On the long drive across Tennessee to my grandmother’s house, a question took shape in my mind. My parents, brother, and I played I Spy and counted cows as the car wended its way from Knoxville to Union City, the frosted grass gradually melting and going limp brown as we crossed from east to west, the pale winter sunlight glinting off the occasional half-frozen pond. But my heart wasn’t in it—my older brother always won anyway, and I had something else on my mind. I fidgeted with the Etch A Sketch and kicked my heels against the car upholstery more than usual, my mind ticking and ticking. I needed to ask my question.
In November, we had visited my grandfather at his house in Hohenwald—a long way from home but not as far as Union City, where we were headed for Christmas. Lucille, my grandfather’s wife, had given me a new doll that I named Cindy and clasped to my chest, a new favorite baby, a Christmas present arrived a whole month early, my faithful companion in my worst-ever month of asthma. She meant the world to my four-year-old self.
When we got ready to leave for the long trek to West Tennessee, however, my mother sat me down at the kitchen table and put her hands over Cindy’s head as if christening her. I held on even more tightly.
“I’m going to ask you to leave Cindy at home,” my mother said, her voice low, as she glanced over her shoulder while my father carried suitcases out to the car. She could see tears well in my eyes and feared that I might howl at any moment.
Instead I stared at her, my mouth set in a line.
“You see,” she explained in her reasonable voice. “We’re going to see Grandmother Roney, and Lucille gave you this doll. It might hurt Grandmother Roney’s feelings that you like this doll so much because Grandmother Roney doesn’t really like Lucille. Cindy will be here when we get home, and she will be happy to see you then.”
Dutifully, I carried Cindy back to my bedroom and tucked her under the covers. I didn’t say another word, but the situation preyed on my mind. What on earth was there to dislike about Lucille, the sweet lady who gave us hugs and toys whenever we saw her? The question grew like a slimy mushroom in the damp soil of my brain.
And so, as soon as she rushed across the yard to meet us beside the car, I looked up and asked, “Grandmother, why don’t you like Lucille?”
Of course, my memories of this event exist mainly through its frequent re-telling. It became emblematic of my primary, albeit not deadly, sins: my inability to keep my mouth shut, my downright un-Southern preference for directness over gossip, and my unladylike questioning of whatever didn’t make sense. I do recall my grandmother’s face falling from the enormous grin she’d boasted as she pelted down the back steps and across the yard from the glassed-in porch. Her face dropped like the duck I had once seen plummeting toward the ground after my cousin shot into the sky. There was nothing like the soft breeze that had gentled the fall of the yellow leaves from the tulip poplars earlier that year, making them dance their way downward, back before it turned so cold. Her mouth snapped shut, and even the steam from her words of greeting hung in hard-edged clouds before evanescing. Then her face sagged all at once into a wrinkled mass, and she jerked her hands over her mouth. She turned and ran toward the door from which she’d just come.
My father huffed and went after her. My mother looked down at my own crestfallen state and shook her head. “You don't talk about people that someone doesn't like,” she said, and I lowered my head in shame. I had hurt my grandmother, but even then I knew that someone else had hurt her first.
All through the years of my growing up, when people talked about the Bible Belt, to me they meant my grandmother. Today, my grandmother has a presence on the internet, though she died without ever knowing what the internet was. As I discovered in 2003, some unknown trickster had authored this on Wikipedia: Union City is best known for two things: It was the site of a minor battle in the War Between the States in March of 1864, and it was the home of noted world traveler, bon vivant, educator, and pillar of Methodism Mrs. Edris Roney (1913-1991). This passage about my grandmother exists on dozens of websites to this very day, though the original on Wikipedia has long ago been edited out. Indeed, my grandmother spent her last several decades living across the side lawn from the First United Methodist Church on Main Street. She sewed and embroidered elaborate velvet cushions and runners for the sanctuary and cut flowers for the pastor from her garden every Sunday of the growing season—she grew colorful bloomers with almost as much obsession as she prayed—daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, nasturtiums, snapdragons, zinnias, dianthus, and a vast array of iris. She refused, however, to take them to the new assistant pastor, and in private she admitted it was because he sported a beard and she felt that beards were unclean. “Cleanliness,” she would tell me on our visits, “is next to godliness.” Behind her back, we joked that for her, really, godliness was next to cleanliness.
