Dance halls, Ike and Tina Turner, Maker’s Mark, grandmothers, dogwoods, Otis Redding, Singin’ in the Rain, impatiens, Leviticus, mimosa trees & blue-bearded irises.
My mother cries in the passenger seat as I drive the final miles to her childhood home in Springfield, Kentucky. It’s late summer, the insects zing against the windshield and the heat shimmers on the crops growing on the side of the two-lane road.
We have a job to do. The family house has been sold and there are things that remain; we need to see what’s there and decide whether to keep or toss or sell. There’s nothing for me to say to comfort her. It’s sad and that’s all there is to it.
This geography is a quirky twist: for most of my childhood, the spoken word “Lebanon” was accompanied by Mama’s diatribes against nightclubs, whiskey, tobacco. All the things a good Baptist girl was taught to shun and avoid.
My eighty-nine-year-old grandmother has moved to an assisted-living facility. It took a stroke, the death of her husband of six decades, and two years of lonely stubbornness to convince her, but last month Mama finally allowed her kitchen table, two recliners, a rocking chair and herself to be moved to Lebanon, ten miles away. This geography is a quirky twist: for most of my childhood, the spoken word “Lebanon” was accompanied by Mama’s diatribes against nightclubs, whiskey, tobacco. All the things a good Baptist girl was taught to shun and avoid.
Mama told me the story of how her own father had warned her, “I’d rather follow you to the grave than to a dance hall.” I wondered how she felt about living less than a mile from the site of the most notorious dance hall of them all, Club 68, where Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King and Otis Redding played, the kids danced with abandon and liquor flowed nearly straight from the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, spitting distance away.
Mom snuffles and I hand her a tissue from the packet in my purse. We’re driving through the late-summer torches of golden corn and pink tobacco-plant flowers. My mother reminds me this is the stretch where the county police officer waits for out-of-towners who are exceeding the speed limit by five miles per hour. I slow down and scan the rearview mirror; we have just passed the white brick wall announcing Spalding Farm, Beef Cows. In front of us, one paved road crosses our path and there are four or five dirt farm lanes ahead, but no cruiser in sight.
“How do you know he’s there?” I ask.
“Because he’s given me three tickets,” Mom says. “And Mama told me I couldn’t get any more. She said our family is not the type to get a speeding ticket.”
“What type is that?”
Mom grudgingly laughs. We’ve got less than a mile of road left and I can’t quit thinking how this will be the last time I drive to my grandparents’ home. I number the landmarks as we pass them like Casey Kasem rounding up the Top 40: the “new” twenty-five-year-old grocery on the edge of town; the seafood/home-style/Mexican/pizza restaurant; the high school with the football field where we kicked field goals after every Thanksgiving dinner.
We are in the heart of Kentucky’s farm country, about fifty miles southwest of Lexington, where my mom moved for college, got married and birthed first me and then my two sisters. This tiny two-thousand-citizen county, named for Washington because it was the first county established after Kentucky attained statehood, has produced NFL Hall of Famers, the marriage license of Abraham Lincoln’s parents and (despite being “dry” for the past century) Jim Beam’s first bourbon sale.
Though I wasn’t born here, one branch of my roots grew in the dense dirt watered by a network of meandering streams. As we crest a low-rolling hill, I can see the whole town and the road to Bardstown, which leads to Nashville, which leads to the Mississippi River, which leads out to the Gulf of Mexico. Summer Bible school at the Springfield Baptist Church led to the fertile ground of Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus, the Gospels, the world of the Old and New Testaments. My first kiss was from a sun-tanned Springfield boy. Mama’s dogwood and mimosa trees, the blue-bearded iris clustered in her yard, the fresh-grown red-seeded summer tomatoes potted on her back porch nurtured my love of nature.
Summer Bible school at the Springfield Baptist Church led to the fertile ground of Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus, the Gospels, the world of the Old and New Testaments.
As the blinker signals our final turn, I wipe a tear from my eye.
There is new white paint on the shutters and columns. The grass is nicely trimmed, but there are no red geraniums or impatiens or even a lone, stray fern on the covered porch. The white wooden rocking chairs are gone, moved to Mom’s back porch, and the garage is empty but for a stack of recycling and a stray plastic bucket.
Mom opens the passenger door, sighs and stands, digging in her purse for the key. I sit still a minute and watch her step up the stone walkway to the front door. That stone walk held puddles after a rain and seemed the size of a Broadway stage for my Singin’ in the Rain song-and-dance numbers. Stomp-splash-stomp-splash. My rain boots displaced the water in a satisfying rhythm.
She turns. “Yes?”
I catch up with her. “Whatever happened to the dogwoods? The white and pink ones that twined together? We always took our Easter pictures in front of them.”
“They got rot or something a long time ago. She had to have them taken out.”
“I don’t remember that,” I say.
“It’s been ten years or more. And the elm died too. And the mimosa in the backyard.”
Mom walks to the front door and opens it. The hallway is strange: the blue carpet my grandmother installed in the 1960s is gone and old hardwood floors gleam with new polish.
“You loved to come here when you were a little girl. We couldn’t get you to leave.”
It was my favorite place in the world. On the second floor, one hallway ended in a dormer where I kept all my dolls, a bookcase, a miniature rocking chair, a tiny keyboard and a trunk full of toys. I would sit there for hours, reading or playing piano or just looking out at the front yard and the cars driving past. Mama’s treadle sewing machine where she made clothes for my Barbies was at the other end of the hall.
I’d been less diligent as I’d grown, more intent on finding answers to my philosophical questions, or more boys to conquer, or more nature to protect. Forgetting the roots, forgetting the love that nurtured them. Letting the origins lie fallow while I pursued the fruit.
“I’m so sorry,” I murmur.
But Mom didn’t hear. She started up the stairs where an attic closet waited for our attention. I wiped my eyes again and followed.
Pamela Dae is an attorney and author who lives and works in Central Kentucky after returning to the Bluegrass State from a stint as a press secretary on Capitol Hill. She is waiting publication of her first novel, After the Race.
Lead Photo by Priscilla Westra