Monday, June 22, 2009
Reflections from a Road Trip: At My Aunt's
First stop on my recent road trip was the state of Arkansas. We Texans tend to give our neighbors a bad time of it. But this state offers up surprises that do not fit our stereotypes. Much of the eastern portion of the state is part and parcel of the Delta and all that implies culturally. Little Rock, despite the Clinton Library, is not bad for a medium-sized Southern city. In the north and east, one finds rich agricultural lands, as pretty as you please. Towns such as Booneville and Brinkley are as picture-perfect an example of pristine small town Americana as one would hope to find anywhere. But my destination, however, was in the very heart of the traditionally poor and remote Ozarks, fittingly only a few miles from the creepy ruins of the now-defunct “Dogpatch, U.S.A.”
I visited my aunt, who lives here with her husband, on 40 acres about ¼ of a mile off the Buffalo River. Perhaps only 3 acres of this tract lies in the narrow vale, and of that maybe 1/2 of an acre is cleared. Bears and elk come down the mountain into their back yard. Aunt Sis, my dad’s only sister, is the last surviving sibling on either side. As such, she is also my last window into the now lost world of my father’s youth in the Hill Country of central Texas. She and my uncle are holding on at age 85, in the mountain cabin they have shared for the last 35 years or so, since retiring from St. Louis. The area is now very much a tourist destination, popular with kayakers and canoeists. But it was not always so, and poverty is still close at hand here.
My aunt and I have a close rapport. She knows I enjoy hearing the old stories, and she enjoys retelling them. I listened intently to the anecdotes that came to my aunt’s recollection. I heard the story of my dad and his younger brother, left at home while my aunt and the grandparents went to town. The boys found their mother’s cutting shears and gave each other mohawks, then stripped down (a bit) and rode bareback all over the neighborhood, whooping and hollering, pretending to be wild Indians. There was the interesting story of my great-aunt’s parrot who “spoke” Portuguese. But mainly we talked much of a neighboring Coryell County family from the 1920s and 1930s. The warm associations of these people have carried forward in the collective memory of my family to this day. The Falkenbergs were German. My aunt remembers him as a giant of a man, but a gentle patriarch. He liked to sit in a rocking chair on their front porch, puffing on an enormous hard-carved pipe. She was noted for her thick German bread and homemade cheese. Mr. Falkenberg brewed his own beer, Prohibition or no. He and my granddad, whom he called "Enri," were best friends. Both were “Ferguson men,” which while putting them on the opposite side from Prohibition and the Klan did not necessarily put them on the opposite side of the political corruption of the day. The two families were in and out of one another’s homes. My aunt recalls getting a little “tight” from Mr. Falkenberg’s home brew that they passed around. She also remembers him saying grace in German before meals: “Mein Vater der kunst in Himmel…” Seventy-five years later, she still expresses regret that her oldest brother did not marry Selma, one of the Falkenberg girls. This led to another story that was entirely new to me. During the late Edwardian years, my granddad’s oldest sister was supposed to marry a young man of the community (stay with me here), the brother of grandmother’s youngest aunt’s husband. Both families were well-acquainted with one another and everyone approved of the match. But something happened and they did not marry. In fact, the young man never married and died an old bachelor. In time, my great-aunt married the brother of her sister’s husband. There were no children, and by all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one. There is an untold story here, somewhere…a tale of heartache, disappointment and resignation. I believe that there is a secret, hidden narrative—the true one—to all our lives. It is borne and acknowledged only by us, unless we are fortunate enough to slay our pride and pour it out in our tears before our God.
The stories of these farming families are fading fast. If I survive my aunt, I may be able to pass them along, but only imperfectly. It will not be my recollection, but only my impression of her remembrance. The stories I coaxed from my dad are no longer as fresh as I thought they would always be. To the extent that any are passed to my son, he will not have the context that even I had, hearing them from my dad. This is the way of all things. David Bentley Hart has recently written that “the past is a fiction of the present.” Undoubtedly so, but hopefully the fiction will not be too fanciful.
The only subject I shy away from with my aunt is that of religion. For you see, she is a Jehovah’s Witness (or in the garbled English of my Greek Orthodox friend, “Jehovian Witnesses.”) Certainly there was no tradition of such in my family. My cousins explain that whoever knocked on her door that particular day would have got her, and it just so happened that it was the Witnesses. Her children were raised Episcopalian and were largely grown at the time. Neither they nor my uncle would have any truck with it. So, this has been a solitary road for my aunt (though seemingly the Witness community provide her with the social interaction she craves.) I have been told that perhaps my uncle moved to Arkansas, at least in part, to get away from the Witnesses. The joke was on him, however. For when they pulled up to the property, the yard was full of Witnesses, there to help them unload. Apparently the hills are full of them. I would never argue with her, but there is little in the way of common ground here, other than just a general agreement about the folly of modernity. I get a bit uneasy when the conversation turns in this direction, as I know that I am being “witnessed” to. We are all seeking, and at least she admits so honestly. Lord have mercy on us all.
Their oldest daughter lives in the county seat, about 16 miles away. In my mind, she was always the glamorous one of us cousins. As a long-time flight attendant, she flew the Atlanta-Dublin route twice a week. With this profession, my cousin was able to jet here and there around Europe with ease. I now know this to be a demanding job, physically and emotionally taxing, and hardly glamorous. But even as a youngster, I looked with awe on those who traveled the world. Upon her retirement from Delta, she sold her condo outside of Atlanta, and relocated, somewhat incongruously, to the Arkansas Ozarks. While a cheaper lifestyle was certainly part of the equation, the primary motivation was to attend to her aging parents. My cousin purchased a home that is something right out of a Norman Rockwall painting. Her back yard, full of fruit trees and flowers, is home to 2 dogs, 3 cats, 7 chickens, a duck and 2 birds. To support herself, she purchased a little mercantile establishment in the nearby crossroads of Parthenon. Here, she is the sole proprietress of the Parthenon General Store, which she describes as a Mom-and-Pop operation, but without the Pop. She makes all the purchases and stocks the store herself, working 6 ½ days a week. Often she is too exhausted to attend Mass, as the nearest Catholic Church is over in the next county. Along the way, she hovers around the periphery of her parent’s lives, running interference and doing those things which permit them the luxury of living their “independent” lives. My uncle can still drive my aunt to the doctor’s office, but if a hospital visit occurs, then my cousin shutters her store and takes off to do whatever is necessary. At times this life can be incredibly frustrating, and she becomes impatient with the petty, small bickering that goes on, as a matter of course, between two people who have grown old together. But this is not for their ears, and she continues to be a daughter to her aged parents.
I contemplated these things while sitting in a rocking chair in her store. Life takes funny turns. My cousin, who spent a lot of time in Europe, with friends and acquaintances from all over, surely never imagined she would be working the counter of a store in Parthenon, Arkansas, bantering and joking with the hay-haulers coming in to replenish their supply of Levi Garrett snuff. Once, the course she has chosen in life would have not been remarkable at all, when “doing the right thing” as they say, was instinctive and commonplace. Not so, these days. But a life well-lived has its consolations, and abounds with small graces.