The first time I went to the Ann Arbor farmer’s market, the day Charlottesville was declared to be in a state of emergency, my cousin Tara’s son, Chase, was in a car accident so bad, at the time of my finishing this sentence, he has yet to breathe without a ventilator.
We bought cucumbers and peaches and cider donuts and also eggs at the market. The eggs were all different, browned and speckled, and there were even two blues in the dozen.
The man we bought them from had on overalls and he wasn’t wearing them ironically. They were well worn but clean, like his wife washed and ironed them the night before because she wanted him to look nice at the market for selling their eggs.
I’d had a hankering for cake—a yellow cake with chocolate frosting and rainbow sprinkles. I used Joy the Baker’s recipe because she calls this one, “Everybody’s Birthday Cake.” Everybody’s in on it. Everybody gets a slice.
When I bought the eggs, when I planned to make a cake, I didn’t know about Charlottesville. I didn’t know about Chase. When he was little, Tara called him Chaser. He is 16 now, and when she’s sending us updates on him, she’s calling him “my Chaser.”
I’ve been to Charlottesville once. We were on a family vacation. That was the year I’d taken up running and also the year my dad gave us money for a babysitter so I could spend some time trying to write. He did it on Halloween, when I had just been diagnosed with walking pneumonia, and had put the girls down for bed for what felt like the 3,000th time.
I slammed myself down on a chair in front of my parents, and said, “This,” waving my hand across our living room, and then ending the movement pointing to myself, "is not enough.”
My dad clapped his hands together, sat forward and said, “OK.” Like that’s all he needed me to say, though I’d barely said a thing. My dad has always known what I am trying to say, even when I do a terrible job of saying it.
In Charlottesville, my dad and I ran together one morning on the treadmills because southern air in the summer is not to be reckoned with. I remember trying to keep up with him. I couldn’t match his pace, but I ran as long as he did.
We ran in silence, my dad and I. I don’t want to talk while I run, for the same reason I don’t want to discuss my writing when I’m in the middle of it. I’m working something out, trying to piece things together, and it feels like a battle. It’s also the time I feel most at peace, when I’m struggling with something I don’t know the answer to. I don’t know if this is exactly how it is with my dad, but I think so.
We talk after we run, and that day, as we walked back to the cabin, sweaty but exhilarated, he asked me how the babysitter was doing.
I said she was great. Hadley loved her, which was no surprise, but Harper, who would cry if I so much had the audacity to use the bathroom with the door closed, liked her, too.
“And you have time to read and write?” he asked. He always wants to make sure I’m reading and writing.
“Yes,” I said. “Plenty of time. I’m thinking about applying to that graduate school program you’ve been telling me about.”
We walked in silence a bit and then I said, “Sometimes Jesse and I use her for date nights.” It felt like a confession. I wasn’t sure date nights were okay. I wasn’t sure of much when it came to motherhood, and I felt guilty for enjoying going out with Jesse once a month or so.
“Well, of course! You have to do that!” he said.
The reason we were in the south is because my parents’ favorite writers are southern writers: Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Woolf, Walker Percy, William Faulkner. My parents could talk for hours about their stories. They love how gritty and specific and universal they were. “We are all so awful. We are all in need of grace,” is something my mom might’ve said, though she’d say it better than that. She’d never use the word grace. She’d make you feel it, though, when she talked about it.
When Flannery O’Connor died, I think my mom lost a true friend. “Can you imagine what she would’ve done in the world today?” my mom’s often said so mournfully that sometimes I wonder if they were related.
Anyway, I think my parents like to walk where these writers walked. I think they believe in setting as a means to help you shape your worldview, and they wanted to grapple with the world in the same way these writers did.
After we got home from the farmer’s market, I checked Facebook. Status after status alerted me to what was going on in Charlottesville. “Now is not the time to be silent!” I looked at picture after picture of white men—frozen in mid-yell and fury—holding one of those wooden sticks you put in your backyard for parties. I’ve seen them in HGTV magazine.
I don’t agree with what these men were yelling about, or what they think they believe in, but I didn’t say anything. I wondered what Walker Percy or William Faulkner would do if they were alive. I think they’d turn to fiction, probably after pouring themselves more than two fingers worth of whiskey. I thought of the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. She’s the one I walk with throughout the story—the one who drives everyone crazy, the one who gets shot in the face, the one who understands grace seconds before she dies.
