I’d never remembered Mama and Papa ever fighting before that night. But after that, there was a lot of strife in our house. Especially since Papa kept coming home with new games and movies that Dr. Wolf had given him. All sorts of old TV show classics on DVD, the Disney princess movies that “all little girls must see,” and computer games galore. I wanted to stay true to Mama, but these were all too tempting. And finally, Papa had had enough of her protesting, and one night he popped some popcorn, invited all his girls into the living room, threw some sleeping bags and pillows on the floor, and put in Beauty and the Beast. We were hooked from the start.
About midway through the movie, I caught sight of Mama in the kitchen. She was flipping through a catalog, but it seemed she wanted to join us. It was a sweet story, beautiful music, funny….nothing evil about it. Papa had chosen wisely. Over the course of about the next fifteen minutes, she hovered around the kitchen, inconspicuously calling out to Papa with a small question here and there, and eventually made her way permanently into the living room with us. By the end of the movie, she was crying.
Thus began our weekly family movie night. Over a period of time, we were allowed a certain amount of TV time after our homework was done, and then we eventually started watching certain TV shows together as a family. Before we knew it, the TV was on nearly all the time.
There wasn’t really a problem at first. It started slowly, so slowly that we didn’t notice it. But we all knew at one point or another that the TV had become the most important thing in the house. We’d cheat or put off altogether our chores, occasionally dinner was eaten in front of it, and sometimes we girls would lie about our homework being done so that we could watch a certain show. The biggest problem came, though, when we began to fight over it. We had ceased to be our family.
One night about a year after we’d gotten the TV came the biggest blow-up yet. All five of us girls wanted to watch something different, and it ended in a red-faced screaming match with us pulling hair and pushing each other to the floor. It was the epitome of a catfight. Papa tried to come in the middle of it, attempting to hold us at bay, then looked up to Mama for help. She just shrugged and said quietly, “See?”
This set Papa off, because his solution was to go out and buy more TVs to eliminate the fighting. Before we knew it, we had five TVs in the house, four computers, and a radio in nearly every room. My mother’s convictions remained firm, but her authority over five rebellious, mischievous young daughters was waning, especially with a father who sided with them, and enabled them. It wasn’t long before we stopped playing altogether. Maybe we just forgot how. And of course we were no longer interested in things of the family mysteries. There were just too many other distractions.
Mama did put her foot down in one last remaining aspect of our family’s life. There was to be absolutely no electronics on Sunday. Sunday was a day of rest. It was on one Sunday afternoon, perhaps I was in seventh or eighth grade, that I happened upon my long lost mystery once again. Papa was rocking in his old wooden rocking chair on the front porch with a dog lying across his feet. His eyes were closed; he had his fiddle in his lap, and was humming an old familiar tune. About midway through the song, his humming gave way to a low, soft singing:
I’m goin’ home to see my mother
I’m goin’ home no more to roam
I am just goin’ over
I am just goin’ over home
Oh, how I knew that song. It sank into my mind right next to the wood smoke smell, that aching, distant feeling. It was like something that’s on the tip of your tongue that is absolutely impossible to place. Something in my past that I couldn’t retrieve.
As I stood there trying to decide if I should ask Papa about the song, he opened his eyes and saw me.
“Maddie,” he said, surprised. “I didn’t hear you come out here.”
I said nothing for a moment, but then approached him. “Papa? What was that song?”
The worried look. I hadn’t seen that since before we’d gotten the television. But to my surprise, he answered my question.
“That was Wayfaring Stranger. An old, old folk song. One of my favorites.”
“But you’ve never sang it for us. Not for a long time, at least.”
His eyes flashed a panicked look. “You remember that song?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Will you play it on your fiddle?”
“No, honey. I can’t.”
“It’s a painful song for your mother to hear. But I sing it when I can. It’s comforting to me.”
