It was a glorious November day, stark and long-shadowed as only South Georgia can make it. The road we traversed was a familiar one—as familiar as the drive to my own home—and every field and house and stand of pines was a familiar friend. Even the red dirt roads veering off to the left and right which I’d never traversed but in fancy were known to me. I remembered straining my child-eyes down them as we whizzed past in that lumbering Buick station wagon, my sister crouched up against the opposite window with a book and my brother hanging his elbows over the seat from the ‘back back’ and infringing upon my highly affronted personal space, and knowing what their sudden curves and tree-hung shadows held hidden from the passing view. I saw the old white farmsteads and the barns weathered black with their rusted tin roofs and another pine-guarded pasture stubbled gold in the light of a vanishing year. And if the imaginative sprite was strong upon me, I saw the folks that inhabited them: women fiercely womanly whether their labor lay in a garden or a schoolroom or an immaculate kitchen, and men whose veteran integrity infused humble origins and working clothes with a courtly grandeur. I both saw and knew such phantom figures, for they were none other than composite daydreams of the kith and kin I had heard stories about all my life.
On this day my husband was driving, and the celebrated station wagon, long gone to its own place with wreaths and laurels, was supplanted by a Ford Explorer. We were going to the funeral of my father’s oldest sister, a laughing light that had gone out at ninety-six, and though my mother and I managed to keep up an unflagging stream of talk in the back seat, my mind and eyes were awake to the scenes through which we passed. A funeral is always a solemn errand, no matter how graceful a soul may have been in dying (and such was the case with my Aunt Elise), and to combine it with a soul pilgrimage to the source of one’s springing is at once a trust and a gift.
A memento mori.
I love the way South Georgia makes me feel. I love the memories it kindles and the love of those long-dead that flares and flames amid the quiet streets of the town in which my father grew up. Who could guess that such unassuming spots as a certain street corner or an overgrown garden or a rusty swing set could be thronged with so many happy ghosts, all but elbowing one another aside for sheer joy of the company? I’ll bet a thousand cars a day pass that little grey house that used to be yellow where my grandmother once reigned, never dreaming that to someone on this earth it is a sacred shrine, hallowed with the undying lamp of remembrance.
There was one place that we passed on the way into town, however, that gave me a turn and an unfailing shiver. It was the railroad trestle spanning the road about which my father had recounted tales that had made my blood curdle deliciously as an six year-old and now, as a thirty-something, provided that tantalizing sense of murky recollection that shrouds so many of the legends of childhood. What was that guy’s name? I leaned forward to ask Daddy, but he and Philip were talking politics. And any good Southern girl knows that that’s not a conversation to interrupt, unless it’s to put an exasperated stop to it. So I leaned back and tried to remember on my own. Something dreadful…the train…made his hair turn white…
Many people cherish childhood memories of their parents reading to them at night, tucking them in with a prayer and a kiss. I have all these, and reverence them with their due. But I have something more—something uniquely precious and entrusted to me alone. I have my Daddy’s stories. When Daddy tucked me in at night, I spurned the fairy tales and little-rabbits-living-in-the-roots-of-trees kind of books that had my heart at all other times. Requesting such from Daddy was an unconscionable waste of natural resources.
“Tell me about when you were a little boy,” I would unfailingly say. “Tell me about you and Bobby.”
I can still feel the tingling thrill of that new Schwinn for Christmas, green and gold. The pathos of cigar boxes of buried treasure in the backyard to which no earthly map would ever lead. The storied splendor of Lynch’s Flowerland across the street and the high glories of playground fights. The hot, helpless anger rises yet at the thought of the anonymous poisoning of Bobby’s dog, Pal. The wonder shines untarnished at the miracle of a tin can telephone.
Bobby was Daddy’s best friend and as inseparable from him as David from Jonathan. Nearly all the stories had Bobby in them—I grew to envision him as an almost god-like entity of healthy, joyous boyhood, brown-eyed (I have absolutely no idea what color his eyes were) and abloom with life from the dew of the morning. Thus was Daddy’s reverence translated to me. When the stories reached the point of Bobby moving away, I could hardly bear it. I remember lying in my little white bed staring into the dark after Daddy had given me my kiss and turned out the light, suffocating with the impossible, senseless tragedy of it. It was my first exposure to the world’s pain.
