Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Matthew Vollmer is a writer and professor of English at Virginia Tech who grew up in rural North Carolina in the traditions of the Seventh-day Adventist church. We talked with Vollmer about his newly-released memoir All of Us Together In the End, which studies loss and what we choose to believe.
Enjoy our conversation about anonymity and celebrity in a small town, the interior design of a second marriage, and an inalienable pastime (looking at pictures), below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: You grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and this book paints a really nuanced picture of that experience. What were you trying to convey about your life in the church, and the ambiguous nature of your leaving it?
Matthew Vollmer: I wanted to convey that it’s a weird thing to grow up in a church I once loved – one to which the vast majority of my relatives on both sides of my family tree belonged – and then leave it. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to wrap my head around the nearly innumerable ways in which I was conditioned to think, believe, and behave. In a way, growing up Adventist was isolating, and exacerbated my own tendency for self-awareness. I knew that my family and church were not like the rest of the world. Unlike other Christians, we didn’t go to church on Sunday; instead, we kept the Jewish Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Unlike Jewish people, we believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah and would someday return to claim the redeemed. Within my church, I often had a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t ever be good enough to make it to heaven, and outside of the church, among non-Adventists, my sense of being different – and that I didn’t really belong in “the world” – was often amplified. I didn’t go to public school, didn’t attend Friday night football games. I didn’t know many of the other kids in town who were my age. In a place where everyone knows everyone else, and your father’s a well-known and in most cases beloved dentist, who couldn’t walk through the grocery store without having half a dozen conversations with people who recognized him, it was easy to feel conspicuous. I often didn’t feel at home in my hometown of 1,600 people. I always imagined that people wondered who the heck I was. It was easy for me to feel like I was on the periphery – when really I wanted to be wherever the action was. Not that I had any idea where the action was. I just figured it probably wasn’t there, in a hamlet of 1,600 people, in a valley surrounded by steep, rugged mountains.
DY: You write fondly of your visits to your father’s house in your rural North Carolina hometown. What pulls you back into that place, and what about it repels you now?
MV: In the early 1980s, after my grandfather retired from medicine, he and my grandmother bought a hundred acres of rugged wilderness bordering a national forest and built a house there. Later, my parents built another house just up the road. The surrounding forest has always been magical. Breathtakingly verdant, even in winter the woods were bright with greenery: rhododendron, azaleas, hemlock, pine trees, and a variety of incandescent mosses. Our yard was visited by wild turkey, foxes, copperheads, and hummingbirds. We cut trails along the creeks and up slopes to ridge tops, where we stood on giant, lichen-smothered limestone shelves jutting out of the earth and admired distant blue ridges retreating into Tennessee. There were trout-filled creeks with waterfalls and rock slides. My sister and I were baptized in one of the swimming holes. As a kid, we spent entire afternoons in that creek, extracting rocks, building dams, searching for crawdads and salamanders. Both my grandparents’ house and my parents’ were visited frequently by friends and family. There was hardly a day during the winter when fires weren’t blazing in hearths and wood stoves.
My mother loved to entertain. Meals were comforting and nourishing and – because of my mom’s sweet tooth – always followed by dessert: pies, cakes, cookies, ice cream, homemade hot fudge, cinnamon buns. The house was full of pictures of friends and loved ones, antiques my parents had purchased from California flea markets back in the early 1970s, and artifacts – like the quilt that hung above my mother’s baby grand – given to my father by his patients. Visiting the house and the land that surrounded it was always peaceful, filled with warmth and wonders and memories. But now that my father has gotten remarried to an old flame named Jolene, things have changed. The interior of the home – now completely redecorated with souvenirs and paintings and statues that Jolene has collected over the years from her travels through southeast Asia – is nearly unrecognizable. I find myself thinking, first, mom was slowly erased from the world, and then everything that would’ve reminded me of her was very quickly erased from the house. So yeah, it’s kinda sad to go back.
DY: For the readers, what are “ghost lights” and what did you learn about their prevalence in your home state? Have you or your father seen any more since you completed this manuscript?
