Excerpt #2 from When Grace Came Home
Chapter Twenty – Web Posting, December 4, 2018
When my brother Dennis came along I was somewhat less than thrilled. They all kept saying “It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” I just couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. It was just a lump of arms and legs and a head that looked too big for it’s body. I had arms and legs and a head and I could use them. Oh, well, there was that other thing he had that I didn’t have. Didn’t look like much to me. Just a small troublesome wiggly worm that squirted pee-pee if you didn’t keep it covered. Surely nothing to make a fuss over. But the fuss continued…”It’s a boy!”
“When he’s older you will love him!” “When he’s older you can play with him!” When he’s older you can talk with him!” I couldn’t see it. Months passed, and he still just lay there. Finally he did manage to roll over, and you would have thought he had discovered Christmas! I could roll over, had been rolling over for years. I just couldn’t see it.
When this thing called my brother began to stand up and walk, he wasn’t very good at it. He kept falling down. He must have crossed that small living room fifty-leven times before he could finally make it from couch to chair without falling down. I still could not see what on earth this “brother thing” was gonna be good for.
Then began the summer of secrets and mystery. Secrets my parents kept quietly passing back and forth. Mysteries that confused my small self and made me wonder just why things were a wee bit twitter-pated. It began to get really strange for me one Sunday night in late spring when the church was packed and the warmth of May evenings had just given bud to the pear trees and the jonquils. The windows of the church were partly opened and every now and then a breeze would carry in the scent of warmth…of something floral…of the summer-to-be. This service was beginning like all of the others I had known as we sang the songs of repentance and redemption, but then the air became charged with that particular electricity that signals a change a’comin’. The preacher stepped out and around his small pulpit and into the altar. He bowed his head and all were quiet, eerily quiet, and then he raised his head and looked at me. At least I thought it was me. A quiver of terror shook my small self as C. E. and Cody stood up. She was holding my brother and they began to move out of the pew. I hopped up to follow, but C. E. put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye and shook his head “No”. He quietly told me to stay put.
Now I wasn’t really alone. Aunt Evelyn and Uncle John were right there in the next pew. Mamaw Cox was just down the pew from me. But I was being left behind. My terror became full blown. Tears flooded my eyes and rivered down my face and I just stood there – in that state of non-comprehension that only imprisons the hearts of children who are left outside family discussions, family decisions, family explanations.
There had been many hushed conversations of late that I could not – try as I might – manage to overhear. Days when C. E. and Cody would disappear into the car with Dennis and be gone until late at night. Days of being left with Mamaw or Aunt Alice or Aunt Evelyn without explanation from any adults…and without any understanding on my part. And now this. I climbed up to stand in the corner of the pew so that I could, at least, see what was happening to my family – without me.
The preacher gathered my family – without me – into the small circle of his arms and began to pray. As he prayed, Beulah began to play the piano and folks began to move. At first just a few, then the crowd in the altar swelled to capacity. Men kneeled. Women stood and swayed. Some sang. Some wailed their prayers. Many cried and raised their arms to Jesus. Those remaining in their rows sat with their arms outstretched on the pew before them and bowed their heads in reverence. And I kept lonely vigil standing my post in the corner of that pew.
The noise and sweat and energy emanating from that small congregation rolled forward and gathered speed and more sweat and escalating energy until it seemed to explode, crashing against some obstacle, some force that detonated and carried tears and prayers and conviction all the way to the gates of heaven.
Then the storm at that altar seemed to blow itself out. Tension eased and deep breaths were taken and then there came the soft smiles, the hugs around C. E. and Cody. Pats on backs and comforting handshakes, and the drift back into the rows of pews and order. And Dennis, amid all this emotion, had remained in Cody’s arms and not made a peep. Not a sound. Little did I know he was sick. Very, very sick.
The mystery and secrets continued, and summer arrived and the days spent with relatives kept coming. Not to say that there weren’t good things going on in these visits. There were. At Aunt Evelyn’s house there was my cousin Diane to fight with. Diane was a brat with unruly red hair and a temper to match. After the first few minutes of any game, Diane would change the rules or change her mind and demand that I accept whatever directions she chose to give. It was her house. I was just visiting. I had to play however she said. My momma had always said I had to be nice to Diane because she was younger than me. Well, she may have been younger, but she had red hair! And she was also bossier! And I have never been good at accepting bossiness just for the sake of bossiness. Wasn’t then. Still not today.
Mamaw’s house was way different from Evelyn’s. Mamaw would make me tea cakes, which was about the only thing she was really good at making. She would give me fabric scraps to cut up and fashion into doll clothes. And at night, because I often was left to spend the night at her house, I would snuggle into the cushy bed in her middle bedroom, windows raised to catch the breezes, and breathe in the mimosa perfume that filled my dreams.
