I do.
I empty my Special Things Box onto the quilt. Inside are items I thought important when I was innocent. I up-end paper sacks, a cigar box, envelopes, Easter. I'm a crazy searching woman as I go through years in a gulp. The wind blows in and scatters papers. I hear laughter. Everything is willy-nilly as if there's no beginning and no end.
All around me are child's drawings, Daddy's old Instamatic camera, photographs, a silver-handled mirror and comb set without the brush, school notebooks, river and creek rocks, letters, diaries, a bit of Spanish moss, whispers, lies, truths, crushed maple leaves, regrets, red lipstick, losses, loves, a piece of coal--all emptied from dark places.
Everything will be emptied from dark places, even the urn of ashes full of Momma's spirit that can't be contained. Momma always said she never wanted anyone to see her look ugly, and Momma would think dead was ugliest of all. She made Uncle Jonah burn her down before anyone could say goodbye. That's what she wanted, that's how she is.
I stop my mad tossing aside, pick up a photo of Grandma standing next to her vegetable garden. She's holding Momma when she was a baby. The same West Virginia breeze that rustles the secrets on my bed pushes Grandma's dress against her long legs. The sun behind her shows the outline of her body. I can sense the smiles that would be there if she had been given a chance to breathe. She reaches out to me. We are connected by our blood and love of words and truth. She's chosen me to be the storyteller. I can feel her. I can.
I will start with a beginning, before I slid down the moon and landed in my momma's arms, those same arms that let me go without telling me why, or at least a why I wanted to hear.
"The stories are made real by the telling," Grandma whispers.
I smell apples and fresh-baked bread. I inhale them into my marrow.
Gazing out the open window, I wish on falling stars of hope. Far off a flash of lightning breaks through the night--a coming storm? I want to remember my life as falls, springs, and summers. I don't like seeing things in the winter's dead and cold. I'm like Momma that way.
I situate myself cross-legged on the bed and the ghosts guide my hands where they need to go. I dig deep into the secrets. I will begin with Momma and Daddy the day they met. The beginning of them is the beginning of me. I hear a hum of voices, like dragonflies and cicadas buzzing.
I'll record our lives, my life, as Grandma Faith wants me to. I look out my childhood window at the moon and the stars, at my mountain, at the rest of my life stretched before me, and the one behind me. Spirits urge me; a clear path opens, up to the top.
My life begins again.