A thing I do, when overwhelmed by the pain of the world, is to look through the memory box I carry around in my head and try hard to remember everything I can about a particular thing.
Last night, processing the shootings and the huge loss of life, I closed my eyes and went back through time to Strickland Road, in Desoto County, MS, and I was maybe 8 years old and in my Aunt Louise‘s house – a house I have not set foot in for more than 38 years.
The house, which had been her husband’s house before his death, and his parent’s house before it had been his, was a converted dogtrot house. A dogtrot is a style of farmhouse popular that existed in the hot and humid south before air conditioning, where the building was a rectangle, with a room on either end, and the center was a covered porch. For the most part, the real living was done under the covered porch, where you could take advantage of the dominant breezes, but the bedroom and sitting rooms were capable of being secured.
When AC came along, many dogtrot houses had the center room boxed in, so now you had three rooms, and not two. Which was what had happened to this one. The house had a long covered screened-in front porch that had been added later, and when you walked across the front porch and through the front door, the room you came into – the former porch of the dogtrot – had no windows, so it was always dark.
In my mind’s eye, I can see it still – the beadboard paneling, the high ceilings, the hard, uncomfortable couch with the scratchy upholstery on the far right, along the wall, and on the left wall a couple of chairs and a table with a record player on it. We virtually never sat in this room.
Except when there was a storm. Because there were no windows and it was in the center of the house, if there was a bad thunderstorm, she and I would sit in the living room on that scratchy couch, and I would curl up next to her, and she would shut the doors to the other rooms so we wouldn’t see the flashes of lightning and the thunder was muffled and we and the dogs would sit in that room and wait the storm out, and I always asked her to tell me the story about the kids in the picture.
I don’t know how she came about it – it was a dollar store print with a heavy gilt frame – 18 inches by 24, including the frame – that hung on the wall opposite the front door of her house, the first thing you saw when you came in. And when we were in the living room – which we only were when there was a storm and I was scared and most likely the power had gone out and we were sitting in candlelight- she would tell me stories about the people in the picture.
It showed two small children on a bridge – a sketchy bridge, at that – and in the background was an angel, watching over the children, ready to swoop in lest they be in danger. It was a popular print in Appalachian America during the first half of the last century, and somehow, she had ended up with a copy on her wall.
The stories she told me varied. Sometimes the little boy had gotten lost, and his sister had found him and was bringing him to safety. Sometimes the sister was scared and he was walking over the bridge with her so she would feel safe. Sometimes, the kids were late getting home, so they took the sketchy bridge to save time. But always, the guardian angel was watching out for them.
My aunt was agnostic, but her theology of angels was strongly an interventionist one. I was evangelized to believe, in that paneled living room, sitting on a scratchy sofa, while looking at a dollar store print in candlelight, that we were cared for and watched over by guardian angels, who cared for us and protected us. And if I ever came to doubt, she would tell me that the guardian angels were watching over us right now, and soon the storm would end and the sun would come out and the power would come back on and we would be safe once again.
And then it would happen, just like she said it would. I mean, how can you argue with that?
When she died suddenly when I was 12, I got that print – it hung on my wall over my bed all through my high school years. I then got put in a closet in my parent’s house, and last year, when they were cleaning out a room there, Mom found it and called me to ask what she should do with it.
It hangs now on my wall in my bedroom. I look at it every night before I go to bed – not because I believe in literal angels out there, watching over me, ready to catch me when I fall off a sketchy bridge, but because I absolutely believe in the power of story to make us feel safe and loved when the world is conspiring to make us feel neither.