A Song that Reminds You of Somewhere

The “30 Day Song Challenge” is a Facebook meme going around that all the kids are doing. Basically, you post a song a day according to these rules. I saw it and thought: Oh, what the hell?

There’s a waterfall near Gadsden, Alabama called Noccalula Falls.  The legend of Princess Noccalula comes from “early times,” according to the park’s website.

Originally called Black Creek Falls, the legend begins like this, as written by Mathilde Bilbro: “long ago, on a mountain summit within sight and sound of a rushing waterfall, lived a great Indian Chief whose young daughter, Noccalula, was famed far and wide for her beauty and loveliness of character.”  Everyone wanted to marry Noccalula, and her father promised her hand to a man in a neighbor tribe.  But, of course, she was already in love with someone in her own tribe, a young man with little riches, but lots of heart.  The Father Chief didn’t like this, and he banished the poor lover.  On her wedding day, promised to a man with lots of “wampum, horses and blankets,” she was overcome with grief.  The “soft, rhythmical rush of waters called to her,” and she leaped from the top of the falls to her death.

My friend Andrea and I spent a few summers in the early 90s driving around Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.  We were always in the car together.  It was a white Chevrolet Celebrity with red interior–more bruise than cherry.  We decided to fly to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve, and flew out of Birmingham, for some reason–probably cost alone– driving from Chattanooga, through Gadsden, and passing Noccalula Falls.

Andrea had visited the falls with her family when she was a child.  As the signs for the park begin showing up on the side of the interstate, she told me the story of how she fell off the monkey bars, breaking her arm, and when she looked up, her mother was laughing.  The trauma never left her.

Even though we were behind on time, rushing to catch our plane, Andrea simply had to stop at Noccalula Falls and look for the monkey bars that had caused her life so much pain and confusion.  A kind of reunited confirmation of her past hurt would exorcise it from her present.  I’m sure there is a therapist-term for this.  So, we got off the freeway, and a few minutes later we were standing along the edge of the waterfall, staring up at the hideous (and totally racist) statue of Noccalula.  The monkey bars were still there, the same gravel underneath where she landed, broken.  We climbed up them, too tall now for their scale.  All the while, Andrea’s recounting the memory of her broken arm and her mother laughing–what that felt like.

Andrea and her mother had a particular kind of relationship that only mothers and daughters have: great, boundless love and huge chasms of being too different, or being too much the same.  She shaved her head when we were about 15, she flirted with lesbianism, she dated black guys from the projects–all of this was (only a little bit, I think) meant to make her parents crazy.

We only had two or three cassette tapes, one of them being Patsy Cline’s greatest hits.  (The others were Ani Difranco’s “Out of Range” and Lucinda Williams’ self-titled record.  A trifecta of fierce feminist fabulous.)  As we’re walking back to the car from the falls, “I Fall to Pieces” starts blaring out of our open car windows–we’re the only car in the lot, this being Dec 30 at 8:30am–and I look over, and Andrea is crying.

When I hear “I Fall to Pieces,” I think of Princess Noccalula, of being misunderstood, and of Gadsden, Alabama.

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