What I Left Behind
Rain battering a tin roof
Boar-churned mountain trails
The city where I met my love
The cabin we built
Shrill cries of wrens and whippoorwills
Friends who listened to me weep
Widowed after my husband’s brief, harrowing illness in March 2019, I turned grief into action: renovating our suburban home north of Atlanta and strewing Dick’s ashes under mountain laurel at our East Tennessee cabin. Other wives along the ridge asked how I could bear to go there after his death. It was a lifeline, I explained over and over, because Dick died just eleven weeks after the diagnosis of esophageal cancer.
Clinging to that lifeline made it easier to empty his closet, his workbench, his study. Emptiness became a space, during the pandemic, where yearnings germinated. Where did I belong? Being the only widow on the mountain, I felt surplus. The suburbs were stifling. Before I met Dick I was a city girl, centering myself downtown in Philadelphia, Seattle, Berlin, New Orleans, and Atlanta. Now I longed to set down roots in a smaller city with a vibrant artistic community, one where I could walk to concerts and plays and bistros. Where being single was not conspicuous. Where I was not defined in terms of what I had lost.
I knew a handful of people from Knoxville, Tennessee—Linda, a gifted poet, and several couples who had built cabins up the gravel road from mine. In May 2021 Tracy and David lent me their flat in the former JFG coffee-roasting plant, where the Old City abuts the heart of downtown. Next door stood a four-story brick building once filled with the reek of leather and glue and the din of welt-stitching, a shoe factory converted into condos. The owners of one, I learned in a chance encounter, wanted to sublease it for five years while they worked in France.
Years ago I lived in several historic buildings, the last a former Atlanta high school. Wooden floors in that apartment—the one-time science lab—bore the scars of chemical spills. When I entered the Knoxville loft, dark-cinnamon planks underfoot and a sixteen-yard-long brick wall led me toward a room flooded with light. I felt wrapped in its history, hopeful about remixing my life in a new place.
The owners and I agreed to terms. My house and cabin both sold within days. This turn of events felt destined.
Summer elapsed, consumed with purging remnants of the life Dick and I had spent together. Ruthlessness and poignancy—an odd fellowship—ruled my choices, but not only mine. Worldwide, refugees fled oppression and wildfires, flooding and starvation. I read about families from Afghanistan to California, China to Gambia who took off with nothing but each other.
What about those alone, like me? I wondered, my footsteps echoing in vacant rooms that belonged to another couple now. Were loners more disposable? Who could they turn to at their destinations?
How Do I Start Over?
Unpack sixty boxes
Hang my Krewe of Zulu spear
Garnish the kitchen with a vintage rug
Scent the rooms with sage candles
Nap beneath the plush blue blanket
Savor a flaky handpie from Hen and Hoc
Leaven the pitch-dark hall with lamplight
Sound carries in this building: elevator pinging, children whining, drunks clamoring, complaints droning up from the bedroom below mine. Thuds, clatters, gargles, barks, skitters, sneezes counterpoint the soundtrack outside my windows: trains rumbling and hooting, sanitation trucks beeping, fiddling from The Jig and Reel, shrieks of laughter from Pour—louder the later it gets.
Compared to the tomblike silence of my former home, this urban playlist sounds jubilant. And considerably more joyful than the baying of hunting dogs or the crack of target shooting. My metro mash-up feels random, playful, surprising yet assembled. In this neighborhood my provisional status fits right in. When I introduce myself to the butcher, the clerk at Corks, the coffee shop barista, the tamale maker, these neighbors welcome me. Our small talk—the neighborhood Christmas parade, their favorite bistros, the vintage lumber store on North Central—feels as solid and cherished as touchstones from my past.
Some of the items I moved here puzzle me. Unpacking the last box marked Fragile, I stare at five pieces of Wedgewood. Why did I bring formal bric-a-brac—a miniature box, a six-inch tray, two tiny vases, a cachepot—given to me by my first mother-in-law? Sometimes I’ve harbored feelings until I’m ready to face them, but these items evoke not a shred of sentiment. Had I simply deconstructed too much of my past, bequeathing two-thirds of my household goods? Did I intend to scramble a quaint remembrance into a place where I hadn’t yet formed memories?
Truth is, I inhabit an architectural palimpsest of history that began here in 1879. Over a century later, when developers transformed the old shoe factory into Jackson Ateliers, they preserved a riveted aluminum chute spiraling from the first floor down to the entrance hall; the child-me dreams of sliding along it. The façade below my windows bears the words Shoes and Rubbers, and mortar dust sifts from the brickwork lining my hallway. My apartment has character. How do I build the life I have left with character?
