Tell the truth. / At least tell your truth. / And after / let anything happen . . .
— Heberto Padilla
The plain fact is, I don’t remember a time when I was unaware of June Carter Cash. She hovers over my entire forty-odd years of sentience from earliest memory of happiness to present and tangled heartache. Mapping the seminal moments and parallels into which June figures is to plot what I know of my father’s life and death, and to trace how a daughter becomes estranged from the mother she loves—which is to say, maybe by telling my story about June I am hoping to find a way back to my mother.
The story begins, happily enough, with June’s appearance on a Saturday night in the summer of 1969 at my dawn of conscious desire. This involved a sudden longing for a plastic, daisy-decaled guitar, which also happened to be pink because I was not quite three years old. Clearly I’d seen such a wonder among some other child’s toys or while tucked at my mother’s side as she turned the pages of the giant Sears catalog, but my laser need for that specific guitar bubbled up from humanity’s pool of general want as I sat cuddled on the couch between mother and father in the paneled basement of our little tract home in Adrian, Michigan.
My young parents’ delight charged the air. Sparked by expectation of something really good about to happen and catalyzed by our focused attention, I registered this high-octane togetherness as simply the best feeling. Then from our brand new color TV came a simple greeting: “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”
It was the premier of “The Johnny Cash Show” and without June, the black-clad man might have been a little too scary for me—I tended toward fear of strange men on TV and in person, especially Santa Claus because he visited too infrequently. Instead, on that summer night a dual contagion of excitement and connectedness thoroughly infected me. I developed a virtually familial attachment to June over the next year, but what imprinted that night is just how very happy my parents were as they sang along, and the man and his wife on TV were so tickled together, too. All the elation and music, and smiles and love conflated into my ideal of how things should be. This fulgent moment became the one against which all others are measured.
ABC launched Cash’s weekly show on June 7, 1969, by beaming an hour of communion with Johnny and June, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell into my family room. [Sigh.] These artists all occupy pantheon seats for me today but my fascination then was all about June. Of course, there is now a Youtube video of the premier in its 52-minute entirety to provide a handy touchstone.
“Right now, here’s a lovely young lady. My wife, June Carter,” says Johnny, and June shimmies out and curtsies to high applause in a sparkling green gown that highlights one remarkably hour-glass figure. As I watch the video today, I’m struck by how alike June (despite being fourteen years older) and my mother looked at the time, both 5’5”, blue-eyed and amply curved, with their beauty-queen smiles and dark brown, long bouffant flips, and I realize this similarity must be one of the reasons I took a shine to June. I note the way she sways and swivels her hips, harmonizing with Johnny over his train-beat strumming as the two rock their first hit single, a 1965 cover of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” I get a little tingle when I see a flirty nose crinkle and the admiration June oozes into, “You say you’re looking for someone / who’s never weak and always strong / to protect you and defend you / whether you are right or wrong.”
June’s charms stirred more than just one little girl that night. A RollingStone critic named Patrick Thomas attended the taping at the Ryman Auditorium, which was then still home to the “Grand Ole Opry,” and declared June “a woman who absolutely means to entertain or know the reason why. She’s got that hash-house flash and she really drives.”
I still admire that flash and drive but what moves me now, as a middle-aged woman married fourteen years, is the dewy joy and attraction in June’s eyes as she looks at Johnny. This is the roused gaze every happy woman longs to keep holding for her partner as the years go by. June had become Mrs. Cash only the year before, after their famously tumultuous, multi-year struggle with “Ring of Fire” love while still married to others. In that pre-Internet and -TMZ era, I’m certain my parents had no idea June’s (second) husband during those years was a man named Edwin “Rip” Nix (no relation, as far as I know).
Wayne and Sharon Nix celebrated their fifth anniversary that summer of ’69 and, like most Americans of the non-judgmental human variety, were smitten with Johnny and June’s love story. The most-played record on our hi-fi then was “Carryin’ on with Johnny Cash and June Carter,” which includes their Grammy-winning and biggest hit, “Jackson.” The album title still emits a whiff of naughty, as even though June was legally free by this August 1967 release and Johnny and Vivian Liberto Cash filed for divorce in 1966, it wasn’t finalized until January 1968, just days before his famous Folsom Prison concert. Some of my parents’ rapture while watching Johnny and June sing on that first broadcast had to involve at least the unconscious appreciation and titillation of forbidden love made good. I get another little tingle considering the fact that nine months after the premier both couples welcomed new babies—a boy for the Cashes and a girl for my parents—thus extending connections to that happy time. For me, though, it was a guitar.
