Aside from wind rushing through the open car windows, the only sound was the radio, its volume low enough that I could only occasionally catch snatches of the lyrics.
Neither of us were actually listening to the music. Lost in our own thoughts, there had been no conversation for the last thirty miles or so. I held my hand out the window, palm horizontal, letting it surf the currents of air that washed over and around the vehicle.
It was one of those moments when you want desperately to say something, anything, but find it impossible to come up with the right words to even make a good start. I wanted to find out more about my father, fill in those years before I was born or at least make less hazy the memories of childhood.
The problem was that I didn't just want the facts, I wanted the stories, full of the color and texture that were available in great quantities when my mother told them to me.
It had been three months since he had died, but I felt the stabbing in my chest when I thought about him. Only the night before, I had called his cell phone only to listen to the sound of his voice. It had been a voice that once frightened and angered me, but now I held more precious than nearly anything else in my life.
Bringing my hand back inside the car, I looked over at Mom. Her eyes were locked on the road ahead, both hands on the wheel. Smoke from her lighted Virginia Slim was sucked into the barren sky by the rushing wind. Her eyes, so much more wrinkled than in my mind's eye of her, were squinting from the effect of the smoke that didn't make it out the window immediately.
"Tell me the thing with Dad and Tim's savings account."
"What?" She turned her head to look at me.
I repeated the question as I rolled up the passenger side window.
"Oh, " she said, dragging on the cigarette, "it was just your dad being your dad. You've heard this story before."
"Come on, Mom. Just tell me again."
She pursed her lips as if she were recollecting that moment in time. After a brief hesitation, she began to speak.
"You father always told Tim that he had to put ten percent of his paycheck into a savings account. Your father would lecture him time and time again, ‘Save your money, boy!'. And each week, Tim would dutifully make the deposit. The only problem was that, since he was a teenager and needed running around money, the savings account always seemed to be empty."
I had heard the story enough that I started to smile now, knowing what was coming up next.
"Well," she continued, "one morning you father asked to see Tim's passbook. He wanted to see what kind of money your brother had saved. Tim tried saying that he wasn't sure where it was right now. It could be in his truck or buried in his room. I think your Dad smelled something fishy and told his to go and find the damned thing right now. We'd been sitting on the front porch when all of this was happening, so we watched Tim go to his truck and take as much time as his possibly could before he finally reappeared with the passbook in his hand. He sure was quavering when he walked back onto the porch and handed it to your father."
She reached the cigarette out the window and tapped off a long dangling strand of ash. She took another drag and blew the smoke in the direction of the open window before she continued.
"You dad snatched that thing out of Tim's hands and began checkin' it over. It didn't take him long before he was raising his voice and reminding Tim that time after time he had told the boy that he needed to be saving his money. Tim was sitting on the porch railing looking more bored than scared, when he said "Oh, I've heard all of this before.'"
"Did it light Dad up?" There's always a certain glee when you have a brother or sister get in hot water. It's not that you want them to get punished, it is just that your are thankful that you are not the one in the hot seat.
"He started rising from his chair with his finger already going. With every point he made, that finger would jab just a little bit harder into the air. ‘You've heard all this before! You've heard all this before!' He had Tim backed up all the way to the driveway before he finally threw the passbook back at him and stormed away."
"Man, I wish I could've seen that." I couldn't stop a chuckle escaping at the image.
"No, you wouldn't have wanted to see it. It was lucky for Tim that your father didn't knock him upside the head.
"I know, but just the chance to have seen somebody actually stand up to him once would have been nice."
She looked away as she spoke. "Standing up to someone like your dad never came with a lot of benefits. Sometimes it was just easier to keep quiet until the storms passed."
"Yeah, I know," I said, reflecting on the lectures he had given me in a drunken haze. Often they were lectures that went on for hours with no purpose other than him showing who was still the boss.
"You don't know the half of it. You were away at school most of the time and didn't have to deal with the crap that the rest of the kids had to."
"No, but I had to deal with him after the two of you split. Who do you think he vented on when you were not around anymore? I felt like she was looking down her nose at me for not having the war wounds that the others carried for having had been at home all the time. Maybe she was right, but sometimes anger and resentment seemed as much of an anchor to this family and hugs and kisses.
"Your Dad may have been a son-of-a-bitch at times, but he wasn't the one who handed out the butt-whippings. That was me." She took another pull on her cigarette and blew its smoke out of the window before continuing. "They weren't bad children, none of you were."
"If he was such a son-of-a-bitch, why didn't you leave him earlier?"
