When Horses Could Fly

My mother’s love gave me the courage to say no. Even if I wanted to indulge in their teenaged stupidity, I resisted because getting caught and arrested would have destroyed Ma. She wanted something better, which she was unable to even define, for her kids.

When Horses Could Fly
Working the Buick Motor Division Assembly Line 1954

My father was getting older and I figured spending too much time alone in his house on the edge of the woods in Central Mississippi. I thought I might convince him to move back to Michigan and be close to his children and grandchildren. One October day in Texas with a dry wind blowing through the Hill Country from across the Edwards Plateau, I decided I needed to take at least one more ride up to my Daddy’s front porch and continue my attempt to understand him. There was probably little he remembered about his household violence through the accumulating years and a couple dozen electroshock treatments, but I wanted to have another conversation.

I already knew he was unable to remember striking his wife or children or how his whirling fists and slinging leather belts had terrorized the people he had said he loved. I suppose time wrinkles a man’s memory as much as it does his skin, but I saw Daddy’s lack of recall as a kind of grace. His reminiscences were hazy but gentle and carried him softly back to his boyhood in the South, and they created for him attentive, loving parents and a bountiful farm he happily shared with his siblings. He was often seen gazing into a blank distance and smiling, and I thought I knew what he saw out beyond the tree line.

I never stopped trying to repair whatever was broken between my father and me, though I had no idea what that was or how it had been damaged. I was never going to be the son who hunted and fished or took joy from the sound of a gun in the woods, but I still hoped there might be a chance he could come to appreciate his eldest son. As he sat the old wooden swing and the late afternoon sun splintered through the loblollies, I tried to begin a conversation that might have meaning. Daddy had his Mason Jar tumbler of whiskey with a few peppermint candies swirling in the glass and looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“You know, when I was comin’ up, buddy boy, horses could still fly.”

He looked at me, hard, and seemed to dare me to challenge his statement, which, of course, I did.

“Daddy, I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Hell, I mean what I said, that’s what I mean. Horses could still fly.” He ground his lower teeth hard against his upper dentures and pursed his lips like he was expecting me to provide evidence to prove he was wrong.

“Daddy, horses could never fly. That’s silly, and you know it.”

“Aw, hell, don’t tell me, buddy boy. Horses could fly when I was a boy.”

“Why would you say such a thing? Can you imagine a horse actually flying?”

“I don’t have to imagine nothin’, damnit.” He had only raised his voice slightly, as if he had at least learned how his angry baritone had frightened his children when they heard it coming down the hallway.

“Okay, then, tell me about the flying horses.”

“Ain’t nothin’ to tell but they flew. I done seen it. So did Poppa. He seen it all the time when he was a boy, too. We saw ‘em flyin’ every mornin’ when we went out to chop cotton. Pretty as could be. Appaloosas and mustangs and every kinda horse there ever was, except with big wings.”

“I’m supposed to believe my father saw horses fly?”

“I done told you that already, damnit.”

“Well, why aren’t they flying now?”

“They was just gettin’ to where they couldn’t do it any more when I was little. They did what ya call evolve away from it, is all. Spent more time on the ground and didn’t need their wings as much.”

He reached down slowly for his drink and turned his head away from me, disgusted, I thought, by my unwillingness to accept such an idea.

“Well, I’m telling you, horses can’t fly,” I said, softly. “They never could, Daddy. There are horses in mythology that have wings and flew, but those are just stories, and there has never been any such animal that lived on earth.”

“Aw, go to the devil; you don’t know what in the hell you’re talkin’ about. What do you think Poppa and I saw then? He seen ‘em before 1900 and I seen ‘em when I was comin’ up in the 20s.”

“I don’t know what he saw, or you. I have no idea.”

“You damn sure don’t have no idea. Cause I know what I know and I know horses used to be able to fly. Cain’t nobody tell me what I seen with my own two damned eyes.”

He threw back his head and swallowed a gulp of whiskey and looked at me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you’re right. I guess I need to do some more research. I never heard of horses flying but I suppose that doesn’t mean it’s not true. I’ll check it out.”

“You go ahead and do that, buddy boy, and you’ll find out what I already know.”

