Here’s Gwen Mullins writing about life in Chattanooga (where once I spent a dramatic couple of hours wandering along Missionary Ridge and imagining the amazing battle that took place there–I’d just driven up from Americus and the Andersonville prison camp: part of my Civil War pilgrimage). Gwen is a former student of mine, just graduated at the winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a fiction writer, but with this graceful essay and her recent contribution to NC on story plot, you can see she as dab hand at nonfiction as well, a woman of letters.
Your whole life
You have lived your whole life here. Your life entire spent within thirty (fewer, really) miles of country along the kissing corners of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama. The Tri-State, they call it here. Or Tri-County, for the hospital.
You have traveled a little, but only a little. Some places stand out as bright, clear spots outlined in black in your place memories: San Francisco, Miami, Venice, New York City, New Orleans, Anchorage. Places that seemed exotic but are not. You long to visit other places: Nantucket, Kyrgyzstan, Milan, Edmonton, Indianapolis, Cupertino. You tell yourself you can read about them and in reading, you will be there.
This place, the Tennessee Valley, is overwhelmingly green. Neither bright nor dark, but only green. Green for long stretches of spring, summer, and into autumn. Until recently, even the winters were green. And the rivers run brownly green through the green hills you call mountains.
See Rock City! You’ve seen the signs. This advertising genius of Garnet Carter and Clark Byers resulted in 900 painted barn roofs by the 1950s. You‘ve seen Rock City. Better sights come from the bridges, from Raccoon Mountain (the mountain with TVA generators jammed deep in its belly), from all the forest parks. They call Chattanooga the Scenic City because it is. You avoid Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway, Rock City, the Delta Queen riverboat, Point Park – anything that charges admission. You love Chickamauga Battlefield, Cloudland Canyon, Missionary Ridge, your own backyard and front lawn.You can buy See Rock City!-barn-shaped birdhouses painted in red and black in the souvenir shops across from the Choo-Choo. Yes, there really is a Choo-Choo, only now it’s a Holiday Inn. You remember how in Italy they all seemed to know the Glenn Miller song, how they would begin, “Track Twenty Ni-ine” in their lovely accented English. You wonder at the power of song, of words that transport, that tie the world together.
The old freight depot houses your husband’s office. It is LEED certified, green in the new sense. Yesterday he turned in his notice, so you suppose it’s not his office anymore. You are proud that your city has the first LEED-certified movie theatre, The Majestic. This is part of the downtown revitalization, the focus on the new green. You agree when some people call it gentrification, but you love the new restaurants.
You avoid eye contact with the Jamaican man with the dreadlocks and tangled gray beard who sometimes sleeps in the engine building where the electric buses now spend the night. He sells perfumes and bent metal figurines, and if you ask, other things.
You tell visitors that the Walnut Street Bridge is the longest pedestrian-only bridge in the United States. You are pretty sure this is true. On this bridge families stroll, cyclists bike, athletes run, photographers frame shots, but no vagrants dwell. From here you can see the other bridges, the Tennessee River, the aquarium, the art museum. You love the way the wind whips your hair on this bridge, how it’s always a little cooler here than the rest of the town.
You know, as does everyone, the best fried chicken is on MLK across from the university at a joint called “Champy’s.” You love that the city schools and churches hold fish fries under canopies in parking lots every Saturday in summer to raise money for choir trips and cheerleaders’ uniforms. Down the street a ways from Champy’s is a bleak building with a red-lettered sign that says, “Memo’s” and underneath that, “Chopped Wieners, Pit Bar-B-Q.” This sign has always amused you, but this is not a part of town where you stop.
You flinch and are quick to defend when others who do not wish to lay claim to this land call it backward, or racist, or ignorant, or poor. And then a waitress asks you who your infant daughter’s father is even while she sits between you and your husband. She asks because your daughter’s skin is more mocha than cream.
And then you stop at the gas station in Marion County next to Big Daddy’s Fireworks Warehouse, and you note the Confederate flags for sale, the barefoot two-year-old wearing a heavy diaper and chugging steadily from a clear bottle of greenish soda while his young mother buys four dollars in lottery tickets and three dollars of gas.
You walk among the azaleas on the Cumberland Trail on Signal Mountain (which is not really a mountain, but a big hill and a town who whose inhabitants named it Mountain) and remember how your small, bent grandmother, the one you called “Nanny,” put her thumbprint in the middle of each biscuit so it would rise. You try not to remember the words she used to describe her new neighbors when they moved in across the street. You think instead of how she would hold your hand and point at the hang gliders drifting on the currents and you cried out for the joy of flight. You did not know the story of Icarus then, and your grandmother never did.
