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9. Going to the Country
My father had a compulsion about ‘leaving early’ that bordered on a mental illness. And that never showed itself with such clarity as when we went to ‘the country’. Truth is, where we lived was ‘country’—extremely rural. I grew up in a town with less than 500 residents and McDowell County was about 1/3 the size of Rhode Island and had some 68,000 citizens when I was growing up—nearer 25,000 now, which makes it a ‘ghost county’ rather than merely ‘rural’. Nevertheless, we called Monroe County, where my father grew up, ‘the country’ and when we went there we had to leave an hour or two before dawn.
When I was smaller, he would take me from my bed and put me in the backseat of whatever Ford he owned at the time and we’d stop somewhere along the two hour drive for me to put on the clothes my mother had brought for me. Later, he would simply wake me up at 4 a.m. and tell me “it’s time to go to the country.” We went once or twice a month, leaving before dawn on Saturday and coming back in the early afternoon of Sunday. I have hazy and dream filled memories of those early morning trips. We’d arrive before 6 a.m. at the house where my father lived as a boy and be greeted by my Grandmother Bradley—her name was Clieve, pronounced ClE-vE, which, if were short for anything I never learned what. I was a teen-ager when I realized that Clieve wasn’t truly my grandmother—she was my step-grandmother, the wife of my grandfather in his later life, after my father’s mother had died. But that wasn’t simply an oversight—not knowing our actual relationship—it was the way the Bradley side of my family operated. I grew up calling lots of Bradley relations “aunt” or “uncle” only to realize when I was older that they weren’t aunts or uncles at all. This for example: Aunt Ursa and Aunt Denie (Geraldine) were the children of “Aunt Annie” and “Uncle Buford”, who were, in truth, my father’s Aunt and Uncle. That made Ursa and Geraldine my second cousins! Such misrepresentation would have never happened on the Jones side of my family. The Jones’ were very precise about relationships—“your third cousin by marriage”, like that. The Bradley’s were less formal and anybody you were related to might be called “aunt” or “uncle”—it just didn’t matter as much to them. My actual first cousin Greg Bradley (well, actually, actually my double-cousin, according to the Jones’, since his mother was my mother’s first cousin and his father was my father’s brother…but the Jones clan kept score relentlessly) tried to put together a genealogy for the Bradley family but kept running into trouble since no one seemed to know the exact relationship of relatives!
Uncle Ezra is a good example. I called him Uncle Ezra all my life but as close as I can get to figuring out how we were related was this: Ezra was the first cousin of Filbert, my grandfather, and Annie, my father’s aunt. That means that ‘Uncle’ Ezra’s mother was the daughter of my great-grand mother’s sister. So, if I can do the math, that would make him my third cousin, once removed, whatever the hell that means! I need a Jones relative to help me sort it out. All I know is that he was Uncle Ezra to me.
Ezra was a tiny man married to ‘Aunt Clovis’ (actually my third cousin, once removed, by marriage—go ponder that!) who was a woman of substance, which means, in Bradley Family Speak, she was a big, big woman. The last time I saw Ezra on this side of the mysterious door of death, his eyes looked into my chin. I was only 14 or so and about 5’7” tall (I reached my full growth at 15 which explains why I was a star on my junior high basketball team and didn’t make the cut in high school). I suppose, just guessing, Ezra was 5’4” or so and probably weighed 115 pounds. At 14, when Clovis hugged her ‘nephew’, my face was pressed against her ample breasts. So, she might have been 5’10 and weighed, let’s be Bradley nice now…220 pounds. Jack Sprat and his wife, for sure—that was Uncle Ezra and Aunt Clovis.
Ezra’s stature was fertile ground for jokes his whole life. One story I was told a hundred and one times over the years was about the night Uncle Ezra got saved. It seems he had gone to a revival meeting and felt his heart convicted to give his life to Jesus. He’d gone up to kneel at the rail and when the out-of-town revivalist came by to pray with him, that preacher said, “God bless the little boys….” Well, as it turned out, Ezra was 22 years old and long since fully grown. After the service some of the local young men gathered around Ezra and started saying, over and over: “God bless the little boys….”
As the apocryphal family story goes, Ezra, who was little but not meek, hitched up his pants and told the crowd around him, “I’d rather be a little fellow like me and go to heaven than great big sons-of-bitches like you and go to hell.” Well spoken, Uncle Ezra, well said….
Uncle Ezra, like most of the Bradley side of my family, was a man not unacquainted with strong drink. Whenever we visited my father and Uncle Russell would disappear with Ezra into the barn of his farm while I was being loved up and fed sweets by Aunt Clovis. When they returned, a half-an-hour later or so, they were flushed and glassy eyed and full of salt and vinegar. Aunt Clovis would shake her head and say, either to me or the cosmos, “Men have to drink, but not in my house….” Most of the men on the Bradley side of my family, all of whom liked a drink or two, seemed inevitably to marry women who didn’t approve of alcohol. My Uncle Sid was the exception that proved the rule. He and my Aunt Callie (who was both my aunt and my second cousin—go figure my family!) both liked a taste….God bless them.
