Perhaps each of us can be marked by singular change. Before and after.
I drove west back towards Center and crossed the intersection and turned south on the road that runs past City Park and, consequently, the only funeral home in town. I took a right onto Mi Vida at the intersection where the Catholic church and elementary school sit on opposite sides of the street. I wanted to surprise myself by playing back scene after scene from my childhood, but nothing like that happened. I could remember scenes. I could remember, for instance, playing basketball on the courts behind the elementary school. I could remember riding my bicycle and talking with Dad who, in this memory, walks beside me. I had returned from my first international trip. I had gone to another country to fish. After being away for a month, I was back home, telling Dad about my adventures. I ride my bike. Dad walks beside me. His hands are in his pockets. His bottom lip is stuffed with Copenhagen and quivers when he speaks. He smiles and nods and spits, as I tell stories about trout and mountains. I am full of joy.
“Why do you walk so slowly, Pop?”
“I like taking my time.”
“It seems like you walk slow to me.”
“You’re on a bicycle.”
“That shouldn’t matter that much.”
“You’ll be old someday.”
“I know it.”
“No. You don’t know it, but you will know it. Or maybe you will.”
“You mean if I get old?”
“Me, I like to smell the roses.”
“I know, I know.”
“You’ll be old someday. Maybe you will be.”
The house on Mi Vida was not the first place we lived in town. When we first arrived in town we lived in a tiny house not far from City Park. I have little memory of the house except that we kept a television in the front room, and on that television, I was first exposed to MTV. Thinking about MTV from those early days, I can picture a woman who might or might not have been Madonna, flashing bright red lips and very white skin accentuated with tight black leather. Pure white goblets of breasts and ass. I was not a fan of pop music, yet I recall the swoony sexual inclinations the music induced in me. I could not have explained what made someone a virgin or what “making love” precisely required. There was a mysterious land between touching the hand of a beloved and entering her body. Was this the land of making love? I could not have said. I was not exactly naïve, but I was plainly ignorant. I understood there was a connection between my weenie and the snaky movements of the woman who danced on the television. This is part of what we learn. This is part of what growing up means. We come to learn not only about our desires but also their consequences.
My family did not remain long in that tiny house. Recalling the different houses where I have lived in my life, I can remember where mom and dad and my sister slept, the number of doors, what could be seen from every window, but I cannot remember any of these things when I think about our first house in the desert town. Memory has granted me only the snake woman and an urge to fuck her or to let her fuck me—whatever that forbidden word actually meant.
We all keep places of our beginnings. I do not mean our “firsts” necessarily—first learning to drive, first kiss, first solo trip to town, the list could go on—but I mean beginnings when a fundamental shift occurs, a moment of before and after. Our stories are often about moments of before and after, both the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories we hear or read. Consider for a moment the opening verse of “Amazing Grace,” which is the essence of a moment of before and after: “I once was lost, but now I’m found/Was blind but now I see.” The lesson being that I, John Newton, was a blind sinner, but grace found me. Or think of the James Joyce story, “Araby,” and how the young, nameless narrator’s perspective of high romance is carried from the “soft rope” of Mangan’s sister’s hair to the darkened halls of Araby. Or think of Jay Gatsby after meeting Daisy. Or think of Ike McCaslin after he sets down his gun and pocket watch in “The Bear.” Lives are not necessarily marked by great change, but perhaps each of us can be marked by singular change.
I drove past the Catholic church and the elementary school and entered the shady part of the street where cottonwoods had been planted along the sidewalks. Of course, there were houses I recognized. As a boy, I heard stories of people who had lived in a few of these houses. I heard about men who drank too much, who didn’t work, who kicked their kids out of the house, and women who worried over their aging bodies and faces, who owned businesses, who smoked pot. Today there is probably only one family on Mi Vida who could recall my family. I could knock on their door and be welcomed. I can also imagine the awkward pause in which I and whoever opened the door would stare at each other and wonder if we are, in fact, who we seem to be. Each of us would notice the wrinkles, the thinning hair, the stooping shoulders, a growing belly or an unhealthy thinness. There were other neighbors back when we lived here whose existence was little more than chatter. Neighbors to whom my mom made me take casseroles when she learned they had a sick child. There was the widow, a mother of four daughters, who lived one block up from our house and who sang at every Christmas Eve service. Mom visited with the widow whenever she walked. They talked about sons and daughters and changes in town, who was new, who had died, who had gone away. These were ordinary people. We were ordinary people. There are individuals who keep lives of tremendous luxury and dash, but these were not our people, not our neighbors. We were the new family in town. The father was the new preacher of the Baptist church. The mother was dedicated to work and people. The daughter was a pretty little girl with long blond hair. The boy was a little wild but lived with serious health problems. The new family. The new neighbor. Before and after.