I don’t remember pointing at the television and saying, “I want a ‘kitar,’” but this is a stock story from childhood told by my parents and tied to my subsequent obsessions and ambitions. For months after seeing Johnny’s guitar, I pestered and pleaded for the pink guitar and finally Santa placed it under the tree, even though I’d tearfully refused again that year to sit on his lap. For the next year and change, I picked and strummed away, showing precisely zero talent for the instrument, and during each episode of Johnny’s show I stood a foot away from the TV screen holding my guitar and trying to sing along with June. But I never did learn to play it.
ABC cancelled the Johnny Cash show in March of 1971 during the “rural purge,” a season in which all three networks responded to the tectonic societal and cultural shifts of the age by swapping out their folksy, heartland-themed shows (think “Green Acres” and “Lassie”) for edgy offerings featuring city dwellers, racial politics and black humor about war (think “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H*”). The Dow was headed into bear territory for the next decade, Nixon’s enemy list was growing and body bags were coming home from Vietnam. The whole country’s mood was polling downward but all I knew was, my June was gone.
A more distinct gloom settled over our family life in the months following the show’s cancellation in spite of what should have been exhilarating developments, like my father getting a better-paying teaching job and moving us to my mother’s dream home, a 1910 farmhouse in the nearby small town of Tecumseh. There were still good days, but my parents grew increasingly distracted and short-tempered. Bedtime stories stopped, no music played and most of the time my father looked too tired to stand up. Sometime between ages five and six and highly attuned to our domestic climate change, I abandoned the pink guitar in a corner of the creepy cellar and retreated to my room to embark on a quieter obsession: reading.
My relationship today with books and words fits with the findings of Stanford professor Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist and the author of Words at Work and Play: Three Decades in Families and Communities (2012). To sustain a lifelong attachment to serious literature, Heath’s research shows one of two paths are possible. This first type of serious reader is a person who as a child has parents who model reading, and who later finds friends with whom to discuss books. The second type is the social isolate, a child who from an early age feels very different from those around her. An important dialogue begins to happen internally between such a child and the authors of the books she reads. I could read by age four because my mother initially spent so much time reading to me, but the social-isolate part delivered a goosefleshy moment of clarity when first reading Heath, because I recognized that when the gloom descended and behaviors changed—without explanation—I began to feel like an outsider in my family and sought connection in books. Heath also says social isolate readers are more likely to become writers [check], and though I treasure what’s been a life dedicated primarily to word-related pursuits in media and activism, I wonder now whether my early and solo retreat into books was the first unconscious wedge between mother and daughter.
At that age, I tied June’s disappearance to all the postliminary strife but the reality was my parents were overwhelmed and just beginning to grapple with the terror of my 29-year-old father’s mysteriously declining health. By early 1972, they learned he was in the final stages of kidney failure.
My mind samples only a few soundless images, like animated, looping gifs, from the year or so following that crushing demarcation. I see smoke rising from the built-in ashtrays of vinyl chairs in a waiting room at the old University of Michigan hospital. I see my saddle shoes walking the many-colored maze of lines painted on the floor, which corresponded to various diseases and led away from the lobby toward treatment rooms down dingy corridors. The lines on a New York City subway map can take me right back there. I see my father, weak from nausea, crawling up our stairs. I see men delivering the dialysis machine to our house along with the first tall stacks of medical-supply boxes, because my parents decided Dad would dialyze at home, with my mother as caregiver, rather than suffer a commute to Ann Arbor and the depressing emotional toll of facing a dialysis unit three days a week, four hours at a time. We never called this contraption by its proper name; it was always just the “kidney machine” and it lived in our “TV room.” We ate dinner in there while Dad sat in a La-Z-Boy with his blood pumping through the clear plastic lines. I see my mother pushing butterfly needles into the swollen veins of my father’s forearm and I see her dozing on the floor, waiting to clean up the detritus at each run’s end. I see Mrs. Osburn, too, standing in her cheery classroom putting an index finger to her lips, gently hushing thirty first-graders in an instant. I loved school and thrived there, that was the part of my day when I didn’t have to think about the scary stuff.
There would be a failed transplant attempt in 1975, with Dad near death in a hospital bed for three months, and a four-month period when I was “home-schooled” in our Ford Turtle Top van in a Florida campground because my mother knew he wouldn’t make it through that Michigan winter. On a temporary disability check such accommodation was all they could afford, so they towed a small trailer and set up a mobile dialysis unit right there at the camp site, making us, I was told, the first family to camp with one of the early, stove-sized hemodialysis machines.
