Driving out of town we pass what used to be a Garden Ridge and a boarded up Miami Subs, the one where we had my little brothers 2nd birthday, and he cried because he didn’t want to leave the ball pit after all the guests had gone. The white paint was peeling off the front of the building, the magenta and teal trim was faded from the sun.
I remember my mom loading us in the car to leave town before dawn touched the sky, with her soft pink nails and soft voice, and her dark brown hair that fell to her waist, making a curtain around her face. She would remove the middle seat from the van so we could stretch out to nap, solving arguments on who could take turns during the long drive from Florida to Tennessee. Dad would have filled the fuel tank the night before, in the sky blue van with the wooden paneling around the side, the tan carpet where every cheerio and sandwich crumb blended in perfectly.
We would bring my little bother’s potty chair and use it between rest stops to save time, Dad would slow down and my mom would open the van door to sling the contents on the side of I-40, then slam it closed as Dad gunned us back into the flow of traffic. He’d pack and repack the trunk, trying to keep the cooler near the top of the pile, and moving the pillows we snuck in from blocking his view.
We would finally arrive at the farm, tired and stir crazy, and find leaves to roll in, or head straight to the creek to hunt tadpoles. There were cats to chase and dogs to cuddle, we would rush to the garden and look at the unripe pumpkin or tomato vines, amazed that it could go from the ground to the grocery store with just a little dirt and sunshine.
My mom would hug her mom and talk with her sisters, remembering old high school friends, laughing and slapping their knees at the men they dated before they had enough sense to know better.
Any trip to the kitchen surely yielded a bite of dumplings, pie, or fresh cornbread.
My dad and brother always seemed to disappear with rifles under their arms and ammo spilling from their pockets, returning victorious after shooting old cans and eggs off fence posts.
In the summer there were trips to the river to escape the heat, grilling hot dogs and sunning ourselves on round rocks before dashing back into the cold water to scare everything away from the fly-fishers. In the winter my uncle would build a bonfire on the hill and make hot chocolate, telling stories of hunting foxes and raccoon’s under the full moon, trying to frighten us with the ones who eluded the dogs and we’re still wandering the ridge line.
My mom and I head there now, in a new white van with no toys or blanket forts, there are no pillows or a cooler to wedge between the trunk and the back seat. Her nails are still painted, but her hair is shorter.
We go to bury my uncle, to leave spiced cherries on his grave, to sprinkle Tennessee dirt over his body.
The sun sets as we pass through North Carolina, the trees have infant buds on their branches and the grass is springing up in lush green carpets. My mom tells me she would gather fistfuls to lay in her Easter basket, trying to stay awake and see the rabbit place treats inside.
We pass blooming Bradford’s and Dogwoods, long stretches of yellow daffodils my Grandfather would bring home from the farm and give to my Grandmother. He would place them in a coffee can full of water and set them on the TV, before calling everyone to the table to pray and eat.
He is in the earth where the pumpkins and tomatoes grow, where the grass springs up every year, in old and fresh dug graves.
I can see him greeting my uncle with a handshake and a clap on the back, calling him to the table and introducing him to old friends.
The air cools as the sun disappears, the mountain road bends and rises, twisting around rocks and rivers.
I can almost smell the farm, see the lights twinkling from my Aunt’s kitchen, hear her laugh as we all pile in the door at once, breathless and smiling.