On the weekend before Thanksgiving I jumped in the car to make a last-minute drive to Memphis for an office luncheon celebrating my father’s upcoming retirement from the practice of medicine, which will actually coincide with his 92nd birthday later on December 30. A very long run he has enjoyed, indeed, and I wanted to be there to celebrate him. He started out with a small cadre of young men in medical school at The University of Tennessee during World War II, had several colorful side jobs like sharpening surgical knives, for one, and has ended up in the long span afterward being an army doctor, an internist, a medical school professor, head of medical education in the hospital, director of the EKG lab, an entrepreneur, and one of the first practicing cardiologists in that region. And a damn good golfer and tennis player. Dr. Gene and one other gentleman, Hiram Sturm, both the same age, are the last two surviving members of his medical school class, and Dad will be the very last to retire.
The five- or six- hour drive to Memphis alone gave me a lot of time to reflect on things– especially things that are coming to an end. Sounds a tinge sad, but if you’ll hang with me, I promise it ends up being hopeful. This is what Advent looks like– i.e., turns out good in the end. The end of the year, too, is a good time for this sort of recollection, which I like to think of as the process of re-gathering the parts of yourself you’ve left scattered across the past year, or season, or region, or road. Or lifetime. It’s not a bad exercise to undertake.
In our family this year, we’ve found ourselves in the middle of at least one very significant ending. Marianna graduated from high school last May, and all of a sudden, we’ve become “empty nesters.” I like to describe the situation like this: in 1994, we brought Marguerite home from Piedmont Hospital; in 1998, we brought Marianna home from Piedmont Hospital. Then they both went to Westminster for thirteen years; and then in August of 2017 Marianna got in her Mazda, (which we bought from our friends the Whites–thank you!) which was packed to the gills with food, clothing, and her most essential personal effects, and drove out of the driveway headed to Auburn University. As she says, “I love it because it’s three turns from our house.” And here we were, Yvonne and I, alone, literally for the first time since February of 1994. That is the strangest feeling. Not altogether bad, mind you, but definitely different.
About a week before leaving for Auburn, Marianna remarked to me, “Well Percy (our dog) is gone now, and the chickens are dead, and all you have is Walker (our smug, self-satisfied cat). When he’s gone, that will be so depressing: it’ll just be you and Mom!” But you know what, Marianna? It’s actually not depressing at all! We’re really happy– after all, that’s how we started out: just Mom and me. So, War Damn Eagle! Dinner is so easy now. We go to bed half the time at 9:30 PM. It’s actually quite dreamy at our house these days. And now that Marguerite is super settled in her second year of graduate school to be a counselor, she calls us a lot and keeps up really nicely, so we actually feel like we hear from her more than we have for years.
And Marianna, too, is super happy at Auburn, with a lovely roommate named Kate Wallace, who in a crazy turn of fate or Providence, is the first cousin of one of Marguerite’s longtime roommates from Rhodes. What are the chances? Marianna pledged Pi Phi, and has a sprightly group of both new friends and old cronies from Westminster to hang with, and she and Kate keep themselves entertained going to Wal-Mart and Kroger and Ubering to search for their cars at the student parking area that is like fourteen miles away. She nailed Honors biology, which I certainly did not as a college freshman. They’re living the Auburn dream. Big shout out to James Walker Dickey at Sewanee. Miss ya’ around here!
Marguerite has a lovely old house in Memphis with her super roommates McKenzie and Taylor, and she gets to visit with my family a lot. She actually lives on Harbert, a street in Central Gardens near the neighborhood where my mother grew up and used to play or stay over at the house of close family friends in the Thirties. Within her graduate program, Marguerite’s working for the University of Memphis in the Office of Disability Resources, which is wonderful experience for her as she prepares to enter her year of practicum, next. And she nails all her classes. Margue and sweet Ben are still dating and burning up the road between Memphis and Knoxville, where he lives and works as a PA.
