Sometimes the rending apart of parent and child is abrupt, sometimes gradual.
Always, it is painful.
In my family, it happens with dogged, painful insistence at age thirteen. Thirteen is the beginning of the end. It was the last year I spent with my father. It is the age my son is now.
What is it about thirteen, I wonder. I study him.
My son does not want to be here, camping on a lake in a state park near Selma, Alabama with his parents. He wanted to bring a friend. My husband and I had quietly debated the matter but selfishly decided against it; if he brought a friend he would barely give us the time of day and we were looking forward to hanging out with him.
But maybe we should have invited a cousin or someone for him to buddy around with, I think, watching him stare moodily into the fire he has lovingly crafted. He is perched on a log, hunched forward with his skinny arms wrapped around his skinny legs—a bony pterodactyl poised for flight. Reaching for a stick, he pokes a pinecone into the flame to see what happens. Concentrating on a spot where there are no flames, but only glowing embers, he pushes the pinecone close and waits. He is rewarded moments later with a burst of flames that light up his face—and his giant grin of pleasure.
Zack is a burgeoning pyromaniac. To fulfill his apprenticeship requirement for seventh grade this year, he took a job at a glass-blowing studio. He’s still trying to wrap his head around the idea that anyone would call this—powering the blowtorch for his boss as the man twirls molten glass—a job. Fire, for its powerful, destructive potential, fascinates him in all its forms. He picks up every abandoned lighter he finds on Baltimore’s litter-strewn streets and flicks it relentlessly for a spark. If it fails, he works a little magic with his pocketknife or a screwdriver to revive it; weirdly—and I don’t even want to know how—he gets a flame nine times out of ten. When I put his socks away in the top drawer, I pocket a few of the rusty lighters that always seem to be buried there and secretly toss them. In our backyard several action figures—only bad guys thus far because I have rescued the once-loved Peter Pan from this terrible fate—have been burned at the stake. He and friends coated Two Face and the Joker with Axe deodorant, torched them till they were burned beyond recognition in the fiery inferno of a Bustelo can. On Facebook, my husband discovers Zack has posted a photo of himself and a friend igniting a squirt of bug spray. In Zack’s bedroom. In our turn-of-the-century tinderbox row house.
When I worried aloud to a friend who teaches middle school about this love affair with fire she laughed at me: “Yeah, him and every other twelve- and thirteen-year-old boy I’ve ever met.”
Tonight, Zack jabs a log and is rewarded with a volcano of sparks, erupting into the night sky. He sketches some hieroglyphics into the pile of ash with his “poking stick” and then stares silently into the flames.
Sometimes, I think, a little lonely pensiveness is in order. It is part of thirteen, how we learn who we are—alone, ourselves, set in a world full of troubles we see with new clarity.
I remember thirteen, but recall this year before my father’s death as though I am watching events taking place behind a scrim that blurs the edges and blunts details. That was the year I decided not to talk in school. At all. Ever. I was awkward and shy and my lips felt pleasant resting closed against each other and since they were clearly not up to the task of keeping pace with my confused flurry of thoughts—which in any case only came to rest fleetingly on the topics of class discussion—I simply decided not to speak. Though this was not my purpose, I did wonder vaguely if anyone would notice. They did not. I got all As.
My father inquired after my studies that year the same way he always did, our refrain repeated each day.
“How was school?”
“What’d you learn?”
“What kind of things?”
“All sorts of things.”
Then silence would fill the cab of the white pickup truck my Air Force dad drove in Alabama, the wood-paneled station wagon he drove in Ohio, the Audi he drove when our mobile family was stationed in Belgium. He would give me a sideways smile and our day would be behind us—tidily wrapped up in ambiguity; no lies, no truths.
Tomorrow we will visit my father’s grave, which I haven’t been to since the day he was buried in a Selma, Alabama, graveyard in 1978—and tonight, as I pack our supper leftovers into the cooler and zip the tent flaps up, it is hard for me to separate who I was at thirteen, relentlessly independent by force of circumstance, from my son at thirteen, pushing away from his lamenting parents.
I stop fussing with the dishes at the picnic table and settle down on a log across from Zack. I study the backdrop, a full moon lighting up the sky as it slips above the dark tree line, a trail of moonlight gliding across the lake to our campsite and then, give up my night vision to join him, finally, in staring into the flame.