I looked into his face. It looked weathered and worn. My deep desire to know what he knew was back. It was a hollow feeling, one that I was almost certain I could never fix. He must’ve seen the look of pain cross my face.
“Why don’t you go in and watch TV, Maddie?”
But I’d realized at that point that ever since we’d gotten TV that my sisters and I had ceased to really live. Mama had been right about them. I could trace it almost to the day we got our first one. I’d lost my sense of wonder; I’d lost interest in so many other things. And not only I, but all of us. And Papa was the one who made me realize it.
I hesitantly turned towards the door, casting one more sidelong glance at Papa. He tipped his hat over his eyes and resumed his humming. So I walked inside. Ellie was sitting there typing on the laptop. Jackie and Carrie were lying on the floor, watching some cartoon. And Lottie was just lying on the couch behind the twins, her feet propped up, arm dangled off the side, paying halfhearted attention to the television. And then I saw Mama in the kitchen. She was seated at the table, hunched over an open Bible, her head in her hands. As I got a closer look, I saw her eyes were closed. Then I remembered that it was Sunday. The TV was not to be on on Sundays, and yet there it was, with a mindless cartoon blasting from it in the next room. I realized then that she had resigned her post, and given up her fight. I stood there torn between the two rooms and saw one small tear drop silently onto her Bible. And my heart ached for how our family used to be.
I could hardly even remember how we used to be. Happy, singing on the porch, cooking together, doing our chores together, then playing and running out in the yard…. These were just fleeting memories now. I thought of Lottie. She was only six. Her childhood had practically been spent in front of the television. I decided I wasn’t having it anymore. I didn’t want to waste any more time. That night I volunteered to help Mama with supper. I don’t think I’d ever seen her more surprised. Her eyes lit up, and she stammered, “R-really?” Then she sent me out to the garden to pick some tomatoes and garlic cloves. It was spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce that night. It was the best dinner I’d had in a long time.
But it was sure a struggle to get out of the habit of always sitting in front of the TV. I’d gotten accustomed to rushing through my other chores and homework, especially on the nights my favorite shows were on. The other girls weren’t as sold out as I was either, so they weren’t really making as much of an effort. But the more the TV was on, the louder it seemed to get, especially if there was more than one blasting from different rooms. One winter day I even got so fed up that I put ear muffs on as I went around the house dusting. But then the silence was uncomfortable. So I decided to make my own noise. I started singing some of our old songs. Sometimes only half of a song would come back, so I’d just switch up songs in the middle, or switch to just humming it the rest of the way through. But even then I reminded myself of characters I’d seen on the television… whistle while you work, or Cinderella singing while she scrubs the floors…. But I just kept going until Mama stopped me, her eyes wide. My stomach did a flip. It was a scary look she was giving me.
“What was that song you were just singing?”
“I don’t know.” (I really didn’t. I think I’d forgotten, or just couldn’t even hear myself at that point.)
“Yes, yes, you do. What was it, Maddie?”
I took off my ear muffs, and saw Ellie watching us with a strange look on her face too. I shrugged.
“I really don’t know. Sing me part of it.”
Mama took a step back. “I-I can’t.” Then she walked back into the other room. I looked at Ellie.
“What was it?” I hissed.
“I – I kind of recognize it, too. Something about a poor, wayfaring stranger.”
I slapped my hand to my forehead. Oh, no.
Mama walked back into the room just then. “You recognize it, too, Ellie?”
Ellie looked like she was in deep trouble. “Um, yes’m.”
Mama took a deep breath. “I see. Has-has your father been singing it?”
“No,” Ellie answered before I could say anything.
“Maddie,” Mama turned to me. “Sing to me as much as you remember.”
I thought for a moment. Did I want to be difficult? Yes. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why? I don’t have to answer that. Sing me what you remember.”
“Umm, no. Not without an explanation.”
Her jaw dropped open. “Go to your room. I will not have this defiance.”
