Sunday, February 1, 2009

Go to the Sage: Part 2

Y. was a substantial woman, physically stocky, like a refrigerator she would say. And I could still see the girl who whipped the boys who dared to challenge her, sending them home to Mama, bleeding and whimpering. This was a girl fueled by the fury of too many early betrayals.

On reunion day, I asked her over to the house. But she pointed to her charges sitting happily inside the huge van. She had brought them so they could see where she had grown up. "They just love to go on road trips," she said, smiling. This was the gentle Y., who had grown up caring for those no one else would or could care for.

So we stood there on the side of the road where cotton fields had been cleared to make way for our houses in the late 1950s. Near the woods where a bobcat had come down from the Appalachian foothills to scream like a woman on some nights. Just like the old days of meeting in the middle, leaning against a vehicle. Old habits.

Y.'s long hair was swirled on top of her head in a bun. She wore dark, matronly clothes, a skirt grazing her ankles. The style was unmistakable -- this oldest daughter of religious outlaws was now wearing the informal uniform of the Pentecostal faith.

She was so nervous I reached out and hugged her. It had been decades since we'd last seen each other. I had moved up "north" and thought I was living an exciting, important life (this would change, dramatically, in a few years time). So I blustered on about this and that until I grew tired of myself, and finally asked Y. to take a turn, to fill the air on that suddenly too quiet blacktop road.

So she talked, in a rush of words that always made it hard to follow her. About her life. About her mother's escapades, the two other children born after her long absences, the fathers a question mark. And about her mother's death, at 36, not of alcoholism or a violent act outside a tavern or a car crash. But from the sneak thief, cancer.

Y. had already left home when her mother died, escaped the stepdad who barely tolerated her. And with her mother's death she just fell apart. After a lifetime of sheer gumption, scraping for food for her siblings, surviving the scorched earth left by alcoholic parents who did not even put up a pretense. Going to school after all-night parental benders, giving up her childhood, fighting insults. It had been there all along, her mother's big black hole of self-destruction. So Y. picked up the bottle and jumped in.

"I was just running in the juke joints," she said in her high-pitched verbal rush. As with churches, back street dives were always abundant in decent-sized towns in the deep South. Guzzling beer like water, knocking back whiskey, knocking back the pain. And she wasn't beating up the boys anymore. The other way around, mostly.

It was all so predictable. And then it wasn't.

"A little piece of paper" all but blew into her hand. A religious tract. "It was just sitting there in the beer joint." She was drunk. But she picked it up, took it home and read it. And it struck her with a force she couldn't describe. "I was saved" from that day forward, she said.

The nerves again. I knew what she wanted. She was desperate to witness. I'd been raised in a conservative Protestant household, but even if I had been practicing that faith, it was no match for the fervor of a Pentecostal.

And I knew why: This woman who had been in the saving business her whole life wanted to rescue her earliest friend. Y. absolutely believed with every fiber and wanted to know I'd be walking with her through the pearly gates someday. I've been dealing with this in my own family forever. So I understand these urges.

But there was no way I was going to let Y. initiate me into Pentecostal-hood. I was and am just not down with speaking in tongues, and especially the footwashing thing.

But I believe I got my own point across as we talked into the afternoon, shifting from foot to foot on the edge of the road as Y.'s charges murmured and laughed inside the van, echoing us, just happy to be together.

And this is what I know. The nights we huddled in the sage while a lost wildcat screamed nearby, the afternoons we held grim vigil to sacrifice gallons of liquor to the plumbing gods were hot irons that seared us into each others' hearts. Time and hundreds of miles cannot remove these things. We are branded by and with each other. Forever.

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