This is Hell, and There's a Spinning Jeep in It

...my grandmother left the south for california when she was in her twenties and spent the rest of her life belittling and berating it..."the people are backward trash," she'd say, "you can't even shop for good clothes"...for a woman with a panache for fashion, the inability to score a decent pair of pumps made for the penultimate reason to flee...

Grandma, shortly after moving
to California
...during my early years, i got the impression that the relatives she'd left behind were a clan of rugged outlaws, akin to the dukes of hazzard (my favorite show at the time), who would tar and feather me just as easy as look in my direction...i came to believe that the tidy, orderly, compulsively clean home grandma kept was a direct response to the life she'd lived on a farm in east texas, where she shared a bed with two of her four sisters, and once in her youth nearly chopped off her own leg with an axe...i was the well-groomed, well-mannered miniature of herself, perhaps the equivalent of the "city cousins" she mentioned whenever she spun her southern yarns...those relatives who came to the farm and made fun of her homemade hand-me-downs...she openly hated them, and was secretly jealous, hoping each time to be taken back to the city and allowed to live a life of manufactured clothing and factory processed saltines...

...even with her visceral displeasure of the south, every summer from the time i was ten until i turned eighteen, we traveled from california to east texas for a few weeks to visit her relatives...by then, grandma had lost her father and one sister and her mother had had a series of strokes...so i found myself sleeping on a pallet on the hard linoleum of my great-grandmother's retirement apartment, a four room place on the eighth floor of a depressing gray building just outside of downtown beaumont...i spent my days reading louis l'amour novels and pushing my great grandmother along the urine-smelling corridors...for an hour or two each afternoon i was allowed to spend time in the stifling humidity, where i usually gravitated to an ancient rusted swing set--once sliding my feet along a soft bed of upturned earth and suffering the rest of the summer with weeping sores up and down my legs from fire ant bites...or i'd be permitted a game of pool in the always-empty recreation room on the first floor, grandma watching on as if any moment i might turn to her her and give her the fright of her life by saying, "i love it here"...

...my time restricted to a stale building with condensation dripping down the windows, surrounded by the dying-forgotten i became convinced that texas was the pit of hell i'd been warned about...

Grandma on the far left, with Nancy, Faye, and Sissie;
her father sits in the chair,
and my uncle Bud crouches beside him
...then, one summer, grandma took a reprieve from the sad building long enough for us to travel to hemphill, her girlhood hometown, where her brother still lived on a plot of land that had once belonged to their father...my uncle bud was a lanky man who was missing the tip of his pinkie and a good portion of his ring finger..."i picked my nose," he told me, "and a booger bit it off. if you look up there you can see my finger bones"...i spent a few minutes believing him and looking into his nostrils the first time he told me this tale...but as i got older, and the trips to his home became more frequent, i simply laughed along side him on the small back porch where he and my grandmother smoked cigarettes and talked in a slow drawl i came to understand only because i'd been surrounded by it for weeks...

...when i turned fourteen, uncle bud decided i needed to learn to drive so he enlisted his youngest daughter dana--a high school senior i thought was the coolest girl in the world because she had feathered hair and a deep tan--to teach me the gears of a stick shift in a hollowed-out jeep...we bumped along the back acres of scrubby brush and tree stumps, nearly thrown from the carcass because there were no seat belts, no doors, no windshield...no one lived for miles around so we could holler as loud as we wanted each time it stalled and we were thrown forward...eventually, i lost all control and we ended up perched on a tree stump, all four wheels off the ground and no way to get the jeep moving again...each time we gave it gas, we spun in a circle, a mechanized version of a playground merry go round...eventually, uncle bud found us stranded, the jeep out of gas from all of our spinning, and had to tie it to a tractor to pull it free...by then grandma had put a stop to my driving lessons...

...one forth of july, uncle bud piled me and his grandson, mike, into his huge truck and we headed into the small town for fireworks...i'd lived my entire life in a desert and had only seen firework shows at the local high school...i'd never heard of a black cat or m-80 or roman candle, but uncle bud loaded me down...at sunset he lit a candle and held it high over his head while the red and blue sparks shot into the sky...dana, mike and i lit entire rows of black cats in the middle of the country road, then became more daring and started lighting them in the old metal mailbox...the pops cracked my ears--they rang for days...

...it's hard to say what, exactly, those summers at my uncle bud's house meant to me...his wife, sarah, made blueberry crumble and chicken spaghetti (a recipe so good and rich it still eludes me)...i launched myself from a tree house via an ancient tire swing whose rope never did snap...i traveled to the family cemetery and listened to stories of my great-grandfather william whom i'd never met but whose grave i could eventually find with my eyes closed...i helped shell peas and cut okra, learned to can corn...i was introduced to a very southern tradition, the town square, which in hemphill was a series of dilapidated brick buildings surrounding a central grassy area with a small courthouse and ancient jail...i learned that defunct service stations were the best places to find wild flowers and old tin signs perfect for sling shot target practice...as i neared my eighteenth year, those days came to represent calm and quiet, a time when i could actually take a walk and listen to my own breathing...

...within a short span of two years, my texas greats began to die...first my great aunt sissie, then my great grandmother...great aunt nancy went next, and so ended the summer trips...by then i was in college, beginning my own life, and like most uppity know-it-alls i tried to distance myself from my family as much as i could...but eventually the south beckoned me back and at twenty-two i found myself living only a day's drive away from the crumbling homestead my grandmother fled a quarter century before my birth...

Uncle Bud with Great Granddaughter
in 2012
...i thought often of my uncle bud, one of only three of my remaining aged relatives, and when a family reunion was announced, i informed my grandmother i was going to attend in her stead...by then she was too frail to make the journey, and only a year later she, too, would die...i took the opportunity to impose myself on my uncle until nearly three in the morning...we sat up talking about every little thing, smoking cigarettes, and laughing at his tall tales...he told me of his diagnosis of mesothelioma, saying of it only, "baby, we've all got to die some way"...and he finally did, two weeks ago...

...my god...it's been nearly a decade since i sat with him into the wee hours, listening to cicadas hum in the trees on his land, but i can hear him as plain as if he were sitting beside me...his easy drawl, the voice like a pulled cello chord, the wavering of his breath like a breeze over hot gravel...the way he always called me "baby" like he did his own daughters...

...i suppose for a kid like me--growing up without a mother and father in a sterile california town that prided itself on shopping malls and lawn ordinances and watering restrictions--those summers represented wildness i would never know again...as i got older, my life fell into an orderly picture painted by the simple headings of "what to do" and "what not to do"...but always in my memory were my sweat-stained t-shirts and mud-wrecked keds and a jeep perched atop a tree truck, spinning and spinning like a top with two young girls behind the wheel and my lanky uncle swaggering toward us in his requisite white t-shirt and faded blue jeans, shaking his head and wiping away tears of laughter...

Comments

  1. This story would have made Bud (C.J. to some of his friends) so very proud. He was a good man and spread a lot of laughter in his time.

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  2. Wonderfully evocative of the South and a moving tribute to your uncle. Somewhere in Southern families there always seems to be that older relative who can make a positive emotional connection to an outsider kid. Yes, I speak from experience. :-)

    I remember driving cross-country when Forrest and I moved to Florida from California. The wild west went on and on forever, but when we hit East Texas, around Marshall where my dad's family had roots, I remember seeing big oak trees and the land got green and I started to cry thinking, "I'm home."

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  3. Love this. A wonderful tribute. That's all I have to say. :)

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