My mom loved to tell me stories of her childhood when I was young. It was not uncommon for her to call my name and ask the famous question, “Who do you want to hear about tonight?” It was a calming ritual for me, as I cuddled up next to her on the couch, she putting a blanket over my lap and whooshing into whatever character I commanded her to be. She really was quite the actress. As I grew up and matured, the stories matured as well. I began to hear more serious familial stories such as how my grandfather’s alcoholism nearly wrecked his life until he met my grandmother. However, there was one story that stuck out to me the most: The story of her brother Jim’s coming out to the family. The first time she told it to me, I was twelve years old, just beginning to reckon with my own sexuality.
“Mama was sure to raise a Christian household,” she always said before telling me a story about her family. For the most part their home on Old-Yellow Creek was full of happiness. But as always, things began to grow more complicated as the kids grew up and found their own identity.
“Mama always hoped her kids would be just as God-fearing as her, but that wasn’t always the case. Some grew up and realized church wasn’t for them and never attended another service, some realized they should go on to be preachers,” my mother said the first time she told me the story. “For my youngest brother Jim, at the ripe young age of sixteen, he realized he was gay.”
My mom paused as the word spilled out of her mouth. She reflected on it for a moment, and it was as though the story took over her from that point on. My mom got more animated as she told me what happened. I’m not sure if this is exactly what Jim felt but my mom was in the flow and I was not about to stop her.
“Mama, I have to tell you something,” my uncle Jim said.
“What’s that, honey?” she called back in her loving voice.
Jim felt a cool rush run down his spine in fear of what he was about to tell his mother. It was as though he were about to challenge a massive beast that could already beat him before he began. Jim, the youngest of his family, was never really like the rest of his brothers. While they wanted to rough-house after dinner and wrestle, Jim preferred to read and write. He was not a rough-and-tough boy and never wanted to be a cowboy like the rest of his brothers after watching Bonanza on the television. Jim had a softer complexity and a face full of kindness. It seemed that no matter how much he grew up he kept a baby-face impression with soft cheeks and a kind smile. Now, here he was getting ready to face his biggest fear and what he expected to be his biggest opponent.
He took in a deep breath and uttered the phrase, “I’m gay” to the person he loved and trusted the most.
His mother stopped what she was doing as though her whole body had locked up except for her eyes. She looked up at Jim and stared at him as though he had just told her a dirty joke.
“You’re what?” she asked in a tone that showed little love or mercy.
Jim hesitated, clinging to a worn old farmers hat he wore when he helped his dad, and he repeated, “I’m gay.”
Without a word or pause his mother arose from her seat, pounding with anger in each step.
Jim stepped back fearful of what he had done. The room seemed to spin as the walls closed in on all sides, eventually crushing him in, yet at this moment that seemed to be a better alternative than having to deal with the consequences of what he had just said. But there was no going back; he must commit now.
His mom walked past him, grabbed her Bible, and turned a few pages.
“Kids, come in here!” she yelled without patience. Quickly, all eleven other children paced into the small living room and lined up in front of her.
“Your brother Jim has told me something incredibly disturbing. He’s going to share some passages with you all.”
She placed her Bible in his lap and pointed at Leviticus 4:13, “Read it,” she said with no room for a fight. Jim’s eyes began to tear as the back of his throat closed in.
“Read it!” she yelled louder, making all of the kids jump.
Jim opened his mouth but couldn’t make any sound come out. It was as though he was choking on moth balls lodged in the back of his throat. No words could come out as he sat confused and scared in front of his brothers and sisters who stared at him only partially comprehending the situation.
She turned to her oldest daughter, my mother, and pointed out the door to the dogwood tree. “Go get a switch,” she said.
Jim’s entire body went numb at the phrase — a phrase he and all of his siblings feared most of all. Suddenly, all of Jim’s emotions let out as he sobbed, wailing not at the fear and pain that was to come but the embarrassment and regret of having shared his deepest secret with his mother only for her to turn back in harm. As he crumpled to the floor, he felt a wound in his back as she hit him with the switch. Each swing brought a fresh spasm of pain as he buckled in agony. By the time she was finished, Jim had lines of welts that looked as though a cat had clawed the entirety of his back without relent.
