Thursday, July 2, 2009

Read the Signs: Lessons My Grandfather Taught Me

Well, my whirlwind tour of the Southeast has come to an end. After days and days on the road, staying with this relative and that relative, I’m back to my home and to my bed. Thank God for simple pleasures. But things are stable now, and I’m attempting to fall into my old routine, so I will not neglect you further.

My muse was good to me whenever I found time to myself, and bestowed on me many gifts, one of which I will share with you now.

I am beginning to enjoy being back in my hometown. It’s been about three days, and I’m seeing people again that I haven’t seen in years. Relatives and old friends are stopping by in droves. I never realized that I was so missed, and I’m really touched by it all.

But today it became somewhat overwhelming. I wanted to—I needed to—read something. Write something. My muse was speaking to me, and I didn’t want to neglect her.

But with the constant coming and going, I couldn’t do so. So I did as I always do—I simply fled. I fled to my grandmother’s house in the rural enclave of Bemis, Tennessee, about sixty-five miles northeast of Memphis.

Such has been the pattern in my life. Anytime I am overwhelmed, anytime things become too much to bear, I flee to my grandmother’s house. Since I was a small child, her home has been my refuge from the real world. When I was growing up, I perhaps spent as much time at my grandmother’s house as I spent at my own mother’s.

Her house was a place of respite, a place of peace. There were no judgments there. No harsh words. I just came, fell into my grandmother’s arms, and rested. And when I had regained my strength, I returned to the struggle.

My brother, on the other hand, always stands his ground. He never retreats. Sometimes I wish I was as courageous as my brother.

However, now things are no longer the same in my grandmother’s house. She is no longer there. She passed this past February. And I was devastated. Absolutely devastated. I blogged about it soon after I started my blog. But the house remains. And I still have my key. So, here I sit.

When I arrived this afternoon, I assumed my usual place. I spread my things out on the couch and pulled out the TV dinner tray I use as a desk. Normally, my grandmother would be sitting in her chair right there, sewing or gossiping on the phone or reading her Bible or the paper.

Occasionally, she might ask me a question about what I was doing or what I was reading. Or she might even ask me to read her a passage of something I was writing. She really enjoyed listening to me read my writings to her.

Sometimes I became annoyed because she always seemed to break my chain of thought at the most inopportune times. But this afternoon the silence is unnerving. I attempt in vain to work through it until finally the cacophony of her absence causes me to flee once again.

This time I flee outside to the front yard. I walk around and inspect all my familiar childhood haunts. I peek inside the rotting and crumbling smokehouse. I pick a green apple from the old apple tree that has stood in the yard since I was a child. I take a bite, and it is bitter. So I spit it out, and hurl the remainder of the apple as far as I can throw it. Then I stood before the woods.

The woods is actually a forest that surrounds my grandmother’s house and the land my grandfather farmed on three sides. When I was a child, I spent countless hours in these woods. Exploring. Chasing wild animals. Fishing in the catfish pond. Fantasizing. Building my own fantastical kingdom populated by the many people and creatures of a young boy’s imagination.

Often I would find myself lost in these woods and in my imagination, and my grandmother and grandfather would frantically call for me hoping that I would be found before the darkness set in. Tearfully and with trepidation, I could follow their voices to safety.

Finally, my grandfather, my uncles, and a host of other members of my extended family spent aweekend or so erecting a fence that enclosed my grandfather’s property on three sides. When they were finally finished, my grandfather pulled me to the side and explained the purpose of the fence.

The fence, he explained to me, was there to prevent me from becoming lost. If ever I was in the woods and happened to lose my bearings, simply walk until I found the fence. If I followed the fence, the boundary they had built for me, I would eventually come to the road which ran past my grandfather’s and grandmother’s house. I should then look to my left and to my right and look for a sign, something familiar, and then follow the road back home.

Learn to look for the signs he said. Learn to read the signs. And you will never get lost.