At some point my parents got their heads around the idea of my father being on dialysis for what they thought would be the rest of his life, and a new kind of normal contoured around us. In our kitchen appeared a sign stating our adopted family motto: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” My father returned to work and got back into his passion for music with a fervor. Elvis, Hank Williams, Bill Haley & the Comets, the Platters, and of course Johnny and June, were all back in heavy rotation on the turntable housed in our smackdigity Zenith console.
One summer afternoon my father emerged from the cellar with an old reel-to-reel tape machine and asked me to help him set it up on the screened-in porch. As he mined a box full of unmarked tapes for two particular treasures, the speakers projected my father’s teen-aged deejay-wannabe routines, which involved not only the spinning of records but snappy backstories about the songs or artists and amusing banter with my grandmother when she entered his room with a snack or reminder. Hailing from the birthplace of commercial radio, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dad’s teen years coincided with the emergence of rock-and-roll and the hey-days of two of the nation’s most popular disc jockeys, Cleveland’s Alan “Moondog” Freed, who actually coined the term “rock’n’roll”, and Pittsburgh’s Jay Michaels, one of the first to play what was then called “race music” (songs by African-American artists) on mainstream radio. Heavily influenced by the tastes of those two men, my dad’s vinyl collection—a small bit of which I have today—included a marvelous trove of rhythm and blues, country and Western swing, doo-wop and that early rock-and-roll and rockabilly.
Young Wayne time-capsuled live performances from local and national radio broadcasts, too, and as I sat next to him on the glider that day I learned Pittsburgh’s KDKA was not only America’s first commercial station, but the first to broadcast live music and the only station east of the Mississippi River to have call letters starting with a K, not W. All of this information, combined with my father’s manifest enthusiasm, gave Pittsburgh a singular glamour. I heard about Sam Phillips and Sun Records that day, too, because one of the reels Dad was looking for held a recording of a live radio concert featuring Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. He also wanted to locate his bedroom recordings of “Grand Ole Opry” shows he and his mother had spirited from the airwaves because, in the wake of his illness and the ’60s folk music revival, my parents took an interest in old-time Appalachian folk and country music. In particular, he was looking for episodes featuring Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, and this is when I remember first hearing June without Johnny.
An audiophile buddy helped Dad transfer these rediscoveries from open-reel to 8-track cartridges for his sweet electric-yellow, Panasonic portable player, so I heard the old “Opry” recordings often over the next several years and can testify that June worked what she had and held her own in those early days. She may not have been graced with Maybelle’s virtuoso musicianship, or her sister Anita’s buttery voice, but as Mark Zwonitzer points out in his rich biography of the Carter family, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, Valerie June Carter was the most single-minded and ambitious of the Carters and “an entertainer for life, she was happiest in front of an audience, and she knew she was good.” June became a star by determining the ways to make the most of not only her talent and looks, but of her intelligence, charisma and humor.
The lambent hours on the porch when my father shared his love and knowledge of music took hold as my best memory of time alone with him. Happiness fused with my introduction to the Sun Records boys and Carter family classics like “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep on the Sunny Side,” while two lines first heard that day in the June solo “Sweet Temptation” (“the most delicious peach / just always out of reach”) became part of our father-daughter argot. She got to us both; there was just something so cheerful and game about June. In her “Opry” incarnations, she was equal parts sassy singer and cornpone comedienne, always mixing it up with the host and other entertainers, and combined with her beauty, I’m not surprised that both Johnny Cash and Wayne Nix professed teen-aged crushes on June. After hearing about my father’s admiration for June and her success, I took up the feminine calculus for determining where I might place on the looks, smarts and talent charts, and how I could—like June—make the most of whatever gifts I’d been given. I, too, would call on humor to fill in the gaps.
With the yellow 8-track player Velcroed to the dash and the “kidney machine” lashed in back, my family spent every vacation and a high percentage of weekends in the late ’70s hitting the road in our Turtle Top van. I found soothing the rumble and rhythm of tires on highway and the country whirring by my window. Plus I had plenty of time to follow my curiosity through all the books I brought along. Paying no heed to Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis, we camped in every state east of the Mississippi and laid eyes on Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower replica, Salem’s witch dungeon, Philadelphia’a Liberty Bell and just about every historic marker and Revolutionary and Civil War site. We visited founding-father manors and their dismal slave quarters, national memorials, quirky tourist traps and stunning natural wonders. I also have a photo of my little self taken with the real Maria von Trapp (yes, Sound of Music) outside her lodge in Vermont and I went to Graceland before Elvis died in his bathroom.