She stepped back from Jim with a void expression.
“I do this because I love you,” she said.
“Now, go wash up, dinner will be ready soon,” she added as though nothing had just occurred.
No one mentioned that night again but it tormented Jim, and he would never be the same for it.
After my mom finished telling me that story she changed somehow. She sat on the couch next to me with an empty face. It was as though she had committed some wrongful act and now had to face up for it. Her eyes were not looking out but rather looking in at something that I was not invited to see.
Hearing bits and pieces from the rest of the family, it appeared that from that point on the relationship changed between my uncle and my Mamaw. It became a connection that was complicated and caught between an unwillingness to understand or change opinion, yet that strong familial bond that seems unbreakable in Appalachian families remained. After he moved out a few years later, Jim came around less often until eventually hardly at all, and when he was of age to leave the mountains that cradled him to adulthood, he took a one-way plane ticket to Dallas, Texas and joined American Airlines.
Time continued to pass and my Mamaw never got any younger. Sometimes Jim would call for a quick chat before his flights, letting her know he was heading off to Paris or Mexico City, but that would be the end of it. He held her out at arm’s length, never able to cope with the pain he had faced when he needed her most. She never heard him say, “I’m on a flight to Knoxville.”
None of us expected the phone call we would receive in 2015 when I was sixteen and we got word that my uncle had killed himself. For all of us it was like a punch in the stomach that took our breaths away.
Yet, none of it compared to the pain that my grandmother felt at this news. For months she stared at her television with a blank expression on her face, entirely unreadable. Her posture was a little less erect, and it appeared that even though she was sitting down that there were heavy weights pulling down her shoulders and that she simply could not carry them anymore. A little over a year later, my grandmother died as well.
Even though my uncle wasn’t close with my grandmother, I was. I loved going over to her house and watching The Sound of Music with her or attending ballets.
The first time she took me to the theatre with her was when I was eight years old. We saw the Moscow Ballet’s Russian Nutcracker at the Tennessee Theatre. I practically begged my mom to let me go,
“Oh, come on, Tonya,” my Mamaw said to my mom.
“He’s old enough to be able to sit through a play. He’s halfway to driving,” she said with a quick wink to me. Finally, still unable to say no to her own mother, my mom agreed to let me go. I could barely contain my excitement.
“Look at my snazzy grandson,” she said to me in her thick East-Tennessee accent while admiring my oversized and over-starched button-up tucked into my khaki pants with my muddy old black dress shoes. Meanwhile, she wore a bright green dress along with a brooch of a cardinal pinned to the left side of her chest. She always knew how to dress regal for the theatre. Together we walked down Gay Street and admired all the Christmas lights put up for the season as we gazed at the giant Christmas tree displayed on the square. It was at this moment that I felt the Christmas season ring in for me, and that there truly was peace, if not in the world, then in Knoxville, Tennessee, between my Mamaw and me.
In the fall of 2009 when I was nine years old, my grandmother taught me how to make my all-time favorite meal, chicken and dumplings.
“Just a dash of salt now, and whisk in that egg slowly,” she said to me while overseeing my efforts. In her eyes, good cooking came from the heart; she had no recipes and believed strictly in following her heart as she went along.
“Let me help you, now,” she told me as she put her arms over mine and helped me to carefully roll out the dough. “Now, I like thin dumplings, but I know you like the back of my hand and I know you’re gonna want to make them so thick I can barely eat them.”
She invariably let me roll out the dough incredibly thick and told me to throw them into some boiling chicken broth she already had going. As I rolled out the dough she quoted 1 Corinthians 10:31.
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God,” she said to me with a suddenly serious tone but a solemn smile, looking softly at me. “Now honey, you just make this with love, and the person you share it with will love you right back. It’s how I kept your Papaw around so long, but you gotta fill it with love. They can taste it when you’re bitter because that food will come out bitter too. But cooking with love and joy will create the most savory meal you ever ate.”
