The highway seemed to stretch on for eternity guarded by millions of fir soldiers*, feet firmly rooted on both sides of the road. My cheek was flushed but cool as ice from hours of being pressed against the passenger window. There was no conversation but my thoughts were jumbled and excited. To me our trip had already been a journey worthy of the books my younger self had read. We had traveled far, from our lovely home in Pennsylvania, through many different states and cities. We had stopped and observed the local people, tasted foreign dishes, and even passed beneath the ocean. When we drove forward into the bay bridge tunnel I attempted to hold my breath. My lungs felt as though they would burst, full of my last deep breath of salty ocean air. It was violently released forty seconds into the tunnel. Now as the armies of fir soldiers disappeared with the setting sun I knew we were close to the end of our quest. My aunt's house couldn’t be more than a few miles away.
It was late at night but the cotton glowed as bright as lightning bugs against the full moon. It was easy to imagine one’s self in the back of carriage as we drove down the bumpy, unpaved, country road. North Carolina was the place of fairy tales to my younger self. My aunt’s home reminded me of a cabin and transported me to a different time and different world each time we visited. Time felt frozen here on the farm. It was as if it was still a great plantation- as it may have been- from decades before my birth - in a time that my grandmother would have known. My eyes were heavy with sleep, my excitement forgotten, as my father rapped quietly on the front door. It would creak open, light flooding out from inside. “Y’all are here!” My aunt would whisper excitedly as she opened the door.
There were so many cousins and aunts and uncles it was often impossible to recall all of their names. We gathered each day at my grandmother’s house. All of the girls would chase the boys in great circles around the house until we admitted defeat. We would collapse in the grass, our cheeks flushed, our laughter loud and melodic. One afternoon I found myself alone in the kitchen with my grandmother. I traced my finger across the wooden grain beneath the glossy surface of the kitchen table. My grandmother looked at me with glossy eyes full of love. Suddenly her morality became real to me. Slowly, sorrow crept over me, like a soaking wet wool blanket. It couldn’t be shaken or moved easily. Chills wracked my body despite the blazing wood stove only five or so feet away from me.
My eyes searched the room and eventually rested on a glass shelf in the living room. “Grama, I like your statue of the Virgin Mary,” I said, with child-like innocence. “Bring it here child,” she replied, in a soft southern accent. The Madonna was nestled amongst many other religious artifacts. She was beautiful with even the finest details carved into her porcelain face. My hands grasped around it gently but firmly. Butterflies had filled my stomach and each step across the carpet was taken carefully. My grandmother’s warm and wrinkled hands removed the Madonna from my soft young grip. She flipped it over and wrote something on the bottom of the statue right beneath the word Lennox. She handed it back to me upright. “You put it back now," she said in that southern twang that is still buried somewhere in my heart. My younger self was much too afraid to see what message she had written underneath.
Shortly before her death, she told my grandfather that the Virgin Mary stood in the corner of the room, watching over her. After she passed my family would gather in that same very room. Only now it had lost its familiarity. It felt empty and impersonal without her presence. It was her estate auction and it was time to place the Madonna’s up for bid. Everyone had been waiting for a particular one. The air was electrified by the anticipation and heavy with grief and greed. Finally, my aunt picked up the same beautifully carved Madonna I had carefully grasped many years before. She flipped it upside down in a way that would transport me back to when my grandmother had done the same thing. “Oh wait!” she said in an alarmed voice, “We can’t sell this one! It says, ‘for my baby Jean’.” A murmur broke out amongst my relatives. Some voices touched and others annoyed that they had been hoodwinked out of the statue many years ago. My father’s face shined with pride and tears threaten to tumble from his glistening eyes. Suddenly her morality didn’t seem as bad. The heavy blanket of sorrow was lifted. A piece of her was forever with me. She had left me one last I love you. For my baby Jean.
* Fir soldiers is a reference to the fir trees commonly found in North Carolina.