I Love You, Now
Through heavy air and little shade, I weave a course with my mother through the tented fields of a thousand vendors. Some tents have electricity with tiny fans whirring or radio speakers playing faint tinny jazz, but most do not, and the dealers in these tents look overheated and a bit helpless as they watch us pass over their antique wares. I’m searching for something to hang on the wall of my new apartment. It’s the first time that I have my own space, and I am determined to find something to define it.
I don’t know what I’m looking for exactly, but I am confident that I will know when I find it. As I am hunting through piles of old photographs and framed board game boxtops, the proprietor tries to sell me on a chromolithograph of Othello. He tells me that it must sing to me. He means that I should buy what I am drawn to. That I should listen to my heart. And if I hear singing I should pay him $650 for the print.
My mother tries to help the best she can and whispers loudly that I can haggle if I like it. I make a face, and we move along to another tent. Each field is full of vendors; some have set up their shops like fancy boutiques and others like garage sales or dumping grounds. Finding treasure and making deals is part of the sport, my mother says, holding up a framed flag with 48 stars, trying to read my mind. She did well a few years ago buying me a light-up, backlit Jesus, which became the first piece of my deity wall: a clutter of gods and idols including Christ the carpenter, Hanuman, Odin, Makhala, Shiva, several Buddhas, and a dirty mirror in a gaudy gold-leaf frame.
I’m sure that I’ll know when I find it, and, sure enough, I do. Something sings to me. It’s a 1938 panoramic shot of the United Mine Workers of America standing on the steps of some building in Washington D.C. A sea of miners. It reminds me of an old song sung by Bascom Lamar Lunsford that I played on repeat for two years without stopping – first on big headphones, then on the guitar while singing with my eyes closed, wishing I was a lizard in the spring. ”When I come over the hill with a forty dollar bill…” There’s something about the faces in the photo, the namelessness, the crowdedness, the fullness. It sings.
I hear another voice, too: my father’s singing about the fall of the slate. He always sang folk songs with me before my bedtime when I was a little boy, and they were always about dying or losing your parents or your heart breaking. Little Moses, Rank Stranger, Dark As A Dungeon. They were beautiful songs. And though I was terrified – I was only seven at the time – I loved the mournful, slightly affected country honk of my father’s voice as he sang about a miner’s fear of being buried alive. The infinite divide between me and the coal mine closed. And just before he waltzed me off to bed, the dungeon world became very real – this imagined place for me to consider loneliness and my anxiety about being loved and loving. ”I pity the miner that’s digging my bones.” There is music and memory in this photograph of men all lined up on the D.C. steps in their fatherly shirts and ties. There is a line of poetry that I wish I could write but that I can’t seem to find. There is something hidden in those faces. Three words, at least.
So, I buy the picture for fifty bucks and I carry it back to my mother’s car. Not what she would have picked for me, but she likes the way it was shot. Plus it was a good deal, she says. It’s not until we’ve moved on to our next mission of finding a bridge lamp for my writing desk that she says oh and then tells me why I bought it:
“You know that your great grandparents were involved in mining.”
I did know that, vaguely. And I’d heard that there was something about this part of the family that related to preaching, too. About the word. Writing. Seven thunders. But I have no idea what that means. They are just scraps of a story that my uncle told at my father’s 60th birthday celebration a couple years ago, when my brother and I reserved an overnight recording session and brought a bottle of scotch and microphones, and we all told jokes and stories until we were half blind drunk and it was well past 4 AM. It was my father, his brother, my brother, and I. My father said something about a small mining town in Indiana and there was something else about distant relatives who loved to tell jokes and drink and have a good time, but I haven’t heard the recording and most of the memory that I have of the night is clouded. What I remember most is laughter. The only other time that I’ve heard about this part of the family was as a warning about alcoholism in my ancestral line. I know almost nothing about them, and for some reason that I haven’t figured out – it feels far too complex to try to tease out here – I feel completely disconnected from most of my blood relatives.
But that wasn’t why I bought the picture. Not what my mom said. I bought it because it sang to me. But now, owning a photograph of the 1938 United Mine Workers of America makes sense beyond a felt sense, and, strangely, I am glad that I can now explain my romance with living underground if someone asks: it is because I love my family, a family I know nothing about.
After my mother explained to me why I bought it, she remembered that she had some old things in the attic that I might like to take back to New York. There was a painting of an old battleaxe that had been my grandmother’s mother, and I could have it if she could find it. Later, rooting around the attic together, we discovered more family treasures: portraits of my mother as a child, drawings my brother did of stick figures and motorcycles, and a photograph of an older gentleman with piercing blue eyes. This was my great grandfather, Norval. The only thing I know with any confidence about Norval is that my name comes from the first letter of his name, and that I’m thankful that that is as far as it goes. He is mostly a myth in my mind, a tangle of stories that I’ve collected from my father, his brother, and my grandparents, when they were alive. He taught himself law by reading as an editor somewhere. He would have become the Governor if he hadn’t gone to jail for forging a check. When he was 35, he married a woman half his age who was the daughter of a poor mining family that literally lived on the other side of the tracks in Sullivan, Indiana. I had never seen a photo of him before. And seeing him now, I was surprised that he was human.
I piled the photo with the rest of the things that I wanted to take with me. I would have to ask my father for permission to take it. It was one of the only photographs of Norval that the family still had. When my father saw it that evening, he told me that I should call his aunt Mary Ann to learn about who Norval was. And I still plan on phoning her, even though it’s now midnight and three days after the deadline has passed for submitting this writing.
I need to finish soon. I know this story is too long to read, and maybe it’s not even so readable – a tangle of thoughts, some scraps of memory, a few intelligible notes from songs I used to sing. But maybe that’s how stories work: you find yourself in the space between words and make sense from what you know. I don’t know much about my name or where it comes from, and I don’t know what makes the world sing to me or even where my place in it is. Often, I feel lost. Like I’m tied to this bundle of things that I can’t call my own – carrying myself through a jumbled world that exists somewhere between history and remembrance. And I don’t know why, but I haven’t found much of a reason to name it, to define it, to call it something. I doubt very much that there’s a purpose to anything. It’s not like I think that I was led by providence through that field to the photograph of miners to the stories with my parents to the profound love that I have now discovered for my family. I don’t. But there’s something beautiful about my name now that I never noticed before. Now it means something new. Now I realize that my name was a gift given to me by my family, and, through writing, I have unwrapped its stories to discover what’s inside.