now playing: vince gill, “go rest high on that mountain”
nancy ruth stricklin, born the third of five children of pete and annie laura stricklin on february 26th, 1943, passed away just before midnight the evening of june 8th, 2005. i’d like to say she died peacefully, but what i’ve been told thus far indicate that this is probably not the case. i’m told that she spent her last weeks on this earth in a perpetual care center, and that on wednesday night, her lungs finally lost their ability to function, and her tired old heart just gave out.
my mother smoked all my life and most of her own – and over the course of sixty-two years, it took its toll. a couple of years ago when it occured to me that i might be running out of time for my children to know my family and where i came from, i took the kids to tennessee to see it all – where i lived as a kid, my family, the whole nine yards – and she looked gaunt and sickly then. her perpetual companion was the oxygen tank and accompanying hose that kept some semblance of respiration going.
those few summer days we were there, nothing was as it once was – neither she, nor the town where i grew up.
my grandfather, pete, was a farmer for as long as i can remember. he wore the same clothes all the time – grey long-sleeved work shirts and blue denim overalls and grey caps. honestly, i don’t have any pictures of him wearing anything else. he drove a green chevrolet pickup truck back in the day when kids could ride without incident in the back of a pickup truck down highway 69 from walnut grove up to savannah, the county seat of hardin county. during the summers, he used to plow incessantly – my grandmother would send me with a mason jar that she’d filled with water and frozen that morning out to him at lunchtime…by the time i had walked out to where he was in the field, it’d be melted at least two-thirds of the way to liquid form…he’d drink it down and drive back to the house with me on the fender of the tractor.
he died in savannah general hospital of colon cancer when i was sixteen. what i remember most about his death are coming to the hospital just as he’d slipped away and seeing my cousin lisa come out of his room with her arms around the pillow he died on, crying into it…and going to the funeral and seeing old men that i’d grown up around crying like children.
he was married to annie laura burns, a woman who made the best vegetable soup in the history of civilization, and had more culinary uses for animal fat that anyone i’ve encountered in my years on this planet. she was the prototypical small town matriarch…for instance, she’d come shooting out of whatever room in the house she was in to investigate whose car tires were spitting gravel up the road past her house. she knew the movements of just about everyone within a pretty impressive radius of her house, and was an authority on who went where and when.
my mother was, as i mentioned, the third of five children born to pete and annie laura. as of yesterday, all are gone but the oldest, betty.
the youngest, linda, died of kidney failure. the only boy, jimmy, drove his pickup truck into a tree on highway 69 in 1984 – he was the first to go. virginia (ginny kate, as we all knew her) passed away just last year. my mother joins them now, leaving betty as the sole surviving child of annie laura stricklin – who may very well outlive every one of her children.
betty knows a thing or two about outliving children – she’s outlived four of her own. her first child, becky, was stillborn. she then lost a son, timmy, to suicide – he hung himself in a barn on the property where he lived, despondent over a broken relationship. her youngest, tracy, had his throat slit as he got into his car…and her oldest, donnie, just died a few months ago. i haven’t heard what took him yet, but he’d been in a wheelchair for years after an accident. without going into too much detail about donnie, i’ll simply say that if it’s possible for karma to be fatal, then that could certainly be listed as his cause of death.
yet, betty has weathered all that’s happened to her, and now she’s the last one standing.
i don’t know if it’s really possible, with nothing but words, to convey what it was like to grow up when and where i did. outside the world where i lived, wars were being fought – both with a largely invisible enemy and amongst ourselves….i knew nothing of the times i lived in. life, for us, was centered around my grandfather and grandmothers’ house, where all the cousins would congregate and help work in the garden, with firewood, with picking wild blackberries (which i hate to this day), and helping out however we could. we played in the pasture, in the woods by the creek, on the “sawdust pile” (the place where they dumped the excess sawdust from my grandfathers’ sawmill years before…it had settled and turned a reddish color, and it was our mega-sandbox when we were kids), or (when we could get away with it) in any one of a dozen or so abandoned cars that sat about 150 yards behind the house, on the other side of the dirt road that led to the barn and then the creek. on the other side of that road was a small open field, bordered by the road on one side, three apple trees on the other, and a fence along the back. that field was the site of literally hundreds of baseball games amongst the cousins over the years – games that would go literally all day sometimes, with insanely high scores…think basketball scores.
some of my older cousins cut down trees in the woods when i was a kid and built a one-room log cabin with a tin roof that stood there for years…it was still there when i left town, although it’s not anymore. we used to spend days down there as well, although fishing was pretty much nonexistent…we’d lay on the creek banks and watch the tiny little uncatchable bastards come and go as they pleased.
as i got older, i became less and less enthralled with the idea of being outside…i was pretty talented with a pencil, and i loved to draw. often, i’d stay inside and draw for an entire day while the rest of my cousins played outside…and i think that (although i remember feeling it before then) this is probably when i really started withdrawing from my family and giving space to the feeling that i had always had that i didn’t belong there. i never felt much of a connection with most of my family, and i don’t think they really knew how to take me, what to do with me.