Now that Marianna is at Auburn, I’ve gotta confess, yes, it’s kinda crazy, but we have become erstwhile football fans. (Yes, that is the earth that you feel opening up beneath you.) Or at least we buy some tee-shirts and pompons and stuff and go to maybe the first fifteen minutes of a game or two and sneak out because we’re having a heat stroke; or, like, have the Auburn game on TV in the background while I read Rilke poems or look at Cecil Beaton books. It’s quite remarkable for us. Yvonne really does watch the actual games– from bed, though. For real.
In work life, the two of us are still at Westminster. Yvonne’s also been super busy with her wedding planning biz. After each wedding, she misses the bride and groom and their parents like they were her own family. I still get to do some fun design work around the edges of my time, plus I’m still playing piano for Christ Church Anglican, which is a sweet little gig for some very lovable folks. I’ve also been working on a novel for about eighteen months, and I’m headed to a thing called Writer’s Hotel in New York in June, where a bunch of writers and agents and editors hole up in, yes, a hotel and try to hammer manuscripts into some publishable form. So, I hope some of my lengthier musings will find fruitfulness in that endeavor, and that maybe by next December I’ll have something you can read besides a super long and self-congratulatory Christmas letter! Or it could just be another one of my many attempts at pomposity.
But let me get back for just a moment to that theme of endings, and that trip for my dad. That interminable stretch of road reaching out of Atlanta toward I-20 to Birmingham, then up old Highway 78 to Tupelo and onward to Memphis, has to be one of the bleakest and most tedious stretches of road in America. It’s like something that you damn sure wish would end, but just won’t. It reminds me a lot of what I heard a preacher say about sin when I was a kid: “Sin will take you farther than you wanted to go and keep you longer than you wanted to stay.” And the fact that the state of Alabama took from the 1970s until 2017 to finish the divided highway roadwork of 78 and hook it up to I-65 is one of the most remarkably dilatory acts of civil engineering in modern history. But it did shave off about 28 minutes of road time in the end. (Kinda wonder if that was even worth it?)
This selfsame stretch of brown asphalt, my friends, cuts through the heart of what some have called “the South of the South,” and what occurred to me on the drive was that the spare poverty and isolation of that region is precisely why after college I booked it to a place like London, then went to New York, and finally ended up in the ATL, hoping never to look back. Except for special occasions. Yvonne and I have often traveled that road as a couple, then later as a family, and actually most often at Christmastime, because it’s been our tradition to spend that holiday with the Memphis folks. And after Delta bailed on their Memphis hub, airfare got crazy enough to keep us in the car far too often.
We’ve always taken up the road time by reaching deep with our conversation– gossiping about family members; talking about what kind of house we would build if we were designing the ideal thing (still haven’t actually built it); and then I often make historical references along the way that nobody cares about: “In 1862, the Confederate encampment was temporarily located about here.” And I can’t miss the opportunity to say how this or that Church of Christ with a crazily convoluted roofline is ultimately derived from Le Corbusier. My dad got his money’s worth from all my graduate school, by damn.
One December I’ve lost track of– maybe 1991 or so, Yvonne and I drove late at night through that Alabama and Mississippi landscape when it was heavily glazed with ice and barely illuminated by the dim glow of tiny sleeping towns– a sight reminiscent of the familiar Christmas poem of Christina Rosetti:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Making painfully slow progress across icy highways, we desperately wanted to stop many times, but it was as if the entire world had closed, and everyone moved away. The soft quiet and peacefulness was palpable, but there was a stony silence and desolation to it as well. Finally, somewhere north of Tupelo (and this was before the furniture manufacturing industry had perked up the central Mississippi economy– after all, where do you think the Sofía Vergara collection at Rooms to Go comes from?), we finally stopped at a nameless, numberless exit to look for gas or distraction or barbecue pork skins or anything. As it turned out, that particular exit was even darker than the open road, with only a few houses and no name-brand gas stations, and no visible populace. It was as if a wintry hydrogen bomb had landed there and exploded into icy, splintery desolation. Still, the quietness, still the beauty, though; still the eerie solitude.
