2016 Fiction Contest Judge's Choice ~ Jayne Moore Waldrop
Cam studied her mother, searching the familiar wideset brown eyes for something recognizable like a spark of warmth or curiosity or recognition. Instead, she saw a countenance interwoven with worry, disconnect, sometimes alarm. The new normal. Cam wasn’t sure her mother still knew her, not all the time anyway.
“What must I do?” Mrs. Wetherford asked, again. No matter how many times she asked the question, the answer never satisfied her.
“Mom, I’ve come to visit you. What would you like to do today?”
“I want to go home.”
“We are home, Mom.”
“This place? What are you talking about? I don’t live here.” Her voice rose a notch in pitch. By late afternoon, she’d need medication to ease the agitation that grew during the day.
Cam looked at her dad who sat nearby in his recliner. His expression was tired and helpless as though he’d heard the question a million times in the past few months since his wife’s dementia became apparent and diagnosed by brain specialists. She had declined quickly–“rapid onset,” they called it–as if her life’s memories flowed through a spillway and floated downstream, gone forever to some distant and hard-to-reach place. Once that gate had opened nothing seemed to stem the flood, with the most recent memories plunging first, leaving only the oldest ones in place. Sandbagging with medicine, therapy, even Cam’s daily prayers, had little effect on its swiftness.
“Which home are you talking about, Mom? The one in the old town, Eddyville, before the lake was built?”
“I never lived there. I lived across the river.”
“Or the house that you and Daddy built on higher ground after the lake was built?”
“I’m talking about the house where I’ve always lived. In Mint Springs, between the rivers. All of my people live there.”
The words startled Cam. Mint Springs was where her mother had grown up, her family homeplace. For more than a hundred years, the big brick home with double porches was a landmark near the banks of the Cumberland River. Visited by the Marquis de Lafayette on his American tour after the Revolutionary War. Spared by both Confederate and Union soldiers making their way south along the waterway. Toppled by bulldozers when the government built a monumental concrete dam a few miles away. When the dam became operational, it closed off the river’s natural path and created the lake. Forty years ago, the homeplace was torn down, its venerable trees uprooted, and the Clarkson family graveyard moved to higher ground. The cemetery sat on a ridge about a mile from its original location, the only tangible and remaining connection to what had existed before Mint Springs drowned in the rising waters and disappeared ten feet beneath the lake’s surface.
“I want to go home,” her mother said.
Cam exchanged looks with her father, who looked as if he could use a nap. A drive and a change of scenery might be good for her mother and probably easier than staying here listening to the repeated questions all afternoon.
“Then let’s go. I’ll take you there,” Cam said. “I’ll pack a lunch and we’ll head out.”
Cam walked into the kitchen to gather a few items for a simple picnic. She made a couple of pimento cheese sandwiches for which her mother still had an appetite, and wrapped them in aluminum foil. She added two bananas, some napkins, and water bottles from the refrigerator, Her dad came into the room.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Absolutely. It might be good for her, and you need a break. Why don’t you take a nap while we’re gone?” He nodded but looked worried.
“You know she could get angry if things over there don’t suit her. She’s not going to like it when you tell her the house is gone.”
“Don’t worry, Dad. I can handle it.” She looked at him and realized how thin he was. Almost haggard. His body felt shrunken when she embraced him.
They helped Mrs. Wetherford navigate the walker to the bathroom. She could still use the toilet with assistance and frequent reminders, but her diaper was wet this time.
“Mom, we need to change your underpants,” Cam said. She gently tore the cloth sides of the large adult-size diaper and put it in the trashcan, then untied her mother’s shoes and helped her out of her pants. At first, after the initial diagnosis, Mrs. Wetherford resisted wearing a diaper–“I don’t need that thing”–but it had become an accepted part of the new routine. Cam always called them underpants, not diapers, and she packed a spare for the drive.
Together they accompanied Mrs. Wetherford down the new ramp of yellowish lumber built a few weeks ago from the kitchen door into the garage. She walked slowly, unsteadily, her gait altered as if she had sustained some unknown physical injury. The doctors had explained the usual progression of the disease and her mother seemed to be a textbook case. Loss of short-term memory, loss of mobility, loss of names, faces, locations. Loss and more loss, Cam thought. It was heartbreaking to watch. Somehow her mother seemed to hold on to her oldest memories–her parents, the old homeplace, the words to old hymns she had sung as a girl at Mint Springs Methodist Church–as she lost more recent bits and pieces of life.
When they reached the car, they joined forces to hoist Mrs. Wetherford into the front passenger seat of the light blue van. Her dad had begun parking his sedan outside so they’d have more room in the garage to accommodate the walker or a wheelchair when she needed one. It couldn’t be long, Cam thought, as she watched her dad stretch the seat belt out as long as it would go and then reach around her mother to secure the latch. He patted her thigh and kissed her cheek. “You girls have fun,” he said, and closed the van door. “Call me if you need me, Cam.”
