Matthew Vollmer’s All of Us Together in the End is a haunting and moving memoir of grief and home.
“Dalur” by Olafur Arnalds
My life has always been flooded with music. My mother played piano for the Seventh-day Adventist church, where, each week we sang beloved hymns about being a friend to Jesus, honoring the seventh-day Sabbath, and anticipating the Second Coming. My father played country gospel radio in his truck. My sister and I took piano lessons. Depending on the mom driving carpool to our church school twenty minutes away, we listened to ’60s hits, Beatles songs, Air Supply, the Top Gun and Footloose soundtracks. Once I discovered radio, I held secret listening sessions, and used a Fisher Price cassette player to record Casey Kasem’s Top 40. In high school, I taught myself guitar, played along to songs by R.E.M., New Order, and The Cure. I discovered bluegrass, jazz, shoegaze, grunge. I could never get enough. After my mother died, on September 11, 2019, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, I found myself returning to songs that mattered to her, or songs that would matter. I made a Spotify playlist called “Good Sad Piano” that I made solely for the purposes of looking at pictures of or taken by my mom and crying (and of which “Dalur” is an example). And, three months after her death, when inexplicable lights began to appear in the cove where my parents’ house lives, and I embarked upon an investigation to solve the mystery of just what these flashes and floating orbs that my father was encountering on a nightly basis, I did what I always did: I read, I wrote, and I listened. My exploration took me both into speculative territories but it also transported me into the past, where I was forced to reckon with my past: where I’d come from and who I’d come from.
“Borrowed Angel” The Anita Kerr Quartet
There is perhaps no other song on earth that has the transportive power of this idiosyncratic little hymn. So deeply embedded in my brain, and so powerfully nostalgic is it that I doubt I could even tell you whether this song is actually good or not. All I know is that whenever I hear it, I’m suddenly back in the living room of my family’s first house, a modest three-bedroom that sat in a cove at the bottom of a mountain on a little hill above two streams. I can see my father placing this record on the HiFi. It is Friday night—probably sometime in late fall and the sun hasn’t yet set thought it has fallen behind the treeline—and my father has selected this particular album in order to welcome the soon approaching Sabbath, which we honor, like the Israelites in the Hebrew bible, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. I can hear my mother in the kitchen, where she is heating up lentils, and where, in the oven, homemade cinnamon rolls softly rise. My sister is setting the table and I am sitting in front of the fire my father built and the sweetly crooned first notes of this song hit me like a drug. It’s beautiful, it’s soothing, like balm for the ears. I don’t even mind the lyrics, which tell the story of a woman who was taken by God because he needed her voice for the choir. I don’t think about what it would be like to for anyone I love to die. I don’t imagine a world where moments like these will be lost to time forever. And why would I? This is my home—a place to which I’d never dream to imagine that I wouldn’t ever be able to return.
“Mama Tried” Merle Haggard
Simply put: one of the best song titles ever. This is one of my father’s favorite songs, and favorite artists. “Merle Haggard said he’d die on his birthday,” my father once proudly texted me, “and he did.” My father’s middle name is Merl, one “e” short of Haggard’s first, a I always thought it was weird. We didn’t listen to much “secular” music growing up, and in taking rides in my father’s truck through the winding roads of western North Carolina, I seem to remember an affinity for country gospel and or the rhythms of ecstatic Pentecostal preachers. But also? I feel like “Mama Tried” could be an alternate title for All of Us Together in the End. Because if there was one thing my mother tried, it was to be the best example of her faith, and to sacrifice whatever her own desires might have been, for those of her two children. In her eyes, there was no firmer rock on which to stand than the Word of God, no friend in the world like Jesus, no strength greater than that of the Holy Spirit. I know that it broke her heart for me to leave the denomination in which I—and my entire family, on both sides—been raised. In a cruel twist of fate, it was she who had to call me to ask if I still wanted my name in the “church books.” I said no. She didn’t cry then—at least not during the phone conversation—but she did cry on the day I rang her up to talk about the fact that one of my cousins, who’d read my first book of stories had written to me to let me know that I’d broken my parents’ hearts with my depictions of Adventist eccentricities. “What’s wrong?” I’d said, when I heard her quietly weeping, a sound I’d only heard maybe three other times in my life. “I just want us all to be together in the end,” she’d said. Meaning that, when she reached paradise, she wanted her entire family to be there—including me.
