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Beulah Land

March 29, 2011

Isaiah 62:4; “Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate; but thou shalt be called Hephzibah and thy land Beulah; for the LORD delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.”

They finally paved the road up to what I’ll always think of as Grannie’s place, even though she’s been gone from this Earth as long as I’ve been gone from Georgia. Longer I guess. Long enough that the strip of gravel that curved up and around by that old pond is asphalt now, and they’ve named it Clear Lake Road.

The water isn’t clear. It wasn’t when we pulled up in the sleet with our windshield wipers whining to be changed. It wasn’t in my memory of driving past it in the back seat of a 1973 Cadillac that had once belonged to the man who founded and owned Atlanta’s iconic Varsity restaurant. It wasn’t when we drove out of my uncle Dale’s driveway on the way to the funeral home either. The water runs by turns red with the runoff of clay from the East Tennesse hils, green with the buildup of algae and sometimes just plan dark. I’ve never seen it clear.

“You hear the story about 5:30?” a man in worn jeans with a graying mullet and an air too enthusiastic for a funeral asked me as the family gathered at Buckner Funeral home in Cleveland, 20 minutes up the road from McDonald, Tennessee, my mom’s hometown.

“No,” I said. I didn’t think I had heard any of the stories these men had to tell.

“Buck told his buddy to show up at his place at 5:30. 5:30 in the morning, he said, that’s what time you need to be here.” Buck was my uncle. Doylas “Buck” Dodson it read on the program right under his picture, a recent one they’d used on the front.

“Yeah?” I asked, following the story as couple more people listened in with looks on their faces like they’d heard this one before.

“Yep. 5:30,” the man said. “You know what time Buck died Wednesday morning?”

I shook my head, but I could imagine what he was about to say.

“He died at 5:30.” We were all quiet for a minute, looking over at my uncle’s body laid out under a spread of flowers, letting the awful destiny of that story sink in.

“Mark Ware,” the man said, reaching his hand toward me in the quiet. His full name was a single word. “MarkWare,” he said again when I didn’t answer or reach out my hand fast enough.

“Angie,” I said and shook his once. We nodded at each other.

“Buck was my buddy,” he said. He smiled big and repeated it. “Yeah, he was my buddy.” Mark Ware was a neighbor. Mark Ware was a tenant living in my Uncle Raymond’s old trailer. Mark Ware was a pallbearer who in just a couple of hours would carry that casket over there with five other men and make this thing final, this burial, this goodbye.

I looked over at the slideshow playing on the flat screen television in the center room of three rooms. You could call that room the antechamber of death.

“You see that picture of him sitting on the stool?” my cousin Jenny asked my mom, who was standing next to me. “You were there.”

The picture is of my uncle in dark jeans and a green tank top, haircut circa 1970-something, his elbow propped up on the counter and a cigarette burned down nearly to the nub resting in between two fingers.

“Know who was in sitting beside him?” Jenny asked. My mom didn’t answer, just kept looking at the slideshow as it rolled to the next photo, a black and white one of Aunt Jean and Uncle Buck some time in late ’50s, holding a baby and looking down at its white christening gown while they stood out in the yard.

“Her daddy,” Jenny said, nodding at me. I imagined how my dad must have looked in that picture, wild wavy hair like mine down past his ears and already real thin on top. My parents couldn’t have been together that long when that picture was taken. I probably hadn’t even been born. “We had him cut out.”

When my mom divorced my dad a few years back, she’d cut him out too in a way, legally changing her name back to Dodson – like Buck’s, like the cousins and second cousins I kept seeing again or meeting for the first time as the afternoon wore on. Yet there it was among the surviving siblings: Joy Henderson, printed up in the obituary in the Thursday’s Cleveland Banner.

“Here’s the right one,” an Ohio voice said as she handed me a typed-up sheet that had been creased and folded in somebody’s pocket. “This is what they were supposed to run.” My mom’s new-old name still wasn’t right.

“Ruth,” my mom said, giving the woman a sideways hug as she took one of the sheets. “How you doing, Ruth? Here you are like always holding everything together and not taking any consideration for yourself.” Ruth’s name didn’t appear in the obituary she handed us. It didn’t appear that afternoon in the Cleveland Banner either. She was the sister of my uncle’s ex-wife, who she lived with in another trailer down on Clear Lake Road, right next to the red one we’d owned and used to stay over weekends next to Grannie’s place back when I was a kid.

“Got no time to think of myself,” Ruth answered, turning to hand a paper to somebody else.