Foraging neither gas nor snack, uh, nor bathroom in that remote hamlet, we soon wheeled Yvonne’s old Volvo back onto the dark, flat highway determined to persevere another hundred miles or so, unrefreshed. Depleted of interesting conversation we could muster in the previous four hours, Yvonne set upon a single, plaintive query, which she kept repeating not so much to me, but just rhetorically, to the frosty air: “What do people do out here?” To which, I would answer– starting with the most basic sustenance up to the highest level of economy I could observe around me:
“Well, I guess they grow things in spring and summer, so obviously some people work the land, and somebody has like a farm stand to sell vegetables somewhere; and then some people sell farm equipment, and other folks work on equipment and cars; and some people run gas stations, and some people also work there, and then some folks have children, so I guess there’s at least one doctor around here somewhere; and then I guess there’s got to be a school, so there must be some teachers, and then there has to be a church, which would also mean there must be a pastor. But judging from all the TV’s on the front porches, they could just watch TV preachers and not have one of their own. And then maybe if it gets so boring for them, too, somebody’s got to be running a cinder-block juke joint, though I sure can’t see one tonight. Oh, and timber. They cut trees and sell those, and they deer hunt like 24-7. So, there must be some stores to sell camo and boots and orange vests and all that. And guns. And taxidermists! Well, and then cotton! Yeah, and William Faulkner was over there in Oxford at Rowan Oak writing novels up and down the walls and shit.”
I realize now I failed to mention the catfish and poultry industries. And that was about all I could think of, honestly, but Yvonne, who really grew up as a city kid, from parents who were city kids, would just reiterate, “But, Robert, really. What do people do out here?”
So here I am still making the same trek twenty-six years later, and the main thing I’m thinking is that I just can’t bear it to make this drive again, like I just don’t have it in me to endure the length and bare tedium of it one more time in my whole life. About the only new things that have cropped up along that one piece of road from Birmingham to Tupelo since 1986 is a huge auto dealership with an American flag the size of a football field; and this one nuclear plant you can see in the distance, puffing out steam. Super cheery.
So, obviously, in year 26 of these iterations, I’m using this whole journey theme as a metaphor for life, duh. And what I am asking myself, I ask you, too: what are you coming to the end of at this point in December, 2017? The ancient Greeks had a wonderful word for this state, pleroma, that is sometimes translated into English as “the fullness of time.” I’ve been pondering that a lot, or at least for that couple a’ hours between Birmingham and Tupelo. What exactly is “the fullness of time?” Christian folks will recognize the phrase, especially this time of year, because of St. Paul’s use of it in Galatians 4:4. “In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son…”
I began to imagine the fullness of time as something you can’t bear any longer, like that road trip, or something that is about to burst, like an overfull water balloon at the end of a running hose; or I even thought about something my Italian grandfather said about this enormously pregnant dog he and I saw together once: “She’s full,” he said, echoing an Italian idiom, I think, that didn’t quite make the translation, but was packed with meaning nonetheless. Yes, I get all that, and that’s where my mind first went.
But investigating the Greek term Paul uses, it appears that it doesn’t not so much connote the fullness of pregnancy or the exhausted, burnt out sense of “I’m so sick and tired of this” that we all get to in our own heads. It seems that the Greek term means something more akin to preparedness, readiness, like a ship fully loaded with everything it needs for an adventure or encounter.
Putting that particular spin on it all, then, being totally exhausted, burnt out, bored, finished, surfeited, traumatized, blocked– insert human condition— may not have anything to do with an ending at all. The metaphor then shifts away from the boring old road to something more like Marianna’s Mazda, completely overloaded with all her necessary and appropriate stuff, headed to college. And the crazy ironic thing about her particular experience is that she’s going to college in Alabama! WTF, college in Alabama? It shames the damn Vanderbilt right out of me. College in the Deep South.
And remember that whatever you think about Alabama, ha, or Georgia or Tennessee, or Mississippi for heaven’s sake, or the Midwest, or the Outer Hebrides, Jesus’ big message, his big ole good news, is that God is coming out to meet all the people who thought they’d never see God, who thought they weren’t ready, didn’t believe, weren’t worthy, weren’t part of a religious in-group, didn’t want to be in one anyway. And God showed up where religious people said God was not supposed to be, and to people who weren’t supposed to be God’s friends.
So, everyone, y’all, it’s December 23, 2017. Are you bored and sad, or are you ready?
It’s the fullness of time.