Then and now

It’s funny how many of my memories are of inconsequential things, things I never expected to remember. For instance, I’m a teenager and have gone with my father to see about a job at a bachelor’s tiny house. It’s early winter, and the man is obviously proud of his big garden of turnips, collards, and mustard greens. I picture him alone each night, eating greens, beans, salt-pork, cornbread, buttermilk, and sorghum molasses, and I think he must be the happiest man alive.

In another memory, I’m eleven, and my mother and I are sitting in her overstuffed chair watching Have Gun Will Travel. We admire Paladin because he’s tough, caring, cultured, and mysterious. I think she admires him even more than I do, but I don’t know why.

I’m eighteen, and my father and I are roofing a big house next to a playground. A girl who looks to be sixteen is overseeing the children. She is pretty and kind. I want to talk to her but am too shy.

I’m seven, and when I get off the school bus one day, I run across a ditch where a guinea hen has her nest. She flies atop my head and scratches my scalp. I scream, and my granny comes running out the screen door with a broom in her hands. I’m so surprised to see my granny run that I almost forget about the guinea hen.

I’m twelve and have traveled 450 miles alone, on a Greyhound Bus, to visit cousins in Trenton, Georgia. As the bus passes through northern Alabama, dawn breaks, and I see Sand Mountain on my left and Lookout Mountain on my right. I think they must be the tallest mountains in the world. An old man lives with my cousins. He and I sit on the porch, and talk happily about life on the road. Lookout Mountain towers before us. Im called home early because my granny is dying. My cousin Carrie calls and says the old man is accusing her of putting broken glass in his eyes. He scratches the sockets raw.
I’m a small child and screaming with the pain of an earache. My mother and granny (that’s granny and me in the photo) look afraid, and it scares me. They heat castor oil and pour it into my ear. I feel better.

I’m nine and my mother has just turned the car onto US Hwy 84 on our way to town. I can’t imagine a time when I was not, so I conclude that I have always been and always will be. Then, I can’t imagine anything existing if I’m not there to see it, so I conclude that I create the world as I pass and it disappears when I’m gone. These realizations have come to me within the space of a quarter mile, and I am certain they are true.

I’m five, and my family and I are leaving the cemetery where my uncle has just been buried. I ask my father where Uncle Byrd is, and my father says he’s on his way to heaven. I immediately look out the back window so I can see him rising like a balloon.
I’m 63 and am taking dishes from the drainer and putting them into the cabinet when I have the thought that even this little chore feels like exercise. My body is hurting, my blind dog is slamming into things, and Peggy is wretchedly sick with a new cold. Outside, the air and everything it touches is cold and gray. The passing years have left me weary of counting my blessings.

Except for this morning’s memory, such fragments stand out from everything that went before and everything that came after, for months if not for years. Why? What do they mean? I’ve lived in this house for 23 years. That doesn’t seem like long, but it’s longer than I have left to live. I think that, once our bodies start to fail, most of us are simply biding time until we die. I want more, but I don’t know what more looks like, and most days I’m too tired to wonder.