And today as I fled, I found myself drawn into the woods by memories as well as the anticipation of what I might find there. So I entered, and before long, I was a boy again. I walked around for what had to be hours. Exploring. Chasing wild animals. Wondering if there were still fish in the catfish pond. Fantasizing. Building my own fantastical kingdom populated by the many people and creatures of a young boy’s imagination.

And true to form, I found myself lost as I noticed darkness descending. And for a brief second, I panicked. For a brief second, I wondered desperately about, looking for something familiar, something that would help me find my way out. But just as I was about to give up, I tripped on something on the forest floor. I kicked the leaves and other debris back to find what I had tripped on. And I found it was still there.

Laying on the forest floor were ancient, rusted strands of barbed wire. I looked around a bit more, and I found the rotting and crumbling remains of a fence pole. So I set out, every few feet kicking back the leaves and debris so that I might follow that remains of the fence, the boundary, that had been built for me so long ago. And finally, the fence led me to the road, and I stepped from the woods, and I looked to my left, and I looked to my right.

And then I saw it. I saw a sign, something familiar—Cane Creek Road Baptist Church Five Miles. And then I strode confidently and without trepidation down the road toward home.


A. Spence said...

This reminds me of going to my great grandmothers house in NC every summer when I was younger. I remember rolling my eyes every time I saw my great grandma. She would tell me “I was the first one to hold you when you came home from the hospital”. I would always think, ‘not this again’. Being a teenager and always annoyed…I just thought this was grandma being grandma. Now its 11 years since she’s been gone, what I wouldn’t love to hear that from her now.

She left that sign in me and I pass it on to my children. Always trying to show them the importance of family in their lives.

Great post..thanks.

uglyblackjohn said...

Yeah... this is a nice post.

When ever I go to the old family farm in Church Point Louisiana - I'm reminded of the old fishing pond/swimminghole which was filled in because I almost drowned 40 YEARS AGO.
My cousins are still mad.

Anonymous said...

This post reminded me of the stories I used to write as a kid. I stayed in the city but I would close my eyes and daydream of a life far removed from where I actually was.

I also had a Grandmother that I loved dearly who died so I can relate to your feelings.

This was a beautiful post and really took me there along those trails with you.

Max Reddick said...

Thanks, people. And for those of you who are here for the first time, thanks for stopping by. I hope this will not be your last time.

There are so many of us here in the big city who have agrarian roots, but who for any number of reasons, seek to sever those ties. But those roots are my strength. And the more I achieve, the higher I go, I find myself having to return to those roots over and over again ever more frequently to regain my strength, to renew my spirit, to eat watermelon fresh off the vine.


uglyblackjohn said...

So would you say that you are well rooted?
And that those strong roots give you strength?

Max Reddick said...

You can say that. I think it is the strength of those people in that place. I keep going back searching for that strength. Wanting to feel that strength, hoping that perhaps I will one day be the giant killers they were.

CiCiwryter said...

I love this post. My family migrated north and was somewhat physically disconnected from our Arkansas roots but that same spirit stayed with them in the new state where I was born. My grandmother's provided so many life lessons for me and their homes were often refuges. I really enjoyed reading this piece and appreciated the vivid details from the bitter, green apple to the rusted fence that led you back to familiar ground and even seeing you reading to your grandmom and her interupting you with questions. I really look forward to reading more of your work.

Max Reddick said...

When I go home, my cousins seem to envy me because I left and got to travel all over the world. But secretly I envy them because they got to stay.

It seems that their lives are much simpler, less complicated than my own. It seems like I'm always on the move and hardly have a chance to even catch my breath.

I question the notion of progress. I am better off socio-econmically, but am I better off spiritually? But as long as I can find the road leading home, I think I will be alright.


Issa Rae said...

Wow Max, I got a little misty-eyed reading this. Beautiful post indeed.

Max Reddick said...

@ Issa

Thank you so much!

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