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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Picking Up Pecans

          I wish we could turn back time and play there again. Climb up in the apple trees, eat the apples that were so ripe they fell to the ground, climb in the pecan tree, play hide and seek around the homes and the barns, play tag with home base at the big pecan tree, pick up pecans and fill our pockets until they stretched. That wasn’t all that was full. Our hearts and our souls were brimming with happiness. We were young. We didn’t know any different.
100-year-old fig tree
          Life was as bright as the sun that shone on that old home place. Life was as dazzling as the sun that still shines, but now on an empty field where homes to three generations were built and eventually replaced, until nothing but the original landscape remained. The fig tree, over one hundred years old, is as big as all the cousins standing in one spot, and could probably feed us all, too. But what’s missing are three different homes that housed three different generations on this property, the barn stalls where the horses slept and ate, farmland of black dirt tilled by the sweat of the brow waiting for seeds to be planted, a young girl in white jeans and a white tee shirt kneeling in that dirt with her cupped hands full of the moist, rich earth held to her nostrils, and a porch-sized swing hanging from an old oak tree rocked tenderly by the winds of summer at the end of a long day of playing in the yard. 
          That’s not all that’s missing. The freedom of childhood, the affection for the environment, and the bond with each other, seem to have been left there when the children went out into the world to become adults. It’s all still there. I can hear it laughing when the wind blows. I can see it running when the leaves move. Forgiveness had not yet been learned, because injustice had not been experienced until now.
          I allowed myself to grieve at the funeral service. I cried hard—silent, hot tears. The kind that burn your nose all the way up to your brain and blur your vision so it’s like looking from the backside of a waterfall. I didn’t want to see at that moment. I didn’t want to see a future without my Uncle Bill. I just wanted to wallow in the past and grab a hold of every memory he had seared into my life. All those moments when he was not even trying to make a difference, but he did. He really did. I wanted to show him somehow that I appreciated that, but it was too late. I swore I wouldn’t let this happen with another person. I cried so hard that I felt like my throat was going to close up on me. I didn’t even try to stop it. That is how to show respect at an old-fashioned funeral service in a Southern Baptist Church…with a humbling, heartbreaking grief.
          Sunday, October 28, 2001, was the day my Mama died. Fifteen years later, on Friday, October 28, my Uncle Bill left this world. Many a Sunday afternoon, my Aunt Glenda and Uncle Bill and their four children would be at our home sharing a meal. Sometimes, that Sunday meal included the fish caught by the men folk from the day before. After we ate, the grown-ups would sit around and talk while the kids played out in the yard. I would sit quietly in the corner, hoping to go unnoticed, so I could listen. On special occasions, like New Year’s Day, we would go to their house for a traditional meal, which included collard greens and black-eyed peas. At their house, I would watch wrestling with the guys and we would try to sneak up on each other to pull an elbow maneuver that caused severe pain in the top of the shoulder area. It really did hurt! It was funny if it was happening to someone else. I learned to stay aware of my surroundings.
          “Vickie-Do-Little!” Uncle Bill always greeted me every time I entered a room.
          “Vickie do a lot,” was my response every single time.
          Bill was a tall, strong man with a giant personality. I looked up to him. He was always happy. I didn’t know until I was an adult, that he had never learned to read.
          The last time I heard those words, I had trudged across a gravel parking lot toward the side door at Boone Ford Baptist Church. My Daddy got out of his van and whispered, “Vickie-Do-Little” to me with a sad smile on his face. I had not forgotten that exchange from my childhood.
          I am grateful for the way Uncle Bill lived his life and the way he touched mine. He was a man of God. Reverend Marvin Carr was the preacher who delivered the sermon at Uncle Bill’s funeral. Reverend Carr said, “I asked him one time. Why do you talk out loud to God?” Bill’s response was, “Because He talks to me.” During the sermon, mothers with babies rocked, and mothers with empty laps rocked, too. Stained-glass windows twisted the light and bounced it off the diamond-dusted ceiling.