The pecans were falling early from the trees that year and we went out behind Daddy’s house and gathered a large bag. He walked me through his garden and explained what he had grown in each crop row that summer and told me about the boy who came to chop the weeds because Daddy was no longer able to swing a hoe. A healthy garden with good tomatoes and corn was always a matter of pride to my father and to be able to grow things well was an important measure of a man.

“You shoulda tasted my tamaters, buddy boy,” he said. “They was as big as my fist and the sweetest you ever did see. I had more corn than I could put back, too. I got a freezer full of it and gave the rest to some colored folks.”

The Sweet Bird of Youth was Sitting on His Shoulders, Yesterday

Back inside, we cracked the pecans and spread their fruit across a cookie tin. Daddy got out a stick of butter and sliced thin pats to place on each pecan half and then he used a shaker to sprinkle salt across the top. As they heated in his oven, we shared the whiskey and he told me more stories of being a boy on a poor dirt farm during the Great Depression. The one he had been repeating since I was little was about a headless horseman my grandfather and he had come across one morning while taking a buckboard wagon loaded with hay into town.

“He had his hands up just like this,” Daddy said, holding his arms out. “But they wasn’t no hands and the reins was just floatin’ in the air at the ends of his sleeves. And right where his neck shoulda started and his head oughta been there wasn’t nothin’ but space and a big ole top hat was ridin’ in the air above the empty place where his head was supposed to be and he was ridin’ a big, ol’ painted mare in circles around a oak tree in front of a farmhouse. Poppa said, ‘Son, do you see what I see?’ And I told him, ‘I sure do, Poppa.’ He told me, ‘Don’t you ever talk about this to no one, son, ‘cause all they’ll do is think you’re crazy.’ I never did tell a soul, either, until Poppa died and then I told all y’all kids.”

“What’s that story supposed to be about, Daddy? Can’t be real.”

“I’ll tell ya what it’s about. It’s about we don’t know nothin’ about this ol’ world. They’s things we ain’t ever gonna understand and I reckon it’s ‘cause we ain’t supposed to.”

After eating the pecans, Daddy asked me to draw for him very hot bathwater and pour into it a bottle of vinegar and a half box of Epsom salts. Hot water and vinegar when combined with the salts, he had heard from someone in Starkville, was another reliever for arthritis that supplemented the whiskey and peppermint candy. My father’s bones and all their connective tissue had grown creaky and aching from the uncountable hours he had spent lifting bumpers out of a General Motors metal press and stacking them on wooden pallets. While he soaked, I wandered around Daddy’s cluttered and disorganized house and wondered how he made it alone, what value or purpose did he see in his isolated existence in these far woods, a thousand miles from his children?

My father had hoped he might have frequent visitors, but his children had busy lives and were inclined to spend their family vacation time in locations slightly more appealing than rural Mississippi. I was the closest to him, geographically, in Texas, and was rarely able to make the trip north for a visit. We had talked about his return to Michigan to spend time with his children and grandchildren and I was pleased when I later heard he had made that decision. Daddy found a small bungalow less than a mile from Ma’s old restaurant up by the Chevrolet plant, Joyce’s Coffee Shop, and a few more miles from the assembly lines where he had turned his muscles to the physical labor he had endured to provide for his family.

My last conversation with him on his porch in Sturgis was painful. I waited until he had finished a couple of whiskeys to get an honest opinion of what he thought about his life. There was a chance, I thought, he might speak of his behavior and what had made him angry or crazy, but I do not think he ever understood his own actions. My father was too trapped in the daily struggle of providing.

Was I supposed to offer forgiveness? Did he even know what needed forgiving?

“I just never had me a chaynch, buddy boy,” he answered. “The crops was never good enough down here to be a farmer and I never did make enough money on the line up north. I never got me a chaynch to do what I wanted.”

“I guess that was to be farmer?”

“That’s what I wanted when I come home from the war. But when I was up north, if I’d of had me some money I’d a bought some land around them factories and gotten rich. I wanted to buy that lot on the corner of Hill and Fenton Roads years before they’s anything there and now they’s a big ol’ McDonald’s and grocery store there. I’d a made a million dollars, buddy boy.”

“Did you hate working in the factory and building cars you couldn’t afford to own?”

“I hated a lot of stuff. But in them days we did what we had to do. The Buick job made the house payment and fed you kids. But that’s about all it ever did.”

“Do you regret going up there, Daddy?”

