Gather and Sing
The last time my enormous, far-flung family all came together to gather and sing was on the Christmas Eve six months after my mother dropped dead of a stroke. It started simple enough. My father had us gather around the piano and my grandfather Clay took out his fiddle and they began belting out carols. Soon, the women started humming, and then the men. I may have been the last holdout, but by the time I started murmuring, everyone else was in full voice, trying to keep up with my father. He had such a strong voice that no one sang with him, only around him, like branches around a trunk.
In the middle of O Holy Night, my sister’s voice broke, which set off my brother Jeff, my hysterical Aunt and me. I’m a graceless crier. Stoicism is beyond my grasp, even as an idea. I tried holding the sobs in, which made a tortured hiccup sound, and each corner of my face twitched to its own separate rhythm. When my family saw me, they all started crying too. The men cried louder than the women, because they were drunker and their voices were better suited to it, but the women weren’t holding back. The chorus of crying made its own song, different but not inharmonious to the one my father sang.
Throughout it all, his voice never wavered. His fingers hit a few wrong keys, and his rhythm slowed, but his voice stayed strong as ever. Sometimes, I thought he was good at nothing except singing.
After he finished the song, he ran his hands through his hair, wiped his nose, and gave everyone a chance to catch their breath. "Jesus," he said. "Of all the times I’ve made my family cry, I think this might be my favorite." People laughed, relieved that he wasn’t going to cry himself. Instead, he leaned back and cracked a big toothy grin. "How about an Irish one?" The women hollered and the men raised their drinks, as he leaned forward to lead us all in a chorus of:
Resemble Ol’ Rosin the Beau, Boys,
Resemble Ol’ Rosin the Beau
I hope that the next generation
Resembles Ol’ Rosin the Beau.
My mother was Irish, and as much as she’s still my mother, still is.
The men in my family outlive the women. It’s not by design, it just happens that way. Most times we live hard, hurt ourselves in public, and stay primed for early death, but then, out of either bad luck or the wrath of God, we survive well after the women have succumbed to strokes, coronaries, or the sorts of hard quick deaths that come by falling in a bathtub and breaking a hip after they’re too old to heal.
My grandfather used to terrorize the town. When he was twenty-four, he beat a black man half to death with a lead pipe. The black man had a fractured skull, and two broken ribs. No one knew why, except they thought he was racist. That never seemed right. He was a racist, but he had an enormous sense of irony, and he even named his youngest son Martin Luther Clay, just to see the rise it got out of his friends. To him, names and children were just signposts: little footprints that showed the direction of his thoughts. Nobody who took life that loosely would take a pipe to a black man just because he was black.
He spent at least a year in prison, but not for what he did to the black man. My father said it was because he called the mayor’s wife a whore, but my father lies. Uncle Frankie told me he cut a woman with a broken bottle. "Ask anyone," he said. "Teddy Clay’s the meanest man in Kentucky." He said it with some pride and I could believe it except that the next morning, Frankie, severely hung over, couldn’t remember saying it.
Hysterical Aunt Marie swore he was picked up in a conspiracy for arson. "He wanted to burn down city hall," she said between puffs of her endless string of cigarettes. "He’d have almost surely done it too, except he bought out the store’s supply of kerosene, and the merchant got suspicious."
Maybe. Maybe he cut the mayor’s whore and burned down City Hall to hide the evidence. No one knows who can tell it without apologizing, and that’s why I don’t ask him. He’d start out with an excuse or an apology, and by the time he was done telling it, he would honestly want my forgiveness. And I did want an apology, but not for that.
Before my grandmother, Nora, died, my grandfather had the coldest stare I’ve ever seen on anyone, man or beast. My cousins and I would run up to him and hug his legs, asking him questions and begging him to tell us stories. He would roll his head around in a full circle, always keeping his eyes steady on the one who’d been the loudest. Then, he’d flick his cigarette at us: too high to hit us, but close enough to make us scatter. If Jeff or one of the older cousins tried to prove they were brave by staying near him, he’d light another cigarette, smoke it halfway down, and throw it at them again, closer this time. "Ask me something else," he’d say, "if you want one in the ear."
Sometimes, he came home with new tattoos. His wife didn’t ask him where he’d gotten them or what they meant, and God knows if she kept noticing after a while. Because after scores of physical changes he put himself through—tattoos, chipped teeth, fresh scars—he always looked the same. In every adult picture I’ve seen of him, he’s bald, razor thin, and staring cock-eyed into the camera, like it’s got something to prove.
