When I miss you most I think about Tennessee.
The small brick house in Murfreesboro, the one with the beige carpet and pink quilts and upstairs room the size and temperature of a wool coat. The needlepointed words framed in the kitchen. Joy be with you while you stay, peace be with you on your way. The television in your office with the VCR, All Dogs Go to Heaven jammed inside. I watched it after Bunny died: do you remember?
I think about the dark mornings, navy and cool, when mom and I would get dressed to go ride, our eyes tired and limbs slow. Those mornings when the dew would urge the dust off my boots. The front yard, grass the color of a lime, where I learned to do a backbend. The same yard where, playing wiffle ball, I once said ‘damn’ out loud to feel like you.
When I miss you I think about the dark nights in Shelbyville, also navy, also cool. The way you sat in the white foldout chair, watching the horses step by, their legs stretching higher, higher, higher. Each horse was an explosion when they passed us, sweat frothing under the tack, the ground shivering. Riders working under a different weight: the stares, the lights. The thrilling et cetera. You watched it all, and I loved watching you. You never smiled or moved your hands, never worked your shoulders in step with the horses like the other watchers did. You were still. Painstakingly still, letting the night sink into your skin. To move was to risk losing the et cetera.
And that was the part you really came for, wasn’t it? The part you couldn’t quite articulate. If you tried, you might say it was the way even the sky had a smell, sharp and clear like a mountain creek. It was the way the white lights touched the air and the way the crumpled tin foil of a hot dog looked in your daughter’s hands. Taken together it was almost enough to make you cry. But only almost. You would cry about a lot of things but not about this, not about the smell of a navy sky. You are nothing if not sensible, and this didn’t make sense. But I knew it was the part you came for, so of course it’s the part I wanted to come for too.
When I miss you I think about Gatlinburg, but you already knew that. Breakfast at the Pancake Pantry, where you’d talk about Jeff. How he came up here and got pancakes at McDonald’s — McDonald’s! — of all places. The familiar drive into town, the red leaves on trees. There it was: the Inn at Christmas Place. You told us each room had a Christmas tree. Victoria begged to stay there. Did we ever stay there?
You brought mom to Gatlinburg often after you first got married. But she got sick most times—you said mountain air wasn’t as kind to her. More probably it was the kitsch. She hated it, the novelty stores, the fudge shops, the Dollywood brochures stuffed under hotel doors. But it was your place. She knew that. So twenty years and a few kids later she still came, still held your hand, like the time we wandered aimlessly on Parkway at dusk. I looked up, saw love and felt happy to know love.
When I miss you I think about the moment on the ski lift. I was fifteen. I looked over and you were looking at the mountains and trying not to smile but you did smile and I decided we were the same.
And then River Glen, always River Glen. The Clarion Inn on Winfield Dunn—that improbable place, as close to perfect as anything I’ve ever known. Do you know that I ache for it? I ache for the black October sky at 5 a.m. and complimentary cider so hot my tongue felt limp for six days. A nostalgic caricature of itself, the forest green carpeting and Christmas red bedding, where I lay texting a boy one night whom I was convinced I would marry and you told me I did not know anything about marriage, not least after one month of dating, and I told you you were wrong but of course you were right and of course we would never speak of it again.
Instead we slept and woke up and drank cider and started the rental car and tracked the empty highway to the show grounds, where a cold fog wrapped our fleece-covered arms. You loved the fog and by extension I loved the fog, especially by the river. I would walk Orlando or Kiki or Callaway by that river and look through the trees and convince myself that this was what Tim O’Brien studied while writing The Things They Carried. His boat swaying on the Rainy River, where he inhaled the sunny and cold afternoons, the stiff breezes, the water reaching out toward nowhere, the unpeopled rawness. All those things: There was no chance they were born anywhere but here.
You never read The Things They Carried but I knew you understood, how the vision of rivers and fog could stir a man’s soul and make the world seem good. I knew you understood despite the fact that we never spoke about it. To be perfectly honest we never spoke about much. But I suppose I liked that best, and here is why: There are very few things in life I am sure of. I am not like Victoria or your other children who do and say with unquestioning resolve. At times I doubt my very shadow. But when it came to you, to the way your skin held rivers and fog and creek-scented skies and ski lifts, I was so sure, so unspeakably sure. Because all of those things are in me, too. Tennessee is in me, just like it is in you. I like that we never had to say that to each other. I like that we shared something too sacred to be spoken aloud.