I grew up a thousand miles from nowhere in a thousand square-foot ranch, red brick with a concrete carport hanging off the side. There was a fireplace in the living room and a cast iron wood stove in the unfinished basement. The house was built in ’77 by a guy in muddy overalls named A.G. Hendrickson, on a grassy corner with a telephone pole and a STOP sign that connected a pair of sleepy streets. The foundation was poured a hundred feet beyond a white sign with black lettering: End State Maintenance.
From my experience, small-town life tends to be slower and more confined. Our family didn’t go anywhere. For that matter, in our quaint Appalachian town neither did anybody else’s. Exotic vacations weren’t part of our narrative. In our minds Myrtle Beach was fancy, refined, a movie set on which we’d never so much as be an extra. Daytona? Shoot. We prayed for Daytona. The shenanigans we watched on MTV Spring Break suggested there were brands of sin going on down there that made the devil blush. On top of that, Daytona was also mythical to us. It was home to the 500. Nothing on earth was bigger than the 500. The King and Jaws and Cale and Dale dared small-town Southern folks like us to dream fantastic dreams that seemed unattainable from rural Route 42.
For us, “vacation” meant spending the weekend at your granddaddy’s hunting cabin deep in the mountains, or the rare spontaneous day-trip across the globe – or so it felt — to Virginia Beach. Crammed in the back seat of my daddy’s canary yellow two-door Datsun 210, the six-hour drive across the state from our purple mountain majesties to the blue waters on the coast felt like six days. (The Smiths did that once or twice. The resulting photography of me shielding a farmer’s tan with a trinket-shop VA BEACH tee emblazoned with a surfboard, while attempting to body surf on a trinket-shop inflatable raft as if it were a surfboard, is country-comes-to-town blackmail-worthy. Truly unfortunate).
As I recall, other than my buddy Chunk and his family driving west to East Tennessee to go camping in a drag-along popup, bouncing down I-81 behind a red single-cab Chevy S-10 a couple times a year, nobody consistently ventured much further than the New River Valley Mall in Christiansburg.
Seriously. I know it sounds crazy to some of you, but that was our normal. And that meant any outing was a colossal development.
When I was in 6th or 7th grade – early August 1987 or ’88, I’m not certain — we experienced one such colossal development: Reba McEntire was coming to Roanoke. And Momma had to see her. The Roanoke Civic Center was 65 miles from our front door. It felt like 665.
My mother, Joy Smith, was the most amazing person. Generous and kind. Funny and pretty. Selfless in every fashion. She died way too young, just 47 years old. Breast cancer. When she passed, I was a month beyond my 22nd birthday and a week beyond college graduation. I never knew her through the prism of an adult perspective on the world and its challenges. I only knew her within the confines of youthful bliss, when naivety suggested the whole world was waiting to be lassoed.
These days I’d give just about anything to sit with Mom and a bottle of wine, and discuss her life before I could understand what she managed every day. She managed a lot — more, I’m sure, than I even know. Did she feel stuck?
Momma was a light in the world. She was the choir director at the church. She played the organ and the piano and acoustic guitar. Momma was a brilliant singer. There was one hymn, in particular, she sang that sticks with me. It is called “Children Go Where I Send Thee”, and had this quick, driving lyrical cadence.
“…one for the little bitty, ba-by, born, born… born in the Beth-le-hem…”
Watching her perform that song captivated me. I sat in our basement with her and watched her practice. She’d smile widely at me and then past me; I presume partly because she was inspired by my wonder, the distinct pride that her son would look at her with an expression that suggested not just mom, but something more, qualities that were always inside her but that she didn’t reveal very often.
I also believe her smile was a result of being filled with the joy that the music provided. It was a vehicle that took her far beyond that basement.
Although I’ll never get to ask her if that’s accurate, I feel confident in that opinion, because I often feel that joy by way of the music my friends and heroes make. When their words mix with their melodies, they articulate feelings for me that I can’t – or won’t – disclose to others or admit to myself.
They almost enable you to consider your life from a third-person point of view.
I believe Reba did that for my mom. She said what momma couldn’t – or wouldn’t – even as an independent, strong woman working tirelessly in what was considered, in that era and in that area, a traditional home, where dad earned the money and mom raised the kids. Her schedule was relentless: Alarm. Coffee barista. Breakfast cook. Lunch lady. Bus duty. Maid. Grocery shopper. Laundromatador. Carpool jockey. Ball practice shuttle. Dinner chef. Bath attendant. Bedtime storyteller. Team mom. Cheerleader. Rinse and repeat. And that’s when my sister and I weren’t sick.
