Life and Death Under Roanoke’s Star

Roanoke's Mill Mountain Star Turned 65 on November 23, 2014. Photo by Leena J on Flickr.
Roanoke's Mill Mountain Star Turned 65 on November 23, 2014. Photo by Leena J on Flickr.

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, the night my momma was born. A 1946 holiday publicity stunt that had somehow stuck around until her June birth, it welcomed her, 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.

11 Comments

  • Nicola Miller of The Millers Tale

    Really lovely writing that truly represents a locality and a life.

    My condolences on your loss too.

  • Pat T

    Sorry about your mother. Mine lives with me. I live right behind that Star.
    I never knew it was once cut off at midnight.
    Great and touching story.

  • Elena

    Beautiful. I’m sorry about your mother’s passing. She would have loved your piece.

    BTW, my mother’s family lived in Roanoke. I grew up in Greensboro, NC, and we visited my grandmother twice a year. Back then, the star was only lit when there was a death in the valley. I was always fascinated by that. The Mill Mountain Star was always very mysterious to me. In the early-to-mid 70s as I turned twelve, we moved to Roanoke (SE Roanoke at that so we may have known each other) and I still had a fascination with that star. When my husband and I first dated, many of our dates/picnics revolved around that star.

    Thanks for the memories. You described much of my childhood. 🙂

  • Faith

    Such a sweet memoir. Thanks for sharing.

    Leaving the DC Beltway area after 20 years, in 1992, I chose Roanoke as a safe place for my adolescent daughter to grow into young womanhood. Even though she was born at Sibley Memorial in DC, my daughter still calls Roanoke her hometown.

    Driving south on I-81, it took a while to remember that left exit into town! And leaving the DC road rage behind took some time. Rush hour meant there were two cars ahead of you at the light. You could get from Point A to Point B in Roanoke in 15 minutes; 20 tops.

    Seeing The Star as I returned from a business trip (which was weekly when my daughter went to college) caused a visceral reaction. HOME!

    Roanoke! Great restaurants. Fine arts. Saw my first opera and my first hockey game in this little city. Sat 30 feet away from Bonnie Raitt in concert and loved driving to Floyd for the ole time music and buck dancing at the hardware store. Mountain biked hundreds of miles on trails and back roads and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Found a wonderful church community. Celebrated special occasions at Hotel Roanoke and meditated in the glow of The Star.

    Roanoke!

  • Karen Hickson

    Lived in Roanoke for 5 years….the best years…loved that town. The Star, the people, the Hotel Roanoke Restaurant, Jamison’s Orchard, day trips to the Parkway for picnics and hikes!! I now live in Florida, no snow and not much cold weather….age you know. I think often and fondly of Roanoke and wish I could return for a visit. My memories are alive and well, and sustain me now.

  • Emily

    This is beautiful and heartbreaking. You’re making me miss the star tonight.

  • Caroline

    I just stumbled upon your blog while searching for Preacher Cookie recipes. I was born in Roanoke Memorial and was with my mother when she passed away in the same hospital. Your story is truly beautiful. It brought both tears and a smile to my face. Although i have not lived in the area for over 30 years I will always remember the Mill Mountain star.

  • Mark Lynn Ferguson

    Caroline, thank you for sharing that. As you can imagine that piece is really special to me, and I’m so glad to hear someone else feels the same.

  • Martha

    A FL friend sent me this knowing how much I love and miss the Star. I lived in Roanoke for 20 years, and it will always be “home.”
    I could walk out in my front yard and see the star like my anchor. And as we returned to Roanoke, my children and I always competed to see it first.
    Thanks.

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