Beth Newberry earned her MFA in Writing from Spalding University. A native and current resident of Louisville, Kentucky, she has also lived in the mountains of Kentucky as well as the inner city of Washington, D.C. Her creative nonfiction and journalism have appeared in a variety of publications.
An Open Edge of the Earth
The first time I had a vision of my grandfather Cecil was three days before my car accident. I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye and noticed him waiting impatiently by the door as I sat in a staff meeting at the church camp where I was counseling for the week. Cecil had on a green cotton button down shirt, untucked. His front shirt pocket bulged from its contents: a Bic pen, handkerchief, calling cards, butterscotch, a small spiral-bound notebook for keeping sermon ideas, and a packet of seeds for tomato plants. His pants pocket jingled with change and paperclips. I saw him briefly, but clearly. I heard his pocket change falling rhythmically through his fingers; I looked up and thought, “Hey, where you been?” And I heard him say, “Are you ready to go?”
My grandparents were never real people to me, but hints of people. I imagine them suspended above me, unnoticed like clouds, but casting shadows on the landscape and life below.
My dad’s father, Albert, died the day before his fifteenth birthday. By the time I was born in 1977, the reminders of his death caused more of a phantom grief for my father than an actual one.
I imagine that when my mother found out she was pregnant nine months before she had a careful picture of her life with her husband and new baby and three thrilled grandparents. My father’s mother, Becky, died six months before my birth in September.
My parents drove from Louisville, Kentucky to the southwestern Virginia town of Bland (my father always said the name of the town was actually more exciting than anything that happened there). From city, through horse farms, around the edges of foothills, through mountain-wrapped-turnpikes, they descended into the valleys of southwestern Virginia. In Bland, my mother’s parents, Cecil and Virginia, and her younger sisters met them for the funeral. My parents had moved away a few years before. Cecil, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife and two young daughters, had also moved to a small town in West Virginia where he had taken a church.
Cecil performed Becky’s funeral, an official rite of a pastor; but it was also a gesture of compassion between two close-knit families. I have never asked my parents what Cecil said at the funeral, but I imagine he spoke of Becky’s strength in raising three kids after her husband died fourteen years before, and, finally, he read Psalm 23 to console the bereaved: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.
My parents stayed in Bland the week after the funeral to settle the estate and to spend time with my dad’s brother and sister. Before they could make the return trip to Kentucky, Cecil had a heart attack at his home in West Virginia. By the time the ambulance arrived and wound through one-lane country roads on the way to the nearest hospital, he had died. Mom and Dad drove to West Virginia for the funeral, where another pastor would read the twenty-third Psalm. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
A week later they returned to Kentucky and I had one remaining grandparent, my mother’s mother.
In the six months after Cecil’s death, his widow, Virginia, and their children revised their lives to compensate for his absence. My grandmother talked to my uncle Rob about finally getting her driver’s license and her need and desire to get a job. Just after Virginia moved into a new home with my aunts, both teenagers at the time, she had a stroke one day while they were at school. It was late August; it must have been the first week of school. My aunt Terri found her when she came home in the afternoon. Uncle Rob called to tell my parents.
During our only conversation about Virginia’s death, my mom told me a couple of years ago about answering the phone. She told me that as soon as she heard the news that Virginia had died of a stroke, she couldn’t speak and handed the phone to my father.
I sometimes wonder if our hearts stop momentarily.
Mom could not travel from Louisville to West Virginia for the funeral or be with her family as they made the arrangements. Instead she had to stay close to her home, her husband and the hospital.
After the phone call, she had four days to shuffle around her apartment in slippers and robe waiting to hear about the funeral plans, the estate and the long-term living arrangements for her young teenage sisters. I imagine she sat in her kitchen caught in daydream scenarios of this new version of her life as she waited to go into labor.
I was born on the day of my maternal grandmother’s funeral. The week I was born my mother had lost her mother and become one—two events that individually could have changed the course of her life. Together, the combined rituals of grieving and caring for a newborn were measured into daily tasks; the tasks of opening condolence cards, completing paperwork for settling the estate, and spending time to cry over the loss were mixed in with diaper changes, feedings, and naps.