That night as we sat down to eat the meal I had cooked, my Mamaw thanked the Lord for our safety, our food, and our relationship, and thereafter we both plunged in. The dumplings dissolved in my mouth like a soft, doughy cloud. Each bite was a new and exciting experience and I knew what she meant by adding a little love to the meal.
My Mamaw couldn’t live forever, though, and when I was seventeen, she passed away. The grief I felt was sudden–like air bags deploying in a head-on car accident. I had no time to comprehend what had happened, and all I felt was a fog that made it even harder to grasp what was happening. The night I found out I cried into my pillow from a feeling of guilt I couldn’t shake off. Six months prior I began to come out to my family but was on the fence of telling Mamaw. Ultimately, I decided against it but realized the mistake I made as I kept such an important part of myself from her.
When my Mamaw was a little girl, she formed the trails in what my family calls the Back-40. Each day she would run into the mountains at the corner of the family farm and create new trails to explore the mountains of East Tennessee, kicking leaves and stomping over briars to create a place that she could call her own. Mamaw never went far from that farm, and she decided she would settle there and raise her own family on the same plot of land she had been raised on, just 50 yards away from the Back-40. Like Mamaw had done, her kids forged new trails deeper into the mountains and had their own explorations as they grew up. The Back-40 became a special sort of place where new experiences felt limitless. As time went on, my Mamaw’s kids grew up and traversed the Back-40 less and less.
Yet my favorite place in the world was the Back-40. It felt like home to me as I walked through the trails that my family had for so many years before wandered. I could walk through the footpath for hours feeling safe and comfortable in the knowledge that these mountains were mine. They had raised me and made me who I am. My favorite route was one that branched off from the wide and beaten old trail my grandmother had first blazed so long ago. From what I know it’s a path that she had tried to make but couldn’t get past a boulder that walled off any further progress. My Mamaw told me she used to walk that beaten track all the time attempting to figure out a new route, but always turned back at the frustration of finding nothing new. She said eventually it turned into her ‘trail of frustration’ where she’d go when she was feeling upset about something. This made sense to me since the area was the most scenic path of them all, with ferns lining the tiny walkway and beautiful sycamores looming over to provide shade. Like her, I would take this route to clear my mind and let go of whatever it was that I couldn’t get past.
I continued to use this path to ease my mind and let my frustrations out. The trail offered a sense of comfort that no living person could provide. The sycamores offered comfort as they quilted me in their embrace along the trail. The ferns would hug my ankles as I’d step on this narrow strip of dirt to no particular destination. One afternoon years after her death when I was a college student, I walked deeper into the forest trying to clear my mind, still holding on to the guilt. I could not let go of holding such a secret back from the woman who was second in charge of raising me. The realization that she would never be back and that I could never right that wrong was fastened within me for what felt like forever.
I reached the same old stone wall I always reached on this path and decided to turn back and go to the house. It was getting late and no matter how much I love these mountains, getting stuck in them after sundown was something no one wanted to do. As I walked along the trail, I noticed a flicker for only a millisecond of what appeared to be a silhouette of a human from only a few feet away from where I was standing.
It was as though for just a second a person was with me and then poof, they weren’t there at all. That couldn’t have been real I thought as I sped up my pace a little bit. I had heard tales all my life of people going off the grid and wandering the mountains, but this felt different. For some reason that I couldn’t explain I wasn’t scared, just shocked. I quickened my pace once more but before leaving the woods entirely I looked back to see my grandmother standing and smiling at me lovingly with her little wave she used to give me as a child. I sprinted out of the woods by this point. You’re going crazy, I thought.
After that incident I decided to stay out of the Back-40 for a while. It wasn’t the possibility of seeing the ghost that scared me, but who that ghost was. It definitely resembled my grandmother, and I did not have the time to hash that out. My grandmother had been dead for three years now, and she seemed to be clear in her remarks to me when I was a child that Jesus was the only one who was ever raised from the dead. The thought of stepping back where I had seen what may or may not be a spirit made the hair on my neck stand, but it was all I could think about. Who was that? What was that? ran in my mind consistently day in and day out while I tried desperately to complete my daily tasks in hopes it would take my mind off things. The encounter became a sort of obsession where I realized no matter how hard I tried to run, the only way I could overcome this was to face it head on again.