When Ezra died (since I’m still on him and will get back to Grandmother Clieve soon) I was 15 or so. He died in February of one of the winters of my life. His funeral was in the Union Church (Baptist 1st and 3rd Sundays, Methodist 2nd and 4th) in Waiteville. The preacher took a great deal of time preaching Uncle Ezra’s funeral since the young men hand digging the grave were having a hard time. They’d started two days before but the ground was so frozen and it was so cold to dig that they kept having to pause for coffee and a drink of bourbon, just to warm them up. But after a dozen or so pauses those first two days, they were too drunk to dig. One of them kept coming in to whisper to the preacher that the grave wasn’t quite deep enough yet, so the sermon got longer and longer. Finally, after we’d been there for almost three hours, one of the grave diggers stumbled up the aisle and said, in slurred speech, “da hol is ready, preeecher,”
So Ezra joined the scores of those sleeping in that little country cemetery. Many of them are somehow related to me. I remember on one Memorial day, wandering through the graveyard, coming upon two worn tombstones with my name on them: James Gordon Bradley. The sky was white, as in often is in those climes, and I felt dizzy for a while. It was my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather. I hadn’t realized I had a ‘family name’ since it skipped two generations. My grandfather was Filbert and my father was Virgil—good time to go back to what worked in the past!
Most Memorial Days, my crazy ‘Aunt Arbana’, who I never saw because she was crazy and a recluse (and Lord knows what my true relationship with her was—she was probably a fifth cousin once removed or something) would come over before anyone else got there and put little Confederate flags on the graves of many of my distant relatives. Uncle Russell would take them off in a huff while Uncle Del was laughing and Uncle Sid was making jokes. My father would just shake his head and wonder. “Some year I’m going to take them and stick them up her ass,” Russell would say. “Do we even know where she lives now?” Del would ask. “Or how big her ass is?” Sid would ask.
Back at Aunt Clovis’ house, after Ezra had joined his not so clearly defined ancestors in the so frozen and so rocky dirt of the Waiteville Cemetery, I noticed that there were several bottles of whisky set out with all chicken and green beans and pies and cakes. At that time, I simply noticed it—now I wonder, why couldn’t that have been so when Ezra was alive and thirsty?
We’d arrive at Clieve’s house and she would start talking the minute we came up the walk. She was the most talkative person I’ve ever met. When you were with her you were reduced to listening and listening only, with an occasional nod or clucking in surprise. My father’s brothers—Del and Russell and Sid—would never come to stay with her. Russell had a farm in Waiteville through his wife’s family—she was a LaFon, just like my aunt Annie’s husband (actually my great uncle by marriage—I’ll stop trying to explain my family now!) but Russell’s wife Gladys wasn’t from the same LaFons as Annie’s husband…just because I’m from West Virginia doesn’t mean I’m the product of massive intermarriage). In fact, one of them spelled it with a small ‘f’ and the other with a capital ‘F’, though for the life of me I don’t remember which was which now. Anyway, my father’s brothers wouldn’t visit Clieve because she never stopped talking and they couldn’t stand her, never had. But we always stayed with her when we were in the country.
So, surrounded in stereo by Clieve’s constant chatter (oh, by the way, though I called her “Grandmaw”, my father called her Aunt Clieve though she was his step mother—one last example of the looseness of the Bradley clan regarding relationships) we’d enter the little house to the smell of a full breakfast. By ‘full breakfast’ I mean this: sausage gravy, scratch biscuits, fried apples, grits swimming in butter, country ham and red eye gravy, eggs fried within an inch of their lives so the yoke was hard and the edges were brown and crunchy, coffee perking on the stove, three kinds of home canned preserves, fresh churned butter, and potatoes cut thin and fried in bacon grease plus the bacon they were fried in. Clieve must have been up before my father to assemble such a feast by 6 a.m. I had a method to the madness of such a meal. I put sausage gravy on my eggs, biscuit and potatoes and red-eye gravy over my grits and ham (usually a lot since red-eye gravy is made with coffee instead of water and my parents wouldn’t give me coffee yet). Then I’d have another plate for apples and biscuits with butter and preserves. Lordy, lordy, what a banquet! It was in Grandmaw Bradley’s kitchen, under the drone of her gossip and stories (like elevator music, in a way) that I came to believe, as I believe to this day, that gravy is a food group.
