Friday, January 28, 2011

A Softer Place to Fall

The Most - Lori McKenna (mp3)
Pieces of Me - Lori McKenna (mp3)

In a Jasper, Tennessee, kitchen roughly half the size of my office, my grandmother once fixed meals for her husband and seven children. I don’t have the foggiest notion where they all ate. Maybe at some dinner table on the roof. They sure didn’t have space in that house for a 7-person dining table.

Carrie was a red-headed firebrand in her younger years, but she’d gone shock-white by the time I knew her. While pictures in albums prove that she on occasion wore a nice dress, I can only recall her wearing flimsy or flannel housegowns and slippers. While she milled around the entire house, I can only recall her in that kitchen, busying herself over a pot, or over the sink, or over the counter. She was either working to serve someone a meal or working to escape the rest of the house and family. Or both.

When I listen to Lori McKenna, I think of my grandmother.

My grandfather was deaf in one ear by the time I met him. Their phone had a volume dial on it, which I always played with once I’d tired of my Star Wars figures. The rare times he was in the house instead of out in the community or tending obsessively to his two gardens on two separate plots of land, he was sitting in a flimsy rocker-recliner and gnawing on a plug of tobacco. Spittoons and their smells don’t erase easily from a child’s memories.

From all indications, my grandfather was exactly everything a wise soul would expect out of a influential figure with a charismatic charm: adored, adulated, admired, and, at least occasionally, adulterous.

Yeah, that last one I didn’t know about until I was in my 20s, a year or two after my grandmother had died. It took another decade to truly grasp it, that my grandfather had fathered a child out of wedlock, that my grandmother knew of this, that she continued cooking meals in that kitchen for seven children and her preacher husband. That she kept living, kept smiling, kept moving.

A few years ago, my mom showed me a collection of poems written by my grandmother. She kept them hidden in a small box, most of them written on the kinds of note cards usually reserved for family recipes. They closely followed Emily Dickinson in style and voice, quatrains full of dashes and simple rhyme schemes. Carefully written, words rarely crossed out, rarely if ever misspelled. Many about dying, about the struggle against meaninglessness, about the siren call of suicide, about feeling unloved and unappreciated.

I imagine her writing those poems as she cooked a stew, or chopped tomatoes, or heated up the morning’s oatmeal. I’m certain she wrote most of them in her kitchen. And when she wasn’t writing them, they were growing like mustard seeds in her mind.

Neither her smiles and witty comments from the kitchen, nor her frightening and lost poems were false representations of her. We are all more complicated than even we, our own autobiographers, can fathom. She was both personae and many others, surely.

When I listen to Lori McKenna, I think of my grandmother.

My mother was the oldest of seven children. She married young, then married again rashly, and then married again carefully. Divorce, death and death split her from those three men. I’ll see her occasionally, staring into the distance of nothing, and I know she’s thinking about my father.

I hope that heaven has a movie theater where I’ll be able to go and watch the whole movie of my mother’s life with the benefit of my adult understanding. It might be a shocking tale, or maybe merely a quiet and endearing one, but I know nothing in that movie will make me love her less.

When I listen to Lori McKenna, I think of my mother.

I walked into my bedroom last night to see my flu-ridden middle child curled into my wife, both of them buried under our covers and chasing soccer balls and American Girl dolls in their synchronous dreams. My wife has been housebound all week with two sick children and a sick mother-in-law, and her husband comes home every night with some new whiny tale of work woe and soapbox monologues aimed at some unseen adversary.

Her son woke up at 5:30 this morning with a nosebleed that first left its evidence all over his bed and with a trail from his room to ours. Her husband welcomed her home from her agonizing church meeting last night with a hug, a kiss, and a “I’m in there playing ‘Call of Duty.’ Gotta get back to it! By the way, the Tar Heels won! I’ll be in bed by midnight!”

When I listen to Lori McKenna, I think of my wife.

Lori McKenna has a new album, Lorraine. She has six albums. Her personal story is so endearing and worthy of its own novel that I can only just link to her own web site and encourage you to learn about her.

Her music need not be 100% autobiographical to be real. The feelings are real. The characters are real. The situations are real. Her music is my family and your family and anyone’s family that knows anything of cornbread or covered dishes, pick-up trucks or potholes. She is my grandmother, my mother, my wife, my friends. She is almost any woman with a yearning for more but a need to cling gratefully to the small good fortunes in her midst both past and present. She is everything I take for granted and cherish, everything worth crying for or fighting over.

Lori, can you feel me, down here in Tennessee, devouring your notes and twangs, feeding my hungry soul? Can you feel the hundreds or thousands of others who feel this connection without ever having met you? If so, I hope it warms and strengthens you and your family, because God knows you deserve it.

None of the pictures are of my family, my grandparents, or anyone related to me.


cinderkeys said...

You guys have a talent for finding country music that doesn't suck. I can't put my finger on what usually sucks about country that is lacking in your chosen songs. You could get a post out of that someday, maybe. :)

ljhord said...

Beautiful post with beautiful songs. Thank you!

Daisy said...

This post is beautifully written, intriguing and deeply moving.

Daytimerush said...

Love. Love. Love.

rodle said...

At the risk of stating the obvious, you are a good writer. Thanks for sharing.

Also, I can't help but chuckle when mentally comparing the subject matter of this column and the conversation I had with your long-time friend and your wife at the Tav last weekend.

David Hitt said...

Great post!

Felipe said...

Beautiful post, I'm so moved with all your sensibility! Sure gonna read the rest of your blog, but wow, you should be a songwriter!! lol
Greetings from Brazil.

Anonymous said...

beautifully said! i often find myself relating to lori's music in the quiet commutes in the car...usually chuckling at the similarities often crying!