When my great-grandmother, Mrs. Carrie Sprinkle Baker, died several years ago, I felt something only a little like grief. Long before my sorrow bloomed, I felt a fluttering panic, like a startled bird trembling in my chest. Her death made me see that my family history, and my own identity within that tree of faces, was disappearing. With that knowledge came the certain astonishment a lover of woods feels when an acre of trees is felled, leaving a gap in the landscape too wide to comfort. And the starling nested there, now caged by the panic of empty space, beat its wings against this loss of home.
Two things I loved most about Mamaw Carrie were her voice and her cooking. She spoke with a throaty Virginia drawl, taking her time through a sentence so the words could dip and turn in the air. Her kitchen was small, but it yielded a country feast when we came to visit: corn bread cooked in an iron skillet, chunky applesauce warmed on the stove and sweetened with Red-hot candies, and home grown green beans. I’ve never eaten a vegetable that tasted as good as those green beans. Carrie Baker had wide shoulders and huge breasts that hung soft and heavy at the waist of her dress, confidant hands, and a patient, alto laugh. She wore glasses and a silver watch, its face the color of a tea-stained napkin. News of her death, after the long debilitation of Alzheimer’s disease, made me sad, but I didn’t feel the first swell of real sorrow until months later when I stood with my mother in front of Mamaw Carrie’s house, the tenderness of her death pressing itself against my throat like a firm, familiar hand.
Mamaw Carrie lived in Pennington Gap, Virginia, an all-day drive from my childhood Ohio home. I remember holiday visits to her little house, the hedge running at a slant across the front—a flat green smile with one tooth missing in the space the gate made. I remember a wood slat swing placed at the far end of the porch so children, like my sisters and I, could swing out over the grass and back toward the porch ceiling without banging any walls. I remember stiff, dark carpet in the living room and a wide, arched doorway into the dining room. I remember the white porcelain sink in her kitchen, dented metal pans, and skinny gas stove on which she canned beans and tomatoes and bread-and-butter pickles.
My mother was born in that town, living the early years of her childhood in Pennington Gap with her mother and other grandmother, Ada Mosley. Shortly after my grandfather’s return from military service in Germany, her family moved north, eventually settling in Dayton, Ohio. All of the children of Carrie Baker and Ada Mosley made similar moves away from Cumberland Mountain, leaving both women alone in their houses, both of them widows, and both of them stubbornly rooted in the southern tip of Appalachia. At Christmas these two women would come north, driven to and from home by one of their children. Both of them complained, though, about needing to get back. Though they said they loved seeing everybody, they were forever preoccupied with dread of being away from home. As they gained years, they also gained strength in their resistance to travel, so that the only way to spend time with Carrie Baker or Ada Mosley was to drive down home over a holiday or long weekend. I wonder now if both women were reaching for something beyond Pennington Gap by refusing to leave it. Perhaps they both knew that the only way to seed the memory of a great-granddaughter was to pull her into the mountain lap that had held them their entire long lives.
Our visits were never long enough, most of the hours spent in the car just getting there and back. And each of my great-grandmother’s houses was really too small to hold us all, crowded with heavy curio cabinets and musty swivel-rocker chairs, a console television in the corner, and so many knees and elbows poking into every inch of available space. But we went, to sleep on the pullout couch and feather bed thrown on the floor as a pallet for the kids. We went, to chew stringy country ham and red-eye gravy, to hunt hard-boiled eggs in the scraggly grass of Mamaw Ada’s little yard, and to lull on the narrow porch, spring or fall. True to fact, these visits may have peppered my childhood quite sparsely, with years between trips, but true to memory, we went often, called down home by my mother’s obedience to her history’s residence in Lee County, Virginia.
