Mother moves us. It’s 1987. Because of the Alps, she moves us. Because of Sister Maria. Because western Colorado might as well be Austria. Sees herself in Sister Maria, Mother does. Or as Sister Maria. That’s it, but ten or twenty times better than any Julie Andrews floosy. Mother aloft in alpine meadows. Up there and cloudside, just blissed out of her material mainframe. Never you mind the steep scramble or the sweat pouring forth. Never you mind those baking UVs and imminent lightning danger. In some simple frock and frolicking, and Mother’s only forty. Still the hottest Evangelical in Kansas City. Hair fixed or not. Body as God’s wondrous temple. Body still springy as her mini exercise trampoline. Though be assured that worldly beauty means nothing to this Sister Maria. In her daydreams she’s decked out in earth-salt shoes, has no need for make-up. In her daydreams she’s merrily crushing pastel tuffs of tundra, turning girlish circles as her guitar plays itself. And you can bet she’s belting along—O the hills are alive with the sound of music! Sings and sings, Mother does. Voice aloose with unbridled truth, and so it echoes the whole earth. Notes bouncing craggy peaks, vast glaciers, maybe triggering an avalanche, maybe eradicating a sinful ski village in one hellish scoop. But Mother doesn’t see, can’t. Not this close to her beloved Savior. Not high on these rocks and cast in His singular gaze.
Then, after the romp, traipsing home. Which surely means Over the River and Through the Woods. Surely, because Mother adores all things mountains, but even more so all things holiday and winter. All things Christmas and Eve, evergreens and log cabins and Good King Wenceslas’ footprints sharp in moonlit snowpack. Oh, see that? There they go! Leading, leading—like a January blue jay’s friendly call. From deep in the firs he beckons and Mother follows so unafraid. Batting branches, holly berries in her tresses, and then here’s a clearing. Right up to our new little cabin, she prances. Jack Frost windows backlit flickering firelight. For this is the place promised. Her family’s cozy refuge, some white-pillowed Canaan. Everyone safe inside and waiting for her to burst through the door. “Mom’s back! Mom’s back! Praise the Lord for her finest mothering skills and the unparalleled job she does preparing us for Eternal Glory!”
Like the Ingalls, this vision. How always in the end, despite close-calls aplenty, the whole family’s secure. Because Mother believes in The Little House on The Prairie. The books, not the TV show. She won’t own a TV, won’t let us. Because she doesn’t believe in TV, and that’s how she knows we can make it in the Big Woods. How Ma and Pa done had. Struck out on their owns come hell or high water, come a-grumblin‘ or a-gigglin‘, but they done had. Though goaded by myriad tribulations. By wolf and panther. Despite, the Ingalls flourished, and notwithstanding that bittersweet sting of butchering one’s own pet, or the devotion it takes to gnaw sustenance off the cold bone. Gruesome and true events as this, but the family fused, fused fast, fused righteously.
So Mother moves us and I’m thirteen. Meaning Jessica’s fifteen. Jessica’s fifteen going on twenty-six—the brink: eager young lads, roués and cads, etc. etc.
Mother moves us because the land of milk and honey can’t last forever. Expiration, armies of ants. In other words, my sister and I have used Father’s tools to mount locks inside our bedroom doors. It’s Jessica’s brainstorm. Me, I’m a toady, total devotee. Fed from underground streams with notions of feministic privacy, Jessica is. Clan of her own cave bear. See, the girl’s gone and developed early. Yet another reason Mother believes we must flee. For in the momentum of mere weeks at a secular high school my sister’s sprouted D-cups. D for decadence. D for defamation. D for demons of lust in the shadows of ample cleavage. Then, along with her smaller, blander bras, Jessica’s abandoned her Amy Grant LPs. Left the albums—thank Jehovah, only the albums, not the bitsy-boulder-holders—at my bedroom doorstep. The firstborn son, his bed suddenly aglow with Amy’s heavenly smile, with a blossomed understanding of the worth of door locks. Imagination developing spread-legged. The virtue of a lip-glossed smile on a bobbling lap. And all the while, outside our split-level, horns honk.
The horns are boys. Deer to a salt lick, these worldly suitors. Instinctually, they’ve gravitated to the spruced-out bosom. Suddenly Jessica boasts four expectant paramours: two with facial hair, one named Piggy, and one who wears white trench coats with the cleverest leather ties. These throbbing semi-men bestow warped and pirated mixed-tapes. Cassettes of Cinderella, Bangles, Bon Jovi’s inexorable Slippery When Wet. That androgynous Jersey rocker and his perfectly sculpted buttocks breach our Jericho Walls. Slick riffs soon oozing pollution out from under Jessica’s door. It suffocates our Godly home, sets our little sister, just four years old, mumbling oddities in her sleep. “Halfway there, halfway there. Living in a wheelchair…”
Herein Mother, as we say, falls Out of the Spirit. “I failed raising you!” she howls into the oak trees. “Tie a millstone about my neck!” she wails, but I ask, “Hey, what’s a millstone again?” I say, “Is it one of those giant ancient rock coins that had to be rolled around?”
