Heading Home on the Back Roads

Heading Home on the Back Roads July 26, 2012

Today Good Letters welcomes back former blogger Dyana Herron as a regular contributor. Dyana is a poet who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. She served as SPU’s MFA Program Coordinator and Development Associate for Image Journal before relocating to Philadelphia with her husband last year. We are glad to share her words with you once again.

Since I retired as a regular contributor to Good Letters almost exactly one year ago, I’ve moved from Seattle to Philadelphia. Neither are cities I expected to live in before I had sudden reason to live in them. Living in a city at all, in fact, was never necessarily the plan.

Why, then, do I find it a shock each time I go back home to Southeast Tennessee, where my family still resides? Why, standing in the muggy July air I know the feel of as well as the feel of my own body, looking on the hills whose shape I know as intimately as the geography of my father’s face—even in the dark—do I feel so strange, so out of place?

I have been in Tennessee for the past two weeks, attending my dying grandmother, Gennie Vee.

When I say attending, I mean I have been assisting in small ways with her care—sitting with her, stealing extra cups of applesauce from the kitchen of the rehab facility she stayed at for a week to regain strength after a hospitalization, helping her find which channel is broadcasting the Braves game.

But more than that, I am attending my grandmother the way I might attend a lecture, a concert, or a church service. When I say I am attending her, I mean I am paying attention, as I would at any of those events.

And my grandmother, though she does little now but eat and sleep and laugh and tell me she loves me and struggle to breathe, is at the same time teaching me something complicated, and singing me something beautiful, and telling me something I didn’t know about God.

The first week my grandmother was in the rehab facility wasn’t as bad as I feared. It was a cheerful enough place, with a small vegetable garden outside the cafeteria and a daily activity schedule that not only included Bingo and I Love Lucy marathons, but also poker, aromatherapy, Beading with Mildred, and the mysteriously-named but probably super fun Lula Tells It All!

I’d been nervous in advance that being there would make me sad. Besides seeing my grandmother in worsening health, I worried that seeing other elderly patients—many without families to visit them, and many lost in their memories of the past without much future to look forward to—would be hard to handle.

When I arrived, though, I found that I enjoyed sitting in her room, listening to the whir of the oxygen machine, swapping stories with other family members who came to bring food and books and check in on her.

I was most anxious when she decided she wanted to return home. While she was still in the rehab facility, I realized, she was working towards a goal—regaining enough strength to go home. But after she went home, the future point she’d be moving toward was her death.

Of course home was where my grandmother wanted to be. She and my grandfather (dead fifteen years now) built the house together and raised seven children there—six have houses of their own on the same road.

She wanted—wants—to rest her head on her own pillows and look out her own windows and breathe her own air, which smells like bacon grease and tomatoes.

Although my grandmother’s house is only a short and uncomplicated drive from my mother’s, when going to visit her I find myself taking the longer, sinuous back roads: Gap Springs Road, Buck’s Pocket Road, Samples Chapel Road.

I was surprised by the ease with which I remembered how to steer around bends and sharp turns, and how, without thinking, I’d swerve to bypass an old pothole or dip. This muscle memory is accompanied by actual memory.

I pass the house that belongs to my first grade teacher, in whose garage I accidentally locked myself once while selling Girl Scout cookies. Later the road winds by the house my aunt and uncle rented early in their marriage.

I remember, when very small, bringing them a pair of crocheted baby booties when my aunt was first pregnant, only to find her crying in her living room chair. My mom explained later that there wouldn’t be a baby anymore. That maybe there would be later, but not then.

Finally the road curves through a long corridor of trees so tall and dense they block out light. I dream of this wooded strip so often it feels surreal to be present in it in reality. The shady darkness—especially in evening— doesn’t help matters, nor do the fireflies’ sleepy blinks in the brush, green on green.

Here’s the hard part. We aren’t taught how to go back.

We’re taught to move forward, toward something better, as quickly and efficiently as we can. We’re told there will be a road, and even if it is narrow, it is straight, and it will take us where we need to go.

We are told a story has a beginning, a middle, and end—that stories move in some kind of line. In this way we are taught to move from one place to another, and to yet another.