Carrie Baker and Ada Mosley were widows many decades longer than they were wives. Papaw Baker died in a coalmine, crushed under the weight of the earth’s dark shoulder. Papaw Mosley died from drink, poisoned by the liquor in his blood and liver. Pictures of these men hung in each house, rosy and slightly blurred. As a young girl, I imagined that sadness must have followed my great-grandmothers to bed each night and then greeted them in the morning. My naiveté insisted a married woman, particularly one whose husband died young, would miss that man every day he was away from her. I assumed it was devotion or perhaps tradition that kept them from marrying again. It didn’t occur to me until well into my own marriage that after the first few years alone, perhaps, the thought of making room for another man might have made them shudder privately. Perhaps there was a freedom in their lives as widows, a freedom that had at least as much strength as whatever loneliness occupied their nights. When the dementia and terror of Alzheimer’s disease turned Mamaw Carrie hateful, I wondered what rages and disappointments, held below her skin for decades, came loose. What remnants of lust, aches of joints turned old and deep creases chapped by red dirt and string beans snapping against her fingers, what insults and desires flew past the broken dam of self-control? If I had had the courage and wanted the truth, then I could have put myself in that bath to receive a bigger portion of the woman my great-grandmother was. I could have claimed those painful moments at the end of her life, along with the little clock she gave me years earlier and the lingering taste of green beans cooked just right. Part of the panic I feel now, years past her actual death, is the knowledge that I didn’t claim this inheritance.
The summer after Mamaw Carrie’s death, I drove the long ribbon-roads to Pennington Gap, Virginia to visit Mamaw Ada. Though my own children were too young at the time to form lasting memories of the woman we were visiting, I wanted to see them inside her house, see my heirs pressed flesh and bone against my oldest living relative. I photographed their sleeping, chubby bodies on the pullout couch. I took pictures of them blowing bubbles on the front porch, teasing Mamaw Ada’s cats, Little Bit and Fluffy. I handed the camera to my father so he could take pictures of us all, my children, my great-grandmother, my mother and her mother, crowded into the yellow metal furniture, the glider squeaking as we rocked.
Then we drove across town to Mamaw Carrie’s house. Because none of her children lived in Virginia, the house was sold shortly after her death. Knowing this, I went there anyway, to stand outside the hedge, point to the porch and recall where the swing used to hang. My father opened the little gate and walked to the front door, but no one answered his knock. We were shut out. Despite our longings, we would never be welcomed in for another portion of Carrie Baker’s smoky voice, or her green beans, or songs about Jesus lifted acapella in the tiny front room. I took a picture, hoping the photograph and my stories would be enough to convince my children that the woman who used to live in that house loved me. And because she loved me, she would have loved them, too.
Three years after this trip to Virginia, Mamaw Ada was hospitalized. Several of her children traveled south to be with her, to assess the seriousness of her condition. They had to decide what to do next, how to take charge of this old woman’s life. And with very little debate, the Mosley children agreed that Miz Ada Mosley could not be left alone anymore. When she was well enough to travel, one of her daughters and son-in-law carried her to a nursing home in Ohio. I don’t know whether they simply marked a straight line away from the hospital or took her home, first, to sit on the glider and stroke her cats. I don’t know whether they let her fold the quilt on her bed or touch the edge of the kitchen sink to face the fact of her old life uprooted. I don’t know how it happened exactly, my great-grandmother’s departure from her own life. I wasn’t there, but the bird in my chest fluttered that whole long day, feeling another perch falling away. That day was her first passing, the death of her body just an echo of a life that had already ended.
I took a photograph during my visit to Pennington Gap, and it is the one image that comforts me when the loss of my grandparents—nearly all of them now—clutches at my throat. We are standing at a fence, looking over a bright creek with wildflowers and tall grass along the bank. My father and son are in profile. My mother stands between her mother and Mamaw Ada. My daughter points to something near the water. My father’s beard is streaked with black and grey. My mother’s hands, tan from hours in her summer gardens, rest on the fence. My son’s blue eyes and dimples shine in the reflected light, and my daughter’s eyes squint against the water’s glare. Though I don’t know what caught her attention, I like to imagine it was a bird, momentarily free of all panic and disorientation. I like to imagine that what my daughter glimpsed in the leafy spray of that Virginia stream was a bird—a cardinal, a robin, a wren—its gaze on my family, its feet already releasing one branch for a greener perch in the ancient, familiar tree.