“Prelude/The Sound of Music—Medley” Julie Andrews
My mother loved The Sound of Music. She loved mountains. She loved the Alps. She loved Julie Andrews. She loved the songs. So did so many other extended members of my family. Loving The Sound of Music–it’s kind of a Seventh-day Adventist thing. The ending—where the Nazis are chasing down the Von Trapp family—has a kind of apocalyptic vibe and seemed maybe to light up the part of the Adventist brain that’s been trained to imagine how the church prophesizes that the world will end: with the criminalization of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. Adventist eschatology predicts that one day, after the cataclysmic events narrated by John the Revelator have happened, a one-world government—led by the Antichrist—will enact Sunday Laws, and that the majority of Earth’s citizens will come to an agreement that anyone who worships on any other day than the first should be put to death. Imagining that Earth’s citizens could ever agree on anything, much less than a day of worship, is difficult, maybe, but so is the distinctly Adventist idea—and I heard this more times than I could count—that if you ever went to the theater your guardian angel would stand outside the doors and weep while you were inside. If this seems improbable, given what anyone knows about angels, who don’t strike this writer as a particularly fragile type, then consider this: that the college my mother attended frequently sent faculty out as spies to the local theaters, where they trolled the lot, looking for cars stickered with the college’s required parking permits. What specific demerits or fines students might receive for having attended the cinema I can’t reveal, though I do know that my mother was so keen on seeing The Sound of Music that she broke her school’s rules about moviegoing to see it for the first time, a fact that no doubt added to the thrill.
“Adios Muchachas” Carlos Gardel
My father, who liked to pretend he could speak Spanish, would often belt this out as he drove. He sang it dramatically and probably mispronounced a lot of the words, and though he could read music and often sang bass or harmony during hymns in church, I can’t remember him singing any other song as a solo. There was no rationale that I know of for singing it than he had a captive audience—his family—and that the song had come to mind. In which case, it was time to sing it as loudly and dramatically as he knew how.
“Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day” by Paul Robeson
My paternal grandmother, having witnessed the demise of her otherwise jolly older sister, feared dementia so much that she often said that if she went crazy that someone should put a pillow over her head. But then she did go crazy and nobody did, though I have to admit I considered it, if only because I promised, with faux enthusiasm, that I’d be the first to sign up, which always made her laugh. Of all the songs she sang to me when I visited the log cabin where she lived in Haw Creek community of Asheville, North Carolina, this one was my favorite, and when my wife and I had a baby, I sang it to him. My grandmother—affectionately called “Honey” because she was too vain to agree to the moniker “grandma”—would tuck me into the bed I slept in on the screened-in porch, no matter how cold the weather, pile what felt like 100 pounds of quilts and blankets on me and sing about kiddie cars and a boy named Johnny who’d won my marbles and putting away my toy gun because it was time for bed and that familiar carousel of images, attended by her warbling vibrato, would send me into a quiet rhapsody.
“Broken Hearted Me” by Anne Murray
My parents didn’t play much “secular” music at home. We listened to a lot of classical and “sacred” music, and if any country artists made appearances on our turntable, the songs were often gospel (Emmylou Harris’ rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” comes to mind). My mother often tuned into the Easy Listening station that was broadcast from Chattanooga, and I remember we had Anne Murray’s “Greatest Hits” on cassette. For some reason, “Broken Hearted Me” always conjures hot summer days and running errands with mom in our 1982 beige Honda Accord. I hear the lyrics now and find them surprisingly full of despair, a disposition that I rarely found my mother indulging, at least before dementia began its ravages. And though the lyrics were written with the end of romantic love in mind, I can’t help but think that they could also apply to the loss of a parent: “Every now and then I cry/every night you keep staying on my mind/ all my friends say I’ll survive/ it just takes time/ but I don’t think time is gonna heal this broken heart.” Either way, it’s a sad fucking song.
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton
During the coronavirus quarantine, my father reconnected with an old friend, a woman named Jolene. Jolene and Dad had met in their 20s—the year mom and dad lived apart, the year he spent at a Seventh-day Adventist college in Nebraska—and he and my mom had frequently hung out with Jolene and her husband when my parents lived in Loma Linda, California, where my dad matriculated through dental school. Jolene, now separated from her husband, had spent the last 50 years working as a hygienist in Guam. She and dad could FaceTime for hours. In May of 2020, my family and I broke quarantine rules and traveled to western North Carolina to visit my father and sister. “Meet Jolene,” dad said, lifting up his iPad. I said hi but didn’t think much of it. My sister was more suspicious. She didn’t think two grown adults could spend time together without developing feelings for each other. In the end, she was right: Jolene moved to the States, and she and my father got married only days after she arrived—and not even a year before the first anniversary of my mother’s death. It seemed so fast and so surreal for a stranger to appear on the scene and steal our father’s heart. So now, whenever my sister and I play this song, it just—as the kids these days say—kinda “hits different.”