“No!” Piggy yells, cupping his hand, calling from out on the sidewalk. “No, that’s a Rai stone, man! A Micronesian currency, circa 500 AD. Those were limestone! Your mom’s referencing a stone—that may have been limestone but was probably sandstone—used for grinding grain. Of course, you want to drown someone, a Rai stone will work just as well, given the depth of the water, given the weight of the perpetrator—”
“Shut up, Piggy!” Jessica yells. “Go home! You give love a bad name!” and this works for Piggy, but not for Mother. Mother continues to wail. Mother continues to disdainfully chide herself, to denigrate her parenting skills. Or until we agree to pack our things. But still she grounds us, send us to our rooms. Still she makes certain our doors remain ajar, that Amy, God’s greatest siren, stays safety stowed below my stiff-sheeted trundle bed.
I’m making light. I’m coloring backwards. The move was certainly more than all this. More than Milton’s platitudinal silver-lining undermined by standard and ribald pubescence. For there were signs far beyond our immediate family. For one, how the congregation of Full Faith, our Evangelical hearth and headquarters, had swelled into the tens of thousands. Had lost its intimacy. Was ducking its original mission. The battle diluted, lost, a forgone conclusion. Kansas City’s most virtuous community of believers all but blue-faced and farm-buying. The Midwest had finally succumbed to New Age armies of the Antichrist, our very own neighborhood rife with Buddhist temples, yoga studios, Asian restaurants. Practically Sodom publically fellating Gomorrah on the Heartland’s front lawn. Soon it was obvious that no amount of picketing Fox Hill Abortion Clinic, or disseminating tracts to the turd-burglars at the Liberty Memorial, could turn these rapacious tides. When, at local convenience stores, we’d inform merchants that they’d lose our patronage, that we’d take our gas-pumping elsewhere should they not remove their Hustlers and Marlboro displays, we were met with glares, common scoffs.
Mother takes my hand, storms us from these stores. 1987. Autumn of God’s Earth. Almost 1990. Almost the New Millennium. Hear Patmos’ hot Apocalypse in the very warble of Reagan’s loose-skin throat: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Such apathy and pluralism. And this from our Commander and Chief. Such nasty globalization the Gipper forecasts. Mother says, “Son, remember, ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’”
That’s Psalms, maybe Proverbs, but our family’s vision is clear: Jesus calling us forth into the wilderness, into the recesses of Colorado. Gunnison, population 4,000. No interstate. No way in or out of the place but via treacherous mountain passes. And how could such a lost watering-hole not be peopled with staunch Puritans? Folks who run smut vendors out of town and summon manna swarms at the first hint of a beef market crash? Once settled in Gunnison, Mother will homeschool our little sister in peace. Havilah won’t know what degradation city-life holds, what myriad cultural masochisms she’s missing. Concealed in the Rockies, Havilah will, not unlike her Fiddler on the Roof namesake, wear floor-length dresses and learn to bake wholesome breads and mend her own clothing and, under quaking aspens, weft knit her afternoons away. We all can, will, and should. Our return to Eden where we’ll wait demurely. As virgin brides doped on so much thin oxygen. Our souls spread wide as pagan thighs. Come, you lascivious Lion of Judah, come, Lord Jesus, and ravage our hallowed hymens.
So Mother moves us for all these things. Or such were the reasons she gave. Gave then. What she didn’t tell us has since boiled out and down. Or up. That maybe we moved because these notions burned not in her gut, but in her mind. That maybe we moved only because of Father. Because he had to go, and maybe Mother only later endorsed it, only later created her own motivations? Did Mother truly and desperately love Father? Or was it just that she needed Father like she needed anybody, anything, to save her from the Big Bad, the New Age Nazis, the Principalities of Darkness? Did not Maria need the Captain? Did not Liesl need Rolf? The whom as that. That which whisks us into a state so noisy with hypothetical happiness, with future adulation, we can no longer hear the whispers of self-loathing.
But this much is fact, in that I can remember it: Father was losing his mind. Father had to escape. Had to, because his body was eating itself. Had to, because he was still young, so much younger than Mother, and his favorite story was Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” You know the tale. Or some version. Say The Empire Strikes Back. On the icy planet of Hoth where Luke and Han snuggle-up in a steamy tauntaun carcass—“I thought they smelled bad… on the outside”—and await rescue. Oh, but London’s story never reaches this point of grace. His is the fiction of a man and Husky lost in the Yukon. Caught in an eternal-dusk of arctic winter, slugging high snow and sub-zero temperatures, they’re desperate to reach an outpost. The man won’t admit it, but he’s clueless as to their direction. He’s discombobulated and wholly due to outrageous pride. An old timer had warned him not to travel alone in the Alaskan winter, but our protagonist brushed aside the advice. Now, cold creeping in, he’s forced to stop, to build a fire.