Then, one day, his wife slipped on a patch of black ice while carrying her groceries, cracked her head, and was sent to the hospital for the last eight months of her life. They gave her the wrong medicine, and she never even halfway recovered. It’s as freak a death as a car wreck, only slower.
After that he turned soft. He talked to his grandchildren when they approached him, and he even held the little ones. We lost our fear of him and soon lost our interest in him as well. He smiled more, but they weren’t kind smiles. They were the desperate and practiced smiles of a rattled man: not a happy one.
My father was dangerous in a different way. He had the ability to believe every thought he had was the truth. This absolved him of his sins as far as he was concerned, because he simply had to want them gone and they would disappear. That opened up the world for him, and he used his absolution like a derringer, pointed towards the ones he loved. Once, when the alderman’s twelve year old daughter ran away for a week, he called the police and told them his brother Terry had locked her in his basement. He meant it as a joke and assumed Terry would take it the same way, but Terry swore he’d never speak to him again. My father, sobbing and bent kneed, begged for forgiveness. "It was a joke," he kept pleading. "You know you’re not a kidnapper. They know you’re not a kidnapper." Terry forgave him within the hour. He didn’t want to, but there was no other choice. He could beat him bloody or renounce his name, but he couldn’t make my father understand what he did was wrong. He already understood—he’d just forget it as soon as he turned around. Terry knew—like the rest of us came to know—there was no other way to deal with an amnesiac except to forgive him.
He had a slew of women on the side and he never even tried to hide them. He took me to their houses, and introduced me to them. Some of the women fixed me lunch and set me up in front of the TV while they went at it in the bedroom, but some just looked away, embarrassed. My father was never embarrassed. He took me out for hotdogs almost every time after and said, "What’s the one thing we have in common, you and me?"
I learned the answer he wanted. "We’re the best looking men in Kentucky."
"You’re goddamn right about that," he said. "Now get out there and tell somebody."
It’s hard to say whether my mother forgave him or just let him forgive himself, but it all amounted to the same thing. She was older than him, less needy, and she’d already traveled across her ocean. She didn’t need to retreat into her stories, and so she was happy coaxing her family along, cooking her ready-made meals, and smoking her oversized hand-rolled cigarettes. After the funeral, some women in the neighborhood started talking about how the stress of my father’s affairs had weakened her. They said as much to me and I just smiled and nodded, half-suspecting it was true. My father didn’t want to believe it, but once he heard them say it, he couldn’t put it aside. That was the curse of his mindset. He could believe any lie he told was the truth, no matter how outlandish, but once an idea wormed its way into his head, he could never dismiss it, no matter how much it hurt. The second he heard the women talk about him, he knew he’d carry the guilt for good, like a terminal disease. Worse, this time he didn’t want absolution.
So, by that Christmas Eve, six months after my mother’s final stroke, he’d already begun to reshape himself. I could hear it in his stories. He no longer praised himself as the dirty prankster, who prized his jokes above his friends. Instead, he was an everyday joker, who could let a gag go too far, but only out of the most honest intentions.
He was no longer the dangerous drunk, who once went on stage with an unopened bottle of Jim Beam, and in the middle of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’—the fourth song of the set—put down his guitar and refused to finish the song unless someone brought him a fresh bottle. Instead, he cast himself as the sweet, shaggy man committing only the most forgivable sins—he hit the bottle a little too hard, and talked himself up too much.
He may never have been those other things, but he was in his stories, and his stories were almost all he had left. The woman was gone, and so was his one skill that enabled all the others. He could no longer forgive himself, and no longer improve himself. All that stayed strong was his voice.
Apologies must be made. Not the apologies they give now for their past, but apologies for what they’ve become. I don’t care about my grandfather’s violence or my father’s whoring. I don’t care if their recklessness chopped decades off their wives’ old age. I don’t care about their guilt. What I can’t forgive and I fear I can’t escape is the jowly, softhearted pantomimes they’ve turned themselves into. Is this what happens when women go? The bullet’s already been fired and we’re left with the shell casings.
