Jack Daniel, the 5’2” tall founder of the whiskey empire, died from gangrene at the age of 61. He got it after he kicked a safe in his office for which he’d forgotten the combination and broke his toe. But although Gentleman Jack’s temper ended his tenure as boss of the eponymous distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 is still the best selling American-made whiskey in the world.
Betty Jo, a black-haired, soft-spoken Southerner and my mother’s best friend from high School, was our guide to both Lynchburg, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama where she lives. My mom moved to Huntsville in 1954, when her father–a rocket scientist–went to work with Werner Von Braun at the Redstone Arsenal to help the Americans win the Space Race. Betty Jo, who’s lived in an ashram in India and has a real live guru, refuses to be sad about Gabriele’s death, sure that whatever it is that makes us uniquely human never dies.
With my sister Simone, who had flown in from Seattle to join me in poking around in the past, we visited my mom’s favorite places. Monte Sano mountain, where she loved to hike, the old Huntsville High School, now used as office space, and finally, her house, it’s small swimming pool built by my grandfather long since filled in. Standing outside it, by complete chance, we met Doretta, a 92-year-old German woman who lived nearby, and karma began to work its magic. Dorretta, whose husband had also been a rocket scientist, rattled off tidbits about my grandfather and grandmother, mentioned all my aunts and uncles by name, and finally, got to my mother.
“And Gabi?” she asked, not having seen her in almost sixty years. “How is Gabi?” Our eyes filled with tears when we told her the sad news, this old connection to our mother feeling as present and sharp as Doretta’s lively blue eyes.
But it was impossible to linger in sadness with Betty Jo. The next morning, we drove to Tennessee, hiking into a vast forest where cliffs, caves, and crystal clear waterfalls studded the topography. I’d never been rock climbing before, but these days, I’m all about the new and different.
Betty Jo, an expert climber who never uses her age as an excuse, scampered straight up a sheer 50 foot wall, a recent knee replacement not slowing her down. In minutes, she had attached carabiners and a safety rope, put a harness on Griff, and sent him on his first ever rock climb. Both boys showed the fearless confidence of kids who don’t know yet how badly life can hurt them, but when Ado slipped and dangled for a moment in thin air, I nearly threw up my bacon and eggs.
I also nearly broke my back teaching the boys to water ski. Balancing on top of my double skis, Griffin got up on his first try, but I floundered with Ado five times before we had success. Apparently, his little meatball body is more difficult to balance than Griffin’s string bean physique. Their smiles were worth the pain plaguing my 48-year-old spine for the next couple of days. When CBS decides to launch “Kid Survivor”, mine will surely have a lock on the million dollar prize.
Life felt celebratory in the deep South. In addition to Jack Daniel’s, we spent lazy afternoons fishing and swimming in the deep, warm waters of Tims Ford, a man-made lake only 20 minutes from Lynchburg. But I couldn’t get Jack’s gangrenous death out of my mind—what a temper he must have had to kick a metal safe, especially one that contained the booming profits from his smooth, mellow whiskey. And when he was dying, I wondered, watching his foot rot as a result of a temper tantrum, was it his business or personal life that mattered most?
One night, lying on the still-warm Tennessee grass under a vast carpeting of stars with my family and friends, matching constellations on the iPhone with real ones in the sky, I hoped that Jack had not suffered like my mama had. Perhaps, I imagined, Mr. Daniel simply drank a bottle or two of his legendary product and went peacefully into the soft, Southern night. With the darkened forest all around us whirring and whispering with the force of life, that didn’t sound like such bad way to go.