I suppose who I wanted to see or who I want to be most reminded of, as I drove down Mi Vida, was Mom and Dad. I did not want to picture us as a family. I did not want to recognize us as father, mother, son, daughter. Although I can barely think of my parents as unmarried, I wanted to imagine Mom and Dad as separate people, as Don and Judy, as two individuals who savored other dreams.
Dad was the preacher, the preacher man. He rode a motorcycle. He dipped Copenhagen. I recall the opening lyrics from an Eagles song, “Outlaw Man”:
I am an outlaw,
I was born an outlaw's son
The highway is my legacy
On the highway I will run
In one hand I've a Bible
In the other I've got a gun
He is nearly an archetypical figure, this man of God, the outlaw preacher, the motorcycle man of God cruising the lost highways in his black leather jacket with God’s word etched on the tip of his tongue. The preacher believes in God’s word. He invites strangers to believe in God’s word. We accept that he is forgiven but not necessarily clean. He might have a drinking problem. He might be addicted to painkillers. He might have a few women on the side, and if none of those women are available, he’s sure to know women of a more professional persuasion. A great preacher has great vices, or so we could tell ourselves or so we could believe. And maybe Dad had great vices. I never asked him. Sin is a private matter, and most of us suffer enough without public statements, though maybe that’s why Dad recommended a priest for confession. A priest will give your sin to God. Anyone else might give your sin to your neighbor.
Dad liked to ride motorcycles back in his desert days. He liked the freedom a motorcycle gave him. On a motorcycle you feel the road, you feel the air. You are exposed on a motorcycle and that exposure is your freedom. When you ride a motorcycle you can wager that you are more willing to die than those who do not ride. There is a freedom with this wager, too. And shouldn’t Dad have desired this freedom? Shouldn’t he have been granted, without condemnation or suspicion, the freedom of the short ride from our house to the Baptist church just up the road on Mi Vida?
What I am sure of is that the demands on my father were constant. The calls came at all hours in our household. My sister and I grew up believing, believing still that any call after 10 pm is not going to be a good one. Nothing good came over the phone or knocked on the door late at night in our house. I am reminded again of what my sister intimated to me about our father’s decline, how she said that Dad gave all of himself away. He gave himself away until nearly nothing of himself was left. Dad doesn’t think so. He thinks he is fine. He believes we are the strange ones, overbearing and pestering with our concerns for him. But Dad doesn’t talk to his own vacant stares. He doesn’t feel our anxiety when he gets lost driving. He is unsettled, silent, repetitive. If nothing more, I suppose we desire to feel the once magnificent heart that touched so many. There doesn’t seem to be much heart left. Yet I want to tell others to see if there is not a toll to bear when your heart, in some measure, engages with every vice a person can have, every joy, every unshakable sorrow, every corruption, every sacrifice, every devasting inclination a human being can muster and sometimes act upon. Then engage with these things for 50 years. See what becomes of you, see how much of you remains. It is true there are preachers who have well-honed responses to all of life’s disasters. They have learned their parts. A death—I am so sorry for your loss. An engagement—that’s wonderful news! A confession—Give it all to Jesus. Preachers like this obviously exist, and some of them thrive. Dad never thrived. He honored his call, and perhaps, in the end, it was this call that sustained him. Dad left Mi Vida at all hours and in all seasons to sit with someone whose body was cut open or soon to be cut open. He sat with them to meet their fears, to bring someone a cup of coffee, to let a family member or a close friend sleep, to pray for them, to beg of God for His grace, His peace in a situation. This was Dad. This is the man who sits in his recliner tucked away among biographies and who occasionally reaches out to scratch the head of an imaginary dog and waits till morning to purchase a cup of coffee and eat a bagel. And yet, how many times have I seen eyes roll or heard the “Oh’s” of surprise or the “Oh’s” of pity when I have confessed that I am the son of a Baptist preacher? My father talks with a Southern accent. He is a Southern Baptist. He is a Copenhagen chewing motorcycle man. What assumptions have been made about him? A racist, a charlatan, a proselytizer? Dad rode his motorcycle to visit the old, the sick, the downtrodden, to drink coffee in town, to