"At times the world can seem an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe us when we say there is much more good in it than bad. All you have to do is look hard enough. And what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events, may, in-fact be the first steps of a journey."
- Lemony Snicket
There are some strange parallels going on with me right now. It is the first day of Spring, a time of rebirth and renewal, and I'm writing about family members who are no longer alive. Oddly enough, I wrote about two of them in a post I titled "I'm ready for this hurt to all be over now, I'm waiting on the change in seasons" back in 2005. I made my peace with that hurt and put it to bed finally.
Recently I shared some of my past with friends I have had for many years - things about my time growing up that are troubling, difficult, and harsh to hear, even if you knew about some of it before. I thought that after all these years of knowing me, it might help some of my friends who didn't know this about me to understand me better. Earlier today I recalled part of my childhood with something I always associated with a happier part of life as a child - or at least I did until it became the scene of his perfect crime. It was in that house that my innocence was killed, but the backyard was an extraordinary place I have only good memories of. I'm writing about that now so I can juxtapose some good with the bad. I'll start with my Aunt.
I loved my Aunt Virginia (or any of the nicknames we had for her - Shenna, Gin-Gin, Ginny) on a level I didn't even understand until she got sick and went into the hospital for the last time, and it was then that I knew we were the same in many ways that didn't require embellishment. She was a millworker in small-town Georgia that smoked multiple packs of Pall Malls almost incessantly and was incredibly reclusive. Her hair was always cut very short by a barber and she wore mannish clothes and shoes. There wasn't anything remotely feminine about her other than her gentle demeanor, and in my entire life, I never once heard her raise her voice to anyone. She never had an intimate relationship that I can recall, with anyone other than family, and always lived alone. I never even knew her to have any friends, really. As a teenager I imagined that she was a lesbian, but it never really fit. I think that she very likely was transsexual, only she never had any way to own it and certainly didn't ever have a way to be open as a trans-man. Identifying as someone is one thing, living an open life with declarations about who you are in a little Georgia podunk town is quite another. We were the same in that we stuck out a mile from most, but our people didn't seem to take much notice.
She lived in this little house in Silver Creek, GA in a remote part of the little town at the tail end of Chambers Mill Road. Going to that house always made me happy as a child for any number of reasons, but mostly because it was a sanctuary where my cousins and I would gather, play, and explore the surrounding woodlands. From my Uncle Billy I learned that as long as you have a pocket knife, a good walking stick, and the weather was nice, time in the woods for hours and hours, communing with nature and developing a respect and appreciation for wild things could help you sort your burdens out and make peace with the past. He was the first person I ever knew that seemed to have no fear of anything or anyone, and as a child that seemed magical to me. Then again, Uncle Billy (Bobo to those who know him best) is a magical man. Who else could take the small limbs of poplar trees and with their bark (and about 20 paces) make amazing whistles? Only him. Come to think of it, I seem to recall a time when they lived together for a while, brother and sister, two of the most gentle souls you could ever hope to meet. In retrospect that seems perfect to me. It might have even been Papa Jack, I'm not sure, or both at separate times.
Shenna's backyard was about one full acre of mostly level grass, with four or five large trees and a detached garage that was never much more than a ramshackle affair of dryrotted boards she parked her car under to keep the rain off of it. At the far end of the yard was Silver Creek, for which the town was named. About thirty feet wide and up to four feet deep in places, with crystal clear water no more than a few degrees above freezing year round, which was excellent in the brutal heat of August in Georgia. This being near the foot of the Appalachians, just across the creek was the foot of a mountain. Literally, the opposite side of the creek from the yard was about a 90º angle going up several thousand feet. About 40 feet above creek level were train tracks that stayed busy. I'm not kidding, about every 20 or 30 minutes or so the train whistles would sound in the distance, and in minutes you would hear the engines getting closer and everything not bolted down in the house would rattle from the shaking. If we were outside we would jump up and down as the trains passed us by, and the conductor would reward us with a quick whistle blast or two that somehow felt like a gold star.
My two closest boy-cousins in age were Lynn and Robb. Lynn was rough and tumble and Robb was soft and introspective. I was the one directly in between. We would spend hours in that creek, gathering crawfish that hid beneath a multitude of rocks, fishing for rainbow trout, wading and swimming when we were beaten up by the punishing summer heat, and being boys. PArts of the creek had been dammed up before and we found places where the water still had a spill over, and we would put watermelons in those places for a couple of hours. The constant flowing current would put a spin on the watermelon while the freezing water made it icy cold throughout. It was with a giant slab of melon in hand and three pairs of feet resting in the creek water that three dirty, sweaty boys made anecdotes of the day and plans for the evening to follow.
Southern families tend to gather in settings where food is almost always involved and that setting was no different. Folding tables were laid out with discarded newspapers and covered with containers of potato salad, my Mama's cole slaw, baked beans, fresh vegetables, and every manner of condiment; grills and smokers worked overtime barbecueing pork shoulders, hamburgers, hot dogs, Polish & Italian sausages, and foil packets of sweet Vidalia onions roasting. Covered dishes like treasure chests brimmed with peach cobbler unless we could gather enough blackberries from the brambles in the front of the house, and always home made vanilla and/or fresh peach ice cream. The entire yard would smell of fresh cut grass, wood smoke, grilled food, and an occasional whiff of cigarette smoke and/or beer from Papa Jack while he tended a grill. Many of my other cousins would come and go, but Lynn & Robb were always there with me.
Halloween was also an amazing time at "The Creek", which is what it came to be known as in my family. On Halloween we would set up a huge bonfire at the water's edge, constructed from whatever wood and brush we could gather that afternoon and set alight after dinner and once it was black as pitch outside. My favorite Halloween was spent with my cousins in that very yard on a not-too-cool evening in the middle 80's. I remember that particular one because it was the first time we had thought ahead to have caramel apples and wassail with us. Some kids went trick-or-treating, but this was much more fun to me. We had fashioned the biggest bonfire ever from wood pallets in the shape of a box, with an old mattress we found in the woods inside, as well as a couple of stumps that had become fatlighter by this point and at least a hundred pounds of branches, sticks, and logs. On this particular evening we were going to be treated with something very rare after dark, as once a year a passenger train came down the tracks instead of the usual cargo trains. Being that it was nighttime and on Halloween, and that we were mischievous as hell, we would get dressed as demons, devils, and goblins - and when the passenger train would finally come by, we danced around our fire like madmen and waved pretend-ominously at the train passnegers - all of whom excitedly waved back at us. We felt primal, tribal, wild, and unencumbered by anything.
I lost both Lynn and Robb in the summer of 2005, one month apart. I've written about the both of them here
. Excellent boys and deeply missed, both of them. In spite of how great the loss of each of them is, I am too happy - grateful - for the time I spent with them to waste my time mourning these losses, because I cannot let the grief be bigger. I define them by their lives, their remarkable spirits, and for knowing me as a happy kid - but I will not define them by their deaths or the ways that each died, horrible as they are.
So here I am now, almost 40 years old, and I've survived them both. I live with the love of my life in a converted cotton mill, in a small mill town, which reminds me of Aunt Virginia. I'm within walking distance of woods, which remind me of Uncle Billy. I cook most of what we eat, which reminds me of Papa Jack. My back door opens to the Chattahoochee river, which reminds me of Silver Creek and my boys.
I love my life and I'm thankful for having had such a good one so far, in spite of my losses and complaints, and because of all the wonderful people and characters that have graced it.