You smirk that school children (except perhaps those from Sand Mountain just across the Alabama state line) are no longer required to go to the moving diorama called the “Confederama” as a “history” field trip. They have re-named the attraction but are fooling no one. You hear they are shutting down due to tax issues and you are glad.
And sometimes you walk through the cemetery next to the university. Half of the cemetery is Jewish, the other half Confederate. Both are peaceful, both are green.
This is just what you do
You surround yourself with funny, smart people who eat sushi (because that’s a sign of progressiveness here) and start to think that this world used to be divided by color but now it is all just green, and beautiful, and it is a world where you are happy to bring up your children.
You smile, greet, and nod at strangers, and they smile back. You make gravy with the pan drippings from pork sausage blended with flour, salt, and milk. And just a little black pepper. You press your thumb in the center of biscuits so they will rise properly. You pull to the side of the road for funeral processions and wait until they pass. This is just what you do here.
Your spouse who grew up in Newark tells you other places are not so green or so welcoming. You stop thinking how much you want to leave this place, so you buy a bigger house and its associated mortgage. You plan to travel, you even take some of the trips you have planned. You think about going to one of the eleven Protestant churches within two miles of your home. You admire the view from your veranda.
And the cost of living is low. You know this because your New York and Miami relatives (your husband’s relatives, actually, since your family all lives here) have told you how much their tiny condominiums cost and marvel at your square footage. You are pleased and embarrassed, as if you chose to live here for the expense savings.
Your whole life, so far
You remember the progressiveness is a veneer, and you accept that the men (except for your husband, whom you always remember is not from around here) wait for you to exit the elevator first because you have a uterus. You are, after all, the boss of many of these men, and that is, for here, progressive enough.
You encourage your daughter to consider universities in Chicago or Ithaca. You try not to analyze the feeling that settles on you when she applies to schools in Nashville. Are you disappointed? Are you relieved? You remind yourself that your life is not hers, that her life will not be yours. She will leave this place, or maybe you will.
You reprimand your son for talking like a redneck, or, when the mood strikes him, like a gangster. You do not examine what you mean by terms like “redneck” and “gangster.”
You try not to flinch when your short stories are compared to Flannery O’Connor’s not because they are good, but rather because they are occasionally southern and you are female. You do not point out the irreverence inherent in them. Flannery was, above all, a godly woman.
You finally admit your deep weakness for sad, old country ballads, and you think of writing one before realizing you already are. You see the hills you call mountains everywhere you go, hemming you in, holding you up. You cannot escape the sound of the train’s whistle. You are bathed in green.
— Gwen Mullins
Nice job, Gwen. Funny in places, sad too. Makes we want to visit, to linger there awhile, and to taste that pan dripping and pork sausage gravy.
I really enjoyed that, Gwen. Funny, understated, beautifully descriptive. You have a unique voice, and the you I knew a decade ago is certainly here. Keep writing.
Frank — It’s good to see you here. Thanks.
Rich — Thank you.
Thanks also to Cynthia Newberry Martin, who previewed my piece and made some initial suggestions.
“…put her thumbprint in the middle of each biscuit…”
That’s my kind of detail. Lovely, concrete, true. I really enjoyed reading this.
Thank you for bringing me to the richness that is your Tennessee. I’ve never been there, but often hear on the nightly news that this is one of the places where the REAL America resides, not on the coasts, and especially not in San Francisco where I live. Your writing helped me appreciate the beautiful texture that is authentic and you and America. Even with the “progressive” veneer you’ve laid on top. I applaud the honesty in your writing.
Gwen, I loved reading this–seeing bits of my world in yours. The heritage section is my favorite. Great writing and wonderful photos to escort the words along.
Mmmmm. Mmmmmmm. That’s all I have to say. Beautiful!
Brad, Cynthia, Adam — You should know I read your pieces to figure out how to write mine.
Wow and wow! I actually teared up in parts. what a great piece. I, of course, especially liked the part about Signal Mountain – I think you stole that from me though! It’s not a mountain people. It’s a town on Walden’s Ridge.
Tom — Thanks for getting the inside jokes!
An amazing story from an amazing young lady.
I am fortunate to be accepted into your family and to be actually called Pops!
I look forward to reading your future stories and books.
Love you and very proud of you.
Love this. Sympathetic & honest & wry. Makes me want to go to Chattanooga & see the green myself.
Richly telling to a former Vermonter, current international teacher (Netherlands) and maybe, would-be resident of Chattanooga. Thanks for your gently honest, evocative portrait of your town. I just might retire there and take heart in your take and your presence.
I’m from Tennessee. It’s fourth-rate in most respects, and I don’t know if the cities are worse than the rural areas. You’d be better off moving elsewhere.
What a beautiful story! It inspires me to visit the area and perhaps even relocate there one day.