I threw my dust rag on the floor and marched up the stairs to my room. I sat there stewing for a good while before my door opened. It was Papa.
I mumbled a reluctant hello. It wasn’t him I was mad at, but I was mad nonetheless.
“Maddie, why did you sing that song around your mother? I told you-“
“I don’t know, Papa! I didn’t even know I was singing it.”
“You- what? You didn’t even know you were singing it?”
“How can that be?”
“I don’t know.”
He sighed, and sat slowly on my bed next to me. “I’d like you to sing what you remember. Please.”
I glared at him. “I don’t know why I have to do that.”
“I just want to know what you remember. It’s like a little memory test.”
My glare continued, but I thought hard for a minute, trying to remember the words. Got it.
“I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelin’ through this world of woe
There is no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.”
“Stop.” That was Mama’s voice. She stood just outside my door.
“How long has she been there?” I snapped.
“I just walked up,” she said, then looked at Papa. “She remembers much. I heard her singing a different part in the hall. You sure you have not sung this song around her?”
I looked between the two of them. “What are you talking about?”
“Not that part. For certain.” He looked at me. “Maddie, what kind of voice do you hear when you hear that song in your head?”
This was a little too much for me. I felt drilled, like a criminal. “No voice. Just a melody.”
Mama nodded, gave Papa a look, then walked away. Papa patted my knee and invited me down for supper. I was hardly hungry anymore. The strained feeling was back between all of us, and this mystery just kept getting more and more complicated and less and less likely to reach a solution.
After supper that night, I slipped out quietly and headed for Libby’s house down the road. There was barely any snow on the ground but it was awfully cold. The sidewalks ended once I left our neighborhood so I had to walk carefully along the icy road until I came to their little farmhouse glowing in the middle of the fields ahead. By the time I hit their doorstep, my feet were nearly frozen.
Mrs. Ames gasped at the sight of me. “Maddie! Look at your red cheeks. Come in, come in. Did you walk here?” Before I could answer she was bustling to the other side of the room to take a kettle of tea off their old iron stove. “Have some tea.”
“Oh, thank you,” I gasped. Mrs. Ames was always a ready hostess.
“Hi, Maddie,” Libby’s cheerful voice rang out from the next room. “Whatcha doin’ over here?”
“I dunno,” I shrugged. “Just wanted to get out of the house.”
“Well, come on in,” she said, and we went and plopped down at the table in the parlor. “I was just doing a little bit of scrapbooking.”
I peered across the table. “Can I see?”
“Sure,” she said, and slid it over to me. “Not quite done with this one, but I like it.”
Black-and-white faces peered up at me from the photos. It was a family history scrapbook. My discontent must have shown on my face because Libby commented on it.
I didn’t know whether to lie and say nothing, or to subject her to the tumultuous emotions I was dealing with then. I settled on the latter. It was Libby, after all.
“So, let me get this straight,” she said slowly, after I’d spilt my story. “You are having flashbacks, and your parents won’t tell you anything about where you came from.”
“Yeah,” I gulped. “I mean, it’s nothing new. They never wanted to tell me anything for years, but the flashbacks are starting to get worse.”
Libby sat in silence for a minute. Then she blurted out, “You need a hypnotist.”
“What? No.” I shook my head. “No. Mama would kill me. Your mom would kill you.”
She sighed. “Well, let me try.”
“Why not? What can it hurt?”
I took a deep breath. “This is ridiculous.”
“Well, do you have a better suggestion? The only people who know where you came from are closed-mouthed, and your flashbacks aren’t telling you anything.”
As I sat there trying to come up with a better objection, she got up, closed the French doors, and dimmed the light.
“Alright, go lay down on the couch and close your eyes. I’m gonna sit over here in this chair.”
“Just do it.”
Exhaling loudly in protest, I dragged my feet over and plopped down on the couch.
