It was as if God made them pay for the loveliness of their scenery by demanding everything else. Yet the grimness of it faded for a while, at dinner on the ground at the Protestant churches, where people sat on the springtime grass and ate potato salad and sipped sweet tea from an aluminum tub with a huge block of ice floating in it. The pain eased at family reunions where the men barbecued twenty-four hours straight and the women took turns holding babies and balancing plates on their knees, trying to keep the grease from soaking through on the one good dress they had. The hardness of it softened in the all-night gospel singings that ushered in the dawn with the promise that "I'll have a new body, praise the Lord, I'll have a new life," as babies crawled up into the ample laps of grandmothers to sleep across jiggling knees. If all else failed, you could just wash it away for a while, at the stills deep in the woods or in the highly illegal beer joints and so-called social clubs, where the guitar pickers played with their eyes closed, lost in the booze and the words of lost love and betrayal. They sang about women who walked the hills in long black veils, of whispering pines, and trains.
It was the backdrop and the sound track of our lives. I was born into it in the summer of 1959, just in time to taste it, absorb it, love it and hate it and know its secrets. When I was a teenager, I watched it shudder and gasp and finally begin to die, the pines clear-cut into huge patches of muddy wasteland and the character of the little towns murdered by generic subdivisions and generic fast-food restaurants. The South I was born in was eulogized by pay-as-you-pray TV preachers, enclosed in a coffin of light blue aluminum siding and laid to rest in a polyester suit, from Wal-Mart.
I watched the races fall into an uneasy and imperfect peace and the grip of the poverty ease. There was reason to rejoice in that, because while I was never ashamed to be a Southerner there was always a feeling, a need, to explain myself. But as change came in good ways, I saw Southernness become a fashion, watched men wear their camouflage deer-hunting clothes to the mall because they thought it looked cool, watched Hank Williams and his elegant western suits give way to pretty boys in ridiculous Rodeo Drive leather chaps. And I thought of my granddaddy Bobby Bragg, gentler than his son in some ways, who sat down to dinner in clean overalls, a spotless white shirt buttoned to the neck and black wingtip shoes.
Only the religion held. It held even though the piano players went to music school and actually learned to read notes, even though new churches became glass and steel monstrosities that looked like they had just touched down from Venus. It held even though the more prosperous preachers started to tack the pretentious title of "Doctor" in front of their name and started to spend more time at seminars than visiting the sick. It held even though the Baptists started to beat drums and allow electric guitar, even though--Jesus help us--the Church of Christ conceded in the late 1970s that it was probably not a mortal sin if boys went swimming with girls. It held. God hung in there like a rusty fish hook.
Even my father found Him at the end, or at least he went looking for Him. It was 1974, when he was still a young man and I was a boy in my first year of high school. Several years after he abandoned us or chased us away for the last of too many times, the phone would ring in the little red house where we lived with my grandmother, through the good graces and charity of my aunt Nita and uncle Ed. It would be him, asking for my momma between bone-rattling coughs, the kind that telegraphed death, promised it. She would stop what she was doing, dust the flour from her hands or turn off the iron or put down her fork at supper, and sit for what seemed hours, silent, just listening, twisting the phone cord around and around her hands until it was so tight her fingers turned white as bone. Funny, the things that rivet themselves in your mind. Finally she would promise to pray for him, and ease the phone back onto its cradle. Then she would pick up what she was doing again, dry-eyed, but would not talk to us for a very long time.
Use of this excerpt from All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright© 1997 by Rick Bragg.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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