The old recordings of Johnny and June, the Carters, and Elvis provided the soundtrack, along with new additions like John Denver, Kris Kristofferson, the Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys. My parents’ love of country, gospel and old-time mountain music inspired repeat trips to the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains and remote hollows all over central Appalachia. On one trip, a Carter Family rendition of “Cumberland Gap” even led us, like madly hopeful pioneers headed west, along the Native American trail Daniel Boone developed into the Wilderness Road, and to take turns standing on the exact triangulated spot where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia converge in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
June grew up an hour east of there, in Maces Springs, Virginia, which also happens to be where her uncle Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter started the original Carter family trio, with his wife Sara and June’s mother Maybelle. A.P. is known today as “the father of country music” even though the group disbanded in 1943 and, according to Zwonitzer’s book, he died in 1960 feeling his music might be forgotten. Dad drove our Turtle Top down A.P. Carter Highway on the way from Maces Spring to Bristol, the town straddling Virginia and Tennessee’s border where in 1927 the Carters (and a few other performers, like Jimmie Rodgers) made the very first recordings of old-time mountain folk songs for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and then spread across the country along with Orthophonic Victrolas.
The Bristol sessions are known as the “big bang of modern country music,” but Nashville became the ground zero, so on we charged in the Turtle Top to Opryland USA. The theme park opened in the early ’70s to house the new Grand Ole Opry House when the Ryman got too small for the millions of mostly southern and midwestern fans making pilgrimages to Nashville. I remember riding the Wabash Cannonball and Rock-n-Roller coasters, but my parents never got tickets to an “Opry” show. Money was always tight, though a Johnny Cash poster bought on that trip did hang in the basement of the small ranch-style house we moved to after my mother’s dream home turned out to be too exhausting and costly to fix up. In my online wanderings I found an old Hatch Show Print like what I remember; it’s an advertisement for a 1967 Minneapolis show featuring Johnny and June, the Tennessee Three, Mother Maybelle, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins. It has that whiff-of-naughty, “Carryin’ On”-year vibe, so I had to buy another.
Rushing headlong out into the country gave our family an endorphin boost in those first few of the seventeen years Dad would endure dialysis, and my parents’ joint passion for country music and its history (with June so integral a part) set a true purpose and course for our rambling. I see this passion as part of a romantic rural ideal my parents held, after choosing to leave the big cities of Pittsburgh and Detroit to create a life together in a small town—though they had little in common with that era’s hippie back-to-the-landers, and nothing at all with today’s hinterland right-wing preppers. The amalgam of these rural and musical elements provided my parents with what the poet Donald Hall calls a “third thing,” and describes as being “essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention.”
In our case, this third thing was essential for the whole family, and it rooted for me in June. Her voice underlays the montage of buoyant moments from my childhood, whether we were on the road or just cleaning the house together on a Saturday morning. For a stretch of years, Dad’s trick to wind up my mother for a night of dancing at the Golden Nugget Saloon was putting “Jackson” on the stereo and channeling Johnny, and all was right in our world when my mother belted out June’s rejoinder: “Go on, you big talkin’ man . . . goodbye, that’s all she wrote!” June’s spirited and sometimes slightly off-key voice offered reprieve from the otherwise monotonous durge of physical, emotional and financial burdens faced by a young family living with a dialysis machine in their home.
The mutability of memory keeps me from locating an exact end point, but our June-infused third thing began to fade away with the confluent onsets of my teen-age years, Reagan’s voodoo economics, and the migration from 8-track to cassette. Our family life wasn’t all bad, to be clear, but it became significantly less good as the trips and communal participation in our music ritual dwindled. Dad tossed the old Zenith console and yellow 8-track player in favor of a glass-doored tower stereo system, but he never warmed as much to cassettes, never transferred any of the old-time mountain and gospel recordings to the new format and I never saw the open-reels holding June and the others again. Something essential got lost.
