When we got to the creek, I was shocked to see how much its path had changed. Its cold spring waters had eaten huge chunks of the crumbling soil on both sides, widening its path at least twenty feet, turning a gentle bend into an open pool that bit into the red dirt of the surrounding bluff, nearly obliterated a sand dune long-lived enough to have a hundred year old oak on it, then narrowed again, sending water rushing forward where it had wound tentatively when last I saw it. When had I last seen it? It’s hard to say. I hadn’t been to the family land in rural Missouri since my grandmother’s funeral in October 2001, but I doubt I walked down to the creek on that day. In fact, I know I didn’t. We stayed up at the house and at the church, a white clapboard structure, classic rural 19th century, that stood on land carved out of our acreage, donated by an ancestor and backed by a graveyard where we laid my grandmother to rest.
When The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt came out in 2002, she was hale and hardy. True, her career wasn’t as hot as it had been in her ‘70s heyday, but she had never stopped making albums, never stopped being a rock icon, an artist whose every musical project was greeted with interest and respect. The Very Best Of presupposed an audience as clearly as it implied a lot of other Best material that somehow wasn’t The Very Best. A culling. So much good material somehow distilled to one disc, unlike earlier two-disc Best Of compilations. The cream of the crop by an artist whose career as a vocal interpreter was rivaled only by those of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley, whose interpretations made songs her own while pulling their authors into the limelight with her. When she recorded Warren Zevon’s “Poor Pitiful Me” in 1977, she helped his already soaring reputation. Her band included members of the Eagles, count their big break when she recorded “Desperado.” JD Souther, Jackson Browne, that whole Southern Californian country rock scene stood next to her fire, courting her approval, presenting her with songs to sing like envelopes of cash at a mafia wedding.
The graveyard came before the church. In the 1830s, a racetrack was out there in the middle of nowhere, a half-mile loop, where a slave jockey fell from his horse and was fatally injured. Lying on the ground, looking up at the men who asked, unsentimentally, where he would like to be buried, family lore has it that he said, “Right here.” So the slave who died after a fall from a horse he didn’t own for a race in which he had no stake became the founding member of the Pennsboro cemetery. His grave marker is a small stone with hand-scratched lettering no longer legible. We don’t know his name. That is it. You don’t see the contrail of your own life, or get to say what you’re remembered for. Many of my ancestors on that particular side of the family have been buried there since. They had no connection to the slave in life—weren’t slave owners—but in death he is not just part of the family, he is our patriarch. The money that built the small farmhouse on our family land some forty years after the jockey’s death came from a Civil War pension, which means my ancestors were union in a state where allegiance was a toss up. You could’ve been either. Confederate soldiers received no pensions, of course.
When will I be loved? The songs on The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt articulate longing, always longing, her voice like a winsome wave, sweet, strong, with grit. She has said she chose her songs for their feeling. Her life has gone through many iterations and she gravitated towards songs that told the story of what she was going through. Some say a heart is just like a wheel.
The racetrack fell into disuse—whether because of the jockey’s death or not, no one knows—while the cemetery grew, and eventually someone built the church where we attended services for my grandmother. The barbed wire fence that runs the back perimeter holds back a tangle of high yellow grasses, Osage orange and black walnut trees. If you lift a leg over the fence and head northeast for a good fifteen minutes strong walking, you get to the creek. My brother visits the land regularly, unlike me, so he led the way when we visited, marching us, nearly running us, losing us along the way and seeming to forget we were behind him, down to the creek. It was mid-afternoon, a time when his mobility is at its best and you can’t even tell he has Parkinson’s. I didn’t know why he was pushing so hard. Because he was excited to show us the land, which he loves? Was he for some reason angry, up there ahead of us, silent, all notions of family togetherness lost in the distance between us? Or rushing to use the window of his mobility before it closed, activated by an awareness of time much more acute than my own?
In 1987, Linda Ronstadt defied record-industry advice and released Canciones de Mi Padre, a Spanish-language album that sold massively worldwide. With sales approaching three million, it holds the record for best selling non-English language album in American record history. A few years later, Ronstadt released a follow-up, Mas Canciones, on which she and her two brothers sing the songs as they sang them together as children in their living room. Her brothers, a Tucson, Arizona sheriff, and a hardware store owner, became professional singers when the moment arose. If The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt could get better, it would be by having a track or two of Spanish-language music. It is beautiful music—the siblings harmonize like one voice.
People seem as permanent as landscape. So-and-so has always been like that, that’s his style, she’s just that way. But the fixity of character, of self, of the body that contains the personality, as it moves through a life is as tricky as the creek behind our ancestral home. It presents a stately vision, the very look of time immemorial, but the river bends and rends the land and widens and quickens, tears chunks from the very earth, making a new topography as it goes and goes. You can’t see it happening, but it’s happening right in front of you. Change incarnate. There’s that saying—you never step into the same river twice. My brother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s early—he was still in his thirties, a successful builder, father of four small children, he and his wife in the middle of building their dream home from repurposed building materials on a large, remote piece of land. He didn’t take it well—how could anyone take it well?—couldn’t absorb the diagnosis. He became groundwater, flowed out of our seeing for several years, so that I never thought I’d see him again or know why he had responded to his illness by leaving us. When he came back, he was new. Different. And—this is true—better. He knew time differently. He lived in an eternal present—partly symptomatic of the disease, partly spiritual practice, the sharpened insight of a mind coming up against a wall moment by moment. Faced with the enforced knowledge that everyone we meet will find the deaths of those they love and their own death up the road, he decided kindness was the only sane response. He had become compassionate. When I speak to him I feel his urgency to let me know everything he thinks and feels, most of all that he loves me.
Linda Ronstadt announced in 2013 that she could no longer sing. That she had Parkinson’s. My brother was still groundwater then, gone into the disease, and I grieved for her. I wished I could write her and say something supportive, but the story as we were living it then offered no inspiration, no comfort. We were still in the maelstrom of confusion brought on by my brother’s diagnosis. Instead her voice—the voice that was gone now—comforted me. Blue Bayou, Ooh Baby Baby, Just One Look—I listened and I wondered how she was dealing with it. Was she balking, as my brother had? Wasn’t she furious? How could she accept the loss of that voice? How could any of us?
He is an artist, my brother, with longings he could never manifest before the Parkinson’s took his old life away. None of us knew who he really was, only that in the midst of his productive, happy-seeming career, there was a discontent in him. Now, his career as a builder over, he sculpts wood he gathers on our ancestral land, building art installments, furniture, looming statues, tiny buttons made from thinly shaved walnut shells. He has gone all in with the photography that was always a strong habit. He writes songs, his lyrics recorded by a Danish recording artist, their second album out soon. He is Linda Ronstadt’s opposite in that—no singer, but a lyricist. I like to think she would have found much in his lyrics to interpret with that voice of hers had their talents intersected at the right time. Lots of longing. But Parkinson’s took hers as it gave him his. He lost, then he found. He pushed up out of the ground and kept running, cutting a new channel. He is mindful, trying so hard to be a force for good, knowing that he’ll leave a trace one way or another. What will Parkinson’s uncover for Ronstadt? One of its symptoms is a difficulty with time. The past, the future, become more tenuous, less linear, harder to hold onto. Instead, Parkinson’s creates moments from which its sufferers look out like the jockey looking up from the ground, in which they know the only answer is, “Right here.”