go to the library, to work. He spit Copenhagen on the sidewalks. His sandy colored hair, even now in his seventies, is beautiful and thick and goes past his collar. His hazel eyes, like the rest of his family, are sharp, serious, resembling the eyes of his German great-grandfather and his Redbone great-grandmother. He ate hamburgers at the local burger joint, and everyone in the joint knew he was a preacher and not just a preacher, but the Baptist preacher in Mormon country. Did he handle snakes? Did he wave his hands? Did he think their dead mothers went to hell? Did he condemn their addictions, despise their sacrilege or their roving sex lives? Dad ate hamburgers with these people, who, I suspect, thought very little of him in the beginning. He drank coffee. He liked to visit about the old days and the crazy shit he did as a kid. After seven years, he became a friend to those individuals in that crowd. If asked, Dad would tell any of them that Jesus loved them, that Jesus died for them, that Jesus rose from the dead and desired to redeem them from eternal death. But therein lies the offense, and Dad knew it. The fact of his own comportment—the spitting, the cussing, the motorcycles, the Southern accent, the calling out of ignorance, paired with the unexpected, often concealed fact of his having read Nietzsche, Russell, Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Shelley, Keats, and all the rest—yet none of this was as offensive as his telling someone that Jesus loves them. Why is this? But this was my father, still is my father, and growing up, I could not guess his reactions. As a teenager, I experienced, as we all do, some sleight from a friend or feel defensive towards someone who had done something against me. And Dad’s response?
“Dad, come on.”
“You can’t say that.”
“Sure I can. Fuck ‘em.”
I am an outlaw, I was born an outlaw’s son—
And my mother? In our years on Mi Vida, I saw Mom as a woman dedicated to her own sense of obligation and to those things that, in her words, had to be done. When I imagine my mother, especially here on Mi Vida, I see her working through her manicured squares of flowerbeds and gardens. I see her with a spade in her left hand, wearing faded blue jeans and a messy long-sleeved shirt, pushing up her hair with the wrist of her right hand as she marches towards another colony of weeds. Sometimes she hauls bags of dirt or flowerpots or crates of tomato plants. If someone saw my mother, with her gardening tools, in her muddy clothes, her hair pushed back, a potted plant or sack of fertilizer cradled in her arm, they would have seen a determination that mirrors a great athlete. Her brows would be furrowed. Her face narrow, angular, and focused on her task. I could never understand how my mother took her gardening so seriously. I could see the results—the neat rows of tomatoes and other vegetables, the trimmed patches of flowers, the coordination of colors. There was a practical beauty to all of it. More cynically, I saw her efforts as middle-class attempts towards middle-class respectability, which to my mind could only be dull. God forbid that we should be viewed as anything less than middle-class. That was my perspective in my teenage years. Mom and her squared yard, her lined flower beds, her agonizingly perfect rows of tomatoes. There were summer afternoons, crowned with desert heat and my own burgeoning sense of freedom, when I walked in front of her, as she carried a sharpened spade in her left hand and a tomato plant in her right hand.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m working,” she said. She glared at me as if I had suddenly appeared from the underworld.
“It looks like you’re planting tomatoes.”
“I am about to, yes.”
“Do you think they’ll be good tomatoes?”
She shrugs. “I hope so.”
“Why are you planting them if you’re not sure whether they’ll be good tomatoes or not?”
“I said why are you planting them if you’re not sure whether they’ll be good tomatoes or not.”
“Don’t you have something better to do?”
Then I turned around, facing my mother. I walked backwards, slowly, too, and I did this until she bumped into me.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m helping you.”
“NO, you’re not.”
“YES, I am.”
“Get out of my way!”
The goal was to get my mother to call me an asshole. I got out of her way, just to the side, and glanced over my shoulder at her excited for what her next reaction would be. It could have been frustration, exasperation, a dismissive shake of her head, a renewed concentration on the tasks at hand, but to get Mom to call me an asshole without either of us truly being wounded was glorious. Then I would have frustrated her planting efforts and gotten her to cuss.
Slowly, slowly backwards.
“Get out of my way.”
“I am out of your way.”
“HA!” Victory, and I moved out of mom’s way.