Other factors contributed to my family’s foreclosed togetherness, like the hamster-wheel of complications with my father’s illness, the drudgery of dialysis every other day, year after year, and the increasing frequency of fatigue and temper trumping Dad’s humor—at home, anyway. He saved his strength and positivity then for his students and football players, which resulted in Teacher of the Year honors and an induction into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. By contrast, there were no public kudos for my mother, and her depression deepened over a rerouted life of medical care-taking, having fewer children than she’d wanted, and money pressures shoving her into the workplace as a teacher, too. She’d wanted the life of stay-at-home mother and only worked because there were bills to pay, not because it fulfilled her or some dream drove her to create. She also told me several times in subsequent years that she believed not being home more factored into my sister’s later struggles with addiction. My mother gained, lost and gained weight in the ’80s, and fell asleep on the floor in the living room while watching TV, whether it was a dialysis night or not, rarely making it to their bedroom. I imagine it wasn’t all about my father’s chronic disease, that there may have been some of the common despair and needling regrets of any couples’ mid-life marital years and perhaps even what the character Walter, in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, laments as the “the deep loneliness of the truly married.”
My conviction to live a life radically different from my mother’s grew each year, despite loving her and feeling closer to her than to my father during my teen years. June’s plucky creative example had embedded early on and I looked for other lives to emulate in the books I read. New York seemed the place where such lives were lived. As a young woman, June was drawn to New York as well, studying at the Actors Studio in the Fifties with Elia Kazan and Robert Duvall, and dating James Dean. Any life was possible in New York, and I meant to get there. Though my mother encouraged me, in the midst of feeling so desperate about her own life, it must have been a stab of repudiation each time I talked about leaving and all my grand expectations.
The dark mood continued and corresponds to the lack of June and other music played in our living room then. I picked up the music ritual in the dens of my best girlfriend and boys I dated, discovering New Wave, ska and punk, and other post-Fifties rock, particularly of the British-invasion varieties, first and second. My new tastes engendered outsized disappointment for all kinds of unarticulated reasons (though my father did give voice to an irrational hatred of the Beatles for booting Elvis and Johnny from popularity in the mid-Sixties) and my parents couldn’t stand to hear my vinyl purchases from Schoolkids Records on the stereo. It gathered dust while the television droned on, and to this day, a house without music in which a television flickers all day and night makes me sad and agitated. I didn’t help matters by getting into some typical teen-aged scrapes, shoving country music aside (even my June) and snottily rejecting my parents’ entire rural, small-town ideal. I started developing stomach aches whenever he was on dialysis and just read in my room. All my ambition focused on escape from Tecumseh and from a life dominated by disease.
Our period of familial dissolve also coincides with June’s exit from the spotlight and a spate of rough years in the house of Cash. There were still joint appearances, but new duets with Johnny stopped and, as their (only) son John Carter Cash writes in Anchored in Love, June’s career took a backseat to Johnny’s work and his repeat flare-ups of addiction and infidelity. It would be two decades before a return to the national stage and her first-ever solo Grammy.
On Youtube one night, I linked my way to an achingly awkward clip of June promoting her memoir, Among My Klediments, on “The Merv Griffin Show” on August 22, 1980 (my parents’ 16th anniversary, incidentally). I experienced an unexpected cringe of remorse, like I’d turned against an old friend in need back then. I got a little hot with defensiveness on her behalf watching fellow guest Shelley Winters goad June about women’s liberation, saying condescendingly, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen you without Johnny…you’re getting liberated.” A flustered, 51-year-old June tries to encapsulate her early years of solo accomplishments and explains that now she tries to follow “God’s order from the old Bible” of putting God first, her husband second, then her children, and “in being liberated, Johnny Cash lets me be a part of everything he does and he let me come on out here and I’m glad of that.” Sitting there with just her autoharp she looks a little lost on the set, and far out of step with the times.
There was talk of divorce at the time in both houses. To heal addiction and their marriage, evangelism served as a third thing for the Cashes, but as they started frequenting Billy Graham crusades in the Eighties, church became a fraught subject in the Nix home. My mother’s converted-to-Catholic habit remained strong but my dad stopped attending church. I never knew whether this was due to fatigue, anger or just the excruciatingly tiresome priest at St. Elizabeth’s. I do know it worried my mother that despite all the years of homilies and CCD classes, I never found a lasting in-road to the soul through organized religion. I think she’d hoped faith in her God would be something the two of us could share, but this was just another disappointment. Simply pretending to have that kind of deep, inveterate faith June and my mother held so dear seemed to me a profound act of dishonesty. Both women claimed to have received a calling—as children—to religious faith; I wonder for how many people the deal is that real.