Chaser is a football player. Was. I don’t know yet. I don’t know what position he played, but I know he was fast and unassumingly so. Chase is like my Harper—quiet and with a craggy confidence that many misinterpret as low self-esteem. I saw him run the ball once, and I could be wrong, but I think part of his trick was that he was so small nobody assumed he’d be given the ball. So by the time he had it, he was halfway down the field and the big guys were left scratching their helmets.
I was with Chase the week before he’d gotten in the car accident. I asked him about school, about colleges he wanted to go to, what his favorite TV show was.
“’Friday Night Lights,’” he said.
“Yeah, mine, too,” I said.
He probably likes it because it’s about football and high school, but I wonder if it’s also because of his grandma, my Aunt Lucy. She died of pancreatic cancer 10 days before Harper was born. She and Tara lived down the street from each other. They were best friends. Tara bought the DVDs of the “Friday Night Lights” seasons so Lucy could watch them as she lay dying. We all clung to the plotline of Coach Taylor and his football players like we were holding on for dear life. Four years later, when I applied to graduate school, as I told my dad I would, my statement of faith was about that show and my Aunt Lucy. I got in, and a few months later read a review of the TV show. The author wrote that “Friday Night Lights” is a blue state’s idea of how the red states ought to be.
I didn’t know what Tara was going to do without her mom, but she did what she needed to do, and she did it grieving, and with style, and with a sense of humor only her mother could’ve passed along to her. Tara is an inspiration to everyone.
Then, a few months ago, my Uncle Bill, her father, died. His heart attacked him. I’m not trying to be poetic. He’d done some terrible things, but he once was a good man. He turned away from that goodness, and I think his heart was sick of it and decided on a cease and desist strike. My Uncle Bill was a democrat. I never knew that. If you’d seen a picture of him, you’d never know it. Looking at him, you would insist they photoshopped the red “Make America Great Again” hat off his head.
For more than 20 years, since the day in May of 1995 when I learned Bill was leaving Lucy, I’d have dreams that he had come back. We would all be eating dinner: my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and he’d walk through the door. He’d start to say he was sorry but couldn’t get the words out because all of us were hugging him and telling him how happy we were that he’s home. I would always wake up confused and angry, and shaking my head to get rid of the dream. Who understands that kind of forgiveness? It doesn’t exist, I’d think as I pulled the covers over my head and tried to go to sleep.
Still, I kept dreaming the same dream and it felt true. Until Bill died. I haven’t dreamed that dream since.
I worried about Tara when Bill died, but not in the same way as when Lucy died. Still, he’s her dad. He hadn’t been around for a while now, but it’s final now. “I would do anything to talk to him one more time,” she told me a few weeks ago. “Even if it was to scream at him. I’d give anything.”
And now she’s in the same hospital with her son as she was with her mother, and I am again wondering how much more she can take.
The night of the accident and of Charlottesville, I texted a pastor at our church and explained what happened. “Please pray for Chase,” I pleaded.
The next day, at church, the same pastor told the congregation in her welcome that if anyone had prayer requests after the service, that there were people waiting in the back to pray with us.
“Are you going?” Jesse whispered to me in the pew.
I thought about it. I should’ve probably gone, but I told the pastor already, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep it together if I spoke all that is on my mind to strangers.
I shook my head no.
Later, while I was in my kitchen creaming butter and sugar together for “Everybody’s Birthday Cake,” I thought about the Doxology we sing every Sunday. It is the few seconds, maybe 30 at the most, before we begin to sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” when the organist plays the last notes of the hymn we were signing so that they blend and become part of the Doxology, that is my favorite part of the service.
I’m always a little nervous during this time. What does one song have to give up and what does the other have to allow for the two to merge together like that? On Sunday, while Chase lay sedated and breathing through a tube, and reports of the violence in Charlottesville came about, the organist seemed hesitant—her fingers seemed heavy, unsure. Like this time, it wouldn’t work. There would be no pairing. She did it, though. It happened slowly, but it happened and I cried and cried as we sang, “Praise Him all creatures here below.”
My dad told me that being able to blend a hymn into the Doxology is part of the interview process for organists. He said that when he used to interview them, the committee would open up a hymnal to any song and the organist would have to be ready.
“Any song?” I gasped.
“Yup,” he said.
This kind of thinking, of playing, would just have to be a part of you, I thought as I alternated pouring the flour and the buttermilk into a bowl. You’d always have to be ready to love a story and let go of it so it can become something else. I poured the batter into a cake pan.
I turned the oven on, cleaned up the kitchen, grabbed the rainbow sprinkles, and sat down to wait. It’s unsettling, I thought, shaking the sprinkles, being willing to see something in common with things so different. It must also be terrifying making it so that all of us can sing along.