She lived and labored in the bosom of Christ, though, for nearly fifty long and lonely years after she lost her marriage. Edris almost certainly never felt the touch of a man again after her divorce. She struggled with pride over her good figure in her middle-aged years and later on over her gluttony for the Milky Way bars she kept in the freezer. Lust, however, had been permanently banished from her life.
Edris had been betrayed before. She always noted that her sister Olieve had it better than she did. At Christmas dinners, my Grandmother Roney would sniff and turn up her nose at the sweet potatoes. “I’ve had my fill of those,” she would say, looking sideways at my father.
“Mother,” he would say, his lips tight, “these are delicious. You will love them.” He would proffer the casserole filled with the fluffy orange whipped yams. “Look,” he’d say, “they’re nothing like they were when you were a kid. Anne really knows how to make them—none of those cheap marshmallows, just the good stuff—cinnamon, brown sugar, orange juice. The butter.” We all knew my grandmother’s fondness for butter.
My grandmother would turn her face away, blanching into her napkin. Every year it was the same. “My mother and I had to survive on those things,” she would tell us, stopping short of mentioning her own parents’ divorce and how she and her sister were split evenly between them like property in the settlement. “Olieve never had to eat them. Maybe she likes them for Christmas dinner. But not me.” We would roll our eyes, heap our plates, and cringe a little at my dad’s sighs.
She told my father that her father had always preferred her sister. “It was a sign,” she said, “that when my daddy burnt down our house for the insurance money, Olieve got out with two shoes, and I only had one.” She alone in the extended family forever refused to eat the beloved holiday sweet potatoes. Edgar’s divorce from my great-grandmother Gertrude, however, got passed down through the generations on both sides, the sins of the father visited on all the sons and daughters, a shame on the family name.
Although the U.S. didn’t officially enter into World War II until December of 1941, it had been participating in the Allied war effort for some time, supplying arms and other goods and taking part in readiness maneuvers. The first-ever peacetime conscription started in 1940, seemingly prescient of the upcoming need for a massive influx of Allied soldiers. Edris’s husband worked as a manager at her father’s canning business in Union City. Their son, my father, turned six that year, and, like many young men, R.K. received a deferment from the local draft board both for having dependents and for working in “essential industries.” Since agricultural workers of all types stayed home, they felt protected from the worst possibilities.
By then Edris’s father, Edgar, though married again to a lady named Thelma, fancied an attractive local widow. All accounts are that Lucille was sweet, she was poor, she was game, and she had a jiggle underneath her thin gingham dresses that made old Edgar's breath come sharp and clean. Times were lean, and Lucille was one of the juiciest rewards Edgar could think about sinking his hands into. It never occurred to him that she might be in love with R.K., or that a poor woman had a right to say “no” to a rich older man. So, one Friday after he'd been rebuffed by Lucille, he chewed up his usual pork chop and gravy noon dinner and ambled on over to the home of his son-in-law and daughter.
“Edris, where is Robert Kelly?” he asked, the answer already in his voice. “He ain’t been at the factory all afternoon.”
Maybe it didn't even happen that way. One version had it that Lucille was doing them both. Eventually R.K. married Lucille, but supposedly not until after he had made every attempt at reconciliation, had begged Edris’s forgiveness and asked her to take him back. My father recalls how once when his father came back on leave his parents locked him out of the bedroom as they murmured and wrestled for hours. But when R.K. came home from the war for good, he didn’t come home to them. The story is that Edris rejected the idea, but we will never know except that she suffered, that she never trusted a man again, that she hoarded and hoarded and hoarded everything from rubber bands to crystal dishes.
It's hard to know whether Edgar's cruelties included telling his daughter her husband might be cheating—or whether that would have even been an evil thing. It's also hard to know whether he's the one responsible for my grandfather's deferral not being renewed—at that time, local boards determined who received deferrals and who didn't, and Edgar Craddock had powerful friends. It was also true that, as the U.S. moved further into the war, deferrals became harder to get and keep. R.K. always believed his father-in-law not only encouraged Edris to divorce him, but had him sent to war—and not to protect his daughter, but for vengeance over Lucille.
Whatever the cause, the ramifications were huge. Originally, the draft had required one year of service, then eighteen months. By the time R.K. was inducted, it was for the entire period of the war plus one year. Originally, R.K. went to North Africa, where he languished in the military hospital until his malaria passed. Then he was shipped to Europe, where toward the end of the war he was wounded at the French-German border, site of his Bronze Star heroism. The shrapnel worked its way to the surface of his body for decades, constant reminder of the way that Edgar’s ill will seeped to the surface and perhaps of the way his own sins had to work themselves out. No doubt as he lay bleeding on the battlefield, he wondered whether he deserved it for the abandonment of wife and son soon to come.