“Soldier’s Eyes” by Jack Savoretti
I spent a lot of time during quarantine writing a book about mysterious lights that began to appear three months after my mom died in the bed that she shared with my father and in which he slept next to her dead body, before my sister and I arrived the next day to lift and carry her, using the bedsheet on which she lay, to the pine coffin that had been made years before and had lived in the garage but had been since transported to the living room, in the cove of my parents’ house in southwestern North Carolina. I also spent a lot of time walking, listening to the lectures of Alan Watts, who tried to convince me that everything that had ever existed—including COVID, presumably—was exactly what had needed to exist, that that was how interdependence worked. I put a lot of miles on my bike. I taught asynchronous courses without Zoom, which meant that I typed a lot. And I also slayed a lot of virtual zombies in Days Gone, a game so scary, once I reached the point in the narrative when I was to wake up and dispose of a horde of literally hundreds of relentless zombies, each one of which had once been a human being, before the pandemic in the world of the game had transformed them into brainless, bloodthirsty monsters who, if I did not find a way to methodically annihilate them—using a combination of firearms, knives, explosives, grenades, etc.—would glom onto me in a terrifying orgy of lustful consumption. The first time I’d been devoured by a horde it broke me. I had to stop playing for a week. And then I watched some YouTube videos. And then I saw it could be done. That I could defeat the undead. But maybe what I was trying to outrace was the grief of the person who had birthed me, who now herself was dead.
“Satan Is Real” by the Louvin Brothers
You’d think a song called “Satan Is Real” would sound less joyful. It’s like the guys who are belting out this gospel classic couldn’t be happier that folks can “see him and hear him in this world every day,” and that “he can tempt and lead you astray.” It’s a weird song—one I didn’t discover until college, when, at either the Record Exchange or Schoolkids Records in Chapel Hill I encountered the cover: two country gentlemen in white suits, pink shirts, and black ties with arms outstretched and mouths hanging open, standing in what is obviously a fake fire pit, where, in the background a crimson, two-dimensional demon stands, holding a pitchfork, his crossed eyes and buck teeth making him look far more like a comical goofball than someone to fear. If Satan is real, there’s no doubt that the set upon which the Louvin Brothers are standing is fake. But no message—that the devil really does exist and can fuck you up—could be delivered more earnestly, as when one of the brothers pauses the song to deliver a spoken word account of a man who interrupts a sermon to plead with the preacher, who’s been talking about how God is real, that Satan is also real. Some say the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince people he didn’t exist. I happen to think the opposite is true: the we humans created Satan and his minions, partly because who doesn’t love to believe monsters are real, and partly because we humans have never proved to anybody that we can actually deal with the tragedies we’ve been dealt. So deeply embedded is the significance of Satan in Adventist theology—the devil, disguised as a serpent in the Garden of Eden, told the first lie when he assured Eve that she would not surely die if she ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—that my own father, when attempting to make sense of the light show that appeared every night outside his window for months on end, determined that the phenomenon was likely demonic in nature. A disappointing interpretation, from my point of view, especially when, on the night I encountered a single, pulsing light that I could only see through the open window next to the bed where my mother had died, I encountered only a kind of warm benevolence—the assurance that there was more to the world than I’d ever known, and that the last thing I should be was afraid.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America (published by MacAdam Cage and Salt Modern Fiction), a collection of stories, and inscriptions for headstones, a collection of essays. With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). To read samples from this work, and to browse a collection of fraudulent artifacts, visit literaryartifacts.tumblr.com.
His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sun, New England Review, Epoch, Normal School, Glimmer Train, Tin House, Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ecotone, Antioch Review, Portland Review, Confrontation, Oxford American, Salt Hill, Fugue, Unstuck, Tampa Review, The Collagist, PANK, Barrelhouse, PRISM International, Carolina Quarterly, elimae, DIAGRAM, and New Letters. In 2010, Vollmer was awarded National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
Vollmer earned an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As an Assistant Professor, he is a member of the MFA Faculty in the English Department at Virginia Tech, where he directs the undergraduate creative writing program.
He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Kelly Pender, their son Elijah, and their dog Ruby.