I cannot imagine my mother being someone else in some other life. As children most of us tend to think of our mothers plainly as our mothers, but I did not feel this. Mom was not very motherly, and I do not say this with a drop of bitterness. I would argue Mom has become more motherly with age, the same, I suspect, as her mother did. She is compassionate and caring to a fault—to actual fault. She would be the same if she had spent her life working on a fishing boat in north where I live. She would work so hard the ship captain would get tired of her. She would be proud of this, too. Mom’s life has not been directed towards herself but towards her obligations, her morals, her principals, towards her understanding of God and His demands. Mom will plant her flowers and tomato plants to her end, nurturing them and growing them beautifully.
I suspect most of us misunderstand the gifts of someone so disciplined, at least when we live with them. We witness their dedication. We witness their uncompromising standards. We witness them denying simple pleasures. Yet we also see their tiredness. We see their frustration at anyone else who, frankly, doesn’t keep up or who has no desire to keep up. But there is a damaging possibility that comes with this way of discipline, which is that the very disciplined person becomes confident of her moral rightness. When a very disciplined person equates their efforts with a morality then something of the other person, the person who is not them, will remain a failure. For the disciplined person, there can be only one person who weighs the scales, the scales of effort, of contribution, of suffering. This is the morality of the moral imperative. And when someone believes they hold the moral imperative there is no measuring up. There is no condition of doing enough, and atonement is perpetual. Questions, even questions about how your life is going, serve more as interrogations than checking in. Though curiously, this same person will again and again extend a hand of remarkable generosity. My mother is this way. She is a person of enviable energy. This energy, which is also expressed in her generosity, is something fierce within her. This same energy or fierceness or whatever it should be called has nursed friends back to health, has brought groceries to the door of strangers, has prepared dinners for the sick, the pregnant, the elderly, and has given homes to the poor, the abused, the neglected. Mom uses this same energy to make her home more attractive and her neighborhood stronger. Every parsonage, every home, every damn flower bed was better taken care of and more lovely after my mother arrived. She never wanted the credit, not from outside the family, though I believe she wanted it from us, and we should have expressed our appreciation more. I should have expressed my appreciation more. Mom used her energy, her fierceness to keep me alive as a sick infant and child. She fought with doctors. She battled through medical bureaucracy. She did the paperwork. All of it was tedious. None of us should forget that American medicine, at all levels, resents the patients, particularly those who are poor, and my mother knew this and she fought for me. She let me squeeze her hand through the hell of cystograms, IV’s, a morass of tubes and monitors, and 14 major surgeries before I was 11 years old. She was uncompromising. Mom made me do my homework, made me put away my clothes, made me keep my room clean, made me pick up after myself, and somehow she tolerated, even cared for most of the girls I brought home. She did not budge. She dressed like Donna Reed when she cooked a Sunday pot roast. She changed the décor of our houses every season. Napkins and plates embellished with pumpkins and autumn leaves came out in the fall. Ceramic chicks and baby rabbits came out in spring. In summer, we ate fresh vegetables, and throughout the season, a glass pitcher filled with fresh flowers crested the credenza. And Christmas…Christmas…how to describe Christmas at Mom’s house? Imagine a blend of It’s a Wonderful Life and the Christmas issue of Southern Living. All of that was right here, right inside the house on Mi Vida street.
I slow down Dad’s truck at what used to be our house. I heard that the preachers who came after Dad didn’t take care of the place. All of them, I have been informed, wanted improvements of one kind or another. The improvements were made, and afterwards no one was invited over, no deacons, no old ladies, no friends. No matter what improvements had been made, inside or out, the house seemed to fall apart. Most of the wives of those preachers hid. They hid from church members. They hid from the community. They never threw back the curtains of the house. None of them planted flowers. I don’t know who lives in the house now, if anyone. It looks tired, though maybe someone lives here. The yard is shabby. I taught myself to fly cast in this yard. There are the fading ghosts of my mother’s flowerbeds. They line the walkway that leads to the front door. This yard is where my mother put a hand on my shoulder and shed tears as I stood over my dog, Grover Wayne. Grover was hit by a car. I never saw him chase a car until that morning he was hit. He ran into the street and the lady who hit him, the grandmother of a kid I knew, never stopped. We watched it happen. Grover screamed back into our yard and ran in circles and tried to bite himself from agony. Then he died at my feet, and I WAILED. Mom stood beside me. Now I look over the place and drive on. I wish there was something more to see, but there’s not.
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Damon Falke is the author of, among other works, The Scent of a Thousand Rains, Now at the Uncertain Hour, By Way of Passing, and Koppmoll (film). He lives in northern Norway.