Years later, when my own best friend moved away, the tales of Daddy and Bobby gave context to the story of my own heartbreak and helped transfigure it into a desperate joy for the blessing leant of her nearness all those years. I came in from seeing her off on a life adventure with her new husband and found my Daddy reading in his chair in the den. I crossed the room at a bound, and without ceremony, curled all of my twenty year-old lankiness into his lap and sobbed.
“When Bobby moved away, I thought I was going to die,” Daddy said quietly.
And it was enough.
There were other stories: family legends, winding narratives of the community, anecdotes that Daddy could hardly get through for laughing. I wanted to hear—again and again—about the Coca-Cola plant his daddy managed and about the chug-a-lug contests among the workers. About the pearl-handled pistol my grandfather relieved a would-be robber of. And the time Daddy knocked over all his grandmother’s beehives just to see what would happen and received the only serious scolding she ever gave him in her life. These accounts, and thousands like them, gave me the dead back again to see and know and love (both Daddy’s father and Bobby were gone before I was born), and they laid a foundation that serves to this day to convince me that real life is an epic story that’s worth the trouble of both living and telling well. It’s the model for the fairy tales, not the other way around.
My aunt’s memorial was a time of story, as well. During the family lunch, people took the floor, one after another, not to eulogize, but to tell such tales of Elise and her ‘singing heart’ as to bring her vividly to life in every mind and heart present: as vivid as she must be this moment in her Lord’s glory. It was a rollicking, joyous time, and I felt so fierce-grateful for the blood that courses in my veins. I love the rock from whence I’m hewn; I loved looking around that room and seeing all those blue eyes and patrician chins and hearing that deep, unmistakable laugh rolling from my Daddy, the laugh he inherited from his father.
I heard it again later that afternoon, visiting Aunt Ernestine, who wasn’t well enough to come to the funeral, but received all the family members in state, legs swinging girlishly over the side of her sickbed, blue eyes fixed keen and uncompromising on whomever she addressed. She reminded me of a queen, from whom every word and gesture meant something important. And there that laugh swelled and rolled, again and again, irrespective of lung cancer and all the rest of earth’s sorrow. She was so beautiful I could have stayed in the room all day, just gathering bits of light from her. Her laugh like Daddy’s and her eyes like mine, and that definite, dominant joy that filled the room and made us all laugh, though her breath came in gasps.
She patted Daddy’s knee beside her. “This is my Daddy when I was your age,” looking at me. For some wild reason, I felt like she had given me a gift, a bequest. This wonderful, wondrous Granddaddy I had heard about all my life; this immortal Daddy of mine—sitting right here together on the side of Ernestine’s bed.
On the way home I plied Daddy with questions. I was desperate—frantic—to hear the stories again. To gather as many to my heart as one four-hour drive could grant me. When one tale was told I fed him another. I kept catching Philip’s eye in the rearview mirror: he was enjoying it as much as I was. But I was more than enjoying—I was cataloguing. I was lining my childish impressions up against the experience of adulthood and logging them away as fully-matured accounts of human existence, in all its agony and ecstasy.
We passed the railroad trestle again and I leaned forward, imperative this time.
“Daddy, tell me again about the man on the train—the dreadful thing that turned his hair white.”
Daddy was thoughtful for a moment, as if gathering up the threads of a tale that had lain dormant for nearly thirty years.
“Well, I don’t rightly remember—,” he hedged. “What was that man’s name?”
I was aghast.
“How could your forget?” I demanded. “It was so dreadful—,”
“Oh, yes.” Daddy laughed to himself and the past glimmered in the sound. “Sidney—Sidney McCorckle, that was it.”
“So what happened to him? It’s haunted me all my life.”
Daddy smiled his slow grin.
“Aw, Sidney McCorckle? I made him up.”
The moral to that story is that if I possess, in addition to a reverence for the ‘true tall tales’ which make up my personal history, an irrepressible penchant for fiction, you’ll know who to blame.