My name is Cedar and I was born in 1969 in one bedroom of a gray and tumbling house in Chatham County, North Carolina. My mother’s name is Sara. My father called himself Sol. My mother has told me over and over and over again the story of their courtship, the story of my birth and her reasons for being with the man called Sol. My mother has told me that if not for her brother Jimmie’s death, I might not have ever been born. She thinks she might not have found my father so fascinating if Jimmie had only lived. She thinks her whole life has pivoted on that moment, long before I was conceived, before my mother had even met my father, that moment in 1968, when she was home for spring break, visiting her parents in Atlanta, Georgia, and the doorbell rang.
She opened the wide white door to her parents’ home and found a crisp military man standing there. It was late morning. She was just getting up. Behind the house she could hear the drone of the lawn mower as her father cut across the grass. From the kitchen her mother sang out, ‘Who is it dear?’
My mother says that she knew immediately who it was. Without the man saying a word, she knew that six weeks before his tour was up, Jimmie was dead and that he had died in the mud and jungles of Vietnam and that his buttons and shoes were never as polished as this man’s were.
My Uncle Jimmie was survived by my mother, Sara, and by their parents and that was all.
My Uncle Jimmie was walking point and he stepped on a mine and was blown to bits. This is what my mother says. These are her exact words and after she says them she repeats, “To bits,” always shaking her head. There was no body. Only an empty casket made of dark, gleaming wood. Wood so bright that, during the funeral, the sun reflected off of it and shone like a block into my mother’s eyes.
Momma has remembered out loud to me the coldness of the metal chairs they sat on, the sight of the fat triangle of flag being presented to her mother, the smell of freshly dug ground in April. “It smelled like a garden,” Momma always says at this point. “Just like spring.” She looks down and almost whispers to me the story of the bluebird that landed on the pile of raw earth and how it lifted its head in song and beside my mother, my grandmother burst into tears and pressed her face into the flag.
My Uncle Jimmie died six weeks before his tour would have been up. In just six short weeks he might have been home, his feet propped up on the coffee table. He might have visited my mother at school and smoked a joint with her and told her about the killer dope in Vietnam. He might have defended the war. He might not have. I might not have ever been born.
My uncle sent my mother a necklace which he had made by drilling a hole through a bullet and threading it with a leather thong. My mother had decided to send it back.
“I can’t wear a bullet,” she had written to him. “It goes against everything I believe in.”
The letter had not yet been mailed and fat with the unaccepted bullet lay on her dresser in Chapel Hill.
A week after burying her brother my mother returned to the university. She opened the door to her damp basement apartment that she has described as walking into a sponge. She told me that the stale must enclosed her and threatened to suffocate her. She left the door open and dropped her bags and immediately went to the dresser and the unsent letter and she opened it and took out the bullet necklace and tied it around her neck. Every evening she took it off and laid it close to whatever bed she was sleeping in and every morning she put it back on. I remember these motions as clearly as I remember her brushing her hair.
My mother says that right after she put on the necklace she began to clean her apartment. She picked up the dishcloth from the kitchen and she spent the entire day wiping the fuzzy gray mold off of record albums and cabinet doors and she spent the evening washing her clothes in the laundromat. She has told me that she was so exhausted that night that she finally managed to sleep, and then she says, “Jimmie wrote me a letter before he died. It came three weeks after the funeral. I never read it.”
It doesn’t matter that I know all this already. She tells it the same every time, like she is always sifting through the ingredients of her life, trying to figure out what she put in and why. It doesn’t matter that she now knows I used to sneak into her room and pull the letter out of its hiding place, nestled deep into the tee-shirts and long underwear folded in her dresser drawer. I would hold it, turning it over and over, feeling the weight of it and the texture of my mother’s name in hard, ballpoint script. Sometimes I would lie in bed with it resting on the pillow and my hand resting on it. Uncle Jimmie and his unopened letter were as close as we ever got to religion.
After the story of the bullet and the letter my mother will say, “Two months later I met your father. He wanted a baby and I agreed to have one for him. He was mommy shopping.”
She laughs. Her laughter here is as much a part of the story as my father’s lank blond ponytail and his lime-green bandanna and the name that he went by. I have told you that Sol is what he called himself. Sol is what everyone, including me, called him. His real name was Albert Masey. My mother met him at a party.
