The play “Along about Sundown,” is a homey musical about Bascom Lunsford, the famous song catcher and music festival promoter in the Blue Ridge Mountains. An aging Lunsford told the stories of his life punctuated with folk songs, accompanied by the other players on traditional mountain instruments. A steady rhythm beat on the stage and the audience, myself included, happily clapped, and tapped our feet.
One song, “I’ll Fly Away,” was an old hymn I recognized from my childhood. I thought of Mama singing in church, and around the house as she worked. Once, she sang it softly to me when I lay sick in bed. Her clear, sweet voice soothed me.
Now, I suddenly felt weak with regret for not understanding what the song meant to her. I heard the words as I sat in the darkened audience, the promise of joy and hope for the time when the singer would fly away, after death, to the reward for life’s travails. The enormity of my mother’s suffering hit me, as it has so many times in the past few years. I heard her hope in the song, the Great Promise.
As tears gathered in my eyes and my throat tightened, I understood how much that song had helped my mother get from one day to the next. With so many children to be responsible for, the Great Promise helped in her daily struggle. And she struggled for everything. Everything. Rent, food, shoes for us. She struggled with Fear, fear of my father’s disapproval, of her neighbor’s disapproval, of God’s disapproval. She struggled to get us fed and clothed. She listened to us cry and gave us what comfort she could, for we all feared the same boogeyman. He lived with us, held us in the omnipotent power of Head of Household. He could do with us, to us, anything he wanted. But she carried the responsibility of it.
I choose to get up every single day. I know it, I am conscious of it, and I am open about it. How would I feel if I had little ones clinging to my skirt? How would I feel if I realized, too late, that I had nowhere to go, no one to call, no one to help me? How would I feel if I realized, in my secret heart, my cognizant heart, that I was in a corner with no way out and children who depended on me? Would I sing about a time when I could fly away? Or would I just fly away?
I can fly away today if I choose, and so I choose to go on, to experience one more day, plan one more art project, write one more story, hike one more mile. I think I am being strong, that I am fighting, struggling, and that I am brave. I am not strong, or brave. I am alone and, yes, I choose every day to experience life. It’s not a hard choice. It’s just me, after all.
My mother was brave. After all the years I spent being angry, resentful, questioning why I didn’t have this and that, I see now how very brave my mother was. I see how much she loved us, how hard she gripped that Hope and Promise so she could get through another day, taking care of us. She did the best she could. Her best will be the level of love I try to emulate. Because I am alone, my life is quieter, calmer, saner, and yes, easier. I don’t regret being alone. I don’t regret not having my mother’s life. But only now do I understand how much she loved us. She didn’t fly away.