“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
― Norman Maclean
I took the sweater to Goodwill when it stopped smelling like her. It was an ugly, ill-fitting sweater, but she wore it all the time. The sweater had stayed on the top shelf of my closet, away from everything else, as I tried to preserve the last bit of her. I’d pull it down when I missed her. Burying my nose in the loosely knitted yarn yanked me back to my youth, back to her house, and back to her. One day I pulled the sweater from the closet and the scent was gone, just like that, just like her.
At thirty-nine years of age, my Aunt Mary purchased a brown curly wig, an expensive one. The first time she wore the wig, she lay in a casket. Her nails were painted bright pink.
Tectonic plates smash together to form mountains from stubborn fate. Mountain people ignore their fears and desires until enough friction brings them to the surface as a physical or mental affliction, incapable of remaining hidden. “It’s God’s will,” someone would utter, as if that made tragedy more palatable. All my youth, I sat in stiff wooden church pews. The hungry congregation thanked God for his love, wretched as we were. All my youth, I saw metal trailers on cliff faces. The black coal dust blanketed our porches; we were too wretched for God’s love. In Grundy, we were walled off from the rest of the world by mountains so tall that the rest of Virginia forgot about us. The rotten egg odor of sulfur was so commonplace we thought it was fresh air. The plague of the town, black lung, was not marked by a painted cross on the door, but by disability checks in the mailbox and OxyContin on the streets.
The mountain’s voice doesn’t like to travel. In conversations that flow toward an emotional landscape, the voices tuck tail and run only to return for a visit when simpler conversations about weather appear on the horizon. Things go unspoken, problems go unclaimed, and people walk around as empty as the earth dug out in the coal mines beneath their feet. The real person is always buried from view, one way or another.
After the funeral, we gathered at her house to eat casseroles and drink diet soda. Her husband stood at the corner of the yard, a half-smiling zombie. There was emptiness within the walls of the house. She hadn’t been gone a week, yet the absence of her spirit pressed down on us all, a weight that as a family, we’d never be able to lift again.
I went to her room; her scent still lingered. I touched her makeup and pulled her favorite blue sweater from her closet. Thoughts were my enemies. I slept on her bed. I wanted to sleep there for days. I was twenty-one. I had never felt such emptiness.
Mary Elizabeth was the fifth child born to an alcoholic coal miner and a strong woman who struggled to get her hands on his paycheck before he drank it all away. Their four-room house clung to the side of the mountain, as desperate to survive as the family inside. Mary’s big ol’ feet looked odd in high heels. She stood tall, with a sturdy body and a tall, shining forehead, crowned with a long mane of permed hair stiff with Aqua Net. Her purple eye shadow climbed to her neatly plucked eyebrows as if trying to find the latest scoop. She always smelled of a mixture of Skin So Soft and Nivea.
My aunt eloped while my family was out of town. One minute, she was single, the next she belonged to someone. The newlyweds moved into a baby blue and white single-wide trailer on their very own piece of property. It was a step up from all those people who lived in trailer parks. Success in our town consisted of being able to be better off than your neighbors. Her husband, Paul, went to work scraping the peaks from the tops of the mountains to unearth coal. She went to work planting flowers around the edges of the aluminum trailer’s skirt and selling Avon cosmetics to a community to unearth hope.
To me, it was yet another lesson by example. Women are secondary. A man is the stone in the mountain, the smell of ash and fire. A woman is the moss, the smell of dirt and musty dampness. The moss makes the mountain softer. It’s unnecessary, but a nice distraction. Be nice. Smile pretty. Love Jesus. Let the men go through the food line first. Don’t cuss or back-talk and you’ll find a good man to take care of you.
Mary embraced small-town life—homecoming parades, the high school beauty pageants, and the football games. She embodied the nosey nature of a small-town birthright. A ringing telephone meant Mary wanted to talk. Wheels on the driveway meant she’d just grown tired of riding around town in her blue Bronco. Life was eating buckets of fried chicken livers and blasting REO Speedwagon. She drank my high school gossip as a tonic for a life on endless repeat.
My aspirations clawed their way above the mountain peaks. It stung like a swarm of bees when the judge at the oral speaking state finals told me, “Your accent is adorable, but it won’t get you anywhere in life.” Mary’s voice gave up her upbringing within seconds of uttering its first syllable. The sounds were clipped but drawled utterances of an Appalachian hillbilly, like me. I forced the traces out of my voice during college, exorcised them like a demon out to shame me. Yet the mountains of my upbringing, my formation, still tumbled out of her lips, shaping her mouth, forming her words into a language I could no longer speak fluently.
“You’ve got real fancy,” she said. It was not meant as a compliment.
At thirty-nine years of age she was childless. Not because she didn’t want them, but because of a staggering fear of the gynecologist. The hillbilly view of sex and the Bible-Belt bias against the female body kept her from wanting the male gynecologist in town to see her naked.