Her friends Rick and Daisy came by her apartment late one afternoon. Rick sat on the couch and sifted pot down the spine of a record album. He rolled six joints and lined them up into a fanfare pattern on the coffee table. Daisy took Momma into her bedroom and picked out a long Indian print dress for her to wear.
“We’re going to a party,” Daisy told her, throwing the dress in Momma’s direction. It was Momma’s dress with the blue elephants marching across its hem.
“I don’t want to go to a party,” my mother said. She had stopped going to school. She had stopped going anywhere.
“We’re going,” Daisy told her, and Momma obediently dressed and climbed into the backseat of Rick’s old blue Ford station wagon and allowed herself to be driven for miles out into the country.
Momma says that the roads twisted around dairy farms and empty fields. She says that they passed a joint back and forth until it was so short that it burned her fingers and Rick put the roach in his mouth and swallowed it. She says that she settled into the back seat and watched the scenery go by. She looked into people’s houses, catching glimpses of other lives , someone opening a cabinet, a woman washing dishes while, from another window the blue glow of a television shone eerie and cold into the evening. She tells me that she remembers doing this with my Uncle Jimmie. She remembers listening to Jimmie make up stories about the people they saw when they took trips with their parents. She tells me that he would sit in the back seat while their father drove the family to the beach and Jimmie would point to man raking his leaves and he would say, “You see that man? He is the great-grandchild of another man who was a sailor and killed a dragon.” She used to wonder, how does he know these things?
My mother was always thinking about Jimmie in the days after his death and it was no different on the way to the party set high on the hill, the party where she met my father. She has always referred to it as the party set high on the hill and from her descriptions I see them coming around a curve on a dark country road and seeing rows of cars parked along both shoulders and hearing music filtering through the air. High on the hill my mother saw an old farmhouse with every single light on, a band on the porch, a yard full of people and a large oak tree silhouetted against the brightness from the house.
As they climbed the steep driveway, the band ended its song. There was applause and whooping from the crowd. The guitarist let out a loud, distorted wail of a chord. The lead singer made a sound like a siren. People laughed.
My mother stood at the edge of it all. When she turned around, Rick and Daisy were not there. Someone passed her a joint and she took a draw and then passed it on. Another one came from somewhere else, this one rolled in pink strawberry-flavored paper. It was the first time she’d ever tasted strawberry paper and she tells me she liked it. I used to eat pieces of it myself.
Momma always says that she smoked some of every joint that landed in her hands and she took a sip from every bottle that passed her way. The way the story goes is that a small blond woman came by carrying a pickle jar. In the bottom of the jar was a layer of dark brown beans mixed in with coins and a few dollars wafting around towards the top.
“Donations,” the woman said and she shoved the jar towards my mother. Momma started digging around in her purse.
“For me and her,” a man said from behind her and his hand came down and dropped a five-dollar bill in the woman’s jar. The blond woman’s face brightened and she smiled and drifted off into the crowd. “Donations. Donations.”
My mother turned to see a tall man standing there. She tells me that his blond hair was pulled into a thin ponytail and his forehead was wrapped in a line-green bandanna.
“I’ve never seen a bandanna that color,” my mother told him.
“You can have it,” he said, taking it off his head and handing it to her. “Do you want to get high?”
“I’m already high.”
“You just think you’re high,” my father replied. The lime green bandanna was still dangling, unaccepted, in his hand. He reached over and tucked it into the shoulder of my mother’s dress and his fingers grazed the bullet that dangled at her throat. He took her arm and steered her towards the oak tree.
What follows is as predictable to me as if it were my own memory. My mother always says, “Your father was like that. He could steer people like they were cars.” And then she says, “He had the best pot I’d ever smoked.”
I remember my father but my memories are layered with my mother’s story.
My mother tells me that he had “chiseled good looks,” and then she goes on to describe the blanket spread beneath the oak tree and the blue-jean jacket and the two red, metal-flake motorcycle helmets.
“My name is Sol,” my father said to my mother. “And you are Sara.”
Momma will shake her head at this point in the story and she will say to me, “I never found out how he knew my name, but I can tell you this – your father was not a subtle person.”
My mother kept the lime-green bandanna. For years it stayed wrapped around the gearshift of her van. When I was younger, I would play with it and she would tell me, “Someday that will be yours.”