MV: “Ghost lights” are simply lights that appear at night and whose origin is unknown. They come in different colors, shapes, frequencies, and intensities – and they’ve been reported all over the world. And depending on where they’re seen and who’s seeing them, they’ve been referred to as will-o’-the-wisps, corpse candles, spook lights, and fairy lights. Uncannily, when I first typed “ghost lights” into Amazon books, the first title that came up was North Carolina’s Ghost Lights, written by Charles “Fritz” Gritzner, a geography professor from South Dakota. According to Gritzner, the state of North Carolina is home to more ghost light sightings than any other. And though my father experienced an astounding variety of lights in his cove over the course of three months – floating orbs, blinkers, a roving oblong, and once, at the top of the hickory tree in his window at the beginning of February, green incandescent leaves, they eventually stopped. And now, the frustrating thing is that you can’t look for them anymore. Dad and Jolene have set up these multicolored LED projectors that actually cast hundreds of tiny lights on the trees in the front yard. Dad says they’ve done a good job of keeping the whippoorwills away, and thus reducing the likelihood of having to try to sleep with their insanely relentless songs. But to me, it just kinda sucks. You look out of the windows at night and the trees are all awash in artificial light. And they just stay on, all night, every night. You couldn’t see a ghost light if you tried. And both Dad and Jolene seem to like it that way. But I sure don’t.
DY: You write in the book about the long and slow loss of your mother to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. You describe your mother’s infectious charm, silliness, vigor, and confidence. But you also write that she wasn’t always much of a listener, or a talker. I think a lot about the tendency among some people (but not others) to narrativize life as it happens to you. I got the sense from the book that that wasn’t your mom’s style, and it made me wonder about the experience of trying to put someone’s essence into words who might have never thought to do that for herself. How did characterizing her in writing feel?
MV: One of the ironic things about my mom’s diagnosis and subsequent illness was the loss of memory – something which she’d spent her entire life trying to preserve. As it turned out, she did, in fact, narrativize life as it happened to her. She kept journals. She recorded things – recipes, bird sightings, events, visitors to the house – in calendars and day planners. When my sister and I were kids, my mother kept diaries that were addressed to us about the notable things that we did. She made my sister and I “baby books” – scrapbooks that preserved memorabilia of our infanthood.
And she made dozens upon dozens of photograph albums that documented the life of our family: snow days, bath time, playtime, autumn leaves, birthday parties, vacations, first days of school, first bikes, pets, visitors to the house, new haircuts, a close-up of my face with one eye swollen shut by a bee sting, my grandfather aiming a rifle out of his kitchen window, my parents on Halloween dressed up in a great aunt’s gaudy dresses and hats, their faces painted heavily in makeup. My mother loved her friends and family and fellow church members, and she loved documenting their lives. After the advent of digital cameras and iPhones – and after she became a grandmother – she couldn’t bear to go anywhere without a camera; life became – until it wasn’t – a never-ending series of photo-ops. She wanted so badly to remember, to honor life’s notable moments in words and pictures. And though, in the end, she could no longer operate a phone or camera, she never did tire of looking at pictures. A picture of a baby or child – whether she recognized it or not – could light her up, even in her darkest moments.
DY: Where are you turning for inspiration lately? What are you reading or listening to?
MV: I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and found it nearly unfathomable to believe that an almost 70-year-old woman could channel with such fidelity the voice of an adolescent boy coming of age in Lee County, Virginia. I’m looking forward to reading Catherine Lacey’s BIOGRAPHY OF X, and enjoyed my friend Robert Lopez’s memoir Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere. In terms of music, the new Yves Tumor album is pretty amazing. For Christmas, my son bought me a copy of Mac Miller’s Swimming on vinyl and it just showed up today – exactly three months late – and it sounds great. My wife and I listened to a whole bunch of country gospel songs the other day and teared up because they made us think of and miss our moms. And I’ve been revisiting the music of my youth – the Cure, New Order, the Smiths, INXS, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins – as a way to soundtrack the novel I’m attempting to write, about the friendship between two boys at a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school in the early 1990s.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.