Her hair was done in tight silver curls. Grannie’s had been done like that too in every memory and photograph I have of her – a tight little-old-white-lady afro from a new perm every couple of weeks. So was Aunt Jean’s.

My mom and turned toward the casket at the front of the room when we heard my aunt. “That’s my chair right there,” Aunt Jean said, real loud so everyone could hear her. Her fifteen-year-old granddaughter pulled the red walker out of the way, adjusting it so it was in front of her after she got settled, just in case she wanted to stand up again.

“Wanda told me she’s buried four husbands,” Aunt Eva said later when we were at her house instead of out in the cold rain burying my uncle. She and my mom sat on the couch trying to name off every one of the husbands my Aunt Wanda had married and divorced oVer the years. They came up a few short, and listening, I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth Taylor.

The only glamour in this death, though, was the stride of the funeral director as he put on the mask of solemnity for us mourners, took the podium to say a few words before the service began. I’d noticed his oil portrait and his tall, silver hair out in the hallway between the receiving rooms and the big kitchen. I imagined him overseeing the families that still brought casserole dishes and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken with buttered biscuits to sustain them through the long afternoons of ritual.

Those tables were empty for us. The generation that would have filled them was the one that was starting to pass on. Buck made the fourth of my mom’s siblings to pass away, fifth of nine in total if you count the baby that had never gotten big enough to pick cotton and eat beets at the end of the winter food stores with the rest of them.

One of the photos on the slideshow that kept cycling through over and over as my mom and I watched folks sign the guest book, made connections through marriage and geography to Sunday mornings at church, rides to work, was a picture from the last big family reunion we had all attended. My mom hated that photo because of her big glasses, big permed hair. I loved it because it was the only one I’d ever seen where all – or nearly all – of my big East Tennesse clan was gathered together.

I looked hard at it, reconstructing that afternoon at the then-new Elks lodge next door to the school my mom had gone to, which was now the McDonald Community Center. My cousin Kevin was there, Aunt Eva’s grandson. We were both around 10 at the time, still young enough to run around with our other cousins, snatching biscuits off the table as we flew by, never taking time to fill up a paper plate and sit down to eat.

I looked at that photo as we waited for the service to begin in the chapel next door. I wanted to see resemblances to me, but I just saw family traits I hadn’t inherited: Uncle Dale and Uncle Raymond’s height, Aunt Willie’s red hair, Aunt Eva’s deep browbones and small frame, Grannie’s prominent Cherokee cheekbones and slender wisp of a nose.

Mark Ware walked over to Aunt Jean. Mark Ware was living in Uncle Raymond’s old trailer, the one we’d always jokingly refer to when we passed a yard full of old cars up on blocks, toilets, busted furniture and other treasures. “Raymond lives there,” my dad would say, the same way he said “Somebody gave them that paint” when we passed a clapboard house in some godawful shade of green or purple or acquamarine.

I believed him for years, then I didn’t, and now I sort of do again. Now Raymond does live on in those side-of-the-highway trailers with old clawfoot tubs for flower beds out in the front yard.

I imagined Mark Ware not ducking through the doorframe of the trailer every time he entered the room, as Uncle Raymond had had to do. I wondered if anyone had cleared out the impossible pile in the sunroom on the side of the trailer that faced what they now called Clear Lake.

“Just wanted to get you this,” Mark Ware said, slipping some rolled up bills into Aunt Jean’s hand as she sat in a velvet chair next to her ex-husband’s casket.

“What’s this?” she asked, brusque as ever.

“That’s the rent money. You ain’t gonna have to chase me down for it, now. Wanted to make sure you know that,” Mark said.

“You bet I’m not going to have to chase you down,” Aunt Jean said. Even as an adult, I’m still a little afraid of her. “I know when your check comes, same time as mine comes, and you believe I’m coming down there to collect this rent money if I don’t see you with it on the fourth.”

Nobody else was watching this exchange that I could tell. There weren’t any other naughty eavesdroppers like me listening in to the currency of picking up where your deceased ex-husband left off.

My mom was talking to an old neighbor, wearing one of those big smiles that was tinged with tears at the corners of her eyes. “If it weren’t for your momma, I would never have gotten to work,” she was saying to the man next to her. “I’d walk up to her house every morning, and she’d give me a ride in that old car she had. What was it, a ’47 Buick? What’d she do with that car?”

“Oh, I tried to get them to give me that car, sell it to me, but she sold it off years back,” the man responded. I recognized the regret in his voice, the nostalgia for something he couldn’t save.