I find meaning, hope and spiritual communion in the voice of certain poets and songwriters and in the pages of serious literature (other than monotheistic texts)—which, by the way, also jibes with Shirley Brice Heath’s social-isolate research. But all these years later I do channel a peculiar yen for devotional ritual whenever I hear June’s renditions of gospel folk songs like “Church in the Wildwood” and “That Lonesome Valley.” What I yearn for, however, is not the myth or rules surrounding any ancient prophet, but my father’s Panasonic on the dash, my mother’s pretty voice harmonizing with June’s, and the family closeness of our Turtle Top days.
Rather than the white-washed myth that June married Johnny and everyone lived happily ever after, I also find far more radical inspiration in the reality of both the Cash and Nix 35-year unions. Now deep into my own midlife marital years, I admire the grit it takes for any two committed people to wade through all manner of pain and despair—and the accompanying insanities—to discover new joys on farside banks.
“Buddhists speak of seeing your life as part of a pattern,” wrote the poet Louis Simpson, “but I do not have to practice Buddhism in order to do this—it happens when I write.” This rings true as certain patterns crystallized for the first time through this writing. The early hitching of happiness to travel triggered a nomadic spirit and led to shoe-string sojourns around Europe and the Middle East in my twenties. Ambition to escape my small town and Dad’s disease landed me first in Pittsburgh (remember, it once seemed glamorous) and then New York in early 1992. For the rest of that decade, as I circuitously and somewhat unconsciously authored myself into a bizarrely close adaptation of my father’s dream to work in radio (first as news director for a country-music station owned by an old UPI man, then as producer for a National Public Radio show), I had seven different addresses and a period of couch surfing before fleeing a wildly ill-suited job as a reporter for the “showbiz bible” and the riotous debris of an epic romantic fail. Four months later, while recovering away from New York, I got engaged after eight days to a fellow gypsy-soul, married him in the fall of 1999 and lived in two Italian and six other American cities before dragging him back to New York in our thirteenth year. For both good reasons and bad, I see a pattern of flight.
As I write, I also see how history repeated in both the Nix and Cash houses from one generation to the next in the Nineties and Oughts, and how through a very complex set of circumstances I came to be writing this essay about the effect of June’s music in my life. I realize the biggest impact may be this very gift of essaying my way through the history behind my tangled, five-year estrangement.
In late 1991, just before my move to New York, my parents and I shared another road trip after Dad got the call for his second transplant. They were visiting me in Pittsburgh, and back in Ann Arbor a wife had donated the organs of her husband just killed in a motorcycle accident. I grabbed a mix tape for that drive across Pennsylvania and Ohio as by then our music troubles were history. We barely spoke for those four hours. My mother drove her Celica and Dad reclined in the passenger seat. I leaned up close from the back and rubbed a certain protruding vein at the base of his neck—an act that always soothed him. When “If I Were a Carpenter” came on, I watched my father’s hand find my mother’s as Johnny and June sang the lines “Save your love through loneliness / Save your love through sorrow / I gave you my onliness / Give me your tomorrow.”
This time, the kidney took and on track with the economic boom of the Clinton years, Nix health and wealth trended pretty gloriously upward. My parents bought a lakefront lot on remote Beaver Island and built a small vacation home that provided a new third thing for their marriage and our family. On my first visit, Dad picked me up at the delightfully puny airport shack in his Ford Bronco (he’d traded in the Turtle Top) and euphoric relief dizzied me when I saw the cottage profiled against the almost Caribbean-blue of Lake Michigan. That vision offered a meditative happy place whenever things got too crazy in New York. Dad joined my mother at the little white church in town, and even I could enjoy a liberal priest who quoted from novels and poetry, and joked that his true religion was fly-fishing. My sister was waitressing and showing talent for the guitar and songwriting, and in 1995 delivered baby Anna Rose, sending our family planet into orbit around a new sun. On our summer and Christmas visits at the cottage, CDs were always spinning.
Shortly after my engagement, June burst back onto the country music scene in the spring of 1999 with her solo album, Press On, and I picked up a copy on my way to Washington, DC, to watch my father testify before Congress. After the transplant, he retired from teaching and became a nationally-recognized activist. I helped him write proposals and secure initial funding for what became a National Kidney Foundation program to help kidney patients get back to school and work. My father said he felt a debt because he was among the first kidney patients to benefit in 1973 when Congress passed the law to include everyone diagnosed with end-stage renal disease under Medicare insurance. By benefit, I mean live. Had that bill not passed, he’d have died within two years of his diagnosis because no private health insurers covered dialysis or transplants and only the rich could afford treatment. Corporate dialysis centers found ways each year to squeeze ever-greater profits from Medicare at the expense of patient health, and my father was in DC to tell a Congressional committee about that profiteering.