Hearing them sing and play, first the carols and then the ballads, broke me up almost as much as my mother’s memory. That was how it was supposed to be. There was still a nimbleness to that art, still a ferocity to it. They kept singing, changing back and forth from Irish to hillbilly songs: Ol’ Rosin the Beau, Little Maggie, Railroad Boy, Pretty Saro, Lord John, and even as reliable a chestnut as Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms. For my father, at least, there was no difference between the two styles of music. Us hillbillies had inherited the one worthwhile European tradition. Folk music was our link to the past, before America, before the race as we can imagine it. We alone understood those songs and so we alone were the only part of America that mattered.
People assumed that he married my mother for her accent. It made sense in a way. She was gangly and pale, with bushy eyebrows and enormous hands: nothing like the small, dark women he ran around with. They didn’t often fight, but he didn’t seem to love her anymore than he loved anyone else. But he did love her accent. It meant she was a witness to all he sang about. That accent validated him, as a singer and as a relic. After people met her, they never doubted my father knew of what he sang. And that’s really all he wanted from her or from anyone else.
Those songs were his lexicon, his Bible, and eventually they would become the sum total of his memories. Soon, he wouldn’t be able to distinguish his past from those songs, and that was just how he wanted it. He wanted, when people remembered him, to only remember the music. The rest of his life could smear from people’s memories like a too wet watercolor, so long as his name brought a song into people’s heads.
My father nodded to my grandfather. "You know this one, right? I play it in C." He started pounding the keys, and bobbing his head to the jaunty rhythm. I recognized it before he started singing. Everyone did.
A nation once again,
A nation once again,
O Ireland, long a province be,
A nation once again.
He sang it at my mother’s wake, and it was the turning point, at which everyone stopped crying and started singing. Not everyone knew the words at first, but by the end, the entire congregation chanted along to the impossibly optimistic chorus.
People were singing along now, too, although hardly anyone knew what the song meant to him. He saw it as a hillbilly national anthem, albeit one that predated America. It was a rallying cry, and a call home to the Diaspora Appalachians. We would be a nation, forged in as much blood and misery and hope as all other nations in the western world. That was the song’s promise, but only my father knew it. The most ridiculous idea of all, and he believed it. All the sincerity he had left was wrapped around that single stupid idea, and I felt a desperate desire to puncture it.
I head myself singing before I knew I was doing it. "Kentucky woman," I sang, much louder than their song. "She gets to know you, she gets to own you."
Jeff put his hand on his my shoulder. "Take it easy, now."
"This man knows it," I said. I pointed to Aunt Marie. "Come on, honey, it’s about you. I can’t do without, I’m talking about, Kentucky woman."
They had stopped singing now, and were looking at me. My father laughed and hit a few high notes. "Tell me I haven’t raised a Neil Diamond fan."
"What?" I said. "I thought I was being patriotic. I’m singing patriotic songs." I looked around.
"We got Betsey Ross over here," Uncle Frankie said. He was laughing, but everyone else looked concerned. "Sing us another, Betsey."
"Let’s do Kentucky." I stood up on the piano bench and waved my arms like a conductor. "Kentucky Tucky Bo Bucky, Banana Fanna Fo Fucky, Me My Mo Mucky, Kentucky."
"All right, come on," Jeff said. He stepped towards the piano bench and grabbed my leg. "Play something else, dad."
I threw up my hands, and stepped off the bench, almost tripping on Jeff’s foot. "Show’s over then, folks. Adieu to you, and you and you and you."
Jeff put his hand on the back of my neck and tried to guide me towards the living room. "Let’s talk," he said.
I shook him off me and went into the kitchen instead. "You want a drink?" I hesitated at the whiskey bottle, but then just grabbed a beer. "God knows we got enough."
"Talk to me," he said. "What’s the problem?"
I opened the beer. "I was just singing, same as everyone."
He laughed. "Hand me a beer."
I gave him mine and took another for myself.
"It’s stupid," he said. "Those songs, you know, it’s just pageantry. They do it every year."
"Do they?" I said. "I’m new here."
"When you sing like that." He took a long pull from his beer. "I mean, what’s the point, really? What’s the point?"
I shrugged. "I’m taking a walk."
"No," he said. "Stay here and talk. It’s cold outside."
"It’s all right," I said. "A quick walk. Just to move a little bit."
He put his hand on his hip and looked at me. "All right, then, but take a coat." He walked back towards the family, and I went outside.
It was cold, especially with a full beer in my hand, but it was bearable. I sat on the back porch and looked up at the mountains. The miners would take them soon enough. They’d already taken some, and nobody cared enough to stop them. Half of the standing mountains were hollow anyway. These smaller ones survived, but they couldn’t last forever. They were the oldest mountains in the world, getting leveled, inch by inch.