We made that trip to the country dozens and dozens of times while I was growing up. And the day we never missed was Memorial Day. There was a Memorial Day dinner in the grange hall that raised the money each year for the upkeep of the Waiteville cemetery where generations after generations of my family lay sleeping. People who had years before moved away came back on memorial day because someone they had loved was in that cemetery and the only way to insure the well-being of that four acre plot of hilly ground was to buy your ticket to the Memorial Day Dinner and eat yourself into oblivion.
I’d be introduced to and shown off to about a hundred people who I was told were my relatives every Memorial Day. Given the Bradley proclivity of fudging relationships, I have no idea how many of those people actually shared my DNA. But let me try to tell you what there was to eat.
There was pork ribs cooked off the bone with sour kraut, fried chicken to die for—crispy on the outside and cooked to juicy perfection within, country ham sliced as thin as paper (as it must be) and cured ham pink and tender, beef stew that would melt in your mouth, baked chicken, and fried pork chops. There was corn—on the cob, slathered with melted butter; creamed, cut from the ear; beans cooked in bacon with potatoes you didn’t have to chew; squash of many sorts (which I didn’t like as a child and long for now); tomatoes huge as softballs cut into thick slices; cucumbers and onions cut up and brined in vinegar; tomato stew with dumplings; fried onions and peppers; rhubarb cooked to tender, tart perfection; creamed onions and peas; green salad made from lime jello, nuts and cottage cheese; red jello with fruit cocktail suspended in it; baby carrots cooked with brown sugar and walnuts; slaw—both vinegar and mayonnaise based; and tossed salad with vinegar and oil. There was, for desert: pecan pie, cherry pie, apple pie, fried apple pie, strawberry and rhubarb pie, German chocolate cake, devil’s food cake, angel’s food cake and homemade ice cream to pile on top of it all. And to drink there would be (what else) sweet tea and perked coffee…is there any other kind of tea, any other kind of coffee, really?
Here’s the point to all this: one of the images that Jesus uses for the Kingdom is the image of the Heavenly Banquet. I take great joy in that and in the passages from the gospels where the resurrected Jesus seems hungry. If there is a life to come—and for me the jury is still out, probably will be until I come face to face with my finitude and stare off into oblivion or whatever comes next—I am ecstatic to imagine there will be eating and drinking there. And that Jesus chose to leave us as a metaphor of what heaven is like, a table set with fair linen and candles where we share in a Eucharistic feast of bread and wine—that is the kicker for me.
Breakfast at Grandmaw Clieve’s house and dinner at the Memorial Day dinner—I couldn’t ask for anything more. Over the years I have certainly developed a palate for other things: Chinese, Thai, Italian, French cuisines; however, if it is eternity we’re talking about, for my taste those two menus will suffice for the first eon or so.
I don’t have a view of heaven much past a place where there are giant women—like Aunt Clovis, sitting in enormous rocking chairs who will rock you and sing to you and stroke you whenever you want. But beyond that, the best I can do with the whole life/death thing is to imagine that someday I’ll be lifted from my bed by strong, loving arms and placed in the backseat of a car, covered carefully with a blanket and, after a trip of confusion and dreams, I’ll wake up “in the country.”
That’s the best I can do about ‘heaven’.
And, for me, at any rate, it works….
The Trouble with Finitude
I try, from time to time,
usually late at night or after one too many glasses of wine,
to consider my mortality.
(I have been led to believe
that such consideration is valuable
in a spiritual way.
God knows where I got that...
Well, of course God knows,
I'm just not sure.)
But try as I might, I'm not adroit at such thoughts.
It seems to me that I have always been alive,
I don't remember not being alive.
I have no personal recollections
of when most of North America was covered by ice
or of the Bronze Age
or the French Revolution
or the Black Sox scandal.
But I do know about all that through things I've read
and musicals I've seen
and the History Channel.
I know intellectually that I've not always been alive,
but I don't know it, as they say,
“in my gut”.
(What a strange phrase that is,
since I am sure my 'gut'
is a totally dark part of my body,
awash with digestive fluids
and whatever remains of the chicken and peas
I had for dinner and strange compounds
moving inexorably—I hope—through my large
and small intestines.)
My problem is this:
I have no emotional connection to finitude.
All I know and feel is tangled up with being alive.
Dwelling on the certainty of my own death
is beyond my ken, outside my imagination,
much like trying to imagine
the vast expanse of Interstellar Space
when I live in Connecticut.
So, whenever someone suggests that
I consider my mortality,
I screw up my face and breathe deeply
pretending I am imagining the world
without me alive in it.
What I'm actually doing is remembering
things I seldom remember--
my father's smell, an old lover's face,
the feel of sand beneath my feet,
the taste of watermelon,
the sound of thunder rolling toward me
from miles away.
Perhaps when I come to die
(perish the thought!)
there will be a moment, an instant,
some flash of knowledge
or a stunning realization:
“Ah,” I will say to myself,
just before oblivion sets in,
'this is finitude....”