Blood Mountain and World Famous Boiled Peanuts

9.23.17

Dear Levi,

The drive to Blood Mountain spoke. It was morning. Your Daddy drove; I sat with you in the Scion’s backseat as we twined through Cherokee National Forest, beside the Ocoee. Sunlight danced on your cheeks. You slept, calm as an eddy. Golden hues dyed the air. The leaves were starting to change. Some had fallen and were floating, red and taupe, on the river. “Water stars,” your Daddy said.

Big rapids ahead set the stage for kayakers in helmets and wetsuits to paddle and surf. Purple and green boats bobbed up and down like seesaws. It must have been loud in the whitewater. But our drive was quiet as sleep. Few cars took this road. Trees like elders bowed.

An hour in we stopped at the Citgo off US-64 for snacks. Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream, Snickers, Coke, Lipton Green Tea—junk food, some might call it. I said, “It’s Saturday. We can do what we want.”

At the North Carolina, Georgia border we passed Foster’s Flea Market, where mothers with young children swarmed produce stands, and old men in straw hats tapped their feet to folk. We reached the Byron Reece Trailhead at noon. The parking lot was full. Cars stacked behind us while we waited for the couple with a chocolate lab to leave to slip into their spot. Blood Mountain was rocky and steep. I toted you the two miles up in a gray front carrier. Mountain laurels shaded the trail. It was overcast, but I sweated like a cold soda can in sun. The hiking bounced you as if you were riding a horse. Somehow, you slept the whole way.

I nursed you at the top, where granite slabs replaced trees, and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains rolled in. Your eyelashes grazed my chest. I looked out, sitting on stone behind your Daddy who, as always, served as our shield. Our elevation was 4,458 feet. The mountains beyond crawled over each other like migrating turtles. They waved wide and far as the sea.

Before hiking back, we entered the stone shelter built in the 1930s by the CCC. Inside was cool and dark. How many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, I wondered, have slept within these walls? A father and son stepped in after us, tied their hammock to a hand hewn beam. It thundered. “Can we stay here until the storm passes?” asked the boy. “Sure we can, son. I brought cookies.”

The thunder continued. “Think we’ll be okay?” I asked your Daddy on our descent. Levi, as your mother, my utmost duty is to keep you safe.

“We’ll be fine,” your Daddy said. “It’s just the angels bowling.”

On our drive home we stopped at Sunrise Grocery, where obese pumpkins lounged around the screened porch, below the wooden sign that read, “World Famous Boiled Peanuts.” The fattest pumpkin cost forty-five dollars and was easily the size of a supermoon. I placed your palm on its fleshy orange ridges, sat you on its peak. Had that pumpkin been hollowed out, it would have swallowed you whole.

Inside, the store sold specialty items like local honeys and jams, peach and blackberry ciders. We bought the world famous boiled peanuts, which the clerk ladled straight from the Dutch oven into a paper bag that instantly started to steam. Your Daddy, who’d never had boiled peanuts before, was surprised they came with the shell. “Not the best food while driving,” he said. Still, he ate them to the bottom of the bag.

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A Taste from my New Novel

Hello! For the last seven months I’ve been working on a novel called The White Showing Through. It is about a father and his 10-year-old daughter who take a big road trip west to run into freedom and be absolved of their past. I’m in the first phase of editing it now, which is a timely process, but great. Here is a snippet from Chapter 3. I am hoping to go the traditional route for publishing this book and need a literary agent…any leads you may have for me would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and enjoy!

From Chapter 3. of The White Showing Through

Joseph stood. “How about we get on our way.” He whistled the tune to “Time to Move On” as he and Shiloh broke down camp. Then they hit the road. The day was hazy, hot. Before merging back onto I-40, Joseph stopped for gas. He sent Shiloh, wearing jean shorts and a lilac top, into the station to buy two Cokes while he pumped the fuel. It was a deserted place built at a deserted junction, concrete on more concrete, pasture and sky beyond. The only sound was the truck’s tank guzzling its lifesaving drink. $1.95 per gallon. Seemed high. But Joseph didn’t mind. He knew it would cost, in some way or another, to continue on their course. Which was necessary, if not mandatory. Perched on the power line above, a red-tailed hawk stared.