* * * * *
On June 13, 1977, my Air Force father’s plane burst into flames as it crashed into a potato field outside Brussels, Belgium, where he was stationed at the time. I was in eighth grade. He was a thirty-five-year-old fighter pilot on a “routine mission.” The Air Force told us only that he had died immediately. Within days of his death my mother, suddenly a thirty-six-year-old widow with three daughters, was asked by the military to sign a sheaf of standard forms regarding my father’s burial, his life insurance policy, the distribution of his veteran’s benefits.
My mother signed.
“Where would you like his remains shipped?” someone asked.
My mother scrambled. We had lived in nine different cities, six different states, two different countries in the last thirteen years. Home was Detroit, Michigan, where they’d both grown up—but joining the Air Force had been a conscious decision to escape Michigan for my dad. He had always found the suburbs there suffocating—a narrow world of expectations he chafed against. Sending him back there—even dead—was out of the question. On a whim, my mother decided to bury my father in Selma, Alabama, where the family had spent three happy years stationed at Craig Air Force Base and because the five of us had regularly taken long walks through the stately old cemetery there, huge live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and thought it peaceful.
The military treated us well. It paid to ship the body back to the United States and flew my entire family from Belgium, where we were stationed, back to the States on a private jet owned by aircraft builders Pratt & Whitney. The military activated veterans benefits immediately, covered all funeral expenses, organized a gun-salute and a fly-by, and paid for a Belgian Air Force officer to serve as our escort.
But it never told us what happened. And because it was so sudden—“The Hurts called about babysitting. Don’t forget to walk the dog” were his final words scrawled on a notepad for us to find on the table—I never really believed he died.
The Right Stuff came out in 1983, five years after my father’s plane crash, but there was a scene in it that I recognized: I’d replayed it in my mind a thousand times. In the final moments of the film, test pilot Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard) struggles to keep his damaged plane aloft. He can’t. Bang! It crashes on the runway. He’s dead. Or is he? Suddenly, out of the smoldering hulk steps Yeager. Unscathed, he walks across the tarmac through the hazy fumes of a plane about to explode. He removes his helmet. He smiles. Invincible.
Roll end credits.
That was my movie, with slightly altered foreshadowing: My parents had been fighting a lot before the crash, so I figured my father wanted to leave us. Maybe those men in blue who notified us thought he died when his T-33 went down. But he slipped out. He trotted across the potato field and disappeared into the woods. Then he began a parallel life, moved to Paris, hooked up with a French woman, had children.
That’s why there was a closed casket and we never saw a body. My older sister, fifteen at the time, speculated that it was because he was “burned beyond recognition.” I knew otherwise. Although I had the sense not to talk about it, I kept this other truth in my head. For years it breezed along parallel, in perfect formation, beside reality—two shiny T-Birds dangerously close but never converging. A tricky maneuver for a fighter—or a fighter pilot’s daughter.
* * * * *
The first night of camping, our tent on the lake seems eerily quiet after the sirens and garbage trucks and bus brakes that lull us to sleep in our Baltimore row house. We don’t have a lot of silence in our lives.
Even our road trips are filled with sound.
We listen to endless hours of books on tape when we travel. This time, for the long drive from Baltimore to Selma, we have borrowed two audio books from the library: Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Coming-of-age novels. Stories about race, the south, and religion. Fictional tales that nonetheless sketch the historical backdrop for some reporting I was doing on civil rights museums and the 1965 “Freedom Trail” march from Selma to Montgomery. This was a working vacation of sorts.
The first day of driving, reader Cherry Jones’ rich twang carries us through Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia as she spins the story of The Heart’s thirteen-year-old Mick Kelly who is at odds with herself, her family, her southern evangelical world. As I drive, night creeps on, the hills of Appalachia melting into pastures and the panoramic views narrowing into a sliver of lighted road in front of me. My husband, drowsy, sprawls next to me, reclining the passenger seat as much as he can in our over-stuffed car. His face is peaceful in slumber. He snores softly and I wait for him to wake and spell me, as he always has, declaring, despite the snores, that he hadn’t really been able to sleep a wink. In the backseat, my son narrows his eyes as he follows the landscape out the window, trying to decipher the shadows. We listen in silence to The Heart, as Mick gets a lecture from the family cook, Portia, and goads her a bit:
“And tell you the truth, I don’t think a little singing and a little preaching would hurt you, Mick. You ought to take your little brother to Sunday school and also, you plenty big enough to sit in church. From the biggity way you been acting lately it seem to me like you already got one toe in the pit.”