Two months later, I entered the same old beaten path I had entered since I was a little boy. As soon as I felt the cool wind and the protection of the trees, I was comforted and no longer fearful. That same form of comfort I believe my mamaw told me about when she came back into these woods as a girl. It was natural for me to feel at ease on this route. As I took that usual turn down the same uncompleted path, I felt absolutely serene, as though I could let my feet lead the way and mountains would work to protect me. I tried to remind myself of the encounter from the last time I had taken this trail, but my mind distanced off like clouds on a cool windy day, coming in and drifting away. I soon reached the same stone wall I always reached. Nothing happened. I sat still waiting for another encounter, yet all I could hear was the chirping of the birds and the soft rustle of leaves in the trees. I felt an indescribable sense of serenity as I sat there, waiting, hoping, for something or someone to show up. What a waste, I thought as I looked around, desperate for some miraculous event to unfold before my eyes. I wanted to experience a revelation like Moses on the mountain. I turned around to head out of the trail and felt frustrated from the experience. This was all I could think about for days on end and it turned out to be a total flunk.
On the last bend around the trail, I heard a soft voice call from behind, “I thought you’d take an eternity to come back”
I stopped dead in my tracks at the familiar voice.
I turned around to see my grandmother smiling at me with the same old loving smile I knew. She reached out for a hug. It felt surreal, yet as far as my eyes could tell this was really happening.
“What’re you doing here?” I asked her.
“You know, they say a soul has to be able to feel peace in its sleep in order for it to pass on to the next world. Well, I know you well enough to know that while my soul may be at peace, yours is troubling you. I know you better than your mama, and I can’t go on ‘til you really tell me what’s bothering you.”
I had not expected this moment. I trembled at the thought of sharing this with her. My hands began to get clammy, my heart raced, and my mouth dried up. I had regretted keeping this secret from her for so long that I never thought about what it would be like if I had to face up to her and tell her the truth. Ultimately, I feared becoming a repeat of Jim. No, I wasn’t going to do this. I wouldn’t stand for it. This is all a figment of my imagination, and I would walk right out of this forest, and she would be gone. Yet, as I began to take my first step of retreat, moving proved incredibly difficult. I pulled my feet as hard as I could, yet they were stuck in some soft mud just off the side of the trail. It looked like I would be here for a while.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said, “I count to ten while you think of how you want to say what’s on your mind. How about that?”
As she spoke my mind raced back on memories throughout my childhood. How she played a central role in my life right from the beginning.
I remember the picture of you holding me tight as a baby on the day I was born. The look on your apple-doll face was that of admiration and a love so profound only you could possess it.
You used to take me to the playground while my mom and dad were at work. You knew my favorite was the swing shaped as an airplane, and you always told me that I had the capability to soar and be who I wanted when I grew up.
There was one time I spent the night at your house and a big lightning storm came through. Though the sycamore trees in your backyard appeared like a fortress, they shook as though they were at the wind’s mercy. You saw me looking out the window with concern and even then, did not doubt my fear. You made me a ginger toddy and told me a story of your childhood to take my mind off the storm raging outside.
The first day I started Pre-K, I worried about what the other kids would think of me. You told me I had butterflies in my stomach and if I went in there and yelled hello to the class, those butterflies would come flying out. I made my first best friend that day from that very introduction.
You were rumored to have the most beautiful jewelry in your church. One evening, I sneaked into your closet to try on your rings and makeup. About halfway through the dress-up you dolloped some rouge on my face and helped my feeble ankles walk in heels. Never questioning a little boy acting feminine at such a young age.
My mom started taking night classes at the local community college and would drop me off at your house while she went to class. To cheer me up from not seeing my mom, you bought me a teddy bear with a red ribbon around its neck. You told me as long as I cuddled it my mom would feel the love through the bear. Today, that bear sits on my nightstand.
I got picked on for singing a Broadway song at school, I decided instead to toughen up so I could fit in with the other boys at my school. When you got word what had happened you walked into my classroom in the most regal manner, picked me up, and took me home early to watch any musical I wanted to see.