Truth told, like many stay-at-home moms, it was often a thankless quest for her. And because she was so selfless and never complained — I’m so embarrassed to admit this – her effort was more understood than appreciated by us, even though we were taught to appreciate it. I hope that sentence makes sense. Kids know what they know. Mom did everything. And, of course, we didn’t have the perspective of grasping the exhaustive effort it took for her to create the normal we knew.
But Reba did. That’s some context on why I believe Reba spoke for momma.
When Reba belted songs like Fancy, which promoted self-worth and dignity no matter your circumstance (and is just a straight-badass song, by the way) she was singing for countless women. Or Is There Life Out There?, which champions ladies like my mom who married very young and instantly had children and found themselves in the throes of parental responsibility, bills and kids, and thereby had to forego dreams of education or travel – who never stopped wishing for everything the world offered them but feared that circumstance prevented it. That song gave Mom a sense of belonging.
She felt like someone understood her situation. She had an ally.
That ally was Reba McEntire.
Every time I hear Is There Life Out There? I think about Momma. She was unbelievably attentive to my sister and me. We were her entire existence. Crafts. Homework. Costumes. The aforementioned daily grind. She once began taking classes at the local community college. I don’t think she ever finished because my constant athletic schedule commanded her calendar. She lived for us in a world that offered her, a beautiful, talented, intelligent woman, boundless opportunity. But here mom was… just “mom”, a vitally important position that rarely gets its due from those who benefit most – the kids she’s raising.
“…she thought she’d done some livin’ Now she’s just wonderin’ what she’s livin’ for…”
What I’d give to discuss with her how that made her feel…
That’s why Reba’s words are so piercing to me, genuinely emotional. I imagine mom hearing the chorus and thinking, damn, that’s me! Reba McEntire is singing to me – and for me!
Is there life out there? So much she hasn't done Is there life beyond her family and her home? She's done what she should, should she do what she dares? She doesn't want to leave, she's just wonderin' is there life out there Is there life out there?
Mom adored Reba McEntire– legitimate hero status — partly because Reba was willing to stand up and speak loudly for women like mom, but also due to that shock of kudzu-thick red hair and an accent we were proud of but most mocked. Still do. Mom had the same hair, auburn like an autumn maple and so thick you need a machete to get through it. Though they never met, she felt a kinship with Reba through the music.
Mom loved country music. She’s why I love country music.
In the living room of that thousand-foot brick ranch on that grassy corner, we had a fold-down secretary’s desk, on top of which rested a silver turntable with a pair of cassette decks, flanked on each side by wooden speakers that stood maybe two feet high. At any given moment, you might hear Waylon and Willie head to Texas, or Willie join Ray Charles in expressing gratitude that one last prayer was answered when there was one more bullet in the chamber, or The Judds build a bridge or Juice Newton request a brush on the cheek before you depart, or Johnny and June run around Jackson like a scalded hound, or John Denver head on home to West Virginia where he belonged.
And of course, Reba, which brings us back to that colossal development when I was 12.
My parents’ anniversary was Aug. 5. As a gift that year, Daddy bought tickets to her show in Roanoke. Momma got dressed up in her nicest sundress and paired it with the fire red cowboy boots daddy bought her on a business trip to Nashville. I cannot overstate what a massive event this was in our home. Moments like that just didn’t happen.
My sister, Stacy, and I stood on the porch that afternoon as they climbed into Daddy’s brown Nissan 280Z. They only drove that car on special occasions. I remember those red boots in the sunlight. And I remember Mom’s thousand-watt smile as she slid into the seat and blew us goodbye kisses.
But that’s all I remember.
I was too young and too selfish to ask her the next day for details. All the details! Where did you sit? What did it look like? Were there a lot of people there? Did you feel unbridled for an evening? What song did you love? What did she sing? Or what didn’t she sing? Did you get to meet Reba?
My questions today would be, how did those songs help you through? When those words mixed with those melodies, did they swoop you up from this little nowhere town from which we never ventured anywhere, and transport you to somewhere fantastic and exotic? What did Reba say that you wouldn’t? Or couldn’t?
Or maybe I’d just push play on that silver double-cassette player and let Reba ask through those two-foot wooden speakers: Would she do it the same as she did back then?
I look out the window and I wonder again.