I hope that having a baby was a relief from the consuming pain of her mother’s death. She told me once that having to take care of me gave her something to concentrate on other than the loss of her parents. The repetition of meeting my needs pushed the demands of mourning into the shadows of her life. Grieving felt like swimming through molasses, all movement slowed. Memories and emotion have their own comfort, but grieving is slow, tiring, continuous. Her sorrow resided in distracted thoughts or sighs that rose up deep from below her regular breath, like sudden rains that swell into a flash flood. And that was her acknowledgment, the only time in the day to say “I miss you” or to ask “Why now?” Grief hovered in barely perceivable, low-lying clouds above my mom and my family.
My aunts tell me that after the deaths my grandparents were rarely mentioned. I envision my mom walking a tight rope between disbelief and grief. “When we found out we were pregnant with Beth she had three grandparents and by the time she was born she had none.” I imagine her words getting caught between the small figures on the mobile above my crib as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played. I can see my mom’s words and the words of the song floating above me: Two then none…twinkle, twinkle…How I wonder where you are…By the time she was born…little star. Words and music box melodies meld and then float down getting caught in the hairs on my head. A brief mention of death settling into parts of me, absorbed as I drift to sleep.
As a teenager—as I began to understand my family and my role within it—I recalled family stories told by parents and aunts and uncles about my grandparents. I felt it was taboo to ask about my grandparents’ deaths.
My parents didn’t easily bring up their parents to me, not often enough for me to distinguish one set of grandparents from the other. My mom and dad would answer questions if I asked. What were their jobs? Where did they live? Did they drive you to school or did you walk? But the answers to these questions weren’t enough to visualize what my grandparents looked like or how tall they were or how they laughed. I had no visual image or memory on which to attach this information.
I think I first saw a picture of my mom’s parents when I was twelve or fourteen. It wasn’t a formal shot. There wasn’t even a cake or Christmas tree in the photo, just middle-aged people sitting around a table. My grandmother Virginia had her hair elaborately pinned up and wore cat-eye glasses. She was overweight but wearing a dress with a large pattern, the high fashion of early seventies. My grandfather Cecil wore a plain white cotton shirt and dark trousers appropriate for a causal afternoon working in the church office. Both sat at a dining room table, slouching, caught in mid-conversation. They weren’t well manicured or impressively beautiful, but familiar and comforting. They seemed tired and faded like the photo. I stared at Virginia’s up-do and Cecil’s slight double chin. It looked like a photo taken absent-mindedly, perhaps to finish a roll of film.
As an adult I would find older black and white photos, a portrait or family occasion with suits and fancy dress. Cecil and Virginia looked young and I could see my mom’s features in their faces. These were the photos I preferred—where my grandparents were further from death than the first pictures I had seen.
In my mind I created a collage where my grandparents were a montage of belly laughs, poly-cotton blends, dark rimmed glasses, stale cigarette, and fresh vegetables from the garden. To me my grandparents are kitchen smells and story telling—scents and sounds of family visits I never had with them. I gathered small scraps of detail I could compile into a memory. I made a quiet corner in my mind, full of memory-scraps I could dig through to create a fuller picture of my family.
So through college when most of my peers had living grandparents, I invented and cultivated memories of my grandparents. I began to create the missing history of a generation of elders. I began listening to my mom and her siblings retell stories. I started collecting the small references of personality traits (“your grandmother loved shoes”) and mannerisms (“Cecil always cleared his throat to get your attention.”) and tried to add each up to a whole person. I was making paper doll grandparents.
Camp ended on a Saturday. The day was hot and it felt like breath from a dry mouth. It had drizzled rain that morning. The two-lane road I was driving on smelled like a freshly washed chalkboard.
I saw a sign saying the speed limit was forty-five miles an hour. I began to accelerate from the thirty miles an hour I was driving as Bob Marley wailed from my tape player.
The limestone rock face to my right drew my car toward it and I glimpsed drought-stricken yellow leaves hanging limply on trees on the overhang above the road. I realized I was going too fast as I took a curve at forty miles an hour. I steered the car left, crossing the solid yellow line. The light rain had pulled long-receded oil from pick-ups and logging trucks to the surface. My car floated into the left lane as I slid across the blacktop the car did a 180-degree turn; the wheels on the passenger side caught the edge of blacktop. The car began to flip down the brown, grassy hillside and into a barn-lined tobacco field.