At thirty-nine years of age, she was smart enough to know that when the deep scabs and sores appeared on her chest where her breasts had once been, it was cancer. Her mother died of breast cancer at fifty-six. Mary ignored the scars and told us it was a bad case of pneumonia.
Fluorescent bulbs buzzed as I entered her hospital room. The light yellowed the sanitary surfaces and the smells of alcohol swabs and sickness filled my nostrils. It was the first time in my life she looked small. We stood as an army, protecting our queen, and awaited the results from the X-ray technician.
At thirty-nine years of age, no man had ever seen her breasts. She wore her bra to sleep, choosing an uncomfortable struggle with the underwire and restrictive straps over the intimacy of allowing a partner to see her body. No man had ever seen her breasts until this stranger touched, squeezed, and photographed them, manipulating them on a cold metal table as if they were objects with no meaning. White jacketed, he appeared in the waiting room, too young to be trusted, but wise enough to hand out Mary’s sentence to the mute audience. “It’s not good,” he said. Trying to salvage the remaining women in the family, he meekly uttered, “Has each of you been checked?” I ran into the sterilized bathroom inside her room and threw up, but I did not cry. I could not cry.
Far too late, she learned that hiding something doesn’t make it go away. The realization settled grimly across her face as she said, “I don’t want to die.” She then decided to fight. She dug up hope that had been hiding behind the cold, dark things in the way.
Her hope was a mask we all tried to wear. Only three months passed; her husband smiled at the treatments and bedsides, positive he would not become a widower. But masks must eventually be removed.
She was strapped to a hospital bed, dying. The breathing tube shoved violently down her throat gagged her words, her last words. She jerked at it feverishly when she was awake. So the doctors filled her with morphine. She fought for life no more. She died in front of my family, as if on stage, everyone watching. I was at Wendy’s picking up chicken sandwiches for everyone. Mary and I were robbed of our goodbyes. I was not there.
Mary wasn’t at my college graduation. It was uncharacteristic. It was the first milestone in my entire life that she had skipped. Instead of feeling concerned about her, I chose to be angry. I chose to embrace my anger. I was angry at her for her naiveté. I was angry at a backward, repressed town. I was angry at a God who took so much. I was angry at the women in my life for being so meek. I would no longer be the moss. I would become the mountain. I would allow no more pain to enter my heart.
I moved to Chicago, where the mountains were replaced by manmade buildings. Human-defined landscapes blocked out God while the smell of car exhaust blocked out nature. I married a man, but easily let that marriage slip through my fingers like sand. I could not let myself be vulnerable. Divorced, I slept with other men simply because they asked. My body wasn’t attached to me, so I gave it away, but never my soul. That was mine. I climbed the professional ladder to prove I was good enough. I ran for miles until my muscles ached, determined to extinguish lingering desires. I had no children. I couldn’t afford to be needed. My family called me selfish. I just felt misunderstood. I blamed my family for bringing me up this way, though they stayed on their knees praying that God would soften me again.
At thirty-nine years of age, my thoughts turned to Mary. I left Grundy long ago, but it stayed inside me. I’d hardened, yet I had been hiding my true desires, even from myself. What physical or mental affliction lurked in the shadows, waiting to rob me of my goodbye? I cried for my losses, in times of stillness. I was weary from carrying the weight of taking care of myself. I had been lying to myself. I had been stifling my yearning. I was a hollowed-out mine.
I realized at least half my life had passed. Mary never had that realization. I had lived half my life trying to prove I was worth something. But, who was watching me? Who cared? Maybe, just maybe, the second half of my life could be the reason that I was born. If my tectonic plates shifted, and death called me, would I have a smile on my face? Mountains are strong, but they crumble. Moss is beautiful, but it grasps tightly.
I no longer needed the shapes of my youth. My eyes were wide open as if learning to see color for the first time. I left pride behind. It could stay behind somewhere in my thirties. I was going to get comfortable with the feeling of fear swelling in my chest.
I would become a river. I would no longer be stagnant, but embrace daily change. The rocks and bends along the way would serve to make me slow down or move faster toward no particular end point. I would move between the moss and the mountains: crisp, wet, and filled with pine. I would be a strong moving current concerned with only this moment in time for as long as I had moments.
I sat cuddled with my tiny nephew as he squeezed deeper into my side. “You smell like your house,” he whispered as if it was a secret only he and I could share. “Is that good?” I asked, though the sweet smile on his face was my answer. “It just smells like you!” He laughed, exasperated that I needed to ask the question. I rubbed the soft skin of his back as his breathing grew heavy. I inhaled his scent, sweet like bread. He was innocent, young, and malleable. He would take many shapes in his lifetime. As a river, I could flow around him, cool him, and carry him if he needed it. I could run parallel to his journey and never restrict his shape. As a river, I could love freely.