by Angeliska on August 8, 2012
When I was six years old, my mother and father and I drove from Taylor, Texas to Montgomery, Alabama to make a pilgrimage to Hank Williams’ grave. This was to be our first, last and only family vacation. At the time, I didn’t know that this was an unusual choice. I’m not sure what exactly I thought, but having few friends throughout most of my childhood, I didn’t have much context for what normal families did on vacation. I think I must’ve imagined that we were normal, even though I can see now that we were absolutely not. Not even close. There were so many aspects of my life at that time that I just assumed were experiences other children must share, so I didn’t question very much. My mother had been battling cancer for close to two years at that point, and I was sort of living in a protective shell of fantasy populated by unicorns and warrior princesses with pegasus friends. My life took place in the back seat of the car, staring out the window, being shuttled between hospitals and specialists and kindly neighbor’s houses. I have vivid memories of always driving back and forth to see my mom in Houston, at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center there. Late nights on long dark highways, punctuated only by the lonely glow of neon signs from roadside diners. I’d get woken up and carried into a booth at one of these, my favorite, where I’d order hot cocoa with marshmallows and chicken fried steak. They sold chupa-chup lollipops by the door, and I’d always get banana chocolate. I wish I could remember where that place was, what it was called…
I don’t know if I understood that my mother was dying, or even what death really was. I knew she was sick, and I knew she wasn’t really available for most of the kind of mothering I so desperately wanted from her. I retreated into my world of books: on dinosaurs and Egypt, but I tried so hard to meet her on common ground – wanting to share her interests, her passions for art and music. She loved Hank Williams, and I did too, dancing around in the living room wildly to “Jambalaya” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire”. I don’t think I understood that he was dead, that he had died nearly 30 years before I was born. I knew that he was sad, that he and his wife Audrey had fought and split up, but that he still loved her. I knew that he had died on a dark, icy road in the back of the Cadillac of drug and alcohol induced heart attack, on New Year’s Eve, 1953. It was my mother’s fifth birthday. I knew that my mother loved him, was crazy about him (she even had a thing that went around her license plates that read, “Maggie’s Just Crazy About Hank Williams!”, but who was I to say that not everyone’s mom felt the same way about him? I knew women were crazy about Elvis, or the Beatles.
I didn’t know what an obsession was. I didn’t know that my father and I were indulging the obsessions of a dying woman. I just thought we were on vacation. I think I thought of graveyards as parks where dead people slept. I suppose that’s exactly what they are, in a way. It’s no surprise, given my childhood, that I ended up being curious and fascinated by death and its rituals. It was such a big part of my life, growing up in graveyards, running and playing between the tombs. I still find cemeteries peaceful, (though I no longer stage elaborate gothic photoshoots in them) and I am glad that I was raised to have an appreciation and reverence for the cities of the dead. Still, it’s strange to see these photos of us there, 27 years later. I am so tiny, and so awkward. I feel like even in these grainy photographs, you can see the pain writ large on my little face.
I clutch my mother’s hand with both of mine, and pose in front of Hank’s grave. She is so, so thin. Her hair cut short for chemo, her face drawn. You can tell she is so tired. We stand with Bruce Gidoll, her dear friend and Hank’s official historian. He lived out in Utah and raised wolves. My legs are so brown and my feet are so big in my favorite periwinkle pearl jellies. They made my toes smell like fritos. Makes me think of how you can tell how big a puppy will grow by looking at its outsize paws. I was like a gangly wolf-pup, huddling close to my dwindling pack.
“I saw the light, I saw the light,
no more darkness, no more night
now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight
praise the lord, I saw the light…”
We came back again the next day, to celebrate his birthday. My parents played his songs, and people gathered around.
Someone cracked a beer and set it on his grave for him. I went out wandering amongst the gravestones, gathering up faded
and torn fake flowers that had blown off the graves. By the time I came back, I had filled a big garbage bag with them, and
my folks were horrified, thinking that I had pilfered them from the dead. When I explained that I only picked up the windblown
ones that didn’t belong to anyone anymore they relented and let me keep them. For years after, I wore those cemetery blooms
in my hair and dressed my dolls in them. I didn’t know how morbid it was – I was just happy to have so many flowers.
I remember they sang, “When God Comes and Gather His Jewels”,
“I Saw the Light”, and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”, among others.
“When God comes and gathers his jewels
All his treasures of diamonds and pearls
You’ll see her up there, up in heaven so fair
When God comes and gathers his jewels…”
One of my mama’s paintings of Hank.
A ghost. This photo was sent to my mom by Irene, Hank’s sister, who we got to meet on that trip.
They continued a correspondence until my mother died. On the back of this photo, Irene wrote,
“Hank dropped by to say hello. Scared me to death!” I noticed today that August 8th was Irene’s
birthday, as well as my mother’s death day. She died in 1995. Happy birthday, Irene. Goodnight, mama. Goodnight, Hank.
“Just a picture from life’s other side: someone has fell by the way
A life has gone out with the tide, that might have been happy some day
There’s a poor old mother at home; she’s watching and waiting alone
Just longing to hear from a loved one so dear; just a picture from life’s other side”