Folklore: Mountain Memories

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by DEDRA TUTEN
Illustration by ANNE HAMILTON

Kathy drew in a heavy breath as she daydreamed by the rushing waterfall. Desoto Falls and its torrent of water flooded her mind with memories of the day Eric stole her heart.

She smiled as she thought about her first encounter with him 32 years ago. The fierce barking of her dog,  Sally, had brought her to the front door of her Fort Payne home. She was shocked to see Sally with a jogger pinned to their hedge bushes. The teenage boy’s fearful eyes silently pleaded with her to call off their dog. As Kathy held the dog by the collar, a wry smile formed on her lips as she noticed some blue fabric where the boy had been crouched by the bushes. He scooted along the brick wall with his hands on his backside to hide the spot the fabric once covered as she led him inside to use the phone. She hurried to the bathroom and  returned with a towel, and he wrapped it around his waist, his cheeks still pink with embarrassment.

Kathy had just moved to the area with her parents. “So, what is there to do around here for fun?” she asked  him.

“We mostly ride around and go to the movies or bowling,” he said. An awkward silence passed as he looked out the window, waiting for his mother. “You could come to the movies with me Friday night…. just so….you know….you could meet some people before school starts. I can bring my sister.” He noticed how nervous but happy this suggestion made her. As she smiled a big, bow-shaped smile, her breath quickened and her  brown eyes seemed to darken and warm.

Kathy turned the memory over in her mind as she caught a glimpse of two curly haired girls squealing in the shallows of the water. Their parents waded near the girls, holding hands and whispering. Another sparkling memory seeped into her worried mind. Eric was laid back against a big oak tree at the bottom of Little River Canyon with Kathy’s head laying across his lap. He petted her hair as they watched their children, a boy and girl, splashing each other in the gently moving water. The warm sunlight danced and shimmered on the  water’s surface. Kathy sighed with peaceful contentment as warm breezes grazed her cheeks. She watched
a monarch butterfly land on a nearby log and flap its wings gently. She surveyed the scene lovingly….the remains of their picnic….their bicycles propped up by their truck….the wedding band on Eric’s hand as he rested it on her arm. Her breaths became slow and regular as she drifted into a peaceful slumber.

Kathy snapped out of her daydream at the sight of an elderly gentleman gathering bright pink rhododendrons. He extended his leathery, worn hand to help his diminutive wife up from the picnic bench. Kathy wondered if Eric would be reaching to take her hand at that age. She looked at the gold band she’d been holding in the palm of her hand and thought about the significance of this day. Down in Fort Payne, Eric was probably standing on the steps of the courthouse looking at his watch or trying to call her. She knew he would be furious that she did not show up for their mediation. Today was to be the culmination of the longest year of her life.

Eric’s management position at one of the local hosiery mills had always kept them comfortable. They were never rich, but they always had what they needed. Although Eric expressed doubts about their financial stability, Kathy had taken an early retirement from teaching, hoping to enjoy the arrival of their first grandchild, and to take up some longed-for hobbies. During the first few blissful months, she had taken pottery classes in Mentone, and she and Eric had taken hikes along their favorite trail in Little River Canyon, the Eberhart Trail. During these carefree months, they had found the relaxation and joy in being together that they had lived for as
teens. The years raising their two children, Kelly and Dylan, had been hectic but wonderful. Now that both of their children were settling into their own lives as adults, Kathy and Eric were settling into the easy pace of leisure after diving headlong into busy family life at such a young and tender age.

Kathy’s mind wandered off to a memory of family life with Kelly and Dylan as she gazed hopefully down the road. The family was headed to nearby Cloudmont Ski Resort, where in winter months, manmade snow on a scenic hillside drew those seeking gentle weekend thrills. Kathy worried all the way up the mountain as her three excited family members made bets and bragged about who would be the fastest skier of the family. Her mind rummaged through the typical mom fears of broken legs and bloody collisions on the slope. As they unpacked the trunk, Eric took her by the arm and assured her that everyone would have fun and nothing she had imagined on the way up was going to happen. “He knows me well,” she thought as they trudged through the snow. The view from the hilltop was breathtaking. “I think I’ll just stay here and enjoy the view,” Kathy had told them as they were strapping on their boots.

“Mom, why? You can do this,” Dylan said.

Kelly pointed out that they gave lessons if she wanted to take them.

Eric flashed his perfect smile at her. “C’mon, babe. Don’t let me get snatched up by some stunning snow  bunny. We need you out there.”

She couldn’t resist the fact that they all wanted her on the slope with them. After half an hour of guidance from an instructor, she was feeling surprisingly confident and ready to join the family. Following a few trips down the hill, she playfully challenged Eric to a race.

