Friday, April 30, 2010


Somewhere in the middle of the night in the middle of middle Georgia - near Thomaston, I think - I realized that I probably shouldn't have been driving. My fever was getting higher by the minute. I was shivering while maintaining a death grip on the steering wheel. It's a rare occurrence when one can drive through Georgia in the heat of summer and not run the air or roll down a window. That little Chevrolet Citation was sealed up tight as a drum because I was freezing. The right side of my face throbbed, the result of an ear infection that I'd found while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. I started running a fever that morning and it was getting worse by the hour.
See, we'd gone back to her family's place after our beach trip but her family hated me. I don't use the term loosely.....I mean they really hated me. They hated the fact that their daughter was dating an overweight person (On prior visits to their house they'd even gone into my luggage to see what size pants I wore.) They hated the fact that their daughter was dating someone from Atlanta (which, in the minds of many folks in rural Georgia, is where all the sin on earth originates.) They hated the fact that she'd moved away from their little town in south Georgia and made plans and decisions that didn't involve them or their family business. They said she'd "changed" since she'd left home and they hated it. But most of all they hated me.
So here I was, driving through the hot night, burning up with fever not really knowing where I was going. Her family had made it abundantly clear that I couldn't stay there because "it just wouldn't look right..." No matter - I'd just about decided that I was ready to leave her and that part of my life far behind and home was the only place I wanted to be. None of my plans had worked. Everything I'd left home to accomplish had escaped me and I was going to be tucking my tail between my legs and running back home. I'd deal with all of that later. At the moment I needed some sleep and some medicine.
I'd made it to Griffin. I was finally able to pick up the Braves on the radio. The sound of Ernie Johnson's voice was the proverbial "light in the window." I was almost there. I knew that, as she was sitting in the nearly empty house that I'd grown up in, my mother was watching the game that I'd just found on the radio. She was hanging on every pitch and every at bat. For as long as I could remember she'd loved baseball and, because of her undying devotion to the hometown team, my family had sat through some awful, awful baseball. The Braves weren't always good, but they were always her team. Even before the Braves there were the Atlanta Crackers playing at the old Ponce de Leon park. She'd worked as a teenager in the old Sears building across the street from "Poncey" and had walked over to watch many innings of Cracker baseball. Even as a child she'd been taken to watch Crackers games by an old black couple that lived near her family in the mill village they now call "Cabbagetown." "Effie" and "Ham" babysat some of the mill children and often took them to Crackers games and they all sat in the "colored" section of the old ballpark. I remember hoping that I'd get home in time to watch an inning or two with her because that would surely feel like "being at home." But it was late in the game and I knew that by the time I got there she'd have the television turned off and would be lying in bed, doing crosswords and listening to the radio, catching the postgame show and out of town scores. That image in my mind was almost as comforting as actually being there.
I realized I should call. She'd be frightened if a car pulled into the driveway this late at night. The road had gone from a two lane blacktop to a 4 lane freeway now. I saw a pay phone by a convenience store and pulled in. Getting out of the car and on my feet I realized how sick I was. The ground seemed to move out from under me and I'd never quite had that sensation unless a bottle of tequila was involved.
She was thrilled to hear my voice. There was no questioning why I was coming home just elation that I was. "How much longer 'til you get here?" "Please be careful." "Are you hungry?" I assured her that I wasn't hungry but didn't tell her that my appetite was gone because I was so sick. If she knew I was driving sick she'd be on pins and needles until I arrived.
Getting back in the car I felt better already. The lights got brighter and the traffic got heavier. I was still shivering from the fever. By this time, my head was a cinder block that I couldn't hold up anymore. But finally I was in the neighborhood and being someplace where every name on every street sign conjured up a different memory of childhood friends and bike rides and touch football was an instant comfort.