“Nuts,” Mick said. “I don’t believe in God anymore than I do Santa Claus.”
Portia takes the bait.
“But you haven’t never loved God nor even nair person. You hard and tough as cowhide. But just the same I knows you. This afternoon you going to roam all over the place without never being satisfied. You going to traipse all around like you haves to find something lost. You going to work yourself up with excitement. Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t love and don’t have peace. And then someday you going to bust loose and be ruined. Won’t nothing help you then.”
Click. Silence. We have reached the end of a CD.
“You already got one toe in the pit,” I echo into the silent, dark night, as the car consumes the road in front of me, trying to commit the evocative phrase to memory. “Zack, you already got one toe in the pit,” I say, expecting a snicker from the back seat as indeed, he is a vociferous atheist and appreciates a good turn of phrase.
But he had left me.
Sound asleep, his head rests on his dog, Nelson Mandela’s haunches. Nelson—female, but “Winnie” lacked the cachet—wore her namesake’s pained, patient expression as if enduring Zack’s affection carried this high price.
* * * * *
The next morning, as we pull into a gas station Zack announces he has had enough of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. “Too much description, not enough action,” he complains. “Can’t we listen to Huck Finn?” he demands. He recently finished Tom Sawyer. Twain amuses him.
“But we’re almost finished with this.”
“You’d quit in the middle?”
“Really? You’d quit a book without learning the end?” What kind of child have I raised?
“But I want to find out what happens.” How can he not love this story? I loved this story.
“Mom, you always do what you want.”
“I do not!”
He scrunches down in the backseat and stews.
“Oh, fine,” I relent after a few minutes, switching the CD off altogether and scrunching down in the front passenger seat to stew.
My husband tosses the keys in the door, says he’s going to use the bathroom and will be back in a sec. He shuffles across the parking lot, a bear emerging from cramped hibernation, then stops to stretch his arms up over his head and crack his knuckles, relieved—I suddenly suspect—to be free of The Heart and the stony glares Zack and I share in our close car. I lean across the console to put the key in and turn on the air. It’s getting hot. With the car running, Zack plugs his iPod into the stereo, blaring Linkin Park’s “Numb.”
“This is what I think of you,” he hurls.
And the lyrics fill the car: “I’m tired of being what you want me to be, feeling so faithless, lost under the surface.” I turn around to look at him as the song goes on: “Every step that I take is just another mistake to you.” When he gets to his favorite line, he belts it out: “All I want to do is be more like me and less like you.”
I slink down deeper, leaning my head back into the wedge of space between seat and the door, and close my eyes, thinking I’d like to shoot whoever proposed this vacation.
Oh yeah, that was me.
My husband gets back in the car and silently assesses the situation. Trouble. “How ‘bout some Huck Finn?” he asks as he pulls back onto the road. He is also a Twain fan. I am outnumbered.
“Yesss,” hisses Zack under his breath, victorious.
Linkin Park clicks off and Twain’s opening words fill the car:
“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
“Thank god,” I think.
Soon, the coming-of-age story of the consummate bad boy fills the car. Within moments (page three), thirteen-year-old Huck is trapped in world full of problems he is just beginning to recognize, chafing at being “sivilized” by his new guardians, the Widow Douglas and her sister. Zack reaches forward to turn up the volume a notch as we learn that the untutored Huck is being force-fed some religion by Miss Watson. She is talking about death and the hereafter and reminds him that his naughty ways mean he’s already got one toe in the pit:
Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn’t mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular. She said it was wicked to say what I said…. Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.
Zack laughs aloud at that one and declares it his favorite line, though we are only on page four of the 388-page book.
And Huck Finn carries us deeper south—through Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama. The rolling pastures flatten into pineland and the trees, deciduous and pale green in their new clothes only yesterday, darken into relentless rows of conifers along the highway, waxy magnolias in the town square where we stop for lunch, dusty scrub bush next to fireworks store where Zack caresses a box of rockets and digs deep into his pocket to see if re-counting his allowance will make the fistful of $1 bills grow to match the price tag. No luck. I offer him a Slurpee and while he declares it a poor consolation prize, he does seem cheered as he creates his usual concoction of Coke, Mountain Dew, and something very turquoise that leaves a pale blue circle around his lips. It adds a deathly pallor to his face.
