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Life and Death Under Roanoke's Star

Life and Death Under Roanoke's Star

Driving to Roanoke for a weekend visit, I nearly missed my exit. I’ve taken this turn thousands of times, but in the dark, my mind had drifted to warm butterbeans, ones grandma said she'd have simmering. When I noticed the ramp to my left, I pulled the wheel hard and veered faster than I should have, alarming myself because local police seem to materialize whenever I make a bonehead move.

This last minute gaff meant that I rolled into the valley with my mind on the road, on my speed, on everything except the fact that I’d made it home. I drove for a mile like that, my eyes on the lane divides and fists tight around the wheel, not looking up until I thought to check traffic ahead. That’s when I spotted it—nine-stories of neon bliss. The Mill Mountain Star beamed at me across the valley, a gaudy yet glorious landmark, a constant beacon in a world with precious few.

Whizzing past the airport and the mall restaurant where I first worked, I watched the star grow and felt my tension melt. I thought about all the nights I spent in its glow. Every long walk home from that restaurant job. Every night I yelled “mother may I” in a yard overflowing with children. Every time I stood behind our apartment house alone, squealing toward the sky, trying to coax bats to fly low overhead. Every dinner. Every bath. Every night’s sleep. The Mill Mountain Star shone through my entire childhood, and long before I existed.

It was lit bright, brand new in fact, just after my momma was born. A 1949 holiday publicity stunt that somehow stuck around, it inducted her into the first generation that would know the star’s glow lifelong.

Momma biked right under this landmark as a girl, when it was still safe to ride around Southeast Roanoke after dark. By the early 1970s, she’d had two babies near its base, neither of which she got to hold—the first because she was just sixteen years old and told to give that child up for adoption, the second because the baby was born too small to live. She married my father at the start of that decade and divorced him by the end of it, loving and fighting like all couples and having two more children in between. Once they split, I imagine she spent hours by our third-floor apartment window, watching the star and wondering how she’d manage to raise us boys, dead broke and alone.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of the star. It’s not like it could have helped her with her problems. It couldn’t have given her a job or a car or an education beyond high school. She’d have to find those things herself, which she did, but the whole while, the star did glow. Up on the side of Mill Mountain, too big and silly to be believed, it must have inspired a thousand smiles on my momma’s face and as many on mine.

The night she died, the star was right there, just yards above us. In the hospital that sits next to the mountain, she took her last breath, having struggled through months of starvation, big tumors clogging up her insides. Her two boys, my brother and me, held her hands as she drew a final, weak gasp, not even a lungful, and then let go. We stared at one another stunned and then met at the foot of the bed and hugged, long and silent, until a nurse whispered that when we were ready, we should gather the things we wanted to keep.

I stepped outside that night with full arms—Momma's overflowing purse, greeting cards, her cane, and a little Christmas tree someone had brought. It was December. The air was brisk but not bitter, so I walked slowly to my car. Between the hospital and its parking garage, I looked up. The star was dark, already shut off, which happens every night around midnight. Even its steel frame was concealed against the mountainside, itself a deep blue silhouette, dark as a burial mound, just too sincere.

I wanted to find the switch. Wherever it was hidden, behind bushes atop Mill Mountain or in some municipal basement, I wanted to flip it, to light the star, the sky, to light the whole valley and remember every night my momma lived, the lifetime she spent, beginning to end, with nine-stories of neon bliss overhead.