Non-FictionWinter 2023

Tessentee — Rebecca Fox

We bury my grandfather in a hillside cemetery outside Atlanta. It is July 2020. Throughout the brief ceremony, elongated with heat, we stand measured paces apart. We don’t linger. After the family luncheon, we drive into the mountains that straddle Georgia and North Carolina. For more than two decades my grandparents owned a cabin perched on the side of a mountain above Franklin, North Carolina. It is raining when we leave the city. As we ride northeast the shadows across the road are in the shape of rising peaks, slopes crawling with kudzu. They gave the cabin new roots and a screened porch and extra bedrooms. Tendrils of fog leave fingerprints of condensation on the car windows. When we cross state lines, illuminated signs remind us that travel is not recommended. As if we can choose when we will grieve or not.

The cabin started life as a double-wide trailer planted on a patch of mossy clearing. That’s how my grandparents found it and they built it out. As we travel, we watch for landmarks to remind us how far we have come, how close we are to our destination. We spent Christmases at the cabin, packed inside with our five cousins and a grumpy Shih Tzu called Sid. We pass billboards and roadside shops that declare the region the “Gem Capital of the World!” We spent Fourth of July weekends camping and hiking and picnicking, but there are no fireworks this summer, no traffic on the mountain highways. Off the main road, we spot the shack in the field where a family of goats gathers on the porch, just as we left them, chewing and chewing, looking up only when our car trundles past. We stop at the intersection where the road turns from pavement to gravel so that my sister, the budding photographer, can capture the row of rust-bent mailboxes. Days once shaped an unbroken stream when I spent them reading in the La-Z-Boy armchairs. Each marker should feel like a puzzle piece fitting into place. We should feel like speeding up as we get nearer to the memories. My siblings, my cousins, and I would splash barefoot through the creek with the glitter of mountain silt between our toes. We used to fall asleep to the lullaby of the creek outside our window. Instead, we slow down. We cannot escape the notion that this time we don’t belong.

The cabin had to be sold a couple of years before my grandfather died. We called him Papa. As we got older, we stopped visiting as often. We lived further away. We had college, then jobs, to occupy us. We became busy with the lives we were making, glad to know the cabin sat on its mountainside but in no hurry to return. The forgetfulness started small, but each year it grew. Incrementally, then gaining speed as if caught in a rapid. An invasive species feeding on his brain. The cabin was the first of the memories to be packed up and, not just relegated to the past, but handed off to someone else. The sale was followed, in short order, by the contents of my grandparents’ Asheville home, then the house itself. And then it was gone, and I never had a chance to tell the old place goodbye. Papa died of dementia.

My brother stops the car on the side of the road. Just short of the old property line. While we were busy growing up, the pieces of Papa shook loose and landed by the side of his path like a breadcrumb trail. We climb out of the car and leave the hazards flashing. This branch of gravel that glints with mica is called Tessentee Road. I’ve always liked the way the word sits on the tongue, suggestive of trails and streams curving in and out of mountain shade. He forgot verbs early. Then he forgot our names. It is strange to feel we are trespassing when the earth has the same spring, the same scent. When the end came, he forgot how to swallow and how to lift his eyelids.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to my grandfather. I can’t help but approach the cabin on tiptoe. I didn’t see his body, either. There’s a new deck built across the front of the cabin and a fresh coat of paint. My mother made it to his bedside. The rest of us were trapped in a narrow three-bedroom 500 miles away, waiting for test results that, when they came, told us there was no virus incubating in our airways after all. No need to have waited. The tether ball pole in the front yard is torn down, and a pair of Adirondack chairs occupy the old spot. We drove through the night as if we could catch up with time, as if we could outrun the growing strangeness of the world. We arrived at the cemetery just five minutes before the polished box was lowered into the family plot. When I search the gravel drive for the scorch marks where we used to build fires for s’mores and campouts, I discover that the signs have been raked over. For days, our grief has been hidden, collecting inside cloth masks.

