NASHVILLE — In 1986, Paul Simon released his seventh solo album, “Graceland.” One year later, my fiancé Haywood and I moved to Nashville. Haywood was driving my father’s secondhand panel van with the fake wood-grain wraparound made of shelf liner that masked the previous owner’s business logo. Attached to the van was a trailer too heavy for the hitch. I was driving the Exploding Pinto, the nickname derived from that car’s fuel-tank fires, and on top of the Pinto were several hundred pounds of books in a homemade roof rack built of two-by-fours.
Between South Carolina, where we had just finished graduate school, and Tennessee, where we would start our new teaching jobs, lay the Appalachian Mountains. Getting over them in one piece would be the first real test of our lives as fully employed adults.
Top-heavy and buffeted by winds, the chugging old Pinto struggled. My traveling companion — a cat who refused to use the litter box on the back seat — was perched on my headrest, her claws gripping my scalp as eighteen-wheelers barreled past us in the dark. In the cassette player on the passenger seat, Paul Simon was singing “Graceland.” It is not too much to say that “Graceland” got me safely over Monteagle Mountain when I was in danger of going over the edge.
I grew up in a house without a stereo, and my parents’ car radio was always tuned to big-band music, so my formative years were in no way informed by Elvis Presley, who would have turned 83 on Monday. But you hear a cheerful song just as you’re thinking you might truly die, and you form a kind of bond with it. Driving over Monteagle Mountain with the cat latched to my head, I vowed to see his Graceland estate someday. How lucky to be moving to the very state where Graceland could be found!
Decades passed and we still hadn’t made it. We once went to a conference in Memphis, but three hours after we checked in Haywood’s grandmother died, and so we got back in the car and headed home. Our babies — who were worse traveling companions than the cat — kept road trips confined to far-flung family reunions.
In 2010, when our oldest son chose a college in Memphis, I thought I would surely see Graceland at last. We packed up our two younger sons, then 13 and 11, and made a vacation of it. We toured the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, took a walk along the Mississippi River, visited the ducks in the fountain at the Peabody hotel, ate ribs at the Rendezvous, and peeked into blues joints on Beale Street.
What we did not do was visit Graceland. Halfway through our tour, the kids rebelled. They did not want to pay homage to Dr. King at the National Civil Rights Museum. They did not want to visit Sun Records. Most of all, they did not want to visit Graceland. “It’ll be fun,” I said. “There’s a Jungle Room.” They said they’d rather go back to their brother’s dorm and shoot each other with the Nerf guns they’d packed in lieu of clean underwear.
By the time we’d dropped them at the college, there wasn’t time to make it to Graceland before closing, so Haywood and I sat outside in the hotel hot tub and drank a bottle of wine out of little plastic cups and looked at the gray Memphis skyline. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child who won’t even go to Graceland with you.
Fast-forward seven more years. Our oldest son — who had transferred to another school after only a semester — was all grown up, the middle boy was in college and the youngest was almost on his way. We were hosting an Australian exchange student, a teenage boy who loved American music. One day Haywood said, “I wonder if the guys would like to go to Memphis.” Unbelievably, they were game, and this time I didn’t make the same mistake. First stop: Graceland.
It was not at all what I’d envisioned. On a rainy Sunday in January, the crowd-control stanchions outside the house were entirely unnecessary, the huge parking lot nearly empty. In 30 years of waiting, had I inflated Graceland in my own mind? Had I read too much spiritual significance into its name, expecting some sort of blessing?
Then, like Alice through the looking glass, I stepped through a door still bearing a desiccated Christmas wreath, and that’s when everything got awesome. Graceland’s formal rooms are all white carpet and gold trimmings and mirrors — walls and walls of mirrors. With its hide-covered furniture and lamps hanging from chains and vines draping a stone wall, the Jungle Room did not disappoint, but downstairs was the real action: a room with three televisions embedded in the walls, a sectional sofa with sequin-bedecked pillows, a mirror-topped coffee table bearing a bizarre porcelain creature of indeterminate origin gazing toward the door, and a billiards room with walls and ceiling entirely upholstered in pleated floral fabric that might have been fashioned by a seamstress on mushrooms.
By today’s measure of lavish wealth, Elvis’s mansion would be dwarfed by any house in an upscale suburb, but to a girl of the ’70s who grew up poor enough for contact paper to seem like a reasonable way to embellish a used van, it was a gift. Walking past all those mirrors, I kept catching glimpses of myself, grinning.
Somehow it felt like more than checking off an item on a bucket list. Maybe it had something to do with a dawning sense that I was moving past the delayed gratifications of motherhood, past the time of putting off what I wanted to do. Or maybe it had something to do with coming full circle, of making a vow just as our marriage was beginning and finally seeing it through just as we were on the verge of being alone again. Mirror after mirror, there I was, right in the heart of Graceland: smiling and smiling and smiling.
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