She nodded and backed out of the garage. As she headed down the driveway, she looked at the overcast skies and hoped the predicted rain would hold off. She caught a glimpse of her dad in the rearview mirror, standing stoop-shouldered next to the house, watching them leave. Even from a distance, he looked broken and sad. She hated to see him like that, but she was having a hard time accepting the diagnosis, too. It was new territory for all them.
Nearly every weekend Cam arrived from Nashville to help care for her mother, and to give her dad and her sister Becky a respite. Each time she found that more of her mother had slipped away since the last visit. Cam grieved the missing pieces, like her mother’s sense of humor and adventure, even her mobility. Her mother’s essence seemed to be leaking from her, cell by cell, in a brain under attack. The playful light in her mother’s eyes was extinguishing from within, leaving a person who was still physically present but missing vital parts.
Despite her age–48–Cam felt like a child as she faced her mother’s illness. She dealt with the details like an adult–the doctor visits, medications, the provisions of the long-term care policy–while deep down she wanted to lie down and cry. All she saw and felt was loss. Her mother was leaving her and she wasn’t ready. She didn’t think she would ever be ready. She needed her mother to hold her and stroke her hair, tell her everything was going to be okay. Cam knew it wasn’t going to be okay, but she wanted the comfort that her mother provided. A world without her was unimaginable.
“Nothing looks right,” her mother asked. “Are you sure this is the right road?”
“I’m sure, Mom. The roads have changed.”
“I don’t see the ferry. We have to ride the ferry to get home.”
“It’s okay. I know where we’re going.” The trip to the narrow strip of land between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers once required a ferry ride. After the rivers were dammed to create Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, bridges had been built. The ferries stopped operating more than forty years ago.
She felt her mother staring at her. “Are you okay, Mom?”
“Tell me who your mother is. Do I know her?” Mrs. Wetherford said. The question was formal and distant as if her mother was speaking to a stranger, and the realization that her own mother didn’t recognize her stung Cam. She tried not to make a big deal over it, but tears welled in her eyes. It had happened before and it had hurt, but her mother eventually circled back around and reclaimed that knowledge. Cam knew it was just a matter of time before that bit of information washed away with the others. She, too, would be swept from her mother’s memory.
She was unable to speak for a moment as her throat tightened. She swallowed several times, took in deep breaths, and finally answered.
“Yes, mam. You know my mama. You’ve known her for a long time.” The answer seemed to satisfy Mrs. Wetherford.
From the main road through Land Between the Lakes, Cam made several turns and headed east down a long orangey-brown gravel road that led to the Clarkson cemetery in what used to be the river community of Mint Springs. The handful of homes and businesses had once sat almost exactly across the Cumberland River from the state penitentiary and the town of Eddyville. Most everything had been torn down in preparation for the lake that eventually overtook Mint Springs.
A few houses on higher ground had survived the building of the lake but were later cleared to make way for a new TVA recreation area that required the ouster of all remaining residents between the rivers. Land Between the Lakes, they renamed it. The people, including many of Cam’s relatives, had fought the federal projects but still lost their land. Old photos showed protestors holding signs telling TVA to go away, to leave them alone, but the government’s power of eminent domain marched forward and claimed it all for the public good. Cam had been young when her grandparents were forced out; she had only vague memories of visiting the family farm.
Cam hadn’t heard her mother say her name for a few weeks. She had begun to wonder if her name had been lost, never to be uttered again by the woman who had given it. Cam took comfort that she wasn’t nameless yet, or motherless.
When the water was low in winter, remnants of Mint Springs reappeared. The stone foundation of the old Methodist church came into view, as well as some scattered bricks. To most visitors the area looked like unspoiled meadows and woodlands dotted by an occasional family cemetery. Most of the town names were lost; cemetery names were used as directional landmarks.
As Cam drove the gravel tracks, the green median of tall grass brushed against the van’s undercarriage. Large mud puddles lingered from rain earlier in the week. Dragonflies hovered over the water and scattered as the car approached. Cam parked in shade that ringed the small collection of tombstones where their ancestors had been relocated as the lake encroached. Cam went around the car and opened her mother’s door.
“Mom, take my arm. I’m afraid the ground is too uneven for your walker.” Once her mother got her feet under her, they slowly commenced toward a rough wood bench built a decade or so before as an Eagle Scout project by a distant cousin. To get to the bench, they walked past the graves of Mrs. Wetherford’s parents, her brother Dan, her grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and in-laws. She didn’t seem to notice them. She was looking toward the lake in the distance, a sliver of bluish green.
“Isn’t this beautiful, Cam,” she said. Cam hadn’t heard her mother say her name for a few weeks. She had begun to wonder if her name had been lost, never to be uttered again by the woman who had given it. Cam took comfort that she wasn’t nameless yet, or motherless.
“Let’s have a seat, Mom.” They settled on the bench, then Cam remembered the picnic lunch in the car.
“Are you hungry? I’ve got lunch in the picnic basket.”