“Naw. I don’t think about it much. Wasn’t no point. I did what I had to do to provide. I had yer mumma and three of y’all kids and it was all the work I could get so I took it. That’s all. When there was six of y’all, I had more kids than I could afford. I never had time to look up and think about anything else. Besides, I didn’t have nothing to sell but my arms and my back.”

“You think things might have been different for you if you would’ve stayed in Mississippi and married a girl from down home?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I was ever gonna have too much just ‘cuz a the way I come up. We was raised to grow crops and take care a animals and they just wasn’t much use for that after a while. I reckon I was lucky I got one a them factory jobs in Michigan. I know it wudn’t a hell of a lot a money, but I did what I could, that’s all. I don’t know that I’d of had me any better chaynch down home.”

A few years after he had returned to Michigan, my father’s heart began to mark its final beats. I remember him swimming back and forth across the expanse of wide blue glacial lakes in Michigan to maintain his fitness in his sixties. Even when Daddy was working 12-hour days in the car factory, he often went outside in the snow and did curls with an old barbell he had been given and he frequently showed us his ability to do one-armed push-ups. His biceps always looked to me like fat hams and his physical strength was as frightening as it was impressive. His diet, however, was unrestrained, and Daddy consumed anything that might be fried or sugared, and his appetite was only becalmed before leaving for work by multiple eggs, giant rashers of bacon, ham, fried potatoes, buttery toast, and an endless flow of coffee. Eating was one of his great joys.

Heart failure began to affect the flow of blood and oxygen to his extremities and his doctors told us one of his legs needed amputation. I was at his bedside when he returned from surgery and the drugs were massaging a nervous system that had been pulled taut by his endless decades of worries and anger. He was still under the effects of narcotics when the intubation was removed hours later but he raised one of his mighty arms and pulled me close.

“I love you, son,” he whispered.

Those were words I did not recall ever having heard from my father. He had begun to tell his children he loved them as he aged, but usually in a general sense when there were at least a few of us gathered. I had no memory of his referring to me as his son and did not notice this absence until the term issued through his gasping breath. The words seemed so simple to speak. I wish I had heard them frequently as a boy but here they were, and no matter how much wrong he had done, I loved the sound of that sentence from my father. What son would not?

“I love you, buddy boy.” He did not seem to want to release his hold on me.

In his dreams, as he tilted slowly toward his end, Daddy had begun to be visited by his Uncle Horace, who had taken him hunting and fishing as a boy and who he had loved the way he would have liked to have loved his father. Horace was constantly gliding through Daddy’s sleep and telling him he was waiting for him and where they were going to find abundant deer and catfish and bass and the kinds of horses they were going to ride across eternity.

“I don’t know if I’m gonna see Momma and Poppa after I’m gone,” Daddy told me. “I hope I do. But I’m damned sure gonna be with Uncle Horace. Ain’t no doubt in my mind, buddy boy. He’s waitin’ on me right now.”

Before he was transferred to a nursing home for rehabilitation after the removal of his leg, Daddy pleaded with doctors to freeze the excised limb so it could be buried with him when he died. He was insistent that he go to the next place with all of his parts, the whole and robust man he had been when he walked through his troubled world. The doctors convinced him they were not allowed to preserve severed limbs and that God would make him complete again once he crossed over to whatever came next.

After making reasonable progress with rehabilitation in a nursing home, Daddy was transferred to a group housing facility where he lived in a private residence with other people dealing with infirmities. My sister Becky visited him often and he asked her to order him an inflatable raft because he intended to go fishing as soon as he recovered his health. Daddy had focused his contemporary dreams on an area north of Las Vegas, which he had decided was crossed by streams overcrowded with fish and there was rich soil to grow all the crops he needed to feed himself and visitors. No one was able to convince him that this spot on the map was a desert. Becky asked him how he might get himself into the blow-up raft with just one leg and Daddy took predictable offense at the question.

“I can damn sure figure it out by myself,” he said.  “I don’t need no-damn-body, no way, no how to tell me how to do nothin’. I been gettin’ by just fine till now and havin’ one leg ain’t gonna change that.”

Only a few weeks passed before Daddy was exasperated by living in a home with what he considered older people in conditions he viewed as near imprisonment. He had not yet mastered the use of his hand-powered wheelchair but when no one was looking he managed to roll down a ramp to a sidewalk and disappear. Caregivers had no idea where he had gone but Daddy had always had strength and independence and he was having difficulty relying on other people. He was discovered many hours later a few miles from the home when someone had called to inquire about his identity after he had rolled up and asked for a drink of water. I expect Daddy was escaping westward toward his Eden in the Nevada desert.