“Creepy,” I say, when all of us have squeezed back into the car, and I tilt the rearview mirror down, before I pull out of the parking lot, so that he can see from the backseat, what he looks like with this tint of blue.
He shrugs—“So?”—but drags the back of his hand across his lips as I pull out of the parking lot and back onto the highway.
My husband eats a Slim Jim. He had a craving, seeing all those sticks of meat lined up in a giant glass jar next to the cashier. “It’s not as good as I remembered,” he says. He always says this. Life in general is not as good as he anticipates. The scent of pepperoni—and apparently, my husband’s youth—fills the car.
“Turn on Huck,” my son says.
“Please,” I say.
“Plose,” he says, reverting to the familiar, contrary response he invented when he was four—close enough to please to be misconstrued as manners but not fully bowing to authority.
I turn on the CD and we pick up with Huck still mulling over the afterlife Widow Douglas has described to him, this boy with his idiot savant notions, musing about death and the unknowable:
I went up to my room with a piece of candle, and put it on the table. Then I set down in a chair by the window and tried to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whipporwill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving.
“Creepy,” I say.
“It’s just a book,” Zack says, to me or himself, I’m not quite sure. “Can you turn up the air? I’m baking back here.”
* * * * *
It is hot, ninety-seven degrees on June 13, 1978 and I am tottering on wedged sandals across the uneven ground. The fierce sun in this treeless quadrant of the cemetery is glinting off the silver handles of the casket and the shined metal triggers of the 21-gun salute rifles and boring a hole in my head. Jagged flashes of lightning bolts interrupt my peripheral vision.
This is my first migraine—and funeral.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
An officer in full-dress is standing before the casket reciting “High Flight,” the pilot’s anthem, the same poem that has been recited at each of the three preceding memorial services for my father in three different states, the same poem that always graced our mantelpiece on a decoupage plaque wedged between the other mementos of his career, a model of the T-37, the T-38, the A-1 Skyraider, the F-16, the same poem—an eerily prescient death wish, with its nod to Icarus—that is read at every pilot’s funeral.
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
If only the sun would just go away, I think, dreaming of my morning swim in the Officer’s Club pool, across the parking lot from the VOQ where we were staying, of diving and slicing weightless through cool water.
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
We chose this Selma, Alabama cemetery for its cool silence, the majestic live oaks, broad-leafed magnolias, canopies of Spanish moss that sheltered the crumbling gravestones in restful shade— but the burial lot we have been given for my dad sits far away from the rest. Here, in this newly acquired section of the cemetery, slim saplings have just been planted, the small smattering of graves are not of the landscape but interruptions: sharp-edged rectangles of bare red clay marching in relentless formation across the newly-seeded lawn. It is ugly, unpleasant. Who would want to be here? I try to still my rising panic. We can’t leave him here. It’s ugly.
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
A hot breeze huffs at my never very clean blond hair, parted in the middle and hanging limp to my waist, shiny with sweat and smelling faintly of chlorine. (I considered my morning swim sufficient substitution for bathing and shampoo.) I wear nude-colored Leggs nylons and worry that the reinforced toe which I’d twisted and tucked under the ball of my foot was making its way around to the toe of my sandals; I worry that it will be visible. I worry that my armpits are dampening the patchwork sundress I wear. I worry that people might be looking at me. I worry that I will cry. Or won’t.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
My panicked thoughts fly, whirling about the closed casket and the body, “burned beyond recognition” inside. What is in the casket—a big box for a smattering of ashes, or is there more? If it is just ashes, is this all a put-on? Had they scooped up some ash from the crash site, put it in a zip-lock baggie and tossed it in a casket? Could the ashes just as well be a powdered bit of debris from a plane’s leather seat? Are we burying a seat? What are we burying? And then my panic abates. We are not leaving him in this place. Because, of course, he is not really dead.
And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
At the poem’s conclusion, three jets race by overhead. Flying in formation until they are directly over the cemetery, one peels off from the rest and swoops straight up into the cloudless sky, as we crane our necks upward, following its trajectory straight up into the sun’s blinding flame.
