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.
Sometimes as I grew older I wanted to tell Grandmother that I wouldn’t have liked Lucille either, that I understood. But this was only partly true: her lack of acceptance filled a full religious framework; mine only chimed a warning bell around the idea that the supposedly oh-so-sanguine screw wouldn’t echo through the years. I did, though, come to understand the pain that classifies such behavior as a sin. I knew that to speak of it while my grandmother lived would only be another sin. In this case—unlike so many others—I kept my mouth closed.
Edris died during a surprisingly cold winter in 1991. Before the funeral we gathered at the little duplex on Ury Street in which she’d lived for most of her life. No one cried. She’d died unexpectedly while in the hospital awaiting a minor surgery that she had mentioned to no one she’d be having. It shocked me that my father had not asked for an autopsy. We walked around the house and fingered Grandmother’s things—the china vases, dolls, boxes of costume jewelry in her dressing table. Most had typed labels taped on the bottom, indicating who would get what. She had lived that way for years, with other people’s names crowded around her, unseen but present on her shelves and in her cabinets, tucked into her cut-work linens. My father sat my brother and me down and told us about the will, while his own second wife, a collectibles dealer, bumped around the kitchen, her eyes sliding over our disappearing childhoods.
My father had always sworn that upon my grandmother’s death, he would simply light a match and throw it into the morass of her home, closing the door on his own childhood with a bonfire, cleaning the slate he could only drag his fingernails across till then. But in January, all was orderly, and my brother and I sat at the yellow linoleum table and signed papers for small items to be taken with us immediately. My grandmother has gone out of this life on a petty boat, I thought, reading the will that she had changed, then changed back, since my parents’ divorce—changed back to not mention my mother by name, changed back to leaving my mother: not one single thing.
“She wrote us letters about her intentions eight years ago,” I said. “I find it hard to believe that now she’s left Mom nothing, not even a memento.”
“You can see the will,” my father snapped. “We’ll follow the will. I don’t know what your mother has been telling you, but there are certain things that she says that…”
“Bullshit,” I stopped him, hearing my own voice fissure like red clay in a drought. “I’m not talking about anything she’s told me. I was there.” In my head loomed my grandmother’s begging face, smiling, looking up—how it would change when my father frowned in frustration with her, scowling at her ineptitude, how she would cower in every fiber, quivering, how my mother would take her to the movies later to make the peace. “She wrote Grandmother a letter every week for thirty years, for God’s sake.”
“We’ll follow the will,” he stated finally, gritting his teeth, his temple going in and out under the fringe of gray hair. Blood, I supposed, is contractual. Blood, I thought, or masculine authority, male authority probing her sanctimonious guilt, her sense of merit tied as it was to marriage. She had written to my mother, five years earlier: I am glad that you are dealing with your situation. I am not discussing the situation with anyone but that doesn’t mean I am not hurting. As I told you I am changing my will. Instead of leaving everything to Bob, I am listing who gets what. If worse comes to worse, I don’t want that woman to get anything that was mine. I have been in your spot and there was nobody to help me financially. I haven’t had a letter from Bob since that one he wrote me giving me his side of the situation. I am not too surprised since the answers I gave him were pretty clear as how I felt about what he had done. How are your iris? Mine are beginning to bloom. Love, Mrs. Roney.
I was taken aback by the re-revised will, though it wasn’t enough money to matter. Was it because during the year after my father left, my mother, not wanting to sit in the silent house alone pinching the edge of a placemat, had allowed my boyfriend to sleep in the same bed with me under her roof? Or had my father pointed out that my mother was now dating another man? Did her pastor support the idea that once left a woman should remain alone with God? Had my father’s marriage rectified his initial infidelity? Was the new wife just as, maybe more, polite and solicitous as the old, taking Edris to the garden shows, to see the downtown Christmas decorations?
It might have been as simple as that she wanted to forgive the only man left in her life.
After the funeral, we drove, an abbreviated caravan, to Humboldt, with its clean, wide, empty streets, the traffic lights leaning in the gray wind. We found Rosehill Cemetery closely surrounded by the walls of neighboring houses and lying in the unreal light of a late afternoon cloudbank. From its entrance, it looked like a miniature railroad town on a table in a room with a dirty ceiling, the monuments ornate stone Victorian homes with the lights gone out. We drove inside the wrought iron fence and wound along the gravel driveway until we were mid-way up the side of the hill. My brother’s overcoat flapped in the wind; he put his hand out to catch the belt as we walked up to the shocking green tent, the folding chairs, the heaps of fresh dirt beside the suspended casket. Barren tree branches moaned and creaked like old men on a nursing home porch.
Cousin Sunshine made the rounds, wall-eyed and planting big, wet smacks on all our cold cheeks, her dimples going in and out. Joe Pete remarked again and again that he never would have made it through school without Edris. “She was strict, but, y’know, she cared,” he said, and then he added, “They murdered her at that damn hospital.” A little boy stood by the curb across the street, plucking needles from a Christmas tree awaiting the garbage dump; he turned his head toward the rising chorus of kids playing winter games on the other side of the hill. We buried her, as she had directed, between her parents, those early divorcees, who were buried in the same plot, united in the end by offspring and the lawn.
We left the deep-freeze on the back porch, full of margarine tubs containing individual servings of carrots and broccoli; we left the cabinets full of toilet paper from the 1977 shortage scare and the jars of Damson plum jelly from 1958 corroded to the middle shelf; we left the twenty-year-old blue Chevrolet with the plastic seat covers and the creased quarter-panel from last year’s accident sitting in the free-standing garage. Shriveled lantanas and sultanas, crammed in pots along the back porch, awaited another spring that would never come. They would be thrown out when my father and his wife returned to clear out the house. My father had found the front door lock wobbling loose in the door; he had deadbolts installed before departure to protect what might be valuable in the detritus. But the barren yard—the spiky, leafless shrubs, the tan grass crystallized with frost like coconut poking through cake icing, the stripped flower beds with their winterized earthen lumps so akin to the dirt on her fresh grave—lay unprotected from thief and liar. Spirea, japonica, forsythia forsaken.