A few days after he was returned to his group living facility, a caregiver found my father lying motionless on his side. His hard and love-starved heart had stopped and all of the fierce blood that had flowed through him had pooled along one side of his body. The muscles of Daddy’s arms had atrophied and shriveled and when he died, he had the same skinny bird-like appendages that he had carried around as a teenager. I still thought he looked like a giant, though, even in his final repose, just as he did when he was standing upright and daring the world to test him with whatever it wanted. He thought nothing but injustices came his way and he was determined to be stronger and larger than the wrongs constantly arrayed against him.

The part of my father’s life that I was proudest of was the time he had spent serving his country during World War II and I arranged for his casket to be draped in a United States flag. Daddy was buried off Hill Road, not far from the factory where he had worked and the house he and Ma had purchased when they were young and hopeful. I have Daddy’s flag in a triangle box above my writing desk down in Austin. He belongs to the soil of Mississippi but even in death he wanted to be near his children in Michigan because I believe he had at last come to know and love them and he wanted whatever there was to have of us even after his permanent departure. Daddy kept an empty space in the graveyard beside him for Ma, just in case the girl he never stopped loving chose, in the end, to come back to him.

One of his last statements to me revealed a perspective I could not have anticipated, which suggested to me my father sought a peace that went beyond his interpersonal experience, and that parting thought made me happy.

“I don’t have no regrets about nothin’,” he said. “I lived in the best times they was to live in. I seen human bein’s go from ridin’ in buckboard wagons to walkin’ on the moon. You cain’t see much more ‘n that, buddy boy.”

Thinking of him that way has given me a measure of peace, as a man who did not waste time second-guessing himself, and who did not see the Buick car plant as a the force that killed him but as the fount of his livelihood and the opportunity he exercised to care for his family. Daddy and Ma scraped by on small collections of ten-dollar bills to make their $74 dollar a month mortgage payment, and often had to ask for government assistance, but they never stopped trying and their work was honorable. We were certainly not privileged but the rise of the automotive industry assuredly saved us from dirt farms and living as sharecroppers down in Dixie. There was more to our lives than would have ever been possible if Daddy had stayed in the South busting the soil with his muscled back.

I hope he left this world knowing he made the right choice.

*             *             *

My mother’s dreams were very simple when she came to America. She wanted a man to love, who would love her in return, a few children, a small house, a dependable income, maybe, eventually, a gathering of grandchildren around her table. She was only seventeen and could not have been expected to have sophisticated ideas about the possibilities of life and romance in the States. I thought because her father had died when she was only five years of age that she was vulnerable to an emotional connection to a strong man before she had matured as a young woman.

Work Was Often All She Had

I do not know if my mother ever had happiness. Surely, there must have been times when they were newlyweds and she was ironing Daddy’s socks that she felt love and dreamed about their future, a time when all of their aspirations might be realized. What were they, though? I always wondered. Daddy was a man out of time and place, born a century too late and driven to a geography that left him feeling permanently displaced. His anger and mental instability had nowhere to go, initially, except at his young bride. I have cried a few times thinking what it must have been like for Ma the first time she was struck by the man she loved, what rushed through my mother’s mind, what were the accommodations and compromises she made with herself because she was alone and so far from Newfoundland and had small children?

I lived too much of my life away from my mother. I owed her more than I could provide. As absent as she was with long restaurant hours and trying to avoid being around her husband, Ma always communicated her love to her children, and we ran to it when the house seemed to vibrate with anger and sometimes hatred. When my contemporaries were breaking into houses and stealing from the grocery store up on the highway, I was always able to turn them away regardless of the intimidation leveled at me for refusing to participate in their petty crimes. My mother’s love gave me the courage to say no. Even if I wanted to indulge in their teenaged stupidity, I resisted because getting caught and arrested would have destroyed Ma. She wanted something better, which she was unable to even define, for her kids. I was barely smart enough to not be a punk and insult the hours she suffered on her feet trying to improve our lives. I was unable to imagine hurting her because I had seen her endure enough pain.

