Thank you for all of the great letters, comments, and notes in response to my last essay about A Good Quiet Set of Directions. If you missed it, you can read it here.
Now, I bring you 1500 words on getting around the curve that leads to The End of the World.
A derelict house near Mawmaw's.
“There were no lessons that day. Nanda spent the morning walking about the garden with her father and mother. They could go wherever they liked, down to the farm or over to the orchard or right round the long walk that was called “The End of the World.” – Frost in May, Antonia White
When I was a little girl staying with Mawmaw up on Smith Ridge, we had a place called The End of the World. Back then, Smith Ridge Road was about thirteen miles long and ended in a dirt track, which rumor had it, lead to Grundy. Grundy, which only conjured the words “grunt” and “grub” in my childhood brain, seemed no place to be dreaming about and held no fairytale allure for me. Mawmaw’s house was about four miles along Smith Ridge Road off the main road which came up from “town” – “town” being Richlands where there were hospitals, grocery stores, Magic Mart, the bank, the gas station, Wendy’s, and Hurst Scott Funeral home and its glowing purple lamps.
My sister, Sarah, and I made the trip up and down from town to Mawmaw’s house every day in Mawmaw’s Buick. Mawmaw would slip off her high heeled shoes which matched her Sears work outfit and slip her stocking toes into her house slippers and sail that Buick across those mountain roads, climbing steadily, sometimes at breakneck speed, racing the train that crossed Highway 67 four times on our journey home. My great grandmother, Narcie, had cornbread in the oven and fresh tomatoes and green beans on the table. We didn’t have time for trains.
I knew all of the curves, dips in the road, broken down outbuildings, burnt-out cars, and tabernacles of prayer from Mawmaw Margie’s house in town to Mawmaw Shreve’s house up on the mountain. But four miles along Smith Ridge, just past the Friendly Chapel Church, for me, the road stopped, because beyond Mawmaw’s house stretched The End of the World.
The End of the World was strange. I’d heard about it. One farmer had an emu. One man had a house made of tin signs and license plates. There were otherchurches than the one that we went to. No hellers. Church people who believed that earth was hell, so there was no hell to be going to when you died, just a Heaven for the right people. Women who wore long sleeves and long skirts with high-necked blouses, and who never cut their hair, went to church at The End of the World. Mean dogs who would chew your leg off lived at The End of the World.
The End of the World began around a curve just past Mawmaw’s house and I never wanted to see around that curve. The thought of it made me queasy. Occasionally, Mawmaw had to go a short distance around that curve to pick Betty up for church. If I was in the car, I put my hand over my eyes and just peeked through my fingers as if I was (not) watching a horrible medical procedure on television. The End of the World was strange and I didn’t want to know anything more about it.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lying in bed in the dawn hours listening to BBC Radio 4 and lapsing into sleep when I heard the musical voice of Irish writer Padraig O Tuama giving the prayer for the day. He said that in Biblical Greek one meaning of “strange” was “elsewhere.” Elsewhere can be a terrifying place just like The End of the World was for me.
One day, when I was in my twenties, Mr Kyle (Mawmaw’s fella) and Mawmaw thought it would be nice to take a ride down to the end of Smith Ridge to see the emu farm. And, as though there was nothing extraordinary about it, I got in the car with them and found myself being driven to The End of the World. As we went along, Mawmaw pointed out where Betty’s house used to be which was bought and blown up by the gas company and replaced by a gas well. She pointed out where my Aunt Fannie once had her general store and told me how Aunt Fannie could make a dress for someone just by looking at them.
She pointed out where there used to be a church where Aunt Fannie and her sister Aunt Nannie went – they were my great-grandfather’s sisters. She said that Aunt Nannie once fell against the church’s wood stove, placing her hand right on top of it, but wasn’t burnt and this was a sign of blessing from God. We got to a place along the road where we could see clear over to West Virginia which was called The View. And I got to see where Elsie Brown lived – Elsie Brown, Mawmaw Narcie’s best friend, who wore her knee highs rolled down around her ankles like little donuts and walked miles clear from her house way down along Smith Ridge to Mawmaw’s nearly every day, but never ever got skinny no matter how far she walked. And we saw the emu – the second largest bird in the world – right there on Smith Ridge.
After that day, I walked out to The View whenever I liked. I found a cemetery where my great great great grandfather’s Confederate grave stared back at me wondering where I’d been and when I would write its song. I found Barbie dolls, toothbrushes, and old Coke bottles buried in the clay hillside and I walked inside the shell of Aunt Fannie’s store wishing she could make me a feed sack dress just by looking at me. I still took a stick with me because there were dogs that looked like they would chew my leg off, but they never had a chance because Mawmaw’s dog went with me on my rambles just to show off.
The End of the World didn’t seem like elsewhere anymore.
I used to call my Dad nearly every day before that day when he went elsewhere. Sometimes, especially in the spring, I’d tell him that I was feeling apocalyptic. This was the shorthand codeword we’d found to describe the thrumming in my heart and head that said change is coming, forces are on the move, something is surfacing which I felt I needed to gather strength to face, perhaps even to face down. Today, I was walking along the canal towpath in Carnforth in North Lancashire and what looked like brown sticks a few days ago were covered with tiny white balls, some of which had already willed themselves into delicate little flowers. Change is here. There are times we long for change, we tempt it into our lives, we wish and wish and wish for it, but there are times when changes happen to us, around us, and we are swept up in it. Spring can make me feel this way. Sometimes, spring’s clock seems to be pulling me along, turning brown dead-looking sticks into daytime fireworks.
Sometimes I have found the energy of spring excruciating like it was pulling me by my hair from the safe ground lined with woolen sweaters, open fires, and hot drinks. Its energy whispering to me that I had no say, but demanding that I slough off my bear-like winter sleepiness and awake and be a firework. Dad seemed to know all of this when I called him to say I felt apocalyptic. I didn’t want to see around the curve that lead to The End of the World.
I said to my Englishman last week, when the news was especially awful, that I felt like we were living at the end of the world. To Brexit or not to Brexit, New Zealand gunman, mendacious politicians, famine in Yemen, sharia law in Brunei, whales strangled by plastics. If I didn’t have a degree in the fall of the Roman Empire, I might be able to kid myself. But lawsy beesy, as Mawmaw Margie said, what a world!
And then Padraig O Tuama said that in Biblical Greek “apocalyptic” meant “uncovering.” Now that it’s April, the wild things are throwing off their covers and springing around the curve of winter. Padraig O Tuama reminds us, “Our world inclines itself toward flourishing even if we don’t.” He prays, “God, give us strength to be brave in days when it feels like everything is ending.”
And I pray, “God, give us courage to look around the curve that leads to what seems like The End of the World because, around that curve, there might be a view to another world, there might be a woman who can clothe you anew, there might be a woman who can touch fire without being burnt, there might be a mean ole dog or two, but at the end you may glimpse a bird of paradise.”
If you, too, are feeling apocalyptic or, if you’ve already pulled your summer clothes out of your closet and you are ready to go, I send you smooth sailing and a nice Buick to get you there in comfort. If you want to get there quickly, let Mawmaw do the driving, her speed on mountain curves is legendary.
Peggy Seeger! YES!
I am confessing a deep addiction to this record, Peggy Alone, and this outfit. I found it on vinyl with the super nifty booklet. Folk combustion girl crush! Three cheers for Peggy Seeger! I'm just picking up my copy of her autobiography, First Time Ever, which came out last year.