Goose Creek Valley
Today I got to go “over the mountain”—which is what we say in Bedford when we’re trying to get to Interstate 81. There’s a very scenic way to get there via windy country roads up one side of a mountain and down the other. I dropped off my children at the sitter and headed towards Montvale. Montvale is a small part of a very large and rural Bedford County. It’s known for the Beale treasure, a great corn maze, and very large gas tanks on the side of the main highway. But nestled behind the highway are a series of windy, narrow roads in all directions. One of those roads is Goose Creek Valley Road. This road takes you from the recreation field all the way to the tip top of the mountain. On the other side is a windy road down to a small town called Buchannan…where you find Interstate 81.
This road is part of me. I’d say it sings to me except it’s more than a song. It’s like medicine. Whenever I drive on that road, my body changes. My posture settles, my blood flows differently, my heart beats a bit more steady, my breathing becomes deeply innate—kind of shallow and chest-y. And then, my tears start to flow.
First, I come across the house on the left, high up on the hill. That’s where the old man lived that my brother used to help with chores. I think mostly they shot guns together or maybe even chewed tobacco. I’ll never know because girls weren’t invited.
Then, there’s the intersection (if you can call it that) with Crouch Road. Which is the road that bears the maiden name of my grandma Ella May. It’s the road that will take you to the tiny schoolhouse where she went to classes and met all her boyfriends, including my granddaddy Woodrow.
Next, there are the cows in the massive field at the foot of the mountain to my right—in the tiny bend in the road where I used to pick the most beautiful flowers. Queen Anne’s lace is what grandma and I called it. It would be more than a decade later when I’d learn that it was really a weed—and a nasty, buggy one at that. Chiggers is what all the kids in high school called it. A lacy, horrible weed that was full of bugs that would grab on to you, bite you, and make you itch for weeks.
These are the curves in the road around which my grandma would drive her big, lima-bean green buick and honk the horn loudly without slowing down. This is what she referred to as safe driving.
These are the curves in the road around which my granddad drove his big white chevy truck in the summer heat. My brother and I would request the air conditioning and he’d grin, quietly roll down the side windows, and spit his tobacco juice out the window. This was his version of air conditioning and we were not impressed with its smells or temperature.
Then further down the road I see it. And it almost takes my breath away. To my right is the cowfield with the small creek, the gravel road, and the rickety wood-plank bridge. It’s across the street from my grandparent’s old home. The willow tree, the spring house, the side garden. The square house that looked out over all the farmland and sat just far enough from the road that you could hear the radios playing from the passing cars. Those were the fields I played in. Those were the cows I watched for hours on end. That was the creek I splashed around in and where I found old bones I was sure belonged to prehistoric dinosaurs. That was the road I crossed to go from a supervised grandchild to a free girl, playing without the fear of what others might think. Across the street I was far enough away that I wasn’t watched. I could move without wondering what I looked like. I could sing without wondering what I sounded like. I could explore without fear of what I might find.
Then, just 2 seconds up the road on the left was Jewell Luck’s old house. She was one of my grandfather’s many siblings. We would walk to her house to visit her. I remember she was very sick. A hospital-like bed in her downstairs room sat by the back window. She looked out to a field full of honeysuckle. She gave my brother and me each a $1 wrapped in a special gift envelope every time we came. I’m not sure if she ever left that bed. I wonder how she died, where her life ended.
And then, the hardest part of the road. The part that meets Walnut Grove Road. Walnut Grove Road takes you to Walnut Grove Union Church and Cemetery. The Church is where we’d go with grandma and granddad on Sundays—one week it was Baptist and the next week it was Methodist. Grandma was raised a Methodist and Granddad a Baptist. So how nice for them that a church like that was within a 3 minute drive from their home. Grandma sang in the choir, but only on Methodist weeks. She would dress me up in dresses and pantyhose. There were church suppers and Bible School weeks and picnics outside. And then later, there were funerals. First, Grandaddy Woodrow. Then, my brother. Then, many years later, Grandma. I cannot pass that road without a lump rising in my chest. Knowing their sweet bodies that housed the divine lay in the ground on that hill is just too much for me most days. They showed me how to live; and then they showed me how to die.
It was in that Cemetery that Grandma Ella May told me the family’s secrets. One day when I was in college, we went there. I can’t remember why we went. Perhaps to visit Grandaddy Woodrow’s grave–although our family’s never been much on hanging out at cemeteries. We generally think that plastic/silk flowers and strange doo-dads are a bit tacky, even for the dead. Anyway, the secrets. She stood there and pointed at each grave around our feet and told me their dark secrets. This one was in an asylum. Crazy. This one cheated on his wife with that one over there and then shot himself. This one just dropped dead in the street one day and no one knows why. This one never worked a day in his life. This one I dated. And this one. And this one. And here, your granddaddy. I loved him so. And God doesn’t make any mistakes so I know it’s going to be ok. And she’d shake her bent up pointer finger at him and we’d leave everyone behind in the ground to go back home.
The house is so different now. When grandma and granddaddy sold it, the new owners essentially gutted and re-built something new on the lot. They chopped down trees, took down the old spring house. Re-located the driveway. It’s bigger now and less simple. The old house was a brick square. I could draw the floorplan easily. I remember the flooring in each room, the furniture, the way the doors opened. The brown living room carpet, the blue vinyl kitchen flooring. I still know the smell of the back porch and can see all the RC cola bottles stacked along the wall. I can tell you she used that weird red toothpaste (Close-up!) in the bathroom just off the kitchen. I can see the bedrooms and the giant upstairs bathroom where I found my first tick and lost my mind. I can see the porcelain bathtub filled with only about 3 inches of water—what she called a “spit bath.” I can remember where the floor creaked upstairs. I can see Aunt Linda’s room, my dad’s old room, and grandma and granddaddy’s room. Their room smelled like her perfume and was filled with so many treasures. I can see it all and yet it is all gone. The house, the people, the stuff. It’s all gone.
It’s all gone from that road. I’m not 9 years old anymore. None of those people are alive. The willow tree is gone and the old front porch has been demolished. And yet they are real to me–I can still see, smell, taste and touch them. The divine sense of life–of pleasure and work and beauty and balance–all of those are alive in me. I know it because of how my body changes when I get near it.
I am grieving today. The loss of that land, the loss of the old home, the loss of my grandma, granddad, brother. The loss of the girl who used to live like she already had the part. Now I’m a 35 year old woman who always seems to be auditioning for the next thing. Who always wonders who’s watching and hopeful she’s making the grade. Today I am grateful to re-connect with a younger version of this body. As Anne Lamott says, we are all the ages we’ve ever been. I’m glad to be Mandi, granddaughter, explorer, loved. There are no auditions on Goose Creek Valley Road.