She turned a scornful look on me. "You lived alone with me after the breakup and you saw how well that went. How the hell do you think it would've been with three other mouths to feed? I left when I did because the others were out of the house and you were where you wanted to be, away at school."
"Dad helped out some didn't he?"
"Oh," she guffawed, "you father helped out plenty. He made offers to help us, but there were always some kinds of strings attached. His final little offer of help is what landed me in the hospital with a broken jaw."
"Mom, I'm sor-"
"Don't say you're sorry. Yes, the argument was your fault, but you didn't make him swing at me. I've got a feeling that he had been waiting a long time for a chance like that.
Her hands began to shake on the wheel. I decided that this was as good a time as any to keep my mouth shut. Also, I was feeling even more conflicted than before the conversation had started. I loved my father, and I missed him down to the bone, but the woman beside me had told me only a day before to remember the good as well as the bad. She said it wouldn't do anyone any justice to suddenly make someone a saint simply because there were no longer around.
In the sudden return of an uncomfortable silence, she turned off the interstate and into the parking lot of a Quik Trip.
Soon, we were back on the road after having grabbed a couple of drinks and put twenty bucks in the tank. This time we had the volume up on the radio and Conway Twitty sang "Hello Darlin'", followed by the Statler Brothers with "Do You Remember These". This was the kind of music I had learned from her; twangy melodies that spoke of lost love and misplaced youth. It wasn't until Ronnie Milsap had finished "Smokey Mountain Rain", that she reached down and lowered the volume.
"Don't let the bad things about your father be the ones you remember the most."
I protested. "Just twenty minutes ago you said-"
"I know exactly what I said and I'm telling you that he did the best he could, we both did. He was an ass and he broke up our marriage, but it took two people to screw up this family."
"What do you mean? You were a great mom."
"What do you know about it? I was the great mom that you only saw on weekends, vacations, and during the summertime. You didn't have to deal with my moods and my frustrations like the other three did."
"I didn't say that you were a saint. I know about as well as anyone that you had your mean streaks, but you were always there for me when I needed you the most."
"But I didn't take my frustrations out on you the way I did with the other three."
"Maybe I would've turned out to be a better person if you had." There it was. The very thing she was talking about was the one thing that I had felt would always keep me and my siblings from being a complete set. I knew I was loved by them, but also felt that because I had more of the good times and less of the bad times at home that I had never paid my proper dues.
"Yes, in a way." She activated her blinker and moved the car to the right lane of the interstate. "You would've gotten more discipline if you had been raised by me and you Dad."
"I was raised by you and Dad!"
"No, you were raised by the people at that school. If I had had my way about it, you would have had your butt yanked out after only a couple of years. You had your friends though and your Dad liked not having the responsibility of helping to take care of you. So, I finally gave up being the bad guy and just kept my mouth shut."
"And what did the other three learn by being at home that I didn't?" I put a bit more sarcasm in the question than I had intended to, but she didn't seem to notice. Though her eyes were on the road, she seemed to be gazing at things much more distant than the yellow dashes in the road.
"They learned to work for their money. They learned that when you don't do what you are told that bad things can happen. They learned to run like the very devil when they were free to leave home." Tears were openly streaming down her face now and her hands were not as steady on the wheel as they had been moments before. She slowed the car's speed and eased over to the shoulder of the road.
"They learned," she continued, "that children are to be loved and cherished and not used as a way to vent your anger. Oh, they were loved. I loved every one of you more than you'll know, but I just wasn't ever very good at showing it."
What was I to say? Yes, I remembered mean streaks, but they were always over-shadowed by acts of love that only a mother can commit. During the moments that I used searching for a response, she began weeping in gasping sobs. I hadn't seen here cry that many times in my life, and at thirty-one, it frightened me almost as much as it would've it I had been seven.
"I was such a bad mother!" she gasped through her tears.
I reached over and pulled her to me. Tears were flowing my eyes as well. "No you weren't. You loved us no matter how many times we screwed up. Especially me. We always knew that we had a place to go if something went wrong, and that you would give us your last scrap of food if we were hungry. You weren't a perfect mother, but I wouldn't trade you in for anything. You gave birth to three other children who became wonderful parents despite, or maybe because of, the way you raised them. And in turn, they gave you grandchildren that are good and happy and love their Granny. We all love you, Mom."
I did my best to comfort the woman who had spent the last three long and agonizing months letting me heal after the loss of my father. I kissed her gently on the forehead and whispered in her ear.
"We will always be your legacy, Mom. Remember that is your love that has carried us through."