* * * * *
My son is planning his escape from our family already. “I’m going to go to Hopkins,” he announces out of the blue, as we wander single-file along a hiking trail in the Alabama park where we are camping, the dog off-roading through the brush beside us.
“Yeah?” I’m surprised. He has never evinced much interest in Johns Hopkins University, whose main campus sits seven blocks from our house (and where I teach part-time). In fact, the topic of where he’d go to college hadn’t surfaced at all, him being only thirteen. I’m secretly delighted at this evidence of his interest in academics.
“That way, I could live in the dorm room right above Cold Stone Creamery,” he says, referring to his favorite neighborhood haunt. “I could drill a hole in my floor and late at night, I can drop through the ceiling on a rope, eat all the ice cream I want, then just climb back up the rope when I’m done and plug the ceiling.” He turns to smile back at me, trips on a log with his gangly legs, recovers—and doesn’t miss a beat. “Waa-la!” he says, meaning voila, his future all mapped out.
“What if you eat too much and get stuck?” I say, thinking of poor Pooh, stuck in Rabbit’s hole and poor Zack jammed in a hole in the shop’s ceiling, spindly legs treading air as he tries to hoist his chocolate-and-Butterfinger-filled belly through the splintering drywall, the burglar alarm blaring.
“No way,” he says. “I’d just bring my backpack, fill it with pints from fridge, and push that through the hole in case I’m hungry later.”
“And would you be eating this after supper, or as supper?”
“Well, I could come home for supper. You’re not that far away.”
“I suppose you’ll want to come home on weekends to wash your dirty clothes in our washer, too?”
“Why would I wash my clothes?”
* * * * *
So many moments with my father have been lost to time—strange; if I were to die today would I leave as faint an imprint on my child? But as we tootle around Selma a few memories rise unbidden. “This is where we kept our horses,” I tell Zack and my husband, pointing down a dirt road toward a dilapidated wooden barn where we rented three stalls. “One time, we were playing there with some friends and the old white guy who owned it called my dad on the phone. ‘You know your girls are out here playing with some N— boys?’ My father knew. ‘The boys’ parents are here having brunch with us now. We sent the kids out to play,’ he told them. ‘Not on my land!’ the guy told him.”
“Geez,” Zack says. The racism in Baltimore takes subtler forms.
I muse over the fact that my family moved to Selma in 1971, living here just six years after “Bloody Sunday,” that fateful 1965 march across the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and the fifty-four-mile Selma to Montgomery march to petition for voting rights. When I lived here as a kid, I was oblivious to the fact that marchers were tear-gassed and then brutally beaten by the local sheriff and state troopers as they made their way across the bridge that day. The vicious attack—filmed and photographed in gory detail as activists, many of them children, fled in fear and shock—made headlines across the country and around the world. A few months later, based partially on thousands of supporters who flocked to Selma and joined a second, peaceful march all the way to Montgomery, President Lyndon Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act into law.
Historically, it was a spectacular turning point in the civil rights movement. How could I grow up here with such a cursory knowledge of events? I knew the bridge was famous—“Here’s the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” my mother would say to visitors as we drove across it on the way from our house to Craig Air Force Base—but the vivid specifics of the march never truly filtered in through my consciousness. Likely every other person in the country hears “Selma” and thinks of that famous Edmund Pettus march across the Alabama River. Me, I conjure up pictures of riding my horse through dusty pastures along the river; the snake holes along the bank that we used to dodge around, hopping barefoot through cool mud; the giant nest of Spanish moss that my friend Melody and I built in a hollow of the shore, lying there till the tangle spooked us for its likeness to a snake pit.
It was a kid’s myopic worldview—and, as usual, I hoped to report my way out it by developing an article on the museums along the “Freedom Trail.” First stop: Selma’s National Voting Rights Museum & Institute. The museum, designed to commemorate the march, is located in an old strip-mall, in a low-slung building across from Johnny’s Package Store, next to Roger’s Auto Sales and Sammy’s Paint and Body Shop. The morning we visit, there is one other car in the weed-strewn parking lot and, after tying Nelson Mandela to the wire-mesh fence in a sliver of shade where we kick aside a slew of broken bottles, we go inside. We are the only visitors.