R.K. also swore that it was Edgar who tried to shoot him before his deferral was revoked. Edgar had hired not only R.K., but also Edgar’s brother-in-law Ira to help run the Union City Canning Company. Problems developed early on. R.K. discovered that his father-in-law had been filling allotments going overseas to the front with cans empty except for water to disguise the lack of butter beans or black-eyed peas soldiers would expect to find. Even before his own time in the field, so often hungry, so dependent on provisions, R.K. was horrified. An official investigation was launched, and Edgar berated both R.K. and Ira to keep their mouths shut. R.K. told him he wasn't sure that he could lie to the government. Edgar stormed out, face red.
Later that night after second shift workers had been sent home, R.K. sat at the old oak desk in the office scrutinizing the books for the next day's paychecks, and Ira prepared to settle in for his night watchman duties. R.K. tossed down the pencil he'd been using for his sums and stretched back in the chair to chat with Ira. They both watched as the pencil rolled right off the ledger onto the floor. R.K. leaned over to pick it up. At that moment, he heard the window glass shatter and felt a bullet whiz above his head where his heart had been the moment before.
R.K. yelped in surprise then hollered for Ira to hit the floor. They crouched on the stained concrete for what seemed like hours and listened as the familiar sound of a Cadillac coughed to life and rumbled off down Union Street. After Ira and R.K. had summoned them, the police called the business owner, and Edgar showed up with a smirk on his face. Ira always said that his grin disappeared when he realized that R.K.'s dive had saved him.
Not long after R.K. was called up, the Union City Canning Company, in operation since 1893, burned to the ground. Ira, asleep on his night watch, barely got out. Edgar collected the insurance money, and the government investigation became moot. Eventually, there would be so many fires at his businesses that he'd have trouble getting any insurance at all.
Still, some would swear that Edgar gave them their starts in life, that he looked out for them and gave them chances when no one else would. He'd known hard times, having become the head of household for his mother and five siblings at the age of 13 or 14 when his own father'd been shot and killed by a neighbor in a dispute over a property line. The neighbor had lit out for Texas, never caught, and Edgar quit school to support his family. It might make sense for him to consider false payouts from rich insurance companies just a part of his survival. Some crimes might be justified. The attempted murder of his daughter’s husband, probably not.
Lucille died not long after I asked Edris why she didn't like her. R.K. married once more in 1968, another long marriage that lasted until his death, another one filled with tender regard and a hint of regret for families divided. We don't know how many times Great-granddaddy Craddock married—just that he did so several times after Thelma divorced him for verbal abuses. We have no idea how many illegitimate children he might have sired. We do know, however, that while my dad was a teenager, after Edgar had had his first serious stroke and used a cane that made driving (but not other favorite activities) difficult, Edgar would ask his grandson to take him out driving to check on his properties and their resident tenant farmers. Through the pulsating summer heat, along dirt roads, the dust rising like curtains behind them, they drove in Edgar's Cadillac to shot-gun shack after shot-gun shack. My father thought that maybe he would learn how to be a businessman, how to collect monies and make sure that Billy Bob had repaired the fence along the property line. Edgar's stroke had been caused, after all, by him trying to wrangle an escaped cow back into the pasture one 95-degree day. But when they pulled up into the first dirt yard, the saving breeze now halted and the engine click-click-clicking in the sun, Edgar said, “Y'all wait here, son. I'll just be a few minutes.” Instead of driving along the fence line or heading for the barn to find Billy Bob, Edgar would go right into the shack and be gone a middling length of time.
“He would tell me to honk if I saw Billy Bob coming,” my dad once told me. “He let me broil in the sun while he went into one place after another and let the ladies beg for a discount on the rent by doing God knows what. That was my job for the summer—chauffeuring him around for his peccadillos.”
Within a couple more summers, Edgar was training my dad's cousin Joe Pete for the same purpose. Joe Pete was only ten and told Edgar that he wasn't old enough to drive.
“Hogwash!” Edgar told him. “Ya gotta know how to drive. Get in and I'll learn ya.” Into yet another boiling-hot Cadillac they piled, and Edgar handed over his cane. “You can steer with one hand and run the pedals with the cane. That's what them new-fangled Hydra-Matics are good fer.” And off they went, beginning and ending together their separate lives as sinners.