Friday, July 14, 2017

Summer, Knoxville, 1915 & Wyoming, in a car, 1967

It's a very 1960s-America memory, a mere sensory impression:  In the front seat of the Pontiac Bonneville that we borrowed from Grandmother because it had air-conditioning, Dad drives us on a two-lane highway somewhere between our home in Chicago and our destination at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and Mom sits beside him.  Behind them and below, actually in the wells where backseat passengers' feet go, my brother and I are each curled up on pillows brought from our beds back home.  Older sister is stretched out above and behind us, reading.   

It's after lunch.  The AM radio may be playing the news, or some sunny drawling country-western tunes from the day (Roger Miller, Patsy Cline), but it's far away now.  I'm much closer to the low metallic hum of the tires.   It's lulling me to sleep, but then, like the sudden tapping of a cymbal, Mom's voice sounds, Dad replies, and Mom laughs.  They're speaking about the next stop, or about the countryside.

I'd like to listen, but I'm being drawn down into sleep. I love my pillow for receiving my weight, for being warm and sweet-smelling with my own drool.  And I'm feeling safe and contented and suspended in time.  I don't want ever to lose that moment.

Fifty years later, I'm still there, when I want to be.  And now I recognize the universality of this.  It's in James Agee's prologue to A Death in the Family, his memory of his own childhood 100 years ago, later set to wonderful music by Samuel Barber in the concert piece Knoxville, Summer 1915:

They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. . . . All my people are larger bodies than mine,...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds.... One is my mother who is good to me.  One is my father who is good to me.  By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.  May God bless my people. . . oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed.  Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her. . . .
Agee's long prologue appears to be prose, but it has the impact of good poetry.   I've run into many others who, like me, heard or read the words once and remembered them for years after.

[Note: I discovered this piece in my archive, written during a workshop led by a colleague involved with the National Writers Project at Kennesaw State University in 2007.  Another offshoot of the workshop made one of my earliest blogposts, Shrink Age.]

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