In our hotel room that night, I broke out Press On and we took turns listening to songs on my Discman. Johnny and June’s duet “The Far Side Banks of Jordan” visibly stirred my dad, and at song’s end he said, “I wonder which one will go first. The other won’t last long after that.” A room service tray holding two plates relieved of pecan pie sat on the bed between us—I remember that detail because it was the last time I was alone with him. Three months after he walked me down the little white church’s aisle, and just three days short of a new millennium, my 57-year-old father collapsed by the Christmas tree in our cottage and died of congestive heart failure.
I didn’t get to say goodbye. I’d left the day before with my new husband to visit his family in Ohio, and when we arrived at the funeral home my mother looked like a lost little girl waiting by the window in a seafoam-green chair. Next to her was a blue Rubbermaid container holding everything she deemed necessary for the trip to bury her husband: a photograph of him taken at my wedding, a change of clothes for herself and two burial options for him, make-up, 2 six-packs of Coke and Press On.
June won her Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album two months later, but I couldn’t listen to Press On again for a long time. The old adage that no two people grieve alike did not prepare me for how grief can decimate a family. Despite the gloomy periods and my escape, it was only after my father’s death that I understood how tightly-wound the four of us were by shared worry, relief, courage and even a sense of exceptionalism (for making it through all the years of facing his disease together). I imagine we were like soldiers who go through combat together, and with my father’s gravital force suddenly removed, my mother, sister and I each spun out with our own unique and mighty torque. The pathetic details of that narrative contribute to the estrangement with my mother, but sharing them would serve no universal purpose here and would read like a made-for-Dateline story complete with a convicted criminal who preys on widows, addiction-fueled misunderstandings, paranoias and betrayals, and desperate acting out by all three of us. The lesson is that we did not mourn well, together or apart. Multiple periods of resentment and silence between mother and daughters and between sisters ensued during the Bush 43 years, but as I moved about with my husband, my sister got stuck at a dead-end and had two grandchildren for my mother to worry about and support.
A lifetime of wedges—disease, my retreat into books, my rejection of her faith, marital disappointments and resentments, perceived repudiation and abandonment, my sister’s battles and our inability to deal with my father’s death—cracked up the good between us and it was easier for all of us to attach during this period to people with whom we did not share such complex and sordid history, so nothing got worked through. Denial, my mother used to say, got my father and her through a lot. I suppose that was our true family motto, and we three still tried to act like a family even after my mother’s second marriage to a Beaver Islander with nine adult children who brought additional perspectives, drama and wedges into the mix. The final break only came when history repeated itself.
The summer before the country elected Barack Obama, I was coming off several years of political book publishing and progressive activism projects, and utterly bone-weary. I found it hard to concentrate and felt depressed, but after eight years of George W. Bush, I knew a lot of people who felt that way. My back hurt and I was 42, so male doctors kept telling me to try yoga. Very sensitive to sound, I couldn’t bear to listen to music most of the time. On Beaver Island (my husband and I also bought a summer house there, in part so I could work on the relationship with my mother), everyone remarked about how thin I looked. It seemed normal to lie in bed all day counting the logs in the wall and to only have the energy to eat once a day, usually at my mother’s cottage where we’d developed a habit of watching Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow together. One night I bolted upright in bed after dreaming I heard my father’s voice, for the first time since his death, calling “Jenny.” The day after the election a doctor told me I was in kidney failure.
Being told my worst nightmare was my new reality literally warped past and present in my mind, left me hopeless about any future, and set a helter-skelter host of time bombs that exploded over the next weeks, months and years. As my husband drove us down an island road in our ’72 LandCruiser that week, I could only think about the vehicle veering into a tree and then just started wailing. It was all just too much to bear, a childhood and adulthood plagued by this damn disease, and I didn’t want to turn my husband into my caretaker. I pushed him away. I acted out. I wanted to just end it all. My mother and sister tried to rally around me, but I felt suffocated by all the pain between us, like we were all stuck in some circle of hell, sentenced to playing parts in a devastatingly cruel play for eternity—and that metaphor was actually the reality. I just couldn’t look at them anymore, so I returned to our rented cottage in Sausalito, California, and registered for a transplant at the University of California San Francisco.
