For the ones who had a notion,Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”, 1977
A notion deep inside,
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive . . .
A few months before Bruce Springsteen wrote his elegaic anthem “Badlands”, I left my parents’ home, two weeks shy of 19, to marry a man I barely knew. When Bruce wrote this song, he was fighting his record company and personal management for release from a contract that took away ownership of his music and stifled his creative freedom. I was metaphorically on that same train, wanting to take the reins of my life and escape the strictures of growing up poor within the boundaries of my mother’s imagination.
In the year that followed, Bruce and I achieved our objectives: he produced what I believe to be his best album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. And I escaped my childhood home. Frying pan into the fire, actually, since the man I married was emotionally abusive, but it was a beginning, and I was on my way.
At least one of my parents lived in my South Knoxville childhood home for the next 49 years. Daddy died in 2016 after suffering from the mental and physical effects of dementia, but Mama was still adamant to continue living in their home. My sister and I feared Mama would never agree to an easier living option. But a few weeks ago, the impossible occurred when my sister called to say Mama had finally admitted the burden of keeping up her house–by herself, at the age of 83–had become too much.
Luck was in our favor when we heard that a condo was coming available just a stone’s throw from Mama’s house. Lickety-split we were clearing out 50 years–and in some ways, we were clearing out a century’s worth–of our family’s collection of dust and memories.
My mother was a pack rat, and Daddy had some difficult years near the end of his life when he collected things for no discernible reason–such as a Jacuzzi-type tub he put in the basement near Mama’s washer and dryer. Inexplicable also was an exercise bike that looks as if Daddy got it second hand. Let me just state the obvious: neither one of these items were ever used by either of my parents.
Among all the detritus of the upstairs and the basement of the house were treasures I had never seen. The most amazing find was my grandmother Jerushia’s photo album which was filled with snapshots from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. This album included photos of Mamaw’s childhood, her courtship with Papaw, and snapshots of their three children: James Thomas (Bud), Arzelia (Mama), and Rheta. Mamaw had never shown us, her grandchildren, any of these photos. Perhaps she thought these glimpses of her life when she was young were irrelevant to her later life of cooking three meals a day, washing and ironing Papaw and Uncle Bud’s clothes, breaking green beans from the garden, and attending church three or four times a week.
When I was small, Mamaw still had a party line phone that she shared with another family or two. Thus, when Mamaw was having a conversation with one of her friends from church, she could be interrupted or overheard by her neighbors. If she needed to use the phone, she sometimes had to ask these folks to please get off the line so she could make a call. People were very much into each other’s business then, gossiping about who was doing what to whom. It was a very small world with small-town values.
Yet the photos show that Mamaw flourished in it when she was young, with her friends and family around. Papaw called Mamaw, Boots, and that is the name she uses for herself most often in the front of her photo album. Occasionally she used her initials, or her first name, but usually she proudly used Papaw’s chosen name for her. How did she earn that name? Mama doesn’t know, so neither do I.
As a young man Papaw worked at the marble mill in South Knoxville and many of the photos in Mamaw’s album were taken at the mill. In the basement I found a small rectangular slab of marble honed to a smooth finish. I imagine Papaw probably brought it home for Mamaw. They were both dirt poor, so perhaps this was one of his first gifts to her.
Who knew Papaw was ever so young and good-looking as in a photo of the two of them that Mamaw had in a tiny frame. It was taken in a photo booth and is the only photo that shows a close-up view of their faces: Mamaw with a good-sized fever blister on her lip and Papaw with hynotically beautiful eyes.
There are no photos of their wedding in 1932, but plenty of the resulting children: the first child, my Uncle Bud who was born with one leg shorter than the other and a pronounced speech impediment. The doctor wanted to give up on him straight away, but Mamaw wouldn’t hear of it. My mother, the middle child, came along a year and a half later, followed by my Aunt Rheta, the youngest, a few years later.
When Mama and my husband Kurt were cleaning out the basement, they found a tiny New Testament Bible that I was given in the 4th grade. My parents named me Anna Marie, that’s what I was called, and that was the name written in the front of the Bible. However, when I was in the 6th grade, I decided I wanted to be called Anna. Perhaps I thought a one-word name was more grown up. I could only smile when I saw how my elementary-school self had marked out my middle name on the Bible’s “Presented to” page. In the back of the Bible, I had written beside the Serenity Prayer that I wanted to be a writer. For the life of me, I cannot remember wanting to be a writer from such a young age. Although I confided the information in a postscript to myself, I do love how I phrased it, “For I want to be a writer!”
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through meBruce Springsteen, “Badlands”, 1977
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these badlands.
In the bedroom that used to be mine, I found one of my high school diaries in a chest of drawers. I looked at the scrawl and couldn’t believe it was my handwriting. Nor did I recognize the girl that wrote the words. I had written about a young man I met in Kentucky when our church youth group went to Prestonsburg, near the West Virginia border, to hold Vacation Bible School classes for the children of coal mining families. I fondly recall the children we met there who were wonderfully sweet. We held our Bible School classes in a small building near their homes beside the muddy, unpaved hollers that ran up the hillsides–just as Loretta Lynn sang about. I never forgot the strange juxtaposition of ran-down shacks, each with its collection of old appliances and rusting car pieces, but nearly always a shiny, expensive-looking car or truck beside it.
