The newspaper was laying on the kitchen island so when I picked it, I flipped it over and glanced over the list of obituaries. I saw a last name I recognized and wondered if he might be kin to a man I once knew of. I hadn’t heard the name in years. It is a surname known primarily in the Appalachians.
He was, according to the obituary, the man’s brother. A man who had died years ago. A man who is remembered by me primarily for how dirt poor he and his family were.
I was a child, no more than 6 or 7. But whenever Mama or Daddy spoke of this family from the backwoods of the mountains, it was in terms of how poor they were or how rough and mean their boys were. One or another was always in trouble. Moonshining. Fighting. Stealing. Cussing. Drinking.
No one could get any of ’em in church. They had no use for the church house or any of its people and were downright mean about it. But you know how church people are — some will pray endlessly while others will say, “What’s the use tryin’?”
Daddy was firm in his faith. Black and white about what the King James Bible said and willing always to stand up for what he believed to be true. But with people like these, he was gentle in his leading. Never overbearing. He grew up among them and he knew they did not take kindly to righteousness of any kind or any man who tried to bring it to them with force.
Still, every few months on a Sunday afternoon, back in the times when preachers spent those afternoons visiting the elderly, the sick and the lost, we would stop by their little tar-papered shack. It smelled musky, dusty and old.
The husband and wife were standoffish but willing to have the preacher, his wife and child come in. Daddy never refused a cup of coffee even in the dirtiest of shacks because he knew the hot water cleansed the cups. So, they sipped on coffee and just talked among themselves in general about nothing in particular.
Daddy never mentioned their refusal to believe in a higher power or bow to it. He did not offer Scripture or ask to pray. He simply offered friendship then would shake the man’s hand firmly, look him squarely in the eye and say, “If there’s ever anything that me or the church can do for you, don’t hesitate to call.”
Once, before we left, I saw Daddy slip money from his pants pocket and leave it on the kitchen table. I was the only one who saw it.
One night, very late, the man called. “Ralph, my youngest boy’s been kilt. The sheriff just come and brung us the news.”
“I’ll get dressed and I’ll be right on,” Daddy replied.
Driving drunk and crazy, the boy had missed a mountain curve and was killed instantly. It was December and what I will always remember is that the house was so tiny that they had to take down the cedar they had dragged in from the woods to put up as a Christmas tree. They set it out on the raggedy porch so they could make room to bring the casket home.
I shall never forget that mother’s cries. How she laid over the open casket and wailed in anguish. I laid my head in Mama’s lap and watched quietly.
The church allowed the boy to be buried in their cemetery beneath the rock hard red clay. It was a graveside funeral only. The man and his family would not enter church either in life or death.
The obituary I read the other day was of this boy’s uncle. It said he was “of the Baptist faith,” meaning he was not a member of a church.
I guess nothing has changed.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.