i continued to grow up – i discovered rock and roll thanks to a christmas gift from my mother, an am/fm clock radio. once i locked into the music that i heard on WQLT and WKIR, i never looked back. it was my consumption – i even made lists of the songs that i heard, because i was afraid that i’d forget who sang what. i don’t think i fully understood the capacity my brain seems to have for what some would consider useless information, so i wrote them down to make sure i remembered. and i just kept writing them down…almost 3000 songs’ worth. i don’t remember when i stopped, but i stopped at some point…but i still have the list to this day.
once i discovered music, it changed everything else. it changed the pictures i drew – i went from cars and superheroes to drawing musical instruments and stage setups, especially drums. it consumed my thoughts, and i became obsessed with who sang what, what album it was on, who played on it…i built a makeshift drumset out of buckets and strips of wood and such, and i used to make more than enough noise to earn an ass-whoopin’ from most parents, but aside from the occasional “can you take a break for a while”, i never got any grief over it.
once i was old enough to do so, i knew that eventually i’d end up somewhere else. i just knew it…as soon as i was old enough to formulate the thought in my head, i knew that i didn’t belong there, and the older i got, the stronger that feeling became. i never harbored any ill will towards my family, and i never hated them for not being what i felt i deserved, or any one of the thousands of reasons that these rifts open between members of families in other circumstances. i wasn’t bitter towards my family – i’m still not bitter towards my family. i just don’t feel particularly connected to them…and that’s a constant source of sadness for me, but i don’t blame them for that – i take that on myself.
with what she had, my mother did the absolute best she could…she had injured a hip in a basketball accident in high school, and walked with a limp her whole life. even when she’d come down to the field and play baseball with us, she’d always have one of the other kids run for her if she got a hit…and aside from what she was able to do around the house, she was never able to work at a standard job – either because of the physical demands or because of our living situation. we didn’t own a car when i was a kid – lived largely in houses with little or no indoor plumbing, bathrooms that involved a walk out into the backyard, and so forth…but we got by, largely on my mothers’ resolve.
she’d get out of bed in the morning in the winter and throw the sheets back to the inside of a freezing cold house and go start a fire in the stove before we got out of bed. i remember getting dressed for school and putting on whatever clothes she’d lay out for me without a complaint and having to listen to my brother cry like a little bitch about whatever it was she wanted him to wear – and i knew she was doing the best she could, but it seemed as though that was lost on my siblings for a time, when they were younger.
as i got older and more discontent, and as a result more separated from my family, i kinda went my own way…and my mom gave me that freedom. she kept tabs on me, but i went largely wherever i wanted – because she knew i wasn’t out with a truckload of beer nazis, racing out on highway 64. i was just as rowdy and rebellious as most kids my age, but i manifested it in different ways. when i’d tell her about some of the things i’d done with my friends, she’d get cross with me, to be certain…but i think she wrote most of it off to my age….
she put up with noises coming from my room that would’ve driven some parents completely crazy. i’m still not sure how it is that she took the drumming thing in stride the way she did.
…and i think that somehow, even though she never, ever showed it – that she related to my restlessness somehow. i think that she understood me in a way that she never really let on. i don’t think she’d have let me get away with as much as she did otherwise. i think it’s possible that she might’ve lived precariously through me quite a bit back in those days.
a couple of summers ago, i took the kids to tennessee. i felt that they were old enough to ‘get it’ – to understand where i come from a bit better than they might’ve when they were younger, and that perhaps they’d be interested in their heritage somewhat. dylan got it, i think. jayda wasn’t feeling her best when we were there, and it seemed apparent, but i also think that she might’ve been a lot less interested in the ramblings of her old man than perhaps dylan was. but we got to spend time with my family, and they got a chance to put faces with the names and the stories.
it was painfully hot the afternoon we left, and we pulled away from the yard in my old blue vanagon with the huge sunroof, on our way to the alabama line (so that the kids could say that they’d been in the state).
i knew, even then. i knew that would be the last time that i saw her alive. i didn’t know for sure how long she had, but i knew that was probably it. and i think she did, too. she gave me pictures and stuff that she wanted me to have to bring back with me that i don’t think she’d have been so eager to part with if she felt that she was going to be much longer for this world.
for the past couple of weeks, she’d been in a 24 hour facility for perpetual care. i didn’t know anything about this, and my sisters’ explanation was that she didn’t think she was in grave danger, because her pneumonia had actually been subsiding, and she seemed to be improving.
but on wednesday, she found herself unable to breathe at all – drawing breath in short, spastic bursts, and the doctors considered airlifting her to jackson…but couldn’t make a decision because she was flirting with stability. but as the night wore on, it became apparent that she was going to have to go to jackson.
my brother, who lives in jackson, was on the phone, trying to figure out if he needed to come back to savannah, or stay in jackson and wait for her to arrive…he finally left for savannah before they decided to airlift her.
he never got to see her before she passed.
penny and my mothers’ only remaining sister were with her before they put her on the airlift, and she was aware that they were there. she couldn’t speak to them, but she could answer “yes” or “no” questions…so they knew that she could hear them.
my sister said goodbye to her, and she passed before she made it to jackson.
she can breathe just like the rest of us now.