The young man I met in Prestonsburg, named Dell, was the Baptist preacher’s son, unlike any other preacher’s son I have ever met. And yes, I would go on to date another preacher’s son latter in my life. But this young man was a gentleman, the quarterback of his high school football team, the most popular guy in his school, but he was inexplicably a sweet, humble guy who really liked me. That is, the me that spent years not dating because I was considered too brainy. And there was the guy who broke up with me because I was too religious. Good points taken on both accounts. At that time I was too religious and I did have my head in a book as often as I could get away with.
The preacher’s son and I wrote fervent letters back and forth for awhile. My family went up to meet his family, and we saw him play a football game. I dreamed of marrying him, of course. Because my family was so poor and I was 7th in class, I had been given a full scholarship to Berea College in Kentucky, and Dell wanted to be an engineer and attend Eastern or Western Kentucky University, I cannot now recall which.
But it was not to be. I had remembered receiving a “Dear Jane” letter, but forgotten it was because he had found someone else: that he had begun dating the minister of music’s daughter. And with that dream shattered I did not pursue my education at Berea College where I could have received one of the best educations any young, poor girl could have had. What a loss! I stayed in Knoxville, had two scholarships to the University of Tennessee, lived at home, made no friends as a commuting students, and dropped out of school after a year. At my first job I met a divorced guy who had some anger issues, married him after three months, and escaped my childhood home. From the frying pan, into the fire.
Besides the birth of our son Justin in 1980, my first husband gave me one other gift that has stuck with me for all these years: a love for Bruce Springsteen’s early music. I have lived many years in that darkness on the edge of town. I have ended many days proving it all night. I have sucked the marrow out of many long nights and days of yearning to live freer than my girl nerd self (who worried too much about what other people thought) ever really could.
I found pieces of that girl scattered throughout my parents’ house. In some ways I was a stranger to my younger self. And I became a stranger to myself indeed, full stop, as I cleaned out my parents’ home. It was inconceivable to me that all their years together had become dust, a spider in the tub downstairs, mothballs in the upstairs closets, empty plant containers in the outside shed, no basketball net on Daddy’s basketball goal.
And I certainly can’t say I have the same faith I had as a teenager, for myself or my country. These days are full of more hatred and division than I have ever experienced in my life–an America I never thought I’d live in.
Poor man wanna be richBruce Springsteen, “Badlands”
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied,
till he rules everything.
It would be encouraging to think we could pause long enough from hatred and division just as the Union and Confederate soldiers did when the soldiers would sing their battle songs the night before battles. Many times they would be on opposite banks of a river, with the Union soldiers singing “Hail, Columbia”, and the Confederate soldiers singing “Dixie” (or as some of them called it, “Look Away”). After the military bands on each side of the river piped down, a soldier on one side or the other would begin singing “Home, Sweet Home”.
Dear Sister, a song by Claire Lynch, written from the letters of a young Confederate soldier from Alabama to his sister Lucinda, was my first hearing of this bit of beautiful reconciliation. It brought tears to my eyes when I first heard that the Civil War soldiers from opposing sides often would sing together before battles. Songs about home. A longing for home. And their loved ones.
This could be my last letter,
I may never see the cotton fields of home again
I miss you, Dear Sister,
Tonight I never felt so all alone
And the fog was so thick that the Stone’s River stars
Could scarcely invade the dread and the dark
And all that I could see when I closed my eyes to dream
Was home, sweet home.
In the camps of Round ForestClaire Lynch, “Dear Sister”
the midnight coals were glowing through the haze
The Union boys sang Hail Columbia then
we sang Look Away, Look away
Then a hush in the rain and there rose a sweet refrain
In the dark before dawn, instead of battle songs
The enemy and we all sang a melody
Of home, sweet home.
So if this is my last letter
and I never see the cotton fields of home again
If I fall here at Stone’s River
I know that God will bear away my soul
to be with him
And I’ll wait for you there where all is bright and fair
Where the light of his face outshines the blue and gray
Where all of humankind, yes, every man will find
His home, sweet home.
When Daddy was in the hospital and going downhill, my husband and I decided to travel to Virginia in search of Daddy’s mother’s grave in Carroll County. Daddy’s mother died when he was 4 months old, so he never knew her. And Daddy was not able during his lifetime to see a photo of her.
We did not have much to go on. Kurt and I found ourselves in a fenced-in area in the middle of a cow pasture where we did not find my grandmother’s grave. Instead we found the grave of one of my Montgomery relatives who fought for the Confederacy surrounded by a few of his family. On that trip we also found out my great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy as well. I am proud that my forebears fought for what they believed at a time of great division in our country. I wish there were more I could do now to save our country from a leader who fans racial tensions that take us back to the Civil War days. Must we keep refighting past hatreds?
During our Virginia trip after searching through four Montgomery family cemeteries, we finally found the right one and were able to come home to Knoxville and show Daddy photos of his mother’s grave–and the graves of her family.
A few years after Daddy died, Kurt and I visited my cousin Linda in Salt Lake City, Utah, and she gave me the first photo anyone in my family had ever seen of my dear grandmother Darcas Nickaline Montgomery Allen. Oh, so long dead she was, but so lovely. I look a lot like that young woman who died at the age of 31 giving birth to Daddy. So many dreams she had of having her own family. She did not live to see the family she gave birth to, but because of her, Daddy was born, and my sister Lisa and me, and our children and their children.
In many ways I have nothing in common with the girl that lived in my parents’ house some 40 years ago. But I am indeed the girl that had a notion deep inside that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. And for my Daddy who encouraged me to be that girl, and my dear grandmother Darcas who gave Daddy and me life:
I believe in the love that you gave me,Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”
I believe in the hope that can save me,
I believe in the faith
and I pray, that someday it may raise me
Above these badlands.
~ Anna — 7/31/2019