The drive from Jacksonville to Memphis takes about ten hours and forty minutes, give or take a pit stop or two. For years, I’ve made the trek across the top of Florida to Tallahassee along the pine tree-laden, truck route of Interstate 10. The highway is mostly straight and flat with no more variation in scenery than exits for Highway 301, three indistinguishable exits for Lake City, and then the confusing split between 10 and Interstate 75 to Tampa and Atlanta. You find yourself zoned out after a few hours and a few hills, just trying to maintain your focus as your music fades in and out of signal driving past the Okeefenokee Swamp and the barren stretches that exist between small towns like Live Oak and Madison.
From there, you can make your way up to Dothan, Alabama. I prefer to avoid Georgia as much as possible after a nasty speeding violation years ago that ended up costing me over $500. Besides, the two-lane highways of the mostly scenic state of Alabama are much less trafficked and considerably more interesting. The roads north and south of Dothan provide a lot of local landscapes. You earn a greater appreciation for Southern living, spread out and rural like an authentic William Wendt painting unfolding before your very eyes.
Life gets a bit less interesting once you get onto I-65 through Montgomery to Birmingham, but once you are on Highway 22, the last stretch up through Tupelo, Mississippi into Memphis, you might mistake you are somewhere out Southwest.
The hills rise higher with jagged, excavated stone and few low-lying trees. Mimosas bloom in June and their pink blossoms litter the slopes checkered amongst the Kudzu that has nearly consumed so many country roadsides.
A Glimpse Back into the Past
I arrived in Memphis at the home of my Uncle Richard and my Aunt Paulette around 8 pm. It’s a modest 3 bedroom 2 bath home in Midtown close to the declining Hickory Ridge area just off I-40. The neighborhood would have been easily considered high middle income when developed in the early 1980s. Residents here continue to maintain nice lawns, and the homes are spaced enough apart for privacy while allowing you to be neighborly. Kids still ride their bikes on the street and people still stroll the sidewalks. Big trees stand in front yards and swing sets or pools in the back, and in many ways to me, it still looks the same as when I was 18 in 1986.
Richard and Paulette bought this home on Lovitt Drive in 2003, ending a 25-year commitment to their ministry in Griffith, Indiana. Memphis was home for them both, and Paulette’s health had not been good prior to the move. A trying battle of breast cancer sandwiched between two major thyroid surgeries left my once beautiful and graceful Aunt gaunt and ghostly. Chemo and radiation made her skin paper-thin and her bones brittle. However, what Paulette lacked then in physical strength, she possessed internally in multitudes. The strength she radiated came from an inextinguishable sparkle in her eyes and smile, her faith in God, and her fearless mercy and compassion towards everyone.
A Tragic Turn of Events
Then, in June of 2005, an unimaginable accident occurred, radiating sadness across our entire family and nearly took Paulette’s beautiful light from us. Their home on Lovitt, the first that Richard and Paulette had truly owned outside their parishes, Paulette intended to decorate and garden to her own liking. But the profound nature of her accident, left her debilitated so that her dreams would never come to fruition.
Now, one bedroom is an office, one a place for her permanent live-in nurse, Jennie, and Paulette and Richard sleep in the third. Paulette’s bed, a railed hospital bed, Richard’s, a recliner. The main room, or what we would have once called the living room houses a large queen size bed left made for guests. It faces a brick fireplace, on whose mantel a reduced amount of the Nutcracker statues Paulette once so avidly collected still stand guard. Other rooms remain mostly dusty and unused. The dining room set for entertaining, as if company might walk in at any moment. A seating den sits adjacent with hand-me-down furniture and artifacts inherited from my Granny. And like a wooden coffin, a lonely upright piano haunts the space, gathering dust waiting for Paulette’s slender fingers to once again grace its keys. It waits in vain.
Holding My Family in Love
I settle in after my long drive, grab some pizza, and don a mask I’ve brought with me. We take the utmost precautions around my Aunt to prevent any infection from COVID-19. Yet while on the outside to the unaware, she may appear frail and perhaps monstrous. I can see only my beautiful Aunt and her tenacious ability to survive.
In her room, Richard and I make small talk while Jennie cares for Paulette’s many daily needs. The conversation is fast and light. There is an excitement for Richard who so rarely has visitors. He speaks hurriedly and with vigor. I can tell how happy he is that I am here. So am I. There will be plenty of time in the days to come for more intense conversation and hopefully many stories. But for now, I know it is enough just to be present and to hold my family in love.