Opinion | I Turned My Back for a Second, Half a Second, and He Was Grown


NASHVILLE — Driving due south in spring is like speeding up time. My mother, who grew up on a peanut farm in Lower Alabama, believed that the growing season expands northward at the rate of a hundred miles per week. I thought about her theory as I was driving south last month, watching the new-green leaves near home fast forward into a denser, darker verdure. I had set off from Nashville in springtime, but when I arrived at my sister’s house near Birmingham, it was already full summer.

I think about my parents every day, but there’s something about watching the hardwood forests of Tennessee give way to the piney woods of Alabama that brings them back to me with a fresh aching. Perhaps it’s the pine trees that set off the longing — straight and tall, lining the highway like a giant guardrail, shunting me in the right direction, a marble on a downhill track. But maybe it’s only the familiar landscape itself, rolling where it should roll and spreading out where it should sprawl, that makes me feel I am somehow home.

I hadn’t planned to make the trip. May was such a busy time that I’d stuck Post-it notes all around my house reminding me to Say no to everything. But then a dear childhood friend texted to say her father had died, and I wouldn’t have missed his funeral for the world.

When I got to my sister’s house that night, plans were in full swing for my nephew’s high-school graduation. As an emblem of passing time, it’s hard to choose between an old man’s funeral and a child’s graduation. The night that child came home from the hospital, my job was to take him to his mother when he was hungry and put him down to sleep when he was full, but instead I stayed up all night marveling at all that life so neatly packaged in a tiny person. All I did was turn my back for a second, half a second, and he was grown.

The next morning there was time before the funeral to wander around the neighborhood where I grew up, the same neighborhood where my father had lived as a child. I found the place at the end of the road where rusted tracks emerged from the weeds, the exact place where my father had waited for his father to step off the trolley after work. I found the creek where my eighth-grade boyfriend first held my hand. I named to myself all the neighbors who had once lived on my street, every one of them gone now, as a scent drifted on the air that I couldn’t place. Then, finally: gardenia! It blooms in profusion in my hometown but not at all in Nashville, where I have lived for 32 years.

On past visits, I’ve avoided the streets that led to our old house, the house we convinced our mother to sell because it was falling into ruin, but I wanted to see it this time. I hardly recognized it in its fresh paint, with its new shutters and jaunty window boxes. Gone was the asbestos-shingle siding, replaced by clapboards. Gone were my mother’s perennial border and the chokecherry tree whose roots had buckled the driveway for years. But the silver maple sapling that my brother and sister and I had given our parents to mark their silver anniversary — it towers over the house now, the back side of its leaves glinting in the breeze. I stood listening to those trembling leaves for longer than anyone watching from inside would have understood.

At the funeral, when my friend spoke about her parents’ long marriage, I thought of my own parents’ long marriage. When she recalled her father’s irrepressible pride in his children, I remembered my own father’s irrepressible pride in his children. When she spoke of the way her father’s love always overcame their differences, I thought of the way my father, too, accepted my reconsiderations of the worldview he had imparted as a birthright.

In her eulogy, my friend reminded us of how much her father had loved to sail: “He always said that he felt at peace when sailing, where it was serene and quiet,” she said. “I now appreciate that he enjoyed those days on the boat because the family was together without being in a hurry.”

And suddenly I was thinking of those Post-it notes stuck all over my house. How had I allowed myself to become so busy? How long had it been since I’d spent a day in the sun, eating sandwiches from a cooler and watching water ripple across the surface of a lake? Why do I so often behave as though there will be unlimited days to sit quietly with my beloveds, listening to birdsong and wind in the pines?

I spent much of my childhood on my grandparents’ farm, playing in the graveyard next to their church. I’ve recognized the reach of mortality for the better part of five decades. It is always hurtling toward us faster than spring turns into summer on a southbound highway. Faster than a sapling becomes a shade tree and a house becomes someone else’s home. Faster than a newborn baby becomes a man. And yet I conduct my life as though I have all the time in the world, filling my days in ways I can’t always account for when evening falls.

Leaving the funeral, I found myself thinking of my mother’s last days. She was a lifelong gardener, but working the soil had become difficult, so I found a carpenter to build two raised beds, each waist high, next to the back porch of the little house across the street from me, where she lived during her final years. She stooped to dig in the dirt anyway.

After her sudden death, I found a holly fern in a plastic grocery bag on the back porch. She’d dug it up from our old yard while she was staying with my sister the week before she died, and her trowel was stuck in the ground right where she must have planned to plant it. She didn’t know it would not have lived through a Nashville winter. I took it home and put it in a pot.

Driving back from Alabama I kept thinking about that potted holly fern, the way my mother pulled it from the soil of the house where I grew up, the way I carry it inside every fall and outside every spring, year after year without thinking, as though the years are nothing, as though springtime will always be waiting for me, dappling everything with light.

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