“Kay. I want you to relax. Take a deep breath. Now think back to when you first moved into your house now. Think about what that was like – building the play set, starting the garden-“
“I don’t remember that-“
I grunted at her, then repeated, “I don’t remember that at all.”
She went on, more calmly, “If you don’t remember that, imagine what it was like. Your mom and dad just moving in with all you little girls, getting settled in a new, strange town.”
I thought about this. My first memory was maybe around kindergarten. Then I thought – I don’t even know how old I was when they moved to that house.
“Okay, now I want you to think about where you think you may have come from. Put those flashbacks together – the wood smoke, the song – and all the peculiar things about your mom – the garden, the preserving – what can those clues tell you?”
The first thought to come to my head was to wonder why we couldn’t just have this conversation like normal, but I pushed my cynicism aside and let my mind stew on this. All these things would equal a little setting way out in the wilderness. But why that would have to be a dangerous secret is what I couldn’t wrap my head around. I lay there and made to enter this imaginary wooden scene – the wood smoke, and a garden just like ours, a fiddle sawing merrily away – but then there was something new that had just appeared. A little log cabin materialized, and there was Mama standing there. She had a dress on, and – another woman beside her, someone older. They were crying. And on the edge of the scene is Papa. The fiddle music is gone. He is carrying something small, his body bent over. Mama drops to the ground, inconsolable. The older woman leans to comfort Mama, then covers her own face, shaking her head. Papa walks slowly around the cabin and disappears. The older woman stands and walks quickly over to me and picks me up. And the memory fades away.
I shot up. Libby froze.
“What did you see?”
I couldn’t say anything.
“Maddie, what did you see? Your face is as white as a sheet.”
I slowly sat back down again. “I – I think I saw where we came from,” I whispered.
Libby harrumphed smugly. “Told ya it would work,” then, “I mean – tell me about what you saw….”
I recounted the scene for her. Her eyes grew as wide as mine had been with every word. Then she unfroze and scrambled for a piece of paper.
“We have to write this down before you forget it.”
“No. What if someone sees it? Libby, I don’t think I can forget this.”
“You’d be surprised. Promise, no one will see this.”
At the top of the paper she wrote the word scene. “Now, tell me. What season was it?”
I closed my eyes. “Fall.”
She wrote down fall. “And the log cabin – how big was it?”
“N-not big. Um, looked like just one room, and a chimney.”
She looked at me. “Could you smell the wood smoke?”
I thought back. “Yes.”
Libby sighed. “Maddie, where do you think this is all from?”
“I don’t know! I mean it looked like a scene outta freaking Conner Prairie.” And then another memory from long ago popped in my head. “Libby. My mom told me once that her mom’s maiden name was
“Interesting,” she said, a confused look crossing her face.
“Maybe you might have some clue in your family stuff. Maybe we’re related to you somehow.”
She hesitated, then dragged the big scrapbook across the table.
family tree is right there.” Ames
I pulled the book towards me.
“I remember her saying her mother’s name was Caroline, like my sister,” I said out loud, more to myself than to Libby. I flipped through the pages. Much to my disappointment, it was a direct tree, with no information on brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles. I turned the pages until the last known ancestor. No mention of a Caroline.
I closed the book for a second, and then the last few words I’d read registered in my mind.
. Holston, Virginia
“Wait a minute –“ I cried, and tore the book back open. “
?” Holston, Virginia
“That’s where Mama said she was born.”
“When did your family first come to
“Well, hold on.” She flipped back through the scrapbook. “Here. Charles Ames, born 1778, settled in
Kentucky in 1800, then moved
I frowned. “Well, obviously that’s not it. But maybe there is something to this Holston,
Libby sat there looking at me. “Maybe it was some crazy cult in
that they had to run away from. Or
– or you guys are in a witness protection program.” Virginia
Libby was always coming up with crazy ideas.
“I’m sure it’s not as exciting as either of those,” I said, but silently I was afraid it was more exciting than I could have imagined, and much more terrifying.