The pump clicked, informing the tank was full. Shiloh walked up to her father, handed him a red shiny can. The can was sweaty but cold. Joseph popped the tab and the Coke fizzed. It ran down his throat cool and sweet. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Man,” he said. “Is there anything better than this?”

The day of travel was long but good. Joseph felt alive behind the wheel as they rolled through the rest of Arkansas into Oklahoma where plains spread, vast as sky. He’d forgotten how much he loved this—life on the road. Out here, the open cradled you, and you rocked to a natural rhythm as you made your way deliberately, adventurously, toward your destination. Out here, the worries of the world (money, war, natural disaster)—which, at home, devoured you—chipped away like old paint. It was just you, time, and space out here on the steady road. Like an easy current, things flowed.


Happy day!

Claire

From the Mountain to the Plains

8.19.17

Dear Levi,

Tellico River runs next to our campsite. It’s Saturday; I’m in our blue camp chair with you in my lap, my arms buckled around your waist. We’ve been watching the river, how it snakes through rocks, transporting glints of sun. Rhododendron arcs over it like a dome. Indian paintbrush pops like lipstick from the tawny bank. The river roars, but it’s quiet here. Big clouds loom. Air smells like rain.

Thursday, when we arrived at Sourwood Campground—a densely wooded, primitive place—your Daddy and I pitched our tent on flat ground then took you down to the water for a swim. It was cold, the kind of cold you’d be a fool to enter without a wetsuit. I dove in naked.

You flinched when your Daddy dipped your feet in. I thought you might cry. Instead, you let your Daddy slip you in up to your chest. You sucked your wet hand. I sat on a sunlit rock curving up from our pool. A blue heron waded in downstream. He blended in so well—still as stone against current and sky—I almost didn’t see him. What else, I wondered, am I missing? The heron scanned for trout.

That night your Daddy built a fire, using limbs he’d hacked from a dead tree lying over the river. He also used the logs the old man with the bushy white beard—who’d been driving around the campground in a blue van selling watermelons—brought us after your Daddy said we’d take a melon, but what we really needed was firewood. We hadn’t realized the general store a mile down the road, which sold six-dollar bundles, would be closed, of all days out of the week, Thursdays. The old man grinned. “City folk.”

The fire was nice. Your Daddy thought otherwise because of how much it smoked due to the waterlogged wood. The burning bark foamed as if it had rabies. Smoke got in our eyes. Your Daddy, who is quite skilled in the art of campfires, shook his head. “At least the mosquitoes backed off,” I said. “I hate white rabbits.”

For dinner we heated chili in a pot over the fire, stuck spoons in when it was ready, blew off the steam. Flames warmed my shins. Breeze brushed over us, and you laughed, loud and bright, like when fire pops. I kissed your swoop nose, put you to bed in the tent atop goose down. The river sang you to sleep. I rejoined your Daddy to sit by the fire a while longer and see the stars. They soaked the sky like silver ink until no black remained. “The stars are great,” said your Daddy. They’re always great, I thought. You just have to be in the right place to see them.

Soon the fire shrank. Your Daddy pulled on his leather gloves and, with his hands, rearranged the burning wood. “Needed more air,” he said. Flames swelled and sparked. “That’s a common mistake people make, not giving their fire room to breathe.” I sucked in the cool night.

Next day we swam in Indian Boundary Lake, a pristine body tucked in Cherokee National Forest. This is my favorite lake of all—growing up, we’d come to Tellico in the summer, stay at our grandfather’s river cabin Tiekilew (which is “we like it” spelled backward), and spend whole days in the coves and lake, looking for black-striped stones we called tiger rocks, treading water until we thought our arms would fall off. Levi, I love sharing my heritage with you. You fell asleep on the grass hill, beneath a shady oak. Beyond, the lake slept, cradled by emerald mountains.