Compared to this building, my history seems slight. Compared to the homeless on the streets of Knoxville, even more so. The irony of my search for meaning in a loft four stories above men and women curled in doorways does not escape me. Some of the dispossessed are also emotionally brittle. One day as I sat at my desk, screaming erupted on the street below. To me it sounded like a lamentation, one more desperate than any psalm because there was no one to cry out to or trust. Like my neighbors, I’ve learned to avert my eyes from the man weaving down the tracks, waving a rail spike, the chronic panhandlers who refuse to go to the shelter. The next time my neighbors spend hours picking up used syringes that litter our streets, I want to join in.
Perhaps this habitat is teaching me to live with fragmentation rather than the cohesiveness I crave. I told everyone I wanted a fresh start. What if this time is not about starting over but blending scraps of memory with my tentative daubs at a new life? Treasures I’ve brought here—the box elder heartwood table crafted in the Smokies, the ceramic wren’s nest I’ve hung from an exposed pipe—take on new meaning in a different place. Maybe my sorrows and regrets, lost loves and buried fears will too, and maybe I’ll come to see them as worth keeping—a measure of how far I have come.
Where Do I Begin?
Serve on the board of Flying Anvil Theatre
Map downtown on foot with a new friend
Join the Knoxville Writers Guild and
the Pre-Pulitzer Critique Group
Brush against what lies beneath
Find a place for what I’ve lost
Welcome what I don’t expect
A month after moving here, on my way up Gay Street to the Knoxville Museum of Art, I pass four drag queens sipping cocktails at the Mirage. This kind of whimsy takes me by surprise in a town where, on game-day weekends, the ripe persimmon shade known as Tennessee orange swathes every other person.
The unexpected, though, makes me feel at home. Good friends know I’ve always craved what’s next. Yet some of them feared that selling two places and moving here was capricious, the unpredictability too risky.
Consider, though, how my methodical husband’s bargain with life cheated him.
“It’s hard living with a paragon of virtue,” I used to tease him. Day after day, he strove to meet everyone’s needs, to safeguard me long after I had outgrown the need for protection. Did he believe choosing selflessness and eschewing vices would ensure him a long life? Three weeks after the initial diagnosis, we learned Dick’s cancer was Stage IV, condemning him to a purgatory of chemotherapy and radiation that might last the rest of a life cut short.
“That’s what I get for clean living,” he’d snapped.
Undeserved and cruel, the disease weakened him, braced my decisiveness. When he died, every decision left to me triggered the question, What do I have to lose? Those words still govern all my choices, all the letting go.
At the museum I take a seat with thirty women and men to hear Jean Hess talk about collage. To her, the art of putting together scraps of torn paper to make a composition is a frame of mind. She begins by layering images cut from magazines on a canvas, sealing all that ephemera with resin. Next, adding thirty to forty layers of pigment and more resin, she emerges from her studio with a marvel that glows—luminous, ethereal, transcendent, a reflection of her freedom to experiment, work that takes her where she didn’t expect to go.
“A lot of painters are using collage as a basis of their work, because the finished piece retains the energy and randomness beneath the overpainting,” she tells us.
Could I do that with my life? Make my frayed memories, the trust ripped away, lucky accidents, discarded dwellings into groundwork for what comes next? Seal all those snapshots in time with clarity? Protected and preserved, could the shreds of my past become a substance I can build on?
All the emptying and self-emptying, I’ve known instinctively, would create space for building. And perhaps my kind of building, once the basics are in place, is improvisational. I learned a new part of myself when my life with Dick collapsed, another part when he died, and over and over since then.
Each day, trying to hold the rough edges together, I’ve sought a deeper stability. Months ago I found it in Teresa of Avila’s spiritual classic, The Interior Castle. “Do notice,” she writes, describing a person’s journey into the crystal castle of her self, “all the reptiles you’ve brought in with you.” A wise teacher considers these “pesky reptiles” the attitudes we embrace when things go awry. “Befriend that reptile as a way to learn,” she coaxed. “It is not going away.”
My reptile, I realized, is the chameleon. After any trauma I embrace change, in part to camouflage myself from threats and in part to move beyond whatever has overwhelmed me. I tend to plan, but my gift is adaptability, shapeshifting with ease. Has my long history of planning taught me to trust my instincts?
It’s time to dig in. Where I am is who I am, where the old meets the new. My heart will hold an altar to my past, to Dick, while I sort the scraps of the life since he died and fix them with the resin of faith. Determination. Resolve. And take up my brush, to glaze over those ghostly remains with hope in what lies ahead.
In 2020 Shanti Arts published Gail Tyson’s chapbook, The Vermeer Tales. “Homing” received the 2022 First Place Joy Margrave Fiction Award from Tennessee Mountain Writers, Inc. Upcoming work appears in Still: the Journal. An alumna of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program and the Dylan Thomas Summer School at the University of Wales, she has attended workshops at Collegeville Institute, Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference, and Rockvale Writers Colony. Gail serves as president of the board of Knoxville’s Flying Anvil Theatre. She loves her fate, which brought her to Knoxville, as much as the unexpected places where writing takes her.