Gradually, I got a spiritual grip by reading poetry and listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen. I also placed a photograph of June nestled against Johnny’s chest on my bookshelf for some marital inspiration, and I could once again listen to Press On. My father had been dead nine years, but when I listened to June I could feel his presence. I don’t mean in some woo-woo way, but five years after her own death, June’s voice could still stir all the good memories from when I was a kid, and even more importantly, from our time working together on his National Kidney Foundation program, so I could access all the seeds of advice and facts he’d planted, and little tricks he had for coping, which helped me tend to my care and my own mind.
Thousands of miles left room for more miscommunication and hurt feelings with my family and though we never spoke about it, I’m certain having to face another fight with kidney disease seemed grotesquely unbearable on their end, too. But along with my husband and a friend, my sister and her then boyfriend (and father of her second child), Jimmy, got tested as potential donors for a transplant. Jimmy was a match and incredibly and generously stepped up to be my donor, so my journey with kidney disease would be only a blip compared to my father’s. Five months after my diagnosis Jimmy’s gift freed me from a life tethered to a dialysis machine—and then the bottom dropped out.
The full details here are again clouded by addiction-fueled paranoias and betrayals, but as Jimmy and I lay recovering from our surgeries, my sister broke up with him and decided to make accusations of child abuse in a misguided attempt to get sole custody of their son. One day my mother was thanking Jimmy for saving my life and the next she was caught up in my sister’s scheme, and when I tried to convince her to not go along, she told me she would not risk being separated from her grandchildren—and “if you had children, you would understand that.” That last bit was particularly cutting, because not only am I her child, but I had just learned I never got pregnant in my thirties because of the disease I’d inherited, and even though I would again be fertile, given my age and knowing I had a 50-50 chance of passing on the disease, there would be no children. Shortly after this, Jimmy asked my husband and me to testify on his behalf in a custody hearing. We did and the judge ruled in favor of his petition for joint custody. My mother, sister and I have not spoken since.
This is our Gordian knot of heartache.
Until deciding to map how June figures into my life, all of these twisted details had me so lost in my anger and hurt I could find no compassion for my mother and sister. I first set out to write a tidy piece about my love for June’s voice because it is equated with some of my greatest happiness, and with pretty much the whole world I shared in celebrating the popular myth about the love between Johnny and June. After digging into the reality of that love and life, I am boundlessly inspired by the real woman’s story and my heart is open wider. Anchored in Love showed me June not only had to deal with Johnny’s continual addictions, but she saw her son and two daughters, Carlene Carter (from her first marriage to Carl Smith) and Rosie Nix Adams, struggle with alcohol and drugs, which also led to various estrangements. That they found roads to rapprochement before her death gives me hope and some courage to try to find a way back to my mother. I am a writer, and after five years of impasse, this is how it had to start for me. I offer, too, these words from Adrienne Rich:
Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live
I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun.
It’s not my own face I see there, but other faces,
even your face at another age.
Whatever’s lost there is needed by both of us —
Not all endings can be happy, I know. Some people stay lost. Carlene and John Carter got hold of their addictions, but just months after June and Johnny each passed, Rosie was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in an old bus littered with the remains of alcohol and drug use. And, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t know if I’m in any way related to Rosie or her father Edwin Nix, because my dad was estranged from his parents and only sister for most of my life. I wish I had those old recordings of my dad and his mother from the Fifties. He never told me what caused that final break, but what kept them apart for thirty years had to be Gordian as well, and I’m certain now that his leaving home for Michigan and the pressures caused by disease both came into play. History repeats.“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.”
My hope is that this story with my mother will end like an old folk song, that our circle will be unbroken, by and by. I’m grateful for how all this messy and true Cash and Nix love helped me divine my compassion and memories of my mother’s loveliness and strength again, all because one night long ago a woman in a sparkling green dress captured a little girl’s fancy. And what I love most about June’s example at this stage of my life is how she just kept pressing on through those twenty years of marital and family turmoil, and through all her doubts about her talent when she was out of fashion and lost in Johnny’s shadow. My favorite song on Press On is the wistful “I Used to Be Somebody” written at a moment when she felt like her best days were behind her. Instead, June won that first solo Grammy at age 70, kept working right up to the end and won two more Grammys posthumously for Wildwood Flower. I’m listening to it now. . . on my computer. Message received, June!
I picked up the ukulele recently. My husband is playing the guitar again after a long while. We want to learn some old Carter songs and all the Johnny and June duets, and have some fun playing together.
We decided it’s essential.
* “Pressing on” is an excerpt from a forthcoming anthology of essays from Rare Bird Books about women musicians’ impact on writers’ lives.