When she opened the door her face went from delight to shock. "Are you o.k.??" She hugged me - "OH DEAR LORD! YOU'RE ON FIRE!! LAY DOWN NOW!" I didn't argue. I made it to her couch and collapsed. Soon, I was full of fluids and Tylenol. I tried to explain to her what I was doing home. She told me not to worry about any of that. "Just rest.....just rest..." A cold washcloth soon made it to my forehead. For the first time in weeks, maybe months I was relaxed. I actually started getting drowsy. The last thing I remember before I fell asleep was her sitting down at the end of the couch. I learned an important lesson that night - modern medicine can feed us all of the narcotics, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications they want. You can try to make the bad days better by pouring your favorite adult elixir over ice. But none of that can make you feel better as quickly as the touch of your Mother's hand on your forehead checking for a fever.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Uncle Ralph's Hands

"Where you planning on fishing tonight?" I was so taken with being allowed to drive the boat that I'd driven it right past the power lines that hung over our favorite fishing spot. I turned it around, found the power lines and dropped the anchor. The sun would soon set and our lanterns would be lit. We'd spend the evening cursing bugs, drinking coffee out of his thermos and dozens of crappie and catfish would soon be one step closer to Aunt Nell's frying pan.
When the weather turns warm, my mind returns to those summer nights spent fishing with my Uncle Ralph....back to the days before Dawson County was a suburb and you could spend a night fishing on Lake Lanier and not see another living soul. I learned how to fish. I learned how to drive a boat in daylight and dark, using the tree line against the night sky to guide you. I learned a lot of words and expressions my mother didn't approve of (how hard must a rain be before it can be described as falling "like a cow pissin' on a flat rock" ?? ) I learned how to tell by the sound of a dog's bark off in those dark woods that it wasn't just barking for the hell of was chasing something. I also learned that the wretched stench coming from those woods meant the dog wished it had chased something besides a skunk. I learned that there's lots of ways to make an honest living and it doesn't matter so much how you're making it just as long as you're making it. But I always thought the means by which Uncle Ralph provided for his family was a pretty fair measure of a man. And you could see those hundreds of days spent in hard labor when you looked at his hands.
His hands and fingers were constantly busted and bleeding. A Winston cigarette looked like a toothpick in those thick fingers. They never really looked clean because you can't wash off years of sheetrock mud and red clay. As a child, he and his hands became quite the measuring stick for me in determining how much of a man a man really was. Like I said, it was just important to him that you earned a living, not how you did it. My father made a living at a desk. I make a living in front of a laptop. But I'm still hell-bent on believing that going to bed sore every night means that you've done a good day's work...and a hard day's work is satisfying on levels that go beyond financial.
I saw him lose control of his emotions exactly once. I was 17 years old and his youngest child was lying in a hospital bed losing a battle with cancer. After hours spent by that bed he walked into a waiting room, sat in a dark corner, put his face in his hands and quietly cried for just a few seconds. I couldn't hear him crying, but I knew he was. He then wiped his eyes, lit one of those Winstons, took a few quick draws, put it out in an ash tray and returned to his dying son's bedside. THAT, I thought, is how a man handles tragedy.
Being in my mid 40's is a much stranger experience than I ever imagined. I tend to look at myself from the outside in, as if I'm watching someone else get older, not myself. In my mind I'm still 20-something and turning over a thousand things in my head I want to see and do and accomplish before my time on planet earth ends (" something like a swiss army knife..yeah, that's my life...") I'm sometimes caught off guard when I realize that I AM that person who's getting older and the death of loved ones reminds me that nothing is forever. For years my weight was the time is the antagonist. Weight I could conquer...time's a real ass-kicker. But also constantly hanging over my head is the example shown to me by men like Uncle Ralph. Men who were men, by God, and in charge and in control. I'm not quite sure I'll ever live up to the template they left me.
The last time I saw Uncle Ralph alive he was the one in a hospital bed. A ventilator was doing his breathing for him and the end was near. I took his hand to tell him I loved him and to thank him for all he'd taught me. And, though the rest of that body had turned frail those hands still felt like sandpaper, as if he'd spent that very day turning someone's patio into a sunporch or planting fifteen rows of beans.