In reality, though, it’s rarely so simple. Our stories are convoluted, and winding, and often lack resolution. We are frustrated and baffled by them. We know what to do when a baby is coming, but not when the baby doesn’t come. We know how to help people recover, but not how to help them not recover.

For me, for now, taking the back roads feels truer to the way life moves—forward and back and around, and sometimes all this at once. For me, for now, this seems like the right way to go.

When I pull into my grandmother’s driveway, there is a light in the window. It illuminates her curtains, printed with roses. They are faded from many years of filtering sunlight.

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  • Beautiful, Dyana.

    When I return home to Indiana, sometimes I feel as two-dimensional as the Hoosier landscape, and it stings to return. You remind me that I need to go home, anyway. Those back roads are my native tongue.

    • Dyana Herron

      “Native tongue” is a really great way to think of it, Denise. Thanks for that. And I didn’t even mention how crazily exaggerated my accent becomes in TN. It happens easily and quickly. Native tongue indeed.

  • Dyana, I love the way you turn the winding back roads into a metaphor for how to navigate one’s life.

    For many years, I visited weekly the residents of a nursing home in my neighborhood, bringing them Communion. Sometimes those near death would express their desire to “go home.” And sometimes, I would realize, “home” in their minds meant their eternal home. I wonder if that could be at least partially true for your grandmother.

    Especially I remember one woman, Nina, whose husband had died about 20 years earlier. As she neared death, she’d say to me with a smile: “my husband is waiting for me down the hall.”

  • Dyana Herron

    Peggy, I have such respect and appreciation for those who remember and visit and/or minister to the elderly. I know for certain that my grandmother does long for her eternal home, as she does believe in heaven and still misses my grandfather very much, and believes they will be united there. Her belief and her yearning have comforted me through the past weeks, as I’m sure it will after her death.

  • Robert

    Just utterly lovely.

  • Luanne Austin

    What a lovely thing you’re doing for your grandmother, your family and yourself! Making new memories. Lovely piece.

  • Do you think it’s hard because the land is the same, but we are not?
    That muscle and navigational memory is a fascinating thing to me. I left my eastern Ohio homeland more than 20 years ago, and on the rare occasions I return, I still know (and often choose) those back roads. Maybe it’s partly because those are the roads where we learned to drive, where we transformed from passengers to steerers.
    The recurrence of those landscapes in dreams is also fascinating. When I was in high school we erased the side yard by building a garage and a second-floor extension on top of it, and extended the back yard by demolishing a rickety garage. Yet when I dream of the house, it’s always the way it was before those changes; it’s the way it was when I was a child, navigating our summer gardens and now-filled-in pathways through my own imaginary secret lives. Does that felt life come back for you too?
    Place leaves a deep footprint on us. I don’t know why it does, and I don’t know why this either, but I am grateful for it.

  • Dyana Herron

    Laura, I think that’s definitely part of it. I was talking to a friend recently whose mother grew up in Seattle and now lives elsewhere, and he said he couldn’t imagine how strange it was for her to go back now and see little or nothing that resembles what she saw there when she was a child. There is a real comfort for me in going back and knowing that the landscape is mostly unchanged around my and my relatives’ homes. Often in my dreams I go back and they have been altered– like, a hotel has been built around my old house, things like that, and it feels terrible. Like I’ve lost a piece of myself I’ll never be able to regain. So I definitely understand what you’re saying here.

    • Interesting that my dreams subtract alterations that ARE there, and your dreams add alterations that AREN’T there.
      This is a lovely piece, by the way. Love “And my grandmother, though she does little now but eat and sleep and laugh and tell me she loves me and struggle to breathe, is at the same time teaching me something complicated, and singing me something beautiful, and telling me something I didn’t know about God.” Love “For me, for now, taking the back roads feels truer to the way life moves—forward and back and around, and sometimes all this at once. For me, for now, this seems like the right way to go.”
      The attention paid to the connotations of attending makes me trust this narrator to drive me down any back road.

  • So wonderful and moving. Thank you.

  • Marcos


    You said: <>

    Thank you for reminding us of this. It is the hidden pathway, the obscure and meandering way, the way of suffering where we become disoriented and lost, is the way of Christ.