“Life is a mystery,” JoJo told me the other day. I was spending the day with my grandparents, a rarity that made me wish, once again, for that impossible combination of the comforts of home and the exhilaration of the rest of the world. We went out to lunch, worked on their technological difficulties, and watched the Gaither family sing gospel hymns on DVD. I also pumped them for stories and information, looking for a pearl of wisdom with which to ease my current life-decision processes.
Bobby and JoJo are full of stories and information, whether you’re looking for them or not. I suppose that after 75 or so years of life, it’s impossible not to have a few tales to tell. On this day, we happened to be by 5th Street in Vinton, where JoJo lived for a year and a half during elementary school with her Aunt Duval and eight cousins. She showed me the hill where the boys used to drag up crates from the mill across the road to build forts, pointed out the corner where she caught the bus to go to school, and made sure to tell me the stories of each of the cousins, military service and dates of death included. When you live in the same place for as long as they have, you know almost everything about almost everybody.
Guy Cooper was one of Bobby’s best friends, and if his stories from the other day are any indication, “almost everything” might not even be sufficient for what Bobby knew about him. They met in elementary school, down on Florida Avenue, and their lives so paralleled each other that Guy’s recent death was, I think, quite a stunner. They went through school together, graduated together, served in the military together, and worked at the railroad together for many years – first in the yards and then in management. “We knew each other,” Bobby says, “real well.”
There’s a certain kind of knowing that comes from living in the same place for so long, a kind of knowing that thrives on vertical layers instead of horizontal additions. It’s a question of depth versus breadth; you can know a little about a lot or you can know a lot about a little. JoJo and Bobby know a lot about this place and a lot about the people in it.
I’m looking for wisdom because I’m trying to decide which kind of knowing I want to do. My options, it seems, are endless. At this point in my life, I can go just about anywhere and do just about anything. When I graduate with a Master of Divinity in May, I’ll have virtually no limitations or restrictions as to what shape my life must take. I don’t have a family of my own, I don’t have job commitments, and aside from several thousand dollars in educational debt to be paid off over a couple of decades, I have very few financial obligations. I can do, as my dad taught me and as JoJo taught him, anything I want to do.
And yet. Despite all these options and all this freedom, it seems to me that the course I set myself on at this particular juncture is going to determine, at least for a while, what kind of knowing I’m going to be doing. I can come back here, to Roanoke and family and comfort, and add another generational layer to this already dense chapter of local history. I can learn to know this valley and those mountains and these people that all already occupy a well-worn place in my heart in intimate ways impossible for someone who wasn’t born and bred here in the same place as her parents and her grandparents and even some of their parents. Or I can go somewhere else – anywhere else, really – and take advantage of the opportunities that have arrived at my door via good raising and education and the simple shape of society, explore the world, find out how few things I know, meet new and different people, learn a little about a lot.
I asked JoJo and Bobby the same question that I asked my parents earlier this month: were there decisions that you made that you think changed the shape of your life significantly? And they all answered the same way: "We didn’t even know to consider any other options. What we did was just what you did, then. Well, I wonder, what is what you do, now? What is it that I do?
“Life is a mystery,” JoJo said, and Bobby immediately agreed. She smiled a knowing smile when she said it, a deeply layered, vertically-knowing smile. She turns 75 years old today, catching up with Bobby and maintaining their 50 year advantage over me. If mystery is what they’ve got after 75 well-lived years, then I probably shouldn’t expect anything more after a somewhat suspect 24.