I love my mom’s Tennessee accent. She has lived in Florida for almost 40 years so there is just a hint of it these days but it shows up every now and then in words like Wednesday, which she pronounces “Weensdee”. It’s cute. As children my brother and sister and I never missed an opportunity to mimic her accented words. “Weeeeensdeeee. Weeeeeeeeeensdee.”, we would laugh. Kids can be A-holes. No worries, she’s having the last laugh now since we all have our own children to continue the tradition of parent-mocking.
Last week her college roommate from Nashville came to visit and having her around brought my mom’s accent to the surface. It also brought to surface memories from when we were young kids and visited my grandparents in my mom’s hometown in Tennessee.
To say Newport was a small town is an understatement. Here’s an example: on one of our visits in the 1980’s my brother and I were on the front page of the newspaper because it was our first time seeing snow. There I stood, grinning in my fancy fake-leopard coat with my brother preparing to smash me in the face with a snowball right after the shutter clicked. Front page news.
There wasn’t a lot to do there so my brother and I got inventive. We scrounged through my grandparents’ dank basement for forgotten treasures to entertain ourselves with. While the adults sat inside chatting away, my brother and I took a rusty bike with flat tires outside to try riding it down the extremely steep hill in front of the house. We don’t have any hills in Tampa, so we were fascinated. We were also not quite prepared for the speed you pick up on a downhill descent.
I think my brother might have had a successful run or two, but when it was my turn things didn’t go as well.
I was about seven years old, and a runty seven at that, so I balanced on the seat with my feet dangling nowhere near the pedals. My brother, being a proper older sibling (bully), decided it would be hilarious to just let go of the bike and see what happened. I went screaming down the hill, unable to reach the brakes, “STOOOOOOOP MEEEEEEEEEEE …”, but by then I was going too fast for him to catch up. I finally managed to jump off the seat and drag my feet on the ground to a terrified stop. I was pissed! I berated my brother with all the post-traumatic rage a seven-year old could muster. I’m pretty sure he just laughed.
But we hadn’t had enough adventure yet. Next we found my great-grandmother‘s old wheelchair. Don’t worry, she didn’t need it. By this time she was already living at the scary nursing home that we were always forced to visit on our trips to Tennessee. I’m still emotionally scarred from that urine-soaked hellhole. Our great-grandmother had had both of her legs amputated. I remember being told it was from having worked on her feet for too many years as a nurse, an explanation I accepted without question. Note to self: cross nursing off the list of possible future careers! I figured out years later that it was actually complications from diabetes and years of smoking. Caught between morbid fascination and pity, I fought an internal battle to keep my eyes from veering to those stumps underneath her blanket.
My great-grandmother also suffered from what must have been Alzheimer’s, although I don’t think they called it that back then. She didn’t recognize my grandmother (her daughter) who came to visit her every day, so she certainly didn’t have a clue who these strange children were cowering in the corner of her room with uneasy smiles pasted on their faces. “Are these your children?” she asked another toothless invalid. She was answered with a blank stare. I counted the minutes until I could escape this purgatory for the walking (rolling) dead.
That was a fairly depressing aside–back to the wheelchair mischief. My brother and I dragged our ride to the top of the hill, confident that this was going to work out great! We failed to take into consideration that wheelchairs are generally not designed for high-speed downhill plunges, a lesson swiftly learned as our chariot collapsed around us and skidded off-road into a gravel ditch. It only took us 20 or 30 more tries to figure out that our plan was slightly dangerous and probably not going to pan out. I can only imagine the shock a neighbor must have felt looking out their window to see a child in a wheelchair careening wildly down the road.
I have sweet recollections of these visits, too. I remember making homemade ice cream and catching fireflies in a jar. I also had an uncle who did a spot-on Donald Duck impression that I couldn’t get enough of.
Most fond though, is the memory of attending my very first concert in Knoxville–Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5! I was such a fan of Michael in those days that I actually wore one glittery glove and a skinny, red, pleather tie to the show. Regrettably, I had no parachute pants to complete the look. Still, I think my devotion was adequately demonstrated. That night was, without a doubt, my favorite event in Tennessee.
In later years when I lived in Georgia, I got to experience the mountainous appeal of Tennessee when I white-water rafted on the Ocoee River and camped at the beautiful and impressive Tennessee River Gorge. It was there that I saw my first wild turkey and a fox that I mistook for a house cat, “Here kitty, kitty, kitty…”
I’d like to visit again someday soon and stand on a ridge in the morning looking out over the endless purple, misty ridges of The Smoky Mountains. There is quite a bit of beauty to the place once you finally venture past the hill at my grandparent’s house.