He does. Flames roar. Good. As he quickly warms himself, ego floods back. Thinking he’s right as rain, he foolishly continues on. The dog, however, doesn’t wish to. It understands something the man can’t. So the man forces the dog. Onward, onward. But soon enough, the man, tool that he is, stumbles through the ice of a hidden stream. The dog doesn’t. The dog only watches. Bone-soaked and brain-benumbed, another fire must be built. And so the man does, but under a tree. Big mistake, monstrous. It’s all about setting, see. Heat loosens snow from the branches, snow drops. Snow suffocates the fragile flames and, warmthless, the man will surely decease.
Chattering uncontrollably. Muscles stiffening. In a final attempt, he tries luring the dog close. Wants to slice its belly. Wants to heat his hands, buy some time. He coos, Here, boy. Come here, buddy… But never before has he bestowed such sweetness on the creature. There’s more than distrust in the animal’s eyes. Steely irony, say, and the dog won’t budge. Won’t so much as lick its frosty butthole. Alas, wistfully, cathartically, belatedly, the man must acknowledge his own ignorance and die, and this was the story. Father’s favorite.
But I never read it, only listened to Father’s take. How the dog simply moves on from the plank-bodied man. No big deal, just find another guy’s fire. Yes, I only listened, but I was a fine and calculating listener. Aware how, in the story, Father and I were the dog, never the man. Oh but did we ever know the man. He was the quintessential Midwesterner, our very neighbors, the men in our church, the dads of my friends. Complacent and fat and out-of-touch-with-nature. Men who lived solely for evening yard work and crisp hedges. Who slaved for clean driveways and drove sleek sedans while decked in designer shirts. Men gulping gravy and slamming domestic beers, so much of their days wasted arguing Chiefs and Royals, Iran and Contras, ranting and hollering because they’d given up, could only live vicariously, only live in suburbia.
Suburbia, that extravagance-demanding façade. Ah, but not in the mountains. No, Father assured me, there was zero room for profligacy in the mountains. That’s right, and even less for pretense. Only necessity, see. In the mountains, Father said, a man was judged by his endurance and sensibility. By his ability to balance autonomy and the unforgiving natural elements against the love of a devoted, purpose-driven family—this Family.
Father’s rallying cry. This Family! This Family is moving to the mountains and, once there, nothing can cleave us. Not fashion, not puberty, not the sagging-gut of secularism. This Family will hunt, will fish, will chainsaw its own pine cords. This family will never remove the chains from the tires of its rusty pickup. Hiking vast ridges of sage, of juniper scrub, unbounded by citified notions of time. This Family will finally have a lifetime to bond. To joke and laugh and boost their immune systems. And no longer will Father be trapped in some windowless department store pharmacy. No more dolling out suppositories to the iniquitous, to the torpid, for he’ll have his own pharmacy in the mountains. A Mom-’n‘-Pop shop, complete with soda fountain, herbal supplements, the latest issue of Mother Earth News. No longer will customers seek Father’s advice on merely the flesh, but rather beg his take on the philosophical, the ecumenical, yes, this Family.
This Family in Gunnison. And in Gunnison, Father tells Jessica, when you’re living at nearly 8,000 feet, when you’re wrung by cragged peaks with the scent of burning wood threading the very fibers of your clothes, well, Honey, high school girls could care less about shopping. That’s right, they could care less about make-up or Aqua Net, because, see, you don’t need hairspray to figure skate. Nope, walk around in the winter, walk with sculpted bangs and hoop earrings, walk even a single block without a pragmatic hat, and you’ll lose those lobes to frostbite. Mountain girls, Father announces, have never heard of Guess! Jeans or Benetton Rugbys. For they’re all rodeo queens and ski racers, women of action, not leisure. “I’m telling you, Jess-A-Kerr-Kerr,” Father booms, “you’ll lose that weight in a snap!”
My sister doesn’t answer. She glowers across the moving boxes, our bare living room. Eyes wet, she lifts a single finger, points to the script on her neon pink visor.
GAG ME WITH A SPOON.
I nod, but I don’t get it, not yet. Not until after the move. And Father ignores her. Father asks me, “Then how about you, Slick?” He says, “You gonna sissify with your sis or get ready to be a real frontiersman? Out there in God’s country? Do some deer hunting? Procure your own snowshoes? Bring home pounds and pounds of venison? Can’t you just smell it? The girls roasting our meat as we drowse by the stove? How’s that sound? Come here, come on in here.”
And I do. I step over to him, to Mother, to Little Sister. Jessica shakes her head. She blinks outside at our moving truck, the boys and their horns silenced, Piggy never saying goodbye. Father, Mother, Havilah, their hands flutter all over me, flutter around my neck and down over the white felt lettering of my favorite t-shirt, the t-shirt Jessica gave me for my thirtieth birthday. TOTALLY AWESOME, it reads, but I do not point at it. No. Though would I now, I wonder, if given a second chance? Would I, had I not lost it in the move?