At Tellico Beach Drive-In that evening we stood in line behind a biker brigade. Big, bronze-shouldered men with doo rags and tattoos walked off, after paying, with ice cream cones. One woman, wrinkled and thin, wore leather pants and a belly shirt. Their parked Harleys gleamed. Soon they would zip up Cherohala Skyway, hair flying, free. We ordered, and while waiting under the awning for our burgers and onion rings, the toothless woman at the window noticed you gnawing your hand. “Here,” she said, giving me a vanilla ice cream cone. “Might could help his discomfort.” Levi, at four months old, you’ve already cut two bottom teeth. Toothless strangers, it seems, take note of this. I let you take a lick. Your Daddy ate the rest.

Early this morning we had a fire using leftover wood from last night. Smoke slid over the river; black cap chickadees crooned. We’re going home today, and now I sing to you, watching the water, inspired by you and this place:

“It’s been nice in the forest,

it’s been swell by the water,

but we’re going home today.

Breeze has been blowing,

fire has been warming,

but we’re going home today.

Wherever you go,

I’ll be with you—don’t you know—

from the mountain

to the plains.

Forever you’ll be

my baby,

and I’ll carry you with me always.

It’s been nice in the forest,

it’s been swell by the water,

but we’re going home today.”

I’ll call it “Levi’s Song.”

Swim Break

6.30.17

Dear Levi,

We have lived in Chattanooga one month and nearly every day it has rained. The window in your nursery peeks into the backyard. I rock you in the turquoise wicker chair and we watch the storms. Hackberries shimmy and our potted petunias pierce with purple the gray. The rain glosses everything. Squirrels sit on bark like silver trays. Grass glows like sea glass.

Yesterday afternoon the June showers paused long enough for your Daddy, you, and me to visit North Chickamauga Creek. Mist puffed up from the mountains on the drive. “Dragons’ breath,” I said.

Trucks and cars smothered the gravel lot. We parked in the last spot and got out. Humidity hung in the air like spider webs. Your Daddy batted away the mosquitos while I slipped you in the backpack stitched with stars that straps around my front. I buckled you in and began to sweat.

The path down to the water was slick. Your Daddy grabbed my forearm when we approached big rocks and roots; I pressed your head against my chest with my free hand. We got lucky. A Mexican family was leaving our chosen swimming hole as we arrived. A group of teenagers hiked at our heels. We claimed the site by draping our purple beach towel over the boulder by the bank. The towel absorbed the rainwater on the stone; the teenagers hopped over to the next pool.

The creek captivated you. You poked your head up like an otter and scanned your surroundings. The bank dipped into a cavity of calm water. Beyond this, white water rolled. You cocked an ear to listen and your denim eyes grew. You turned silent and still like the overhanging cliffs. What is this place, you wondered. You took it all in.

Your Daddy waded in first while I held you on land. “Cold!” he called. Then he dove under because, as he says, that’s the only way to beat it. The sun soaked through the clouds as he swam, splashed up from the creek like sparklers. It bounced off boulders and saturated trees. It struck your Daddy in his azure-eyed face.

Then came my turn. Your Daddy returned to the bank, dried off with his blue polyester shirt, and capped his blonde head with his olive boonie. I handed you to him and peeled off my clothes. My bathing suit clung to my postpartum curves. The dark line I had developed during pregnancy ran down the center of my stomach like a tribal tattoo.

The water wasn’t cold but glacial. Chills danced upon me as I tiptoed in. “You have to just go for it,” your Daddy said. I nodded, lifted my feet, and dropped. I opened my eyes under water. The current bubbled by overhead and boulders sat at the bottom. Swimming is like flying, I’ve always thought. You hover above ground and beneath sky. You are weightless, Levi. You glide.