I wondered what would happen to my father’s romanticism when the miners took the last of them. Once the darker, unexplorable part of the region was exposed, and the hiding places for all the gnomes and giants of his imagination were laid bare, how would he take it? Can a man of his age fall out of love? Maybe the mountains were the one woman he couldn’t bear to outlive. Maybe when he saw the last mountain uprooted, he’d crinkle up and die on the spot.
Or maybe it would just make him sing all the louder. He could sing about the past: the dear dead days beyond recall, as the song went, and those memories would only get dearer the worse he remembered them. The easiest songs in the world are those about the past. No one challenges them. No one points to the mountains or the cities and cultures that the mountains spawned and say, ‘Look, there’s your nation, once again. There’s the toothless crowd you’re singing love songs too. There.’ No one would remember how wrong he was.
From behind me, I heard my uncle Frankie. "Kentucky woman," he sang. "I don’t think I have your voice." He sat beside me and laughed his slow raspy laugh. "I got you something." He reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out a fifth of Jim Beam. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," I said. "I didn’t get you anything."
"Sure you did." He opened up the bottle and took a swig. "You gave me half of this."
I smiled and looked around. "You’re not supposed to be drinking, Uncle Frankie." I took the bottle from him and drank.
"I got to hear this from you, too," he said. "You’re father’s going to skin me alive if he sees me. Terry too." He took the bottle from me, and drank again.
"They know," I said. "So long as it’s nothing but drinking, I don’t think it’ll be too bad."
"That’s all it is," he said. He laughed and scratched his forehead. "I liked your songs in there. They’re funny."
I took another drink.
"Did I ever tell you this?" he said. "One time, your mother told me I looked just like Cary Grant. She says this on a Monday, and I go through all week, believing it. It goes straight to my head, and I run around, full of myself, talking up every woman I see, getting numbers, dancing, playing the romantic. This lasts all week. Then one week later, I talk to her again, and I realize she was joking with me. I completely took her seriously. But, man, that was your mother. Very funny, you know, and very sly. Not everybody saw that in her, because she was so quiet, but man I’m telling you she was funny." He laughed, gave a faint smile took the bottle and drank.
"Yeah," I said. "Well, what are you going to do?"
He handed me the bottle, stood up, and dusted himself off. "Merry Christmas," he said. "Don’t stay out here too long. You’ll get sick."
"Merry Christmas," I said. I turned around to watch him leave, and saw my father standing in front of the screen door.
Frankie put his hand on his shoulder as he walked past him. "You sounded good tonight," he said.
My father nodded, walked past him, and sat down beside me. "Hey," he said, "I got you something."
I took a drink from the whiskey.
"Jesus Christ" he said. "That’s what I got you. Now it’s ruined." He pulled out his bottle of Jim Beam and opened it.
"Merry Christmas," I said.
"Did Frankie give you that?"
"No," I said. "Jeff did."
"Goddamn it," he said. "Son of a bitch hasn’t been out of rehab four months, and this is his Christmas gift."
"He’s all right."
"I know he’s all right," he said. "But how much money are we going to spend on him if this is how he is?" He took a drink. "Jesus, I hit this stuff harder than he does, but he can’t handle it. Talk to Terry if you want to know some stories."
"I don’t," I said. "Not really."
He took another drink. "This isn’t your Christmas gift, by the way. It’s just something I thought you’d want."
"It’s all right," I said.
He bit his lower lip and played with the top of his bottle. "You were pretty hard on me in there."
I took a drink. "I was just singing," I said. "I’m sorry I interrupted."
He leaned forward and looked up at the mountains. "You still sad?"
"Why feel sad?" I smiled. "I mean, she’s up in heaven singing with the angels now, isn’t she?"
"You’re cute." He took a drink, and, out of habit, offered me the bottle, forgetting I had my own. "It’s all right, though, I forgave her."
"You forgave her?"
He smiled. He’d wanted me to react to that, and I cursed myself for falling for it. "That’s right," he said. "I forgave her everything."
"That’s big of you," I said. "Did you forgive the infidelities? The alcoholism?"
He laughed. "You sound like your sister." He took the bottle back and took a long drink. "It’s cold out here," he said when he finished.
"What do you mean, forgive?" He was baiting me, and I hated to act like he expected, but I was curious.
"Forgive," he said. "That’s what you do. Forgive."