The new owners aren’t home, but I keep my voice at a whisper. Knowing that departure is inevitable is not the same thing as being prepared when it comes. I am ready to dart away, to race back down the mountainside. Sometimes, I forget that Papa is gone. Other days, I forget that he has not been gone much, much longer. The cabin’s transformation makes me wonder, for a moment, if this is even the same place. But the mailbox by the road still bears the family nameplate. Papa’s name. The last time I saw Papa, it was Christmas. He had eight months left. He fell four times that week. All we could do was try to catch him, to soften the coming blow. Even when that mailbox gets torn down and replaced, his name will linger in the echo of the creek as it turns itself around the bend. He sat in a glider chair, upholstered in deep maroon, with his thumb pressed beneath his chin, middle finger resting across his upper lip, the index riding the side of his cheek. When I think—when I write—I feel the same posture come over me. Wind whispers through the pines he planted behind the cabin. His rhythms are written into my DNA. Those trees started life as our Christmas trees, and Papa gave them the chance to set down fresh roots. Papa spent most of our final visit paging through the photo album we gave him for his eightieth birthday. He halted on pages when he recognized himself. He pointed at the pictures and announced, “Him.” When he found a photo of my grandmother, his voice softened. He said, “Her.”

What if, instead of forgetting, Papa got to be so full he had to let the memories go? Before I left the last time, I knelt by his chair. His hair was thin, his skin and eyes greyer than the last time I visited. The sleeves of the striped button-down we helped him unwrap on Christmas morning formed a loose sheath around his arms. Maybe his forgetting was his way of giving, of handing the memories over for his children and grandchildren to carry. Like a swollen sponge that drips then has to be wrung out in a rush.

“I’m going back to grad school,” I told him. “I’m going to write books. I’m going to be a teacher.”

I didn’t say, “Like you.” But that’s what I meant.

We have many miles left to travel before we can rest, before the grief will catch me in a dark hotel room and slide across my temples, saturating the pillowcase. There are so many things I wish Papa could have seen me do. I didn’t get to call him after I taught my first college class, almost exactly one month after he passed. He didn’t get to read my stories because I didn’t think they were ready. I didn’t get married or have a kid for him to cradle. I didn’t listen closely enough. I didn’t sit near him long enough. Before I leave the cabin and the clearing, I take a deep breath and then another even deeper. There are days when grief takes the shape of regret, and I wonder if I—the oldest grandchild—failed. I invite the taste of green air to sink into my toes and the sound of the creek into my veins. I don’t let them go. Not yet. I should remember more of him. I worry I never gave myself the chance to remember. But then there’s something in the way the magnolia leaves turn and the creak of the bridge, and I recall how he and my grandmother drove hours to be there the day my sister and I were baptized, how he ushered me on rambling tours of his library and loaded my arms with books that still sit on my shelves, how a delighted chuckle caught in his throat when I showed him my acceptance letter to his alma mater, how I tiptoed to the stair landing to watch him in the room below patiently struggle to turn the delicate pages of his Bible, how I sat in the audience the last time he taught and thought, halfway through, to open my phone’s recording device and capture the echoes.

Through the trees to the east of the cabin-that-is-no-longer-ours, just past the Christmas pines, we once found the remains of another house, the ghost of an ancient cabin. The fallen logs were soft, dark. Termites tunneled fibrous channels. Tufts of grey-green moss and fungus bloomed across their sides. But you could still see, clearly, the shape of the foundation, the outlines of a single room, and the opening for the doorway. I used to dance there, eyes closed, imagining how the walls might grow up again through the turf to meet a roof of swaying pines. As I turn back to the idling van and my waiting family, I glance back that way. I can’t see the ruins. Maybe the new owners tore them out, carted the fragile timbers away. Maybe they are still there, just tangled over with the encroaching growth of the forest. Or maybe—and this is what I choose to believe as I walk away—that fragrant ruin has sunk below the surface, out of sight but not out of mind. The ancient cabin, the one I remember, is still there, enfolded in the mountain.


Rebecca Fox is a Florida-based writer. She earned her BA from Wheaton College and an MFA from the University of Central Florida, where she also taught undergraduate creative writing. Rebecca now works in nonprofit development.

The author: Debra Marquart