“You tell your momma how much I appreciate her,” my mom said. I started connecting the thread back to this man’s mother, the thread that led from a dime-store shopgirl to a department-store manager, to a position in Atlanta, to my father, to me, and I started thinking how this car was the reason I existed at all.

“That’s how things were,” my mom said, turning to me. “People gave each other rides because there wasn’t any other way to get where you needed to go.”

It was time for the service. The man with the silver Lyle Lovett hair and the slender gray fingers was saying that immediate family should gather in the center room and everyone else could go on in and find a seat in the chapel. For a moment I wasn’t sure which I should do.

“There will be plenty of seats for everybody,” he said. “We’ve got lots of empty rows.”

I’m sure he meant this to be reassuring, but to me, it was the saddest thing I’d heard all day. Sadder than the empty tables and bare refrigerator shelves in the kitchen where I’d grabbed a cup of hot, unpalatable coffee. Sadder than the too-tall shy boy who was Uncle Buck’s grandson and had inherited the Dodson height but couldn’t shoulder the attention it got him. Sadder than the cold exchange of dollars next to a dead man.

We waited to be invited in. Nobody talked loudly enough to be heard by anyone but the person right next to them. I didn’t say much because when I’d said hi to my cousin Bonnie, reminding her we’d played together as kids, she’d just given me a blank stare and then a small, pinched smile accompanied by a slow nod.

My mom said she’d be inheriting Grannie’s trailer and most of the family land, our very own Beulah Land on Clear Lake Road. Uncle Buck had left it to her in his will.

I thought about that word. Will. How simply by writing it down someone can make something be a certain way, even after they’re gone. I wondered what Bonnie would do with the land my mom and her brothers and sisters had farmed. Our generation was even further from sharecropping than we were from casseroles; after the funeral, everyone would head to a restaurant. My mom and I would stop for ice cream and hamburgers and eat them in my uncle’s camper, where we were spending the night.

It had been so long since I’d listened to somebody talk about Jesus that the words were at once achingly familiar and unfathomably foreign. The pastor who delivered the eulogy had been Grannie’s pastor. I remembered him from when we’d go to church with her and from every other funeral he’d preached on this side of the family.

“I want to tell you about a precious sister,” he began. “Elsie Dodson. That woman loved Jesus and she loved her children and her grandchildren, her whole family.”

He was talking about me.

This was my history, my family, my place he was preaching up there from that pulpit after the gospel trio left the piano. For just an instant, as he went on about how my uncle had been called home to be with the Lord, I felt it. Home.

Just a few days before, in yet another conversation about where we’d live next and when we’d finally settle down, I’d said to my husband, “You know, the only sense of home we’ll ever have is the one we create for ourselves.”

But while the pastor was speaking, I saw my grandmother’s face for a second and realized I had been wrong. I felt her hand on my ear as I rested my head on her ample lap and flung my sock feet over the edge of her velour sofa. Her skin was cool, wrinkled, soft, and always moved a breath slower than the rest of her hand when she tucked back a piece of my hair.

I liked the image the preacher was painting of her, thrilled up there in heaven to be finally embracing her son again. The rejoicing they were doing with the rest of the family who’d already passed on.

And then he was finished. I watched as an older black woman, the only black person in the room, stepped up to the lectern and nodded at the pianist. She didn’t pick up a microphone, but it was clear she was going to sing.

My mom had told me about this woman. She was the hospice caretaker who had been there with my uncle through the long, slow death that cancer brought him. She was often there when my mom would call to check in on him, and he’d talk about how when it got real bad, she’d sing old gospel songs to him while she changed the sheets.

She’d been at the bedside of another uncle too, and his wife, my Aunt Willie. She was the kind of woman who wasn’t afraid to turn the dying over to the angels again and again and again.

I leaned my head on my Momma’s shoulder. She was sitting next to me, a tissue in her left hand, which was resting on my right knee. The whole room was quiet, waiting for the song.

“I’m kind of homesick for a country
To which I’ve never been before.
No sad goodbyes will there be spoken
for time won’t matter anymore.

Beulah Land, I’m longing for you
and some day on thee I’ll stand.
There my home shall be eternal.
Beulah Land — Sweet Beulah Land”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Combs permalink
    March 30, 2011 9:45 pm

    This will always be your HOME! We love you and miss you,Angie.
    Your cousin-Kevin Combs in Cleveland,TN

  2. April 3, 2011 1:36 pm

    I read the title and smiled. … Remembering the old men who would sing it in barbershop at Pine Lake when we were kids. .. Remember Ang, you cannot grow when cut off from your roots. That tap root runs deep and nourishes the soul.

    Thank you for sharing. Give my love to your family.

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