The museum, like much of Selma, has an air of neglect. Yellowed newspaper clippings hang in cracked and glued frames, grainy black-and-white photos are stapled to the walls, an old Ku Klux Klan uniform drapes limply on a department store mannequin. The organizing principles of nonviolence are writ large with black marker on plexiglass: “Principle Six: Non-violence beleives [sic] that the universe is on the side of justice.”
Optimistic, despite all evidence to the contrary, I scrawl in my notebook, saddened by Selma, this rag-tag museum, the dilapidated neighborhoods, the closed and shuttered shops downtown, the twenty percent unemployment rate, and the enduring poverty that dogs Selma’s black residents—the economic injustice of it all.
But I have missed the museum’s gem. As we exit I strike up a conversation with LaWanda Richardson, who works the front desk. “I was 13 years old when I did the march,” she says, explaining that many young people marched, in part because so many of their parents worked for the city, the city schools, or the city powerbrokers and couldn’t jeopardize their jobs with civil disobedience. “Jim Bevel came down and got us organized and we just showed up that day.” She describes screaming and running as troopers attacked, trying to get back over to the other side of the bridge. I’m in awe, I tell her, that she’d decide to do this as a thirteen year old. She shrugs, falls back on cliché to explain motives she no longer remembers: “Every generation has its race to run.”
Zack stands near the exit, pretending not to listen, but frozen, intent. This isn’t ancient history of the dusty textbooks but real-life folks battling injustices that are still writ large everywhere in Selma (the country club that remains all white; the John T. Morgan Academy, named after a confederate general and outspoken advocate of racial segregation that was founded in 1965 for white families who wouldn’t send their kids to integrated schools, which just admitted its first black child in 2008; the newly elected city council president who just helped erect a public statue of a the confederate general who founded the Ku Klux Klan).
Later, we head back across the Edmund Pettus to Selma’s old downtown, finally find a restaurant that is open, and hunker down over a lunch of fried hushpuppies, fried okra, fried catfish, fried oysters, fried cheese, and fries. Nelson Mandela, tied to my chair, crashes out on the brick floor of a covered porch where we eat, lying in a bacon-induced coma from the treats the waitstaff has given her. A fan loops lazily overhead, powered by a fierce warm wind off the Alabama River. In this deserted downtown where most of the shops are shuttered, the Dallas Feed and Seed Company where my dad used to buy food for our horses and dog stands vacant and boarded, a loose piece of tin roof flaps a-rhythmically. Time has done a number on this town, I think, which wasn’t much to begin with. I am back in the 1970s, trying to dredge up memories of riding horses along the Alabama River with my sisters, and when I finally tune in to the present, I realize my husband and son are back in the 1860s riding a raft down the Mississippi River with Huck.
They’re discussing Twain’s generous use of the N-word and parsing his position on race. “Do you think Twain’s being facetious in that part where Huck is getting all worried that he’s sinning by helping Jim escape slavery?” my husband asks Zack.
“Of course,” Zack says. “I’m not an idiot.”
“Interesting that he’d take a stand like that when he’s just a kid,” I muse.
“He’s thirteen!” Zack corrects.
“Oh, yeah,” I concede. Still. “Like that woman at the museum who marched. She was only thirteen,” I say. “I mean, would you do it?”
“If I got off school, I would!”
I laugh at his situational ethics, decline to point out it was “Bloody Sunday.”
* * * * *
It takes us two days to find my father’s grave since all I have to go on is a sense memory. “There were no trees in this part of the graveyard,” I tell my husband and Zack as we spread out, combing the graveyard. “And I know it was to the right of the central road.” But that was 32 years ago. Trees have grown. Time has shifted.
Finally, I give up. Embarrassed—who forgets where their own father is buried?—I relent and ask the woman in the cemetery office where Paul Houppert’s grave is located. I am prepared to pretend I am simply an old friend passing through, if she asks why, but she doesn’t. She is used to these requests, incurious.
Lot 29, space 536. We find the grave—he has neighbors now, nestled in close, valuable real estate. Someone has placed a flag and, strangely, a ceramic deer on my father’s grave.
My son grows preoccupied with the deer, its head broken off. “What’s with Bambi? Did he have a thing about deer?”
My husband pulls at a few weeds that crowd the edges of the gravestone and continues his obsession with the location. “I still don’t understand, why did your mom bury him here in Alabama?”
