The Folklore Project
Powder Springs, Georgia
An Appalachian Queen
By Amy Hyatt Fonseca
I descended from royalty, the daughter of a dirt road queen. It’s a title I don’t brag about often, at least to my suburban neighbors and soccer mom friends. But today is different. Today, we set Mama free.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me...
In truth, I never really expected Mama to die. None of us did. You see, despite gentle appearances, she always had a kudzu heart. She rooted deep in these foothills, a sister of the mountains who behaved more like Queen Dolly than Scarlett O’Hara. No matter where you planted her, she coiled and climbed until she reached the top. She came. She conquered. She baked cakes with a smile. Never once did I believe Mama could leave us behind.
Daddy and I squeeze together on a wooden pew in the funeral home’s chapel. We’re like two kids outside the principal’s office, backs straight and hearts afire. I’m a few months shy of 40, but I scoot closer to him anyway. The only man who made Mama swoon more than Elvis, even after 45 years of marriage.
I once was lost, but now I'm found.
Was blind but now I see...
Meanwhile, I half expect her to pop out of that overpriced coffin and ask if I want a cup of coffee. She kept a stash of my favorite hidden on the highest shelf, behind the bags of granulated sugar and self-rising flour. Just in case I dropped by for a short visit.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump. My heart jumps to my throat in quarter notes. I try to swallow it — the regret I didn’t see her enough, the fear my kids will forget her, and the ache I’ll never hear her honey words again.
My head spins. The preacher says something about family and the house love built. It takes a minute, but I realize he’s not talking about Mama now. Of course, he’s speaking of Granny. She sits in the pew behind me, 95 years old with a starry, silver crown on her head. She used to carry a wooden scepter too but traded it in for the shiny blue rollator with a built-in padded seat I ordered from Amazon.
Honestly, Mama and I never imagined Granny would use the contraption; she proved us wrong again. Last time we visited her, she grabbed that rollator and shuffled to the kitchen somewhere between swift and a snail’s pace. We waited while she rummaged through cabinets, determined to find something to eat. Swiss Roll Cakes, apples, canned green beans, and homemade sauerkraut — she laid out enough food for our final Thanksgiving feast.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved…
I pull another tissue from my purse and shift my gaze to the front of the chapel. The song leader calls out a number. Voices belt out “Amazing Grace.” Not the one with the lyrics, but the shaped-note version Mama loved, with its lopsided harmonies of Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do.
Although I sing some notes, I never learned to read them. At the time, I was probably too worried about boys, big hair, and Aqua Net. Oh, how those melodies flow through my lips now, like Mama whispers them in my ear. A Band-Aid she offers to slap across my weary soul.
While Daddy hums along with the altos on one side of me, my daughter sits quietly on the other. Almost a teenager, she hovers in that awkward space, a tug of war between wearing lip-gloss and secretly wanting to play dolls. Her fashionably thick eyebrows pull together, and she squeezes my hand. This inky-haired girl — part bella latina and part wild-mountain rhododendron — growing up too fast in the land of Starbucks and three-car garages.
It turns out that distance doesn’t override DNA, though. In spite of the miles, the mountains call out and bubble beneath her skin like a witch’s brew. At night, lost between sleep and wakefulness, she falls into a magical reverie. She dreams she hops over branches, hikes to the barn, scrapes her knee on a rock, and gets back on her feet like the women before her — again, again, again.
When I blink, the funeral service ends. Cars snake down the highway for miles until we reach the cemetery at the mouth of the dirt road. The summer after I graduated high school, Mama and I walked this same path every afternoon for exercise. We meandered through the headstones and called out family names we liked. Sometimes we giggled at the silly ones, both trying our best to forget I’d grow up and go away soon.
I cried every night for the first two weeks of college. I missed my family. I yearned for the symphony of crickets and katydids outside my window. Mama said not to worry. I did the same in kindergarten and survived. It’s what I think about when they cover her casket in Georgia’s finest Red Clay.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
I clutch my husband’s hand. We turn to leave the cemetery. The kids burst through the melancholy, racing toward the sanctuary of our SUV. I want to run, too. I can’t. My feet hurt from the pointy-toed boots I put on this morning, a bad decision on my part. Mama would say, “Beauty takes work.” She should know. She worked 20 years in the high school office and wore heels every single day. Sometimes in algebra class, I doodled on my paper and waited for the click of her hurried stride to pass down the hall. Click-clack. Click-clack. Click-clack
I lean on my husband, who steadies me while I adjust the high-heeled torture devices zipped onto my feet. Our hands interlock again, and we toddle forward a couple of steps, one step, two steps. I stop to hug a baby. I’m cold. The gravel in the parking lot pokes through my soles and stabs at my toes.
But inside the SUV, my kids laugh. The peculiar sound rushes through the windows and washes over me like a muddy-river baptism. When I finally hit the rocky bottom, it rattles my bones and shakes something loose. Mama’s last words to me reverberate like a holy prayer.
“It’s okay,” she says. “No matter what happens I’m okay.”
I can’t go any farther. I gulp down a breath and inhale the scent of earth and smoke that intertwine in the valley where we stand. They say Mama’s gone, but they must be wrong. She relaxes on the porch with a cup of coffee in hand, basking in the morning sun. She lingers in the backyard, flicking beetles off those temperamental roses. She lives in the hollowed crooks of these mountains and jagged corners of our small town. I see her on my face, these hands, my heart.
A fluttery feeling palpitates inside my chest. For the first time since Mama snuck beyond that thin veil, she’s beside me again. The place I started. The place I’ll end. Less than a mile down that twisted, dusty bend where my legacy lives. The one I played hide-and-seek with for so long. Even though my knees quake, she says it’s time. To shine like the woman Mama made me — Appalachia’s daughter and queen of the dirt road.