“Are you sure about this, Kat? This man is a lean machine on this slope,” he joked as he beat his chest like a gorilla.

All four laughed as Kathy told him he’d be beating his chest again after she got through spraying him with powder from her skis. Kelly and Dylan skied down to the bottom to be the judges as their parents lined up to start. After pushing hard on the start, Kathy squatted down low on her haunches to pick up speed, as she had seen her instructor do. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She was winning! Eric followed suit and crouched down into a classic skier’s position and started closing in on her, but Kathy felt her growing competitive spirit rise up against this intrusion. She slid over to head him off, but his skis got tangled up with hers as she moved over to block his path, and she felt her knees buckle as he crashed into her from behind. They tumbled and rolled over each other half a dozen times before finally sliding to a halt just before the finish line their two children had drawn into the snow. Kathy raised up and looked to see if Eric was OK . He laid as still as the  beautiful, glittering snow.

“Eric….you OK , hon?” He made no sound or movement. Kathy rolled him over and became quickly panicked at the sight of his closed eyes and lack of movement. “Eric! Wake up! I’m Sorry! I don’t want to win anymore! I just want YOU !” Kathy screamed.

A small smile spread across his lips as he raised his pole into the air, and the family breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“Kathy, I have two things to tell you,” he whispered. “I love you.” “I love you, too,” she said. “What’s the second?”

He slammed his pole across the finish line. “I win.” The kids stared at Kathy, anticipating her reaction to their father’s fake brush with death. She stared down at the snow and looked as if she might cry. Quick as a flash, she came up with two big handfuls of snow and shoved them into Eric’s face. In less than 10 seconds, the family was in a tangle of laughter and snowballs as one of the workers asked them to move to the side for the safety of the other skiers.

That golden memory faded as she thought about the year she and Eric had just had after the hosiery mill he had managed for so long shut its doors. They  plodded along for a few months on her retirement, but it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. He tried to find a job to keep them afloat, but his pride wouldn’t let him accept minimum wage. He wanted management, but management just wasn’t available.

After six months, Kathy finally went to work at a local warehouse, inspecting clothes and stacking boxes for  shipment. She had constant aches and pains and longed to regain her retirement. She grew bitter at  he sight of Eric on the couch in his sweats. Her remarks carried feelings of resentment, and a seed of bitterness began to grow in Eric as well as he grew more depressed. After a heated argument one hot August night, Eric stormed out the door and out of her life. Kathy sat on their front porch and wept for hours as lightning quivered on nearby Lookout Mountain and the following thunder lamented his departure.

“What did he think when I didn’t show up for the divorce proceedings? Is he aching inside for the life we lost, or is he just irritated by the inconvenience?” Kathy wondered as she gazed at the spot where he proposed 30 years ago today. She was only 18 years old and still in high school the night he had snuck her out of her bedroom window and brought her to the falls for a late-night picnic. They ate cheese and crackers and sipped wine from plastic cups. They laughed and kissed in the silvery moon light. He teased her about all the girls who were jealous that she’d moved into town and snatched up their hunk. He suddenly pulled her up to standing and took her hands in his.

“Kathy, I love you,” he said. “You know that. I want you to be mine forever.” That day seemed a million miles  away, but strangely within reach. She began wading through the water toward the tree where this beautiful memory lived, hoping to recapture it. She kept her focus on the spot where he proposed and, for a moment, she thought she saw something move behind the tree. As she crept closer to the tree, she saw a figure stand up, and their eyes met.

“Eric! Why aren’t you….?”

“I should be asking you the same thing.”

He smiled a faint smile. “I just can’t do it, Kathy,” he sighed. She peered up at him hopefully.

“Do you mind if I ask why not?”

“I’m not going to lie,” he admitted. “This has been the worst year of my life, and I know part of that is my fault,  and I’m sorry. I’ve come to realize, though, that this was the worst year because I had so many years of near perfection with you. These last few months without you gave me time to think about what I was losing. Let’s try it again. I don’t care if we have to sell the house and get an apartment. Heck, we could move into Dylan’s dorm room with him for all I care. I just want another chance at 30 more years. Kathy, I love you. You know that. I want you to be mine forever.”

They embraced for what seemed like hours. Kathy was finally home, to stay.
Editor’s Note
“Mountain Memories” by Dedra Tuten was one of four finalists in the Lookout Alabama-SELTI Writing Contest, sponsored by this magazine, the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative, DeKalb Tourism and Greater Gadsden Area Tourism.

The competition, which challenged writers to compose fictional short stories set in real places in Alabama’s Lookout Mountain region, was the nation’s second tourism-fiction contest and was
judged by a panel including New York Times bestselling author Homer Hickam, university representatives and tourism professionals. Special thanks to everyone who entered the contest.

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