Winsome

Winsome.
That’s how she described the Western North Carolina Mountains. How she spoke of them as the train rolled up the tracks laboring against the increase in elevation. I didn’t know what the word meant. She often used words I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter much to me. I liked the pleasure she took in saying them. The way there was almost a spark in the air in front of her lips as they came out of her mouth.

Murky.
That’s the way she described the French Broad River as we rode by it in our carriage. This word I knew and I agreed with her as we watched the water flow by. The spring rains had made the water fast and cold. The driver told us the river was an old one, and I took him at his word. It felt old that day. It is possible it felt that way because I felt old. Sometimes it is difficult to disentangle descriptions of such things.

Charming.
That’s how she described the building when we arrived. I could understand why she said this. It was the best we could afford. The elements that made up the word charming were present in the building. I said nothing, not wanting to darken the mood or any positive thoughts she had. There are times when your thoughts run counter to a loved one’s and the best course of action is silence. Charming was not my word for it. Not my word at all.

Palliative.
That’s the word he used when we sat in the leather chairs of his office. We heard the familiar sound of coughing in the distance. Neither one of us had heard the word before, but we both understood what it meant. His eyes and posture said what it meant. It was a promise and apology of sorts combined as one word. We had known this was the case without knowing the word, but all had to be explained. All always had to be explained. Words used as braces and props, pinned, not stitched, to an unnamed thing.

Rhododendron.
That’s what they called the flowers that surrounded the hills behind the sanitarium and bloomed in the early summer. We knew them from other places, but not like these. They were vibrant and strong and had no qualms about the fickle weather of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We held hands and looked at them saying little most nights. Words were scarce by then.

Riverside.
That’s the name of the place I buried her. It was late fall and leaves around me were bright and brilliant. In those days, the cemetery did brisk business and I was not the only mourner. I don’t know if it was easier on me or harder, knowing it had been coming for so long. I only have the words to describe what I encountered along the way. I try to speak them with a spark like her. Not yet, though. Not yet.

Gene G. McLaughlin 2017

Bless Your Heart – Then and Now

I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1998.  I had never lived in the South before and I quickly learned the phrase ‘bless your heart’ could mean any number of things both positive and negative.  It was the inflection or the timing or the smiling or sad face that accompanied the phrase that mattered more.  Often later there might be a moment that whoever spoke the words ‘bless your heart’ to you pulled you aside and spoke in a more intimate manner, clarifying their feelings or checking on yours.  Sometimes a quiet discussion was the best way to challenge someone or to console them.  1998 was a strange moment in Charlotte.  It had been a city forced to change by its own residents, by companies that moved there, by the Supreme Court, by all sorts of factors.  There had been far fewer quiet discussions, much more yelling in the years that preceded it.  From Julius Chambers presenting arguments for Swann vs. the Mecklenburg County Board of Education in 1971 to Pat McCrory fighting with theater director Keith Martin on Good Morning America over the NEA funded Angels in America in 1996 just two years earlier, the region was always in flux.

It’s been almost 20 years since then.  People rarely say bless your heart in Charlotte now and the city is ground zero for a battle over a law called HB2.  I don’t miss the phrase much, I never really figured it out.  I do miss people who spoke quietly and considered their words though.  They were skills that those people had learned the hard way.  They witnessed the failures of yelling.  People don’t hear you when you yell. They only hear the volume.  There is yelling everyday now. Sometime in the next few years we will acknowledge the fact that the yelling did us very little good.  We will still have LGBT people and evangelical people as neighbors.  They will still live some parts their lives differently than us and it still will not effect our lives much at all.  There will be times where we understand that treating each other with respect and dignity is for the best.  It will be agreed that all people are entitled to equal protection under the law. We’ll calmly iron out the details.  Those will be good times.  Then we will forget again.  We always do.  Then we will yell.  Bless our hearts.

Gene G. McLaughlin 2016