My teacher sent home a picture I had drawn of you for Grandparents Day. You praised my scribbles as high art and the next week took me to the local art museum. I began drawing every day for a year after that.
Even though you said it would stunt my growth, you’d let me have a few sips of your black coffee at dinner time. Now, every morning I can’t go without a cup of black coffee to start my day.
I began to realize something was different about me than the other boys in my school. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I worried about what you or mom would say about it. I kept silent instead.
I let out a breath of relief at the chance to finally let out what I have held in for so long. This was the moment. This was my moment to tell her the truth, to come clean. I sucked in some fresh air to get ready for what I was about to say and uttered, “Mamaw . . .”
“You’re gay honey, I know.”
She must have seen the confusion on my face as I stood there in complete silence.
“You think I don’t know my grandson? I’ve always known, honey. I knew it from the time you were a little baby boy. You did all the same things your uncle Jim did. Loving the musicals, helping me bake, he loved it all too. I didn’t show him the right kind of love after he came out to me, and I had to live with that guilt for the rest of my life, so I waited for you to tell me. I will always love you, honey.”
I couldn’t speak. I felt comfort in her words as though each one touched and warmed my heart as they hit me. Really it was nice to hear her voice again, even if it wasn’t real. Hearing her thick mountain drawl full of love and pride for me nearly brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to revel in this moment longer with her, but she did a quick little twirl and she disappeared, quick as that. I didn’t know where she had come from or where she had gone, but I was all alone in the Back-40 again. I knew if I shared this encounter with anyone I would be called a lunatic, but I felt an oddly profound feeling of peace after the encounter.
Years later after I graduated college, I brought my fiancée, Shane, to the Back-40 with me while we visited my family for Christmas. I wanted to show him the most central and intimate part of my childhood. He and I walked on the same beaten old trail my Mamaw had forged long before. Shane lagged behind me taking careful note of the surroundings. I could see on his face that same awe I have when coming back here. As we went further, I felt incredibly vulnerable at showing Shane this area.
“Look, a Wooly Caterpillar!” Shane said to me. I smiled because he never failed to nerd out over the various insects and plants when he’s in nature.
“You know, Appalachia has the most biodiversity in North America,” he told me excitedly.
That was his favorite fun fact to tell me. Moving from Connecticut, Shane was an outsider to Appalachian culture. He came here for his Ph.D. in Biology and knows every single plant on every hike we take. He has not failed to remind me of that fact as he notes the diverse flora and fauna that surrounds us.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a large bush filled with red berries to test his knowledge.
“Oh wow, it’s a winterberry bush,” he said, moving closer to note all of its qualities.
I tried to think back to an old wives-tale about death my mom used to tell me, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what it was. We continued down the same beaten old trail until we reached the boulder that marked the end.
“Welp, here we are,” I said looking over at him.
I halfway hoped something would happen again, that my Mamaw would come back and see him. I wanted her to meet him, to know who I had met and to let him know who she was. We waited around for a while until finally he groaned, signifying boredom and said, “Let’s go, I’m getting hungry.”
He looked tired, and, while I knew he appreciated the trip, it was evident that we were all alone on this mountain. We began to head back towards the house to grab some food. Just before going out of eyesight, I looked back at the boulder one more time and sure enough, next to the winterberry bush stood my grandmother, waving at me. In her eyes, I could see a special joy and pride signifying that everything would be okay. I heard her softly say, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, for love covers a multitude of sins.”
A lump began to form in my throat as I glanced back at her. I felt free at last of the burden of not telling her. Amidst this trance of looking at my Mamaw, Shane gave me a funny expression. He looked back but asked confusedly, “What on earth are you staring at?”
I looked at him, looked back at the winterberry bush, and by then she was gone — if she had ever been there at all.
“I just wanted to come back to where it all began,” I said as we headed back down the mountain.
Carter Alden is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he studies English Literature and Secondary Education. Carter grew up in rural Kentucky and has a particular interest in Appalachian literature.
**Featured image: Old Woman and a Boy with Candles ca. 1620-30 by one of three possible artists – Paulus Pontius, Lucas Vorsterman I, Peter Paul Rubens