          Bill had once said to Reverend Carr, “I was walking around on my property one day and God spoke to me. He said build me a house.” He not only heard the voice, he believed it…and he obeyed it. He was moved to action by the Spirit. It all began with a tent as big as the property, or at least that’s the size registered in the memory banks of my nine-year-old self. Inside the tent were rows and rows of unfolded, metal chairs on a grass floor. An upright piano was positioned to one side of the homemade platform, and a pulpit stood in the middle. Many souls were saved as the wind slipped in and out of the white, fabric walls. Not long after the tent revival, Uncle Bill gave the majority of his land for the construction of a house for the Lord. Bill’s brother, Harold, was the founding pastor of the church. Now, Uncle Bill’s family gathered in that building to say their last good-byes to him.
          In his younger years, he had taxied Marvin Carr around to preach at different churches in a souped up, yellow, racing truck. Years later, Bill took his nephew, Gary Quarles, to church at the age of fourteen. Gary is now the pastor of Boone Ford Baptist Church. Gary remembers those Sunday mornings in a ’65 Comet with Bill’s girls in the backseat singing all the way to church.
          Uncle Bill was a quiet man. He loved to sit down to a spread of food like it was Thanksgiving any time of the year, he loved is wife, his three girls (Becky, Angie and Mamie), and his only son, Anthony (his nickname was Boy, so that’s what we all called him).
          I glanced around the church during all the wailing and sniffling and noticed Boy bent over his own young son, who was half his height and wrapped tightly in a loving embrace. I smiled and thought the love continues.
          The music moved me. I knew it would. Walking across the gravel parking lot, I had said to my husband, “Oh no, I forgot to bring a tissue.” With the first few strums of the mandolin strings by Gary Quarles, I glanced downward and saw a box of tissues in the corner under the pew in front of me. I picked the box up and placed it beside me. I knew I would need more than one. The guitars, played by brothers, Brian and Walter Bohannon, Dale Stone, and Steve Quarles, joined the mandolin in a bluegrass summons for me to hark back to a time before the walls of the church existed. The voices of five men who loved Bill began to sing the first of several of his favorite songs. The harmonious sound swept through the sanctuary like a wave of love and left a trail of tears in its wake, including mine. I knew this was the time to allow myself to cry. I missed him, just like everyone else wiping their eyes. The congregation sang songs as old as dirt. Uncle Bill had told his girls he didn’t want to be left alone overnight at the funeral home, so they had stayed with his body at the church the night before.
          The sound a grown man’s hand makes when it pats another grieving man’s back echoed down the aisle. Babies cried, sisters and daughters wailed, and grown men silently let go. As the service came to a close, I cleaned myself up. I was all dry, just red eyes blinking at the bright sunshine when I exited the building through  the double pine doors.
View behind the Salacoa Baptist Church in June, 2012
          Outside the weeping walls of the church, on the other end of the property, leaves let go of their branches and fell slowly and calmly to the earth. Pecans lay forgotten where feet no longer strolled. The pall bearers heaved their heavy load and rigidly marched the casket out of the church, down the concrete steps, and to the back of the waiting hearse for the long, slow ride to its final resting place on a mountainside with a heavenly view in Cherokee County. In the shadow of his wife’s headstone (she had died in 2012), muffled whimpers mixed with the melody of broken voices. The sun beat down hot on the darkly-dressed mourners.
          It was an unusually warm, fall day when they buried Uncle Bill. Leaves were at their peak of color. Back at the church, pecans covered the ground under a tree that had not been climbed in decades. The evening before the funeral, I had taken photos of the fourth generation, the grandchildren, tracing the same steps that had been walked by their ancestors. I had picked up a pecan from the ground under that old pecan tree and put it in my pocket.
          A small voice said, “Take two or three. Grab a handful and fill your pockets until they stretch! Every time you see these little treasures, let them remind you of the joy, happiness, and love that this family shared. Don’t bother with the dark-colored ones, because they are bitter. When you look at these healthful little nuggets, you need only remember what nourishes you.”
          I reached down and picked up a handful of pecans.

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