Soon clouds piled in and again kicked out the sun. “The angels are smoking cigars,” said your Daddy. Then thunder snarled, so we left. Rain nipped us as we regained the car. It chased us like a pack of wild dogs the whole way home.

The Big Move

Dear Levi,

On our cross-country flight from Bend, Oregon to Chattanooga, Tennessee, you were an angel sent from God. It was Sunday. I had woken up with you at three in the morning to get you ready for the big day. Your daddy and your Uncle Eric woke up shortly after us. Uncle Eric is my younger brother. He is a doctor of dying trees, and he also fixes up old motorcycles. You might call him a lifesaver, which he was for us because he had flown into Bend a few days before our departure to help your Daddy load our U-Haul, and, more importantly, to help me fly home with you and Leona, our cat.

The day you met your Uncle Eric—with his wild man hair and big burly muscles—he stuck his tongue out at you, and you stuck yours out at him. It was clear then that you two would be buds.

We arrived at the Redmond Airport at dawn. Your Daddy had driven us there, the plan being that once he dropped us off he would head east with the U-Haul in order to meet us in Chattanooga a few days later. Your Daddy kissed you and me on our foreheads once we reached security. He stood and watched as we went through the detectors, which was a stressful experience because I had to remove Leona from her travel crate and carry her through as well. She growled and hissed and flopped all around like a fish out of water. As soon as I could, I handed you off to your Uncle Eric then tackled the cat to the ground so she wouldn’t get away. The whole scene looked like a clunky football play.

Fortunately, everything turned calm once we were through the gates. On the plane, Leona slept in her crate at my feet, and you lay peacefully in my arms. At takeoff I nursed you to help pop your ears. I had been worried that you would cry in pain because of the abrupt change in altitude, but you were just fine. Thank God for that. Because, Levi, when you are in pain, I am in pain, too.

As our plane soared up and to the east, I watched out our window to the sunrise over the Three Sisters. Standing beautiful and tall, the Sisters waved goodbye to us beneath that golden light, and tears slipped down my face because I knew I would miss these mountains and the home we had made under their watch. It’s where I grew you inside of me and where you were born, after all. It’s where the snowy peaks are, and where you can look out for miles and miles on the high desert’s painted hills.

“Goodbye, Bend,” I whispered in the air. “Thank you.”

Later that afternoon, in the baggage claim of the Nashville International Airport, your Gran Jenny ran up to us in her paisley dress and beige wedges, waving and hollering, “You made it! You’re here!” The people standing nearby looked at her like she was a crazy person, but she didn’t care, and neither did I because she is my mother who I hadn’t seen since your birth seven weeks before, and mothers are allowed to get away with such things.

Then your Aunt Locksley popped into view. She is your Uncle Eric’s and my younger sister, and she is my best friend. She is a singer and an artist, and I’d had no idea that she would also be picking us up from the airport. The second I saw her walking our way—her honey hair glistening, her aqua eyes aglow—I started hollering like a crazy person, too: “It’s Locksley! She’s here!” This made the people standing nearby all take a few steps back.

We reached Chattanooga two hours later. The first thing we did was go see your Grandpa Pete. He owns and lives in a three-unit building on Manning Street, in the shade of a giant hackberry. Your Grandpa Pete is a craftsman and painter who works out of the art studio next door to the unit that is his home. The third unit of his building he rents out, so he is an entrepreneur, too. You will learn many neat and useful things from your Grandpa Pete.

He fell in love with you the moment you two met eyes. He held you outside in the Tennessee warmth and walked you over to his hackberry to show you the tree house he had built for you to one day climb. He introduced you to Studley, his big white dog, who sniffed your face and then licked your toes. Everyone gathered round you by the rising tree, and although your Gran Jenny and your Grandpa Pete are divorced, in this moment our family was reunited. Levi, you are to thank for that.

