By Dartinia Hull
Charlotte, North Carolina
Every year, a week or so before Christmas, Mom would let me put up our Christmas tree.
She would give the okay with a small sigh or, some years, a shrug. We would pull the box with the three-foot tree from its home in my closet and move the living room couch away from the picture window, adding a stool or a bench for the tree to stand on. From the street, the tree looked huge.
The retro silver tree, over time, got more scrunched from living 11.5 months in a box, and more of the red and green glass ornaments lay crumbled in their holders. When I was 7th grade, Mom consented to a new green tree, this one a whole six feet tall, and full. I don’t remember how we got it home; probably, Mom’s boyfriend from Chester shoved it into the back seat of his Cadillac. We had to move the living room furniture around to accommodate this tree: The green velvet armchair went to a space by the front door, which meant the orange velvet armchair moved to the guest bedroom. We moved the TV underneath the arch to the dining room, which meant the patterned green chair that was my favorite had to slide into the dining room, behind the swinging door, where I kept my beanbag chair. We moved the beanbag to the back porch, where it sat until we reversed the whole process on New Year’s Eve.
Holidays wore on us. Exhausted from teaching, her daily 20-mile commute south to Chester, and grading papers, Mom wanted to sleep the days away. But most years, she and I would hop into her Toyota and hit all the malls in the area, going from the TownCenter in Rock Hill to SouthPark and Eastland in Charlotte, and back again, burning up I-77 and Independence Boulevard several times before Christmas.
In the evenings, we would slide a pan of blueberry muffins into the oven, lay out our purchases on the dining room table, and carefully wrap them. There were no gift bags. We had rolls of paper, tape dispensers, scissors, and prayer. My great-grandma would bang out a few Christmas carols on the piano, her contralto “joyful and triumphant” sounding nasal and flat, not that she noticed or cared.
Then we would sit in the living room and look at the tree lights, or the candles in the window, soft and comforting in the dark. In this stillness, we didn’t notice the dingy old paint on the walls. The battered throw rugs looked less worn, and the stately crystal chandelier and the upright piano, lovingly cleaned on Wednesdays and Saturdays with Lemon Pledge, gleamed.
I would pray, “Please, please God, let us get through this Christmas without a bad fight.”
Between bills and Mom’s bipolar disorder, between her need to be young and the need to be responsible, between having an unruly daughter at home and a younger, sweeter one living with other relatives, between my great-grandma’s pain of sliding into dementia and not understanding it, these women walked a frayed tightrope, and I never knew when that thread would break. It usually began unraveling around Thanksgiving and would give way sometime around the start of Christmas break, right when my great-grandma wanted to play hymns on the piano, and my mom wanted to do anything else. Some years, we had several vacation days of silent treatment. Some years, several days of arguments and slammed doors, of tense footsteps on the hardwoods, of broken stemware, crushed china, of Mom leaving the house at 6 in the evening and coming home well into the night. Other years, warm blueberry muffins and The Sound of Music. Usually, a combination of it all.
My great-grandma was, well, aging, tired, worried, and deeply sad. Her only daughter was in prison for manslaughter. In the ’70s, a Southern black woman who killed an abusive spouse might as well have been spitting into the wind, and prison was supposedly better than dying. Driving those 70 miles from Rock Hill to Columbia must have crushed my great-grandma, even when we took the back roads through the countryside and past the root doctor’s house.
Thanksgivings, when my great-grandma hosted the church’s missionaries for an elaborate dinner, started with “How is Nellie?” My great-grandma would smooth down her company apron, and say, always, “She is doing well, thank you.” Which was a lie. The next day, she would put away her apron, and we would pack leftovers and drive to the prison for our Thanksgiving dinner.
I understood all of it, or thought I did.
The best way to solve the tension was to drive out of town, this time not to Charlotte but the South Carolina countryside where we were from, and look at Christmas decorations. Those were the days of large drapes of fat lights, of multicolored lights (not all white), of Santa and Mary and Rudolph and Jesus all in the same yard, and, once, a yard-sized landing strip for Sandy Claw, as we called the old elf. We marveled at lights that blinked, or at the houses that had the rotating color wheel, so the façade turned red, then blue, then green. The bolder, the better.
We kept the same route yearly: On the way south to McConnells, we drove past our cousin’s house with Rudolph on the roof or in the tree or wherever she and the bourbon decided Rudolph belonged, then past the almost-forgotten cemetery, obscured by woods, where cousins were buried, then past my typing teacher’s home, with elegant candles, one in each window. We drove past my principal’s home, a fancy corner joint with a double garage, and a huge tree in the picture window. You could tell it really was big, and not pretending. This route took about five minutes. This was before the city stretched as deeply into the country as it does now, so soon, the distance between houses grew, and the front yards became pastures or fields, the driveways dirt roads instead of concrete pads.
We drove in silence. No radio. Just quiet, darkness, stars, the perfume of blackjack dirt and cow manure through the air vents, a house with decorations every couple of miles, then all was black again, but we knew our roads. We crested the gentle upstate hills, closer to where our old farm used to be in McConnells, closer to the spot where my grandma did the killing, closer to our cousins and aunts and uncles who still owned their farms and homes in McConnells or Lowrys (we are those Lowrys) or Lewis (we are those Lewises, too), tiny dots on the map. Sometimes, we would remember to call Great-great-aunt Elizabeth and tell her to expect us, to call in her dogs before we got there; other times, we would drive and drive and drive, turning this way or that on pitch-black roads that seemed random but weren’t. My great-grandma pointed out where cousin so-and-so lived, or where uncle so-and-so saw the ghost dog, or where the aunts cut through the woods to (mercifully) avoid the Klan, or where the horrible hanging tree stood, or where the best blackjack fields were, full of cotton and corn and beans and horses, and the children had their own sections and animals to tend. My great-grandma knew where everything was, even in the dark, even if she couldn’t recall that day how to play the piano.
We breathed. Slow and deep, the three of us, like we needed all the air and the space. I suspect Mom drew as much strength from driving those dark roads as my great-grandma did, as I do now. I suspect that Mom — young and brilliant, creative and struggling — wanted to rest in the comfort of something she couldn’t fully see or touch but knew was there.
We eventually made our way to another familiar road, one that brought us back to the city.
I wonder at the healing draw of place. I wonder if I will break down and weep, healed, when I eventually set foot in Africa. But to this day, the deeper I drive into the quiet of McConnells and Lowrys, the better I can breathe. I go with my children, past old homes and tractors and new McMansions. We look for multicolored lights, and huge trees, and I tell the kids about the good and the bad, about muffins and arguments, packs of hounds that every family had under the house, and sad little silver trees. These are their stories, too.
My kids also breathe better as we get closer to the blackjacks and to our past, whether they recognize it yet or not. I listen for the changes, the slowing, the sighs of freedom and release and roots and family, and by God, I hear them.