Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Amazing Grace" by William Hoffman


Deal Me In Lite, Week 15: "Amazing Grace" by William Hoffman

This week we have the four of diamonds, and another story from the anthology Growing Up in the South.  It's an interesting tale told from the point of view of a young boy in West Virginia (not exactly what I regard as the South, speaking as a native Tennessean and a transplanted Mississippian, but I realize it is below the Mason-Dixon line, so we don't need to quibble).

     

Nana is the matriarch of the family and the narrator's grandmother.  One day she stops doing all of her customary activities such as baking bread and filling the kitchen with good smells, and goes out to the yard to simply sit under the Indian cigar-tree (a catalpa tree, in case you are curious what that is, like I was).  This is so uncharacteristic of her behavior that the family immediately knows something is wrong.  It turns out that she is upset that her son Henry, a successful businessman who moved away to Pittsburgh, had never been baptized in the river, a family tradition.

The family calls for Henry, and he comes back to the homestead along with his wife Dale Blue and his son Dawson.  Nana wants them all to be baptized in the river, and she enlists the help of the minster, Preacher Arbogast.  Henry is finally talked into it, but Dale Blue, who is clearly a city girl, needs quite a bit more convincing.  She initially agrees, but backs out when they get to the river and it appears that this is the social event of the season, complete with photographers.  It takes some conniving on Henry's part to soften her up, and how he finally manages to do it is pretty entertaining.

This story is very evocative of the speech and pace of the South.  The plot is not that compelling but the story is worth reading just for the language.  For example, here's a scene just after Henry comes to visit and he has brought his mother a grandfather's clock as a present:

Nana eyed the clock.  She had an oval face, and her hair was thin, wispy cotton.  She adjusted her glasses to peer at the clock.  Then she turned away.

"But don't you like it?" Dale Blue asked.  "Henry went to lots of trouble to bring it."

"All that clock tells me is my days are running out, and nobody's been to the river," Nana said.

She wouldn't look at the clock again.  The men carried it into the hall to set it up a second time, but she went to bed without glancing at it.  Uncle Henry and Dale Blue came to the kitchen where they sat around the table with my mother and daddy as well as Aunt Henrietta and Aunt Cornelia and their husbands Albert and Asa.

"She's sure low," Aunt Cornelia said while she poured iced tea from a glass pitcher, her arms brown from helping Uncle Asa in the hayfields.  "I've not seen her this far down since lightning hit the heifers."

"Spoiled is what she is," Dale Blue said.

Boy, eyes bugged at Dale Blue as if she was a snake on a rock.  She was in the family but not of it.  She colored, touched her frozen-custard hair, and shrugged.

"Honey, maybe you better let me do the talking here," Uncle Henry said.

"But she's pouting like a child," Dale Blue said.

"All the work she's done for this family she's got a right to pout until Moses makes sauerkraut out of little sour apples in December," Aunt Henrietta said.

And there's more where that came from -- this is a wonderful story that is in the same league as the best Southern writing.  It's well worth your time if you ever run across it.

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