Ma’s personality was transformed to mostly maudlin when Joe, the man she had met after divorcing Daddy, had slipped from her arms and returned to his family. She became a hypochondriac, I thought, to simply get attention. Every muscle twinge was a tumor, headaches were signs of heart attacks, and each pain or sniffle required a trip to a doctor, often an emergency room. When Ma finally sold the little house on the curve of Woodsdale Drive, she moved in with my sister Becky, and almost harmed Beck’s marriage by frequently calling 911 to rush Ma to the hospital for a heart ailment that did not exist. Even after my mother had adjusted to life with a colostomy, she still thought constantly about dying but ended up living a long time and survived a quadruple heart by-pass in her early eighties.

Ma had moved into an assisted living facility when she left Becky’s house up in Michigan and had her own room with a television and a bathroom, a sitting area and a bed. There were pictures of her children and grandchildren on a cork board on the wall and I was saddened by the notion that all lives, including my mother’s, can shrink to such proportions. Her small space often felt large and lonely, though, regardless of how devoted her kids were to regular visits. Ma also complained that the people around her were old and they did not listen to her.

My last time with my mother I walked into the common area of her group home and saw her sitting in the sun near a courtyard window. She smiled as I came in her direction and I gave her a lingering hug. I sat next to her rocking chair and she did not look at me and seemed to be watching the front door. The thought struck me that she had become convinced her youth and health might have been outside the building, waiting to reconnect with her, and she just wanted to escape. In Ma’s mind, she continued to come and go as she pleased, but her body was still failing.

“Son?” Ma touched my forearm. “Can you get me out that door over there?”

“What do you mean, Ma?”

“If you can just get me out of here and down to the border, I’ll be okay.”

“Ma, please, I don’t understand what you are saying.” I looked directly into her eyes. They were clear and wide but looked glistening with tears.

“Just get me to Canada, son. Take me down to the bridge in Detroit.”

“Why? Why do you need to cross the Ambassador?”

“I can get home to St. John’s as soon as you get me over that bridge.”

“Ma, how would you ever get to St. John’s? Do you remember how many miles that is?”

“I’ll tell you how. I’ll just use my walker and I’ll walk and walk and walk until I flop over and I’ll go to sleep by the side of the road and then I’ll get up and start again, and I’ll keep doing that until I get there.”

“Oh, Ma, I love you so much. You know that. But you can’t do that, and even if you could, who would take care of you when you got there?”

“What do you mean who will take care of me?” She had raised her voice, insulted by my question. “I will take care of me. That’s who will take care of me. I always have, haven’t I?”

“But Ma, you’re….”

“Don’t tell me anything, son. I’ll get me a job at one of those restaurants down on the harbor and rent me a room off Water Street. I just need you to get me to the border. Don’t you worry about how I’ll get home. You never let me worry about you.”

“I know, Ma. I’m sorry. You worried anyway, though.”

How was I supposed to leave her and just go back to Texas? Her heart and memory were going home to Newfoundland and her body was stuck in a building with strangers. I held my mother’s hand and felt her faint pulse against my palm. I sat with her through dinner and went back to her room, helped her take pills, and we watched late night local news until she fell deeply asleep. I looked at her a final time, her gray streaked hair falling away from her shining forehead, the round face that always wanted to give me a sense of importance, and the dark spots on her hands. As she slept, I went out the door that was keeping her from returning to her youth and home. In the rental car, I turned on the engine and sobbed, hardly able to drive off to my sister’s home for the night.

My sister Beverly called me a few months later to tell me of Ma’s passing and I went back north from Texas on a train. I needed the time to think. Bev also explained that our mother wanted to be buried in the cemetery in the plot next to Daddy, which he had reserved in her name. I was not surprised, and, in fact, was quite pleased. As the train trundled north up the Mississippi River Valley, along the great river and past the cotton fields my father had worked in Northeast Arkansas, I imagined for my parents a happiness that had evaded them as they moved through their difficult lives. I was very comforted that my mother had decided to go back to her husband, a man she had loved in spite of his faults and her fears. Her choice was a statement that she had never stopped hoping. I have chosen to believe they will always be together somewhere and are eternally as full of wonder and excitement as they had been when they were young and had first met and fell in love.

Eternity owes them a second chance.

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He writes frequently for CNN and other national media outlets and can be reached a jim@bigbendstrategies.com.