In the first of two and a half rolls, the windshield cracked but held together as the top of the car met the embankment. I began to hear a series of thoughts all at once, instead of in succession. Oh God this isn’t happening. I guess I’m not going out tonight. I can’t fix this. I just wanted to be back on the road headed toward home. I just wanted it to be a close call.
The music was still playing. Bob Marley kept singing, “Think you’re in heaven, but you’re living in hell.”
The shatterproof glass of the windshield fractured in three million pieces and buckled toward me. I could see the unrelenting earth, dark soil, and leaves through a kaleidoscope of glass. The rearview mirror shot towards my face pulling the screams from my chest to my throat but locking them in the cracks of my chapped lips. Fear burned through my stomach and past my ribs.
I felt Cecil watching me from outside of the car. I imagined him as a black crow on the roof of the barn next to the field where the car was headed. His image stood out, dark black feathers against a faded-red barn and bare or parched trees. He plunged from the cloudy, rainless sky and grew as large as a treetop. He shed feathers as his body elongated into his human self, wearing his Sunday suit. His wings arched, flapping a fierce fheeewwaaaah sound and cut through clouds and shadows then receded into his shoulder blades. His teeth were sharp and long like swords, passing through the metal and glass to reach me. I heard a yowl that sounded like a jaw popping at the fullest point of a yawn. Cecil was next to me — I felt a thin blanket of calm buffering me from my own fear and the noise. It kept my heart in my chest. The car continued to flip and the ground pulled away layers of paint, bumper, mirror and glass. I said to myself, “I’m still okay, I’m still okay.”
Death did not descend or quietly approach, but opened an edge of the earth and tried to pull me in with tangles of weeds and tree limbs. The car lost momentum when it hit the flat tobacco field. And when it stopped, my car was resting on the driver’s side door, facing the direction I had come from. All the windows except the windshield were broken out and the reggae music was still playing: “Oh children weep no more, oh my sycamore tree, saw the freedom tree.”
The car was cold and empty. My fear had returned and I was confused. I turned off the radio and tried to get out of the car. My seat belt would not let me move. I unhooked it and climbed out the rear window getting glass and dirt in my sandals as I stood up into the midday sun and walked away from the car, the hill, and the barn.
I didn’t see Cecil after I got out of the car. But after the ambulance came and paramedics determined I had escaped with only deep bruises, I called the camp staff and took me back to the office, where I waited for my parents to pick me up. They asked me what happened and I told them, “When we rolled over I was scared, but I knew we would be okay.”
The story came out as a collective experience mixed in with my own shock and disbelief about what had happened. There were parts of the accident that would return to me in the days following. The sound of my own screams would return to me in a flashback. When I closed my eyes I would relive my vision of the first impact. I would see the rearview mirror come toward my face suddenly, frighteningly. These memories I would incorporate into my original version of events, just as I would edit out that Cecil was in the car. I would keep to myself that I first spent time with my grandfather when I lost control of my car and it flipped over a hillside. I wouldn’t tell anyone he had been waiting on me. In the moment I first saw him I didn’t know if he would save me or take me with him.
Sometimes I’ll hear an autumn wind shake the leaves on a maple tree, and I shiver like I did the day my grandfather, a raven-black bird swooping from tree limbs, led me from the still pasture. How could a bird as big as the shadow of a barn, engulf the fear I felt? How could a crow as black as a raven and as fierce as a hawk keep harm buried beneath sun burnt crops?
The tremble and treble of the foliage reaches from trunk to twigs. The bony twigs look like the hands of women in my family — thin, long, crooked fingers that fit into the bend of one another. I imagine my grandparents’ lives conserved in the tree’s trunk, like sap in the winter, prompting buds to appear again in the spring. But it’s now the end of the season and I watch as the leaves burst into sudden, yet temporary, flourishes of color. They die in a vigilant fall with a slow graceful descent to the earth.