Five-minute memoir: Tupelo Hassman on the surprise healing power of a pocket shrine

 

I'm going to Georgia for a wedding, but when I land in Atlanta, I'll take a 12-hour detour through Tennessee for a last look at my father's home. This isn't your typical visit to the ancestral home; Pop only lived here briefly. Plus, it doesn't fall into the usual category of 'home', unless you are a Hassman, or someone like us.

It's a standard camper trailer parked on a campground bordering a lake and river near Bristol Motor Speedway and it is the last place Pop lived, which makes it the last place I called home. He died 10 years ago this year, a tidy decade, and the camper is finally empty and up for sale.

This campground was the sixth home my father had in our lifetime together, though he never put his wheels down well and spent most of that life travelling. Pop never lived anywhere long and I'm on my 30th home. The rolling stone doesn't fall far from the tree. You'd think my family knows less about what makes a home, considering how infrequently we kept one, but as I slip my rental car through the campground gate before it closes, riding close behind a pick-up truck loaded with coolers and fishing gear, I think maybe we know more than most.

There's a Motel Six in Santa Clara, California, where Pop stayed when he'd come visit. I still pass that motel with fondness, a feeling nothing short of nostalgia for home. We'd read books sprawled across the beds, the door to the room wide open, sit by the pool and swim all day. We were the kind of people that scare folks away from hotels – the ones who've come to stay, apparently desperate. But we weren't, only eternally mobile. The hotel was a place to be together in between caravanning. Home.

After Pop died, on my second move across the US, I stopped in Bristol to visit his widow. We went to see a goldsmith about some silver Pop had left her and I noticed a Saint Christopher medal in the display case. We aren't Catholic, we aren't anything religion-wise, so I explained the patron saint of travellers to the woman who'd created so many homes for my Pop before they settled where the moon always seemed fullest, on the lake in Tennessee. Saint Christopher's been fired from the Catholic Church and he is a bit suspicious, built on myth, his child-toting pack more like a hobo's rucksack since the Church decanonised him, but I still believe. On the morning I woke to leave, the widow returned from an errand just as I finished packing. "I had to wait for them to open," she said, handing me a jewellery box with the medal inside. Having no canon to fire him from, I'm happy to keep Christopher for myself.

On this last visit to Bristol, Christopher is still around my neck. The silver box hangs between two stones that shine bright as headlights in the night. A Model T etched on the front drives over the words: 'St Christopher protect us'. Inside, Christopher and his burden, the child, ride against red velvet. Pocket shrines were popular in the Second World War; the back of this one says 'GERMANY' and in scratched letters: 'O-l-i-v-e'.

I've thought a lot about Olive, whether this was her shrine or if her name was cut into it by someone else, each scratch a prayer for her, a wish that she be carried safely through life's currents. I wonder what my responsibility to Olive is now, or to the soldier who loved her. When I'm clutching my Saint during turbulence at 30,000 feet, should I make a wish for Olive still?

In the moonlight on the gravel drive of my campground pilgrimage, I hold the shrine and sit in the memory of the morning the widow brought Saint Christopher to me. I think about Pop, about Olive, and about her soldier, praying to her as much as to Christopher, doing what we all do: canonising the ones we love.

I miss my Pop almost to a point of brokenness. I miss our homes, the eternal adventure, the stories we brought back from wherever we found them, and I rub my thumb over Olive's name and know suddenly what it means. Not a name, but a wish any soldier makes from the battlefield, that any parent makes for his child and a child learns to make in return, not one word, but two: O live. O live! A new prayer. The inheritance I've come to retrieve.

I turn my headlights toward the gate, the highway leading to my next hotel room, and a boy runs past me on the campground road. Shirtless, barefoot, a fishing pole in his hand, he is quiet as a ghost but so fast in the dusk you know he was meant to be in by dark, but felt so right at the water's edge he'd forgotten where home was when night came falling.

Tupelo Hassman is the author of 'GIRLCHILD', published by Quercus and out now in paperback

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