"Yeah, but what?" I said. "Forgive what?"
He wiped his mouth. "That’s all you can do is forgive. Christians got it backwards. They say ‘forgive me.’ You should say, ‘I forgive you of everything you did whether you want me to or not.’"
I coughed and wiped my nose. "This is great. You’ve turned into the Riddler. What do you mean?"
"If I ask you to forgive me, then I’m presuming. It’s not up to me whether you forgive me or not. That’s you. All I can do, that I know I can do, is forgive you. That’s the one power God can’t take from us. I can forgive the whole county if I want."
I took another drink, but the whiskey had stopped tasting good. "So out of curiosity," I said, "do you forgive me?"
"Oh yeah." He patted me on the back. "I forgive everyone here and you have to ask? Of course, I forgive you."
"No," I said. "Fuck that, I forgive you." I raised the bottle. "Try me. Do something lousy, and see if I don’t forgive you."
He smiled, took a tentative drink, and put his bottle down in front of me. "We got to get up early tomorrow. Don’t stay out here too long."
"If I do," I said, "be sure to forgive me."
He put his hand on the back of my neck and squeezed. The warmth of his hand reminded me how cold I felt. "When someone goes early like this," he said, "especially if it’s unexpected and she’s close, it’s easy to misinterpret it all. What does it mean? It means a lot of things." He scratched his nose and looked down at his knees. "But there’s something you should take from it, and I know you’ve heard it before, but it’s important, as far as it goes."
"All right." I took another drink. I didn’t want it anymore, but I didn’t want to flinch in front of him.
He brought his hand up to his face and then back down again. "It’s important that you don’t smoke," he said. "Your mother smoked a lot and it weakens your heart, your lungs, everything. This never would’ve happened if she didn’t smoke."
"Don’t smoke?" I gave him a lopsided smile. "That’s all right, I don’t smoke."
"Good," he said. "I smoke a little, but I never got addicted. Your mom got hooked so bad, I swear she was breathing as much smoke as air. She rolled her own half the time. Said she couldn’t taste it otherwise."
"I don’t smoke," I said. "Not even a little."
"Well all right," he said. "Then I guess you’re safe." He looked around behind him, and then up to the sky. "Christmas tomorrow," he said. "I’m getting you up early." He smiled, saluted, and then turned around and went inside.
I stood up and then sat back down, unsure if I wanted to walk the neighborhood, or fall asleep. Now there were two heavily dented whiskey bottles in front of me, neither of which I wanted anything to do with. Still, just to see if I could, I took two sips of each, held them in my mouth and let them linger in the back of my throat before swallowing. It was going to hurt tomorrow, but that was tomorrow.
I was safe. Don’t smoke and you’ll be safe. That was the moral of my mother’s life, according to the one adult who kind of loved her. At least, there was a moral and a comforting one, too. He’d given her that and it was better than nothing. Better for the lines to be badly drawn than there be no lines at all.
I rapped my knuckles against the porch and began repeating my mother’s full name. "Cathleen Margaret Donohue Clay." It had a nice rhythm, spoken aloud like that. I leaned into the words, landing on each of the syllables equally. "Cath leen mar ga ret don o hue clay. Cath leen mar ga ret don o hue clay." I repeated it, first aloud, then silently, until I began hearing it in my head without moving my mouth.
In the weeks after the stroke, I would stay awake until the early morning, silently mouthing her name in what I knew was a repetition, but felt different and more painful each time. It wasn’t like that anymore. Her names were just words and, stretched out and repeated like that, just syllables, to be arranged and rearranged in any way I saw fit.
I’d outlived one woman and there would be others. Maybe I’d already started to lose a little liveliness myself, and maybe that was what stopped the pain. If so, it was well worth it. I put my hands together and improvised a prayer:
Lord, do what you will with my reputation, my memories, my judgment, and my intentions. Cast me off into obscurity, eons away from anyone who might know me let alone love me. Deny me heaven and deny me life. But, O Lord, protect me from pain. I can take anything but pain.
I picked up the bottles and screwed their caps on. There was plenty left for Christmas, and, if I hid one from my family, then it may last until New Year’s.
The lights in the house were off. No one else was going to check on me, and there was no use staying cold. Next year, the memory would be even smaller. I may never be able to make myself believe I sprang fully formed, without the same cord attached back to her womb that the rest of the world has, but it would be easier next year. For now, all there was to do was go inside, lie down someplace warm and wait for Christmas.