“I believe so.”
Cam headed toward the van, thinking how their family order had shifted. The caregiving roles had reversed. The woman who had taken care of her all her life needed to be reminded it was time to eat. Time to go to the bathroom. Time for bathing. For Cam, the youngest in her family, taking care of others didn’t come naturally. She was never responsible for a younger sibling. As an adult, she’d chosen not to have children. She felt inept and uneasy at caregiving, yet ashamed of herself for her impatience in the role. But this was her mother, she thought. She’d have to figure it out.
As she walked back toward the bench with the picnic basket, she saw her mother looking around as if taking in everything in sight. The land and the lake formed a low, flat terrain capped by a vast expanse of sky showing hints of blue as the clouds broke.
Cam worried that her mom didn’t recognize where she was, which might upset her and trigger the onset of agitation. Sometimes she looked afraid like the world seemed strange and unknowable. Other times she turned combative and paranoid. On bad days, she would curse, spit and scratch. The neurologist had prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for those times.
“You alright, Mom?”
“I’m fine. I always sit here and wait for Papa as he works the river bottoms. I carry his lunch to him every day,” she said. She smiled and looked content, alternating between present and past tense. Her broad, radiant smile had returned.
“What does he grow down there?” Cam decided to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. She didn’t know how much longer her mother would be able to tell her stories.
“Corn, hay, mostly, in those big fields. And smaller patches for tobacco and potatoes, and then we have our garden closer to the house. Right down there on that little rise that never floods. That’s why my great-grandfather built there. Never floods around the house, not even in bad years like 1937.”
Cam surveyed the landscape toward the water. The shoreline was completely different than it would have been before the lake. The water stayed high because of the dam, a level similar to a natural flood. The actual home site was at the bottom of the lake, invisible, as if it never existed.
“Do you see the prison?”
“Yes. It looks like a castle. Sometimes on quiet summer nights we have the windows open and we can hear their voices. The prisoners and the guards.”
Cam laid out the food and drinks, then unwrapped a pimento cheese sandwich and handed half of it to her mother. In her pocket Cam carried an extra dose of medication in case the anxiety skyrocketed.
“See that grove of trees yonder,” her mother said, pointing to a stand of tall beech and ash close to the water’s edge. “That has always been the prettiest place. Cool no matter what the temperature is. My grandpa tied the mules out there to cool off after a long day of plowing. Papa switched over to tractors, but he kept a few horses for us to ride around the farm. They grazed out there under the shade of those trees in the summer.”
After taking a couple of tiny bites from the sandwich, Mrs. Wetherford pointed out the calls of a bob white and the loud thumping of a woodpecker, and then closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. “Smells like clover and honeysuckle.”
Cam finished her lunch and marveled at the change in her mother, who continued to look directly toward the former site of her homeplace. Her conversation, which seemed lost many days, came easily as she spoke. A gentle westerly breeze blew against their backs.
“A place needs water to feel like home,” Mrs. Wetherford said calmly. Her mouth lifted into a faint smile as though a something peaceful washed over her. “When we moved to higher ground we knew we’d never get flooded again, but I missed seeing the river every day. So did Papa.”
She remembers this place despite its altered appearance, Cam thought. Mrs. Wetherford started to hum, then began to sing in a clear, steady voice.
“O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies, they tell me of a home far away, they tell me of a home where no storm-clouds rise, O they tell me of an unclouded day,” she sang. She paused for a moment, lips pursed, and a look of worry developing in her eyes.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“I’m remembering the next verse.”
“What’s that song?”
“I don’t know the name, but we sing it in church every Sunday.” Her face relaxed as the words returned to her. She started singing the next verse.
“O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone, they tell me of that land far away, where the tree of life in eternal bloom, sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day.”
Cam was unfamiliar with the song. It sounded like a hymn, an ancient one. She had never heard her mother sing it before. The music seemed to flow from some place deep inside, unseen and unheard during their life together as mother and daughter, but newly resurfaced in Mrs. Wetherford. When she stopped singing, she continued to study the landscape. Her face looked pleased with everything around them.
“I’d like to live here, wouldn’t you?” her mother said, turning to look at Cam, her expression warm and lively as if for an instant she had found the missing pieces. Cam nodded and followed her mother’s gaze back toward the lake. Under its shimmering waters lay a forgotten world, yet in that moment and through her mother’s eyes, Cam saw its loveliness, not only for what it once was but for what still existed. Despite profound loss–those unstoppable and devastating changes that had forever altered the landscape, sometimes beyond recognition–it remained a place of beauty, seen and unseen, transformed but still lovely.
“Yes, Mama, it’s beautiful,” Cam said, reaching for her mother’s hand. “This feels like home.”
Jayne Moore Waldrop is a writer, lawyer, and contributing book columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and the Murray State University MFA program. Her work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, New Madrid Journal, Limestone, Kudzu, Minerva Rising, Deep South Magazine and others. A native of western Kentucky, she lives in Lexington.