Aunt Alice’s house was a totally different matter. I had four cousins at Alice’s and they were rowdy and loud and loved to raise cane! We would play ball in the daisy meadow on one side of the house. We would climb the steep wooded ridge behind the house to get to the top, struggle up onto the rocks that were there, and look down the valley into Madisonville and the Tellico mountains beyond. We would also, on days when my cousin Dale was feeling especially squirrely, cross the fenced pasture on the other side of the house, following the footpath to their Grandmother Thompson’s house. Their Grandmother Thompson always had pie, some kind of pie, and she would serve it to us on cloth napkins underneath the big apple tree in her back yard.
The only thing was, that pasture was where the bull lived. A big, black, snorting beast that could run faster than you thought he should have been able to run. We would stand along the fence at Alice’s and look as hard as we might to try to spot him. If the way looked clear, we would climb over the fence near the footpath and—ever so quietly—tiptoe along that path holding our breath with eyes squinted for that big black bull.
Most footpath days we made it just fine. We knew to be very quiet. The bull seemed to favor the boggy part of the field down near the creek and far away from the footpath. Sometimes the bull was “visiting” another farm. But there came a day that ended my bull-pasture crossings forever.
We were on our way back from Grandmother Thompson’s and we were grimy children. Sweaty beads of moisture pimpled our foreheads and necks and arms. Stinging insects were everywhere, so it was no wonder that one of them found my bare neck. It was also no wonder that I loudly cried “OOwww!”, for I was always a very vocal child. Thus, it was also no wonder that that beast of a bull raised his head and bellowed.
With a quick glance over his head in the bull’s direction, Dale yelled “RUN!” And we all took off.
Now my cousins were really good runners. They spent their summers outside – always running somewhere or climbing something, but I was a city kid, and if I ran anywhere it was just the small distance from the smokehouse in one corner of Mamaw’s yard to the back porch. So I was a failure in the summer Olympics of backyard running and jumping and climbing. They soon left me behind. They were over the fence in a flash and yelling at me to run faster.
I chugged away, but it wasn’t long before I could hear the thump of hooves behind me. It was closing in. The fist of panic had gripped my heart and I could hardly breathe, let alone run. Tears and snot were flying and the pain of trying to breathe was crippling my meager efforts. To worsen the situation, I could see the terror on the faces of my cousins. I wasn’t philosophical enough at that age to fear death, but as sure-as-Sunday-night-chocolate-ripple-ice-cream, I was terrified of pain. Horrible, hoof pounding, horn-goring pain.
Just when I was ready to give up and collapse, Dale and Glenda climbed halfway up the fence on the safe side and yelled at me, “Jump!” So I jumped toward that fence.
There are authors everywhere who write about the angels that inhabit our lives. There are books everywhere that describe angelic intervention in the events of our lives. At that time in my life I knew little about angels or their presence on earth. But as sure as I’m sitting here today, there was an angel who gave me a nudge out of that cow-pattied pasture up and into the fence where Dale and Glenda’s arms grabbed me up and over into the safety of their yard. That bull slid to a halt, stomping his fury and snorting his anger and too near to that fence for any of us to move a muscle, let alone breathe, as we lay collapsed on the ground, looking up into the flaming eyes of that demented creature. No doubt about it. My bull-pasture crossing days were over.
As summer days faded into fall, school began and I would often spend several days on end at Mamaw’s house. I could walk to school from there, for we all did in those days. By the time sweater weather was upon us, things began to normalize around our house. I was spending more time in my own bed. Cody wasn’t working her usual job at the clinic. And the air around us seemed clearer, sweeter, easier to breathe in and out. As colder weather began to take hold, there came another of those Sunday night church services.
I clearly remembered the earlier service last spring that had so terrified me, so I wasn’t as frightened when the preacher called my family to the altar again, and again Cody and C. E. and Dennis went without me.
This time there was a difference that I clearly became aware of – but couldn’t really understand. My Mama’s face was not as tightened up as it used to be, and my daddy’s whole body seemed to move with the natural grace that he had always displayed. When they were in the altar, the preacher stood with them and began to talk. As usual, his words floated along in the adult stratosphere that children find hard to absorb, but the words were different from the last time. These words were softer, feeling like one of Mamaw’s quilts, scrubbed on the washboard and hung out to dry until the sun filled them with soft rays of warmth and comfort.
There was prayer, buckets and gallons and wheelbarrows full of prayer, but this prayer was different from before. It was a different flavor, a different color, a different style. There were smiles and laughter. There were hands raised in joy. There was a celebration goin’ on in that altar. And even though it was without me as I once again stood vigil in the corner of that pew, just looking on, I was glad hearted and peaceful in my small soul. I didn’t know what my parents had gone through with my brother. I wasn’t given explanations about the many days spent in the homes of my cousins and Mamaw. I wasn’t told of his near death. I wasn’t included; I was just a child.
And for all of their goodness and well-meaning intentions, C. E. and Cody were merely following the simplistic child-rearing wisdom of that day guiding parents to keep children guarded from the hard stuff…protected from the bad news…out on the front porch when family tragedies were around the kitchen table. He had nearly died, and I wasn’t told.
I was a grown woman before my daddy explained to me that summer of secrets and mysteries. I finally understood. Dennis had survived. God’s grace had been petitioned with the prayers of that small congregation on that warm spring evening in the altar. And God had answered those prayers with my brother’s life.