We ended our big day at the house on Sweetbriar Avenue where you, your Daddy, Leona, and I will live for the time being. See, while in Bend, your Daddy and I had discovered on the Internet that this little white Tudor with the aqua trim was for rent. We contacted the landlady and soon signed the lease. The month leading up to our arrival in Chattanooga, your Gran Jenny painted and decorated the place to help us come home to comfort and style. As soon as we stepped through the front door, I knew we were home. It has high ceilings and hardwood floors, crown molding and many windows in every room that let in the natural light. Your nursery is sea foam green, and your Daddy’s and my room is soft yellow. A sunroom with a red tile floor branches off from the dining room, and the back deck overlooks our backyard of green, green grass and two shady trees. It smelled like fried chicken our first night there because that’s what your Gran Jenny had made us for dinner. Levi, one way to know you are in the south is by the smell of fried chicken. That, and by the sweetness of the magnolia trees all around.

Now that a few days have passed since we’ve moved to Chattanooga, you have met many of your great aunts and second cousins and cousins once removed. They have showered you with gifts and fed me pimento cheese sandwiches and Krispy Kreme donuts, which are other strong indicators that we are in the south. We are still waiting on your Daddy to arrive, and he should be here any day. In the meantime, we are relishing the love and attention we are receiving from our family, which is precisely what we were missing in Bend, and which is making our cross-country transition easy as these summer days.

Dr. Mother Earth

5.22.17

Dear Levi,

I started to sweat inside the doctor’s office while waiting for Dr. Ahmed. It was late morning. Your Daddy was pacing around the cramped, hot room with you over his shoulder. A few minutes before, the nurse had taken my blood pressure then told me to undress. Now I was sitting naked on the exam chair with a pink paper gown draped over me, dabbing my underarms with the crinkly thing every so often, anxious to get my six-week postpartum checkup going.

I sank into memory while waiting, thinking back to the first time I came to see Dr. Ahmed at East Cascade Women’s Group when I was twelve weeks pregnant with you. It was late September, and I was not yet showing. Your Daddy was with me, and when Dr. Ahmed walked in our room she gave me a sturdy handshake and said, “I’m Mary Ann Ahmed, and I hear you’re having a baby.”

Her voice was soft yet it sparked with interest. She shook your Daddy’s hand then sat on the rolling stool to review my medical history on her laptop. I looked her over as she did this. She was petite, wearing a forest green dress and brown leather clogs. Her chestnut eyes twinkled and her silver hair spiraled down her back, as graceful and wild as the weeping willow.

My doctor is Mother Earth, I thought. I could tell I was going to like her.

After reviewing my medical history, she instructed me to recline in the exam chair. “Let’s take a look at who’s inside,” she said.

Your Daddy leaned forward in his seat as Dr. Ahmed rolled a robotic-looking contraption with a computer screen for a head next to me. She activated the ultrasound machine then turned out the lights. I lifted my shirt. The doctor squirted cold gel on my stomach then rolled what she called a transducer probe over my slippery skin. Like magic, a black and white image of a tiny being—head, body, and a little bent leg—popped onto the computer screen. It was you, Levi, and at this stage you looked like a cashew. I stared in awe at your image. Your Daddy reached out his hand and placed it on my knee. Then Dr. Ahmed took your heartbeat. It was fast and loud like a chugging train.

“One hundred forty-three beats per minute,” she said, smiling. “Boringly average.”

“So there’s really a baby in there,” I said, grasping for the first time that you were real, that my pregnancy was more than mere exhaustion and nausea and mood swings, that it was you, Levi, my child. I looked over at your Daddy. His eyes shone bright in the dark, fixated on the glowing screen.

Sitting in the exam chair now, it was hard to believe six weeks had passed since your birth. Dr. Ahmed had cared for you and me every step of the way except for your delivery. Her on-call shift had occurred the day before I went into labor with you. In fact, the morning after you were born, she visited our room before her workday began to check on the two of us.

