The Choir in the Backseat

A voice can speak the silence of mountains.  A blending of voices can bring us closer to the unity of body and spirit, the physical and nature and person to person.  Nothing speaks like a down home voice in a down home home.  A down home voice speaks of down home things that touch the heart.  Such down home voices are instruments that stir the soul like a pot of all those good things left to simmer before finding a home in our bellies.  I recently heard the call of such voices in Lake Lure–a place located 20 or so miles from Asheville in North Carolina.  Coming from San Francisco, I am homesick for a down home home.  Down home homes are disappearing and in their place are condos that pierce the skies.  One by one, the down home places, the living rooms with the pictures of grandmas and the history of heirlooms, the worn down circular rugs, the stained calendars with scribbled notations of birthdays and doctor’s appointments–all of these things that make up a page in the recipe of life–are discarded and forgotten as if it had never existed.

In Lake Lure I drive with my mother, step dad and Uncle Paul to the down home home that awaits my eyes.  There is green all over.  Trees are as numerous as skyscrapers and the fragrance it leaves seems effortless.  One cannot duplicate the serenity, that is, a man made replica would lose the fragrance, lose the feel–the spontaneity of nature as it leads  the eyes through the dips and turns and stretches of trees and vines that untangle the mind for miles.  My father tells me that the constant sharp turns in the road are called “Switchbacks”–there are 32 of them and are daunting for my overly sensitive stomach.  We drive and the landscape fills my mind–the trees, the Kudzu vines that grow into the shapes of everything is touches.  Somehow the trees and landscape make for the down home feelings for is it not nature that gives birth to all that is down home, when all is exposed, unhidden and receptive to the light as it touches and illuminates from every angle?  As we drive towards that down home home, I look upwards.  A cumulus cloud is above us.  its shape is striking, resembling a canyon in the southwest.  A piece of cloud appears to have been lifted from the celestial mass, as if it were a puzzle piece removed from the whole from itself–separated from itself separated from home.  We move onward to the down home home.

We turn of the road not far from a solitary church framed by mountains.  The shoulder of the road dips low and we make our way onto a winding path into a driveway surrounded by the omnipresence of trees (and cars).  We make our way to the house.  The heat is settling into the skin.  We are met by a choir of voices–Esther and Kim–mother and daughter.  The door opens and I see Esther, a woman whose voice is music, a brass burnished with the patina of the land–its sound conducted by the tree branches moving effortlessly on either side of Lake Lure.  In her skin I see the darkness of the mountains, covered by lush green–exposed, revealing a landscape of flesh that covers bone in a landscape of love that is her home.  In her voice is the song of grandmothers, of hymns that are hummed and burnished in the trees and passed down in memory.  “My Grandfather built this house” she says as she offers you a seat.  The walls and roof are a honey colored wood.  The grain is beautiful, as if freshly cut and newly erected to create the walls and doorways.  Esther explained that grandfather was not a carpenter or professional builder, yet he obviously possessed a natural builder’s ability in his spirit that was made manifest in his hands.  He, it can be evinced, was an instrument of the spirit that allowed him to build such a place in homage to that very spirit.

On the walls are pictures of family–of Esther’s brothers-who served in the military–second world war, one of whom died as a result of a motorcycle accident.  On the wall is a stately clock–a keeper of time whose hands reach back as well as forward as the honey colored walls of beautiful wood perspire the dew, the songs, the heart, the struggle and dignity that went into constructing this place and, in each moment, the memories of those that have lived here are no longer static but a moving spirit as if carried on the waters of Lake Lure.  I sit and my eyes fall to the floor where circular rugs adorn the wood.  I have seen such rugs in a down home home 2000 miles away–the rugs and the sounds of pots and voices whose singing rival the rivers.

My eyes rise and catch a glimpse of an oil lamp.  Somehow that lamp is illuminating all that I have seen and remembered about what a down home home is  I am brought back back to what Henry Miller wrote about the black folk in the south–that he, she–is the true manifestation of the landscape; their blood, minds, hearts are, in themselves, the landscape.  I feel this dignity in the walls and in the light that illuminates this house.

Esther’s daughter Kim is a lovely woman whose voice is beautiful, whose tone lifts and rises like clusters of birds.   She has a smooth face and a ready smile that must have been a joy among joys–a light among light.  But it is the voice that brings in the light, the music.  My mother and Kim talked about skin and hair care and Kim intimated that she uses Aztec Healing Clay for her skin.  She said that she added honey to it–making it more effective.  The ton of her voice held a lingering note as she formed the word honey.  Huuuuunnnnnyyyy she said, her voice drawing out the sweet moment of our visit.  I beheld the music of a down home voice and a down home home as Kim and my mother continued to talk.  Kim worked at a tax preparers office and a real estate appraiser’s business and is taking a break from the stresses of those endeavors.  She had attended bible college, which  prompted uncle Paul, a kind of devil’s advocate who delights in devouring all possibilities spiritual, to propose a proposition:  If I were in charge, there would be no suffering.  You would be able to eat whatever you want and not get sick”.  Kim listened politely before informing Paul, in her sweetest voice, “Back to reality, you’re not in charge…”

An engraved image of the last supper stands out, humbly, engraved in gold in a room adjoining the kitchen.  And I feel as if I am in communion in a first supper, last supper, and suppers to come.  And my stepfather, a man of details, notices everything–including an extension to the house–a laundry room built by a friend.  I imagine those hands that built it, building with the same spirit as Esther’s grandfather.  And other details are discussed, including blood sugar and my stepfather tells Esther she needs to check her levels.  And Esther clings to her ways of doing what she does with a loving stubbornness before excusing herself to check her blood sugar.

And this is a down home home as we get ready to leave for lunch at a nearby seafood restaurant.  We make our way to the car.  The warm air from Lake Lure rests heavy on my skin, relieving the stress of the city–some 2000 miles away–whose haunches bear down on

me.  I look at the bumper sticker affixed to Esther’s car, it reads:  My Travel Agent is Jesus Christ.  We load into uncle Paul’s car.  Esther and Kim sit in the back seat.  I lower the window.  Their voices sing out a song of this down home home, this down home place.  The car

moves, their voices fill the space, connecting all of us.  It moves us like the sound of a choir.

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

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