Excerpt # 1
..from the opening of When Grace Came Home…
I come from mountain folk. Not mountains like the stately Alleghenies marching coastward from the Great Lakes to the rocky beaches of Maine. Not even mountains like the softer Appalachians that whirl off southward embracing the Shenandoah Valley in one of nature’s most beautiful waltzes. I come from the mountains that drift lazily into the rolling hills that we lovingly call the Smokies. Smoky mountains were carved by the ice age artists to spawn the welcoming hills and more gentle ridges of southeast Tennessee, Northern Georgia and Alabama. This region became my home, and home to the particular and peculiar people of our nation’s Southeast. Not the South. The Southeast.
The early 1800’s brought rugged adventurists crossing miles of raging rivers and soaring peaks seeking the end of the land, the end of the land where the sea tumbles landward…the end of the land. These fierce souls dropped off along their way to become the industrial founders of our mid-west, the farmers of grain and corn and potatoes, and the Western cowboys who tamed the ranges and grew the herds.
Others moved along a different path to the protected hollers that hunkered between the gentle ridges and rolling hills offering protection from storms, fields for planting, and rivers where communities could grow and neighbors could be close. My folks didn’t want the end of the land, they wanted the sheltered curve of an elbow of land that cradled…that cuddled…that nurtured those who had come.
Irish and Scottish families, brought the flavor of their language that is still heard today. The colloquialisms of the speech of Shakespeare himself were idiomatic of the language they had heard around the hearths of their lives, and so were the h’aint’s and airre’s and druther’s of the folks we know as our neighbors, our cousins, ourselves.
The customs of our lives and the faith that guides our way remains true to those of our forebears who sang “Barbry Allen” and played “Pop Goes the Weazel.”
This land beckoned. This land called. It was almost as if the gentle ridges and low-sloping mountains whispered to these settlers…
”You can family here.”
“Your stories and songs and ways of life will be protected.”
“Your children can breathe and birth and prosper here for centuries to come.”
Those who came, heard the whispers. Those who heard, responded, and the people of the Southeast settled…familied
…put down roots and became the flowers of the Southeast…
…the farmers who loved the smell of this earth and grew a bounty keeping every kitchen pot humming…
…the women who loved the promise of safety and family…
…the children who breathed in the freedom a’waitin’ and the challenges to be conquered…
…the Protestants who shouted and sang and wept over their sin…
…the Methodists who became missionaries and shared their faith with the unwashed…
…the jovial souls who made music and laughter and shared the heartbeat of life and joy in all their ways…
…and the stoic heathens who lived with their grudges and tight-fistedly refused the influences of the enlightened….
…these are my people…
…this is my home…
…this is the place where my faith and stories begin.
Excerpt # 2…an early chapter
There it Was
So I made the choice to know the wheres and the who’s and the whys and the what-fors of those who came before me. Perhaps it is a quest that’s always been within me. Perhaps it is my own encroaching age. Perhaps it is a laying-to-rest of childhood ghosts. Whatever the reason, I began this journey a couple of years ago in the late spring. The air was tinted with the bright yellow-ness of newly blooming forsythia, and the distinct smell of a rain in the near future. Late spring awakens the earth, the growing things, and even the buds of possibility that lie dormant in our hearts can feel the urge for new growth. So I went searching.
On this particular Saturday I made a long-overdue visit to the church of my own destiny, my family roots, my childhood faith home. I wandered the streets of the small town of Sweetwater, and without an address or a map or a vehicle navigation system or even a true sense of where I was going, I came upon it. There it was. It just up and surprised me as I came down the hill and there it was.
Funny how strong are my memories of this space, even a lifetime later. Funny how loudly it called my name as soon as I drove past the hedge and saw the building. Little did I know that the time I spent here brought about deeply grooved impressions on my small soul. It was different, now; yet it was exactly the same.
The trees are gone. The gray gravel has been black-topped. At some point in time the cottage parsonage was demolished and replaced with a “ranch”. The steepled building itself subtly remodeled.
But as soon as my hand touched the doorknob and I peeked inside, I knew this place. My first Bible lessons. The first hymns I sang. My tone-deaf daddy singing with that quartet, and my young, young mother deferring to him in all things. My aunts and uncles and cousins. My scoldings and whippings. My excitement at the inherent drama of it all. I knew this place.
Week after week, season after season, the religious roots of the faith I now cling to were planted in that time, in that place. These are the memories that became the painted, the patterned, the tattered and stained yet sustaining panoramic backdrop of my life. What choices did I make as a youth that were influenced by this time? What relationship skills were engendered by the adults all around us as we children watched, listened, absorbed? What parenting skills did I exhibit that were linked to my experiences of this time? How does one time layer itself upon another time until it becomes bedrock, experiential bedrock that shifts and shapes and gives foundation to our lives, our marriages, our children, our faith?
These are my first memories. This is the time that gave foundation to the person I would become. The person I have become. The person I would still like to become. Thus began the layers of bedrock that have become my life.
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