“You couldn’t have had him one day earlier, huh?” she said, winking at me and placing her hand on my shoulder as if to say good job. For many months she had invested her time and energy into our wellbeing, and she cared to know how we had turned out. This is the mark not only of a good doctor, Levi, but of a good mother, too.

A knock at the door pulled me out of my memory. Dr. Ahmed entered. She was wearing the same forest green dress I’d met her in, and her sweeping hair was pulled partway back, glistening down her spine. She took a good look at you over your Daddy’s shoulder then connected eyes with me. “It’s the best thing in the world, isn’t it?” she said.

I replied, “It really is.”

After examining me, Dr. Ahmed found I had recovered fully from giving birth. With my clean bill of health, I no longer felt anxious, only sad that this would be my last time to see our Dr. Mother Earth since we are moving back to Tennessee in a few days. She asked if I had any questions. I said, “No. But I’d like to thank you for taking such great care of Levi and me.”

She looked as if she might cry. Then she gave me a tight hug, even though I was sweaty and naked beneath the crinkly pink gown.

“The pleasure was all mine,” she said.

Her words were another mark of not only a good doctor, Levi, but of a good mother, too.

Best thing in the world

Farewell Lunch

5.17.17

Dear Levi,

You were asleep when we arrived at Sarah Larson’s house for our farewell lunch. We are leaving for Chattanooga in less than two weeks, so saying goodbye to the friends we have made here in Bend has begun. This process is never easy. But it is vital.

Sarah lives about a mile up the road from us, in the same neighborhood where she grew up. She owns a flourishing pasture across the street from her house where two lambs were grazing in the grass as she welcomed us inside. Her home was as sunny as the day because of her many windows letting in the natural light.

Victoria Konradson showed up a few minutes after us. To refresh your memory, Sarah was the doula and Victoria was the midwife and massage therapist who attended your birth. These women helped me through the tremendous intensity of labor. They were with me during the very intimate and miraculous event of your entrance into life. In my pain and in my joy, I trusted them. It doesn’t matter that I only met them this year. They will forever be dear friends.

With all of us there, Sarah led us into the dining room where she had set a beautiful table. Pretty blue bowls and plates framed by the correct cutlery sat atop a lace tablecloth. It reminded me of Sunday lunches at my Ema’s house. She would always use her china and silver, and her crystal glasses for the sweet iced tea. It was against her code to use paper plates because she believed in serving her guests with her nice things, no matter how long it took to clean up. My Ema also loved the aesthetics of a properly set table. This is a dying art.

Lunch was a potluck of tomato basil soup, bread, salad, and brownies. Sarah had made the soup by first roasting the tomatoes in the oven then pureeing them and letting them simmer in a pot with cream, seasoning, and basil. I brought the salad, which was littered with strawberries, blueberries, red onion, blue cheese, and candied pecans. Victoria had baked the brownies using sweet potatoes as the base instead of flour. We drank locally brewed kombucha and spread Sarah’s homemade jam over the bread. It was delightful.

You stirred and started to cry during lunch, so your Daddy unstrapped you from your car seat, which he’d placed by the wood burning stove in the kitchen, and brought you to me. I nursed you then and there, which was a tad awkward because I’m not used to whipping out my breast in public (even though I used a burp cloth to cover myself), and because it forced me to eat with my left hand. I spilled a good bit of soup on your onesie. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice.

After lunch we gathered in the living room where Sarah held you in her rocking chair beneath her ficus tree. She rocked you in her grandmotherly way—with confidence and warmth—and you fell back asleep. We spent the rest of the afternoon in that sundrenched space sharing stories. I learned that Victoria is an avid backpacker who dreams of one day hiking the Appalachian Trail, and that Sarah used to hunt elk on horseback. These women are go-getters who won’t be denied.

Your Grandpa Pete likes to say, “When you win, you lose.” In less than two weeks we are winning my hometown and family, but we are losing our new friends in Bend. Of course, we are only losing them in the sense of physical space. For they will go with us in our hearts.