by Leigh Allison /wilson
Every story is true and a lie. My mother tells a story about the love of her life. It’s a simple one, but she always cries when she tells it and looks right through me, as though I hadn’t been born. Something about the detail makes me feel there’s a sadness in the world that will last until the rushing crack of doom.
It goes like this: In the forties, when she was a teenaged girl in Tennessee, my mother fell in love with the boy next door. That same year the government decided to build dams all over the state. As if some crazy rainstorm had come and gone, pristine new lakes puddled the landscape from Knoxville to Memphis. One lake formed right over my mother’s hometown—people lost their homes, lost their businesses, their graveyards, their farmland and, in some cases, their hearts. On the night before the government moved everybody out of her hometown my mother and the love of her life, this boy next door, made love in my mother’s bedroom. Her parents were at a prayer meeting, praying for dry land, I guess, like Noah. This boy was sweet, was kind, was smart and generous and lovely to look at; this boy was the love of her life. He moved with his family to Texas the next day and she never saw him again.
Except: Once a year she rents a rowboat and goes out on the lake that has drowned her old hometown. She drops a penny over the side, right over the place where her old house must be. Fifty years, fifty pennies. She imagines them drifting downward, all those pennies, drifting through the murky lake water, startling the catfish and bullhead, each penny listing into the open window of her bedroom and falling at last onto the pillow where she once lay with her head against the love of her life, the boy next door. She imagines their ghost love showered by pennies; she imagines this love beyond all loves glittering with gold. Then she rows back to shore and back to my father and me and the life that can’t compete with memory.
Every story is true and a lie. The true part of this one is, Love and the memory of love can’t be drowned. The lie part is that this is a good thing.