Their queries join the long line of questions, never answered: Pilot error? Plane malfunction? Suicide? Deer? Selma? All I know for sure is that one minute he was, and the next, he wasn’t. Don’t forget to walk the dog. Parting words a final nag. And a death so abrupt that my teenage self denied its reality, scrutinizing every man I ever passed in Air Force blues for the angle of his envelope cap, his gait, his profile, to be sure it wasn’t my dad.
And as I look from my father’s grave to my son, who has wandered a few feet away to perch on a sepulcher—skinny legs dangling, high top tennis shoes swinging out a rhythm against marble—I search for answers that elude me. I know that each year a child takes a step away from his parents, freely pushing back to define himself. But when you have lost a parent, I wonder, are you always walking backward? Still moving away but scouring the past for clues and hints about the separation? And this trip to Selma has stirred up memories. There were those rides along the Alabama River on our horses that keep nudging their way into my thoughts.
“Hold on tight,” my dad would say, kicking the horse into a gallop as I clung on behind him.
“Just warn me when you’re stopping,” I’d beg. I hated it when the horse pulled up sharp and I was unprepared, pitching forward and plowing into my father’s back or teetering dangerously off to the side if the horse stopped and turned at the same time.
My father would always forget the warning.
“Dad!” I’d yell, and pummel his back. “You were supposed to warn me!”
He’d tell me to squeeze my knees and feel the horse’s movement instead of clinging to his back. He’d scowl, meanly, I believed, and insist “Don’t rely on me for balance.”
Well, yes, easy to say, I think—still angry with him after all these years. Here, with death all around us I fall into a deep tunnel, traveling from my dad’s death, to my own, to my son’s. And watching Zack, legs slowed to a dazed, absent kick-kick-kick against the white stone vault, I understand thirteen as the moment awareness sets in—people die; nothing is forever—and in the shady graveyard, near the banks of the Alabama River, I hear, on the hot, slow breeze the echo of the Pettus Bridge protesters whose legacy is no grander than these dilapidated memorials in a forgotten cemetery, a deer with its head broken off, a life cut short, a battle dusty and distant and near forgotten, remembered only occasionally by the stray tourist, the family member who hunts hard for the marker that declares, “I was,” buried by time who insists, “No more.” And what happens to life and love in the aftermath, I wonder, as a few brown tinny leaves of the live oak are shaken loose from above, tumbling down in the breeze, not tip over tail, but hard brown oval bodies spinning like the fuselage of a plane toward the ground where they hit the dry, dusty, dirt-packed road to be stepped on, I suppose, by visitors like us. Dust to dust, I chide myself for the cliché my thoughts have tangled me in. I had clearly not been the first one to trod this way—a fact that should have been consoling, but was not. It saved me no heartache.
The dog, barking furiously, drags me insistently back to the present. We have left her in the open-windowed car parked in the shade of the giant oak, and she is going crazy as squirrels taunt her from the branches above. I get her leash and take her out for a moment. Walk the dog.
As we leave the cemetery, the car windows are still open. That hot Alabama wind whips the dog hair covering every inch of upholstery into a tornado, spinning it into our hair, our eyes, our mouths. We shout above the din, wondering whether to hunker down and endure it for a few minutes, hoping the wind will vac our car clean—a million little dense funnels of fur blown right out the window in a cross-breeze—or close up tight, tamping the hair back into place among the seats’ nap. I tilt my head back, close my eyes, my mouth and try not to breathe, reminding myself that my clothes are filthy already from three days of camping so what difference will a few more dog hairs make? We close the windows one by one and, as though the volume control has been adjusted, I can hear my son is talking. He has never been in a cemetery to visit someone, he is saying, only to cut through on the way to someplace else. He would not like to buried in one, he decides.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Creepy,” he says. “I would rather be cremated.”
“Of course.” Fire, it’s a fitting end to a pyromaniac’s days, gone in a burst of flames.
“Then, I want my ashes ground up in a smoothie for my family and relatives to drink,” he continues.
“Strawberry or banana?”
“Strawberry, I guess,” he says. Then explains: “I would live on forever that way.”
“Very Jesus-like for an atheist,” I say, “with one toe in the pit.” I turn around to see him in the back seat. He rolls his eyes, but suppresses a smile.
“But yeah,” I say, thinking it would be nice if no one ever died. Or left. “I can see the appeal.”