Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Southern Dirt

Serena Rhew


Even in mid-April, the heat in Pelham, Alabama was unbearable. I was staring at the ground, studying the sparse blades of grass and their valiant effort to survive against the climate. The rusty tinge of southern dirt seeped through the stripes of green, and a dandelion bowed in the breeze as if to give thanks for a relished blessing. Imagining my weight bearing down on this new life born from dust, I fancied myself an extension of the shadow I'd been casting on hallowed ground.

All of this was far from the mourning crowd. I didn’t feel like talking to them. My dress itched. I was tired. I wanted it all to go away, for myself to go away, for everything to begin again, brand new.

It wasn’t happening.

Gloria began toward me. As she approached, she held an envelope just slightly outstretched before her, like an offering.

“He wrote this letter for you,” she said. “I know he would be very proud of the way you're handling everything.”

I thanked her, and she walked away. I wanted to open the letter right there and devour every word. I wanted to reject it, to bury its fiction in the ground. I wanted to make it a part of me as much as I wanted to make it disappear. And I wanted to understand how he could be - if I should be - proud that I hadn’t shed a tear.

Instead, I tried to retreat from the thought of it, and I returned to the tent that was giving shade to my father’s freshly covered grave. The people there were telling each other the polite stories they kept
on hand for just such an occasion. These were great uncles and distant cousins who generally stayed safely tucked into their tiny Alabama towns. Having grown up in rural Florida myself, it was perhaps either an injustice or considerably revealing that I should hold them in such low regard, but the fact was, I’d never been taught as a child to think much about them at all. And here, too, they won little of my attention. Behaving true to form, my own branch of the family tree was giving bloom to the most compelling display.

“David never made a good decision while he was alive, so I see no reason to honor one now that he’s dead,” my Uncle Ronnie had supposedly said prior to the service.

I hadn’t been around to witness the remark, but if I had been, I wouldn’t have cared. Uncle Ronnie never agreed with my Dad’s decisions while he was alive - at least not in the fifteen years I’d been around to witness - so I didn’t see a reason why he’d suddenly start now. And maybe he was right, besides.

In this case, the issue was over what do with Savannah, my sister with Down's Syndrome. Before he died, my father had expressed a wish to move her into a group home for adults with disabilities, in Mississippi. My mother’s mental stability had been tenuous long before the sickness came, but now that she was on her own, it was generally agreed upon that she couldn’t any longer care for her children. That is, the entire family seemed to agree she wasn’t capable, but Ronnie’s faction (primarily consisting of Ronnie himself, with his wife and daughter thrown in purely by association) felt that she should figure out a way to do it anyhow. This opinion mattered solely because Ronnie had the money necessary to fulfill my father's wishes.

To be fair, this flurry of whispers was much less a commotion than it was a low rumble beneath us all, Savannah standing voiceless in the middle.

My case had already been handled. Since about my tenth birthday, I’d been plotting ways to get away from my tiny hometown. Typically, plans consisted of Greyhound bus rides to New York City and, occasionally, time travel, but I entered a spell of realism when I made it to high school and began to consider boarding school as an option.

On my own, I navigated the application process with all the proficiency of an illiterate tackling Dickens, which was made apparent by the fact that I never heard a yea or nay from any of the handful of schools to which I’d “applied.” As it turns out, it didn’t matter - my father’s expiration date was all the ticket I needed to get out of town. Even before the funeral and the event prerequisite for such a ceremony to occur, I’d been sent away.

Generally speaking, Mississippi isn’t often thought of as a destination. But I saw it that way, and so did my father, for me. So he called in a favor to his youngest brother, who had in recent years married and settled just outside of the state’s capital city, and it was agreed upon that I would spend the remaining three years of my non-adult life as a member of their household.

My sister Sarah had drawn the shortest straw. She was scheduled to turn eighteen two weeks from the day of the funeral, and she’d months prior moved out of our mom’s house as it was. So no one volunteered to navigate her passage through the tragedy.

The two of us had spoken little during the funeral and the preceding wake. As unmoved a guise as I was content to maintain, Sarah had been equally the picture of sorrow. She had always been our father's favorite and was the trusted one who remained close to him throughout his dying days, a lonely still-lit candle long after the rest of our hopeful flames had been snuffed out. For her, no man would ever match his legacy.

I stood under tent cover while my father was remembered this way: as a hero, as a fool, and as a man who would have admired the strength of his three daughters. But, in those solemn moments, all that I could bear to let him be was a hallowed plot of southern dirt and an unopened letter, clasped tightly in my quaking hand.

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Serena Rhew was born in Atlanta and spent her childhood years on Florida’s “forgotten coast,” an experience which she credits for providing much of her inspiration to write. A graduate of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Ms. Rhew now resides in Nashville.

© Serena Rhew

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2010