Somewhere near the eastern bank of the Chattahoochee River is a Magnolia tree, ancient and tall, with the crude carving upon its bark, "Mike Firesmith 1974". When I was thirteen, I carved that on the tree at Odom's landing, one of the very few places in Early County where there is a waterfall. The last time I checked to see if it was still there was back in the late 90's, and the markings were barely visible. The river had crept closer to the tree, and I suppose one day someone will discover my name on a tree in the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps.
I was the first person I ever knew whose parents were divorced. Back in the early seventies divorce was a word that was whispered, like cancer or oral sex. Good and decent people didn't get divorced, they didn't get cancer, and they sure as hell didn't engage in oral sex. When someone died of cancer in South Georgia back in the sixties and early seventies, it wasn't written up in the obituaries. Anyone without a cause of death listing, well, that was like saying they had died of cancer. I never did figure out why there was a sense of shame or evil connected with dying of cancer. The oral sex thing, I'm pretty sure people in South Georgia would turn to salt if it had been spoken of in public. Divorce? Well, it was pretty damn hard to hide.
My two sisters and I knew something was wrong when mom "went on vacation" to grandma's house in Leslie Georgia. Oddly, we suspected grandma was dying, probably of cancer, because granddad had just three years earlier. This hit about the time we moved across town from where we had lived since 1964, and even if we didn't see it coming, my sisters and I were about to live in a very different world in more ways than we knew. While my mother was away my father had begun to take one of us kids each night "riding". He would load one of us into his car and just drive around for hours talking ceaselessly. Because Early County is such a small place, and Blakely is even smaller, there would be times we would pass within sight distance of the house, only to watch it recede again. Our mother would visit on weekends, but no one was talking divorce there for a while. I remember the divorce ride, the night my father asked me what I thought about my parents getting a divorce. I remember telling him if they couldn't work it out that's what they ought to do. I was twelve at the time and had learned when my father asked my opinion he was always considerate enough to have supplied it earlier. Honestly, all I wanted was for the ride to be over more quickly but that plan failed.
I did I damn good job at not telling anyone at school, and divorce was such a terrible and awful event, neither of my sisters were telling anyone either. We had this non-spoken pact of silence as if we didn't say it the divorce might not happen. It was actually a teacher who outed me, and my sisters, when the school had a bake sale I was supposed to take a form home to my mother so she could write down what sort of baked goods she would supply. I didn't have a mother at home, and my father couldn't boil water without burning it. I threw the form away and just didn't say anything about it. The day of reckoning arrived, when the teacher had to have the form, had to know what my mother was baking, and I remember her standing there in front of class, raising her voice, waving her paddle around, and demanding to know what my mother was going to bake. I should have lied and told her cookies, or a wedding cake, or anything, but I just froze up. I was twelve, and my parents were getting a divorce, and my mother wasn't baking a damn thing. I finally told her my mother didn't live with us anymore, and I remember how hard I hoped she would just shut the hell up, and the whole room got quiet, and she advanced on me with the paddle in her hand as if she had quite enough of all this nonsense young man what do you mean she doesn't live with you anymore?
I would have rather she killed me, rather she beat me to death with that board, rather anything at all happened, anything, really, anything, but she stood there in her ugly blue dress and her indignation and her board, and I had to say the words out loud, and had to say the word divorce out loud, and if there had been any justice on earth she would have just shut up, but she didn't believe me, because no one at all had told her about it, and she knew both my parents young man so I have no idea where you get those kind of stories from, So she took me to the front of the class and paddled me for lying about the divorce, and she scolded me for lying about such things, and threatened to send me to the principal's office for lying, and she was going to call my mother that very night. She did call my father, and the next day she announced to the class I had been wrongly accused of lying, that Mike's parent were in fact getting divorced. I was incredibly angry for a very long time. Honestly, I still am.
So my older sister went to live with my mother, and eventually my younger sister did too for a while. But before that happened my mother would visit us on Saturdays, and take us to one park or another. That morning we went to Odom's landing, one of the very few places in Early County where there is a waterfall.