Good Country People

March 22, 2009

“Everybody is different,” Mrs. Hopewell said.
“Yes, most people is,” Mrs. Freeman said.
“It takes all kinds to make the world.”
“I always said it did myself.”
                          — Flannery O’Connor, 1925-1964, American fiction writer
from her short story, “Good Country People”

I have fallen quickly into a rhythm here, my first full week at Hambidge. I did nothing but writing and reading Monday morning until Friday night. I worked at the writing about six hours every day, producing ten pages of hand-written material and nearly 5,000 words of shaped text. I wrote fiction like it was my job, because here, with the resources of solitude and freedom from other responsibilities, it is. And so I took the weekend off.

I rested, did laundry, and took a little jaunt to Franklin, North Carolina, where I shopped at the Scottish Tartans Museum and at Silver Threads and Golden Needles, a yarn and fiber shop where I bought beautiful local alpaca wool in the pale browns and greens and yellows that are emerging all around me. I’m working a pillow with yarn the color of Wyoming greengrass and the Montana sky right now. Who knows, but I may find myself out west again next year with a bit of north Georgia to slip though my fingers.

A poster at the Highway 441 McDonald’s had caught my eye last week. A benefit hot dog supper, auction, and gospel sing was to be held Saturday night at the Rabun County Park to raise money for a couple who have fallen on hard times. The woman suffered a major heart attack in October and has since been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They have no medical insurance. They need help with everything.

I saw a lot of that in the small towns of western Wyoming that I visited in 2005. It seemed that every convenience store had a jar on the counter, collecting change for some specific person whose cancer or specialized prosthesis or burned-down homestead was not covered by the kind of employer-paid insurance that I and many people like me take for granted. I do not often walk away from such appeals. I’m usually in the place buying a bag of Combos and a diet Coke along with my tank of gas for gallivanting, and when I look at the can and read the story I am made acutely aware of the abundance in my life. It is a simple matter to shove a dollar bill or two or some loose change into the can.

I started out for the benefit hot dog supper in late afternoon, early enough to stop at the amazing and amusing Goats on the Roof, a country store that sells jams, jellies, ice cream, authentic Amish furniture (made by residents of the large Amish community in Indiana), and local wines. (Warning: the website plays a not-very-good version of “Dueling Banjos.”)

The benefit was being held in a community hall in a big park several miles beyond the Walmart, territory I had not ventured into. There was a sign on the door: “Last coach out in the evening, please turn out the lights and lock the door.” For $5.00 you got a hot dog on a roll (with or without chili), cole slaw, baked beans, chips, a soda, and a slice of white or strawberry angel food cake. I sat down at a table and struck up a conversation with a young man who looked like Brad Garrett. He was wearing a Crimson Tide t-shirt. He nodded toward my orange Lands’ End raincoat and asked if I were a Clemson fan. This was not the first time since I arrived in the region that I had been asked this question.

A man and a woman who looked a little like the couple in American Gothic stood on the stage, singing gospel songs one right after the other, all with the same back beat, kind of like disco, “I’m the lamb the shepherd left the flock for” and “How great thou art” melting together. The stage was set for a five piece band, but I left as the musicians were plugging in their instruments and doing their sound checks.

Sunday morning, before going back to the Lutheran church in Walhalla, South Carolina that I visited last week, I stopped at McDonald’s again. I sat at a table with The Clayton Tribune (published every Thursday, so it was kind of old news). A church fire has been ruled arson, the county Board of Education will be cutting some teaching positions and reducing each employee’s “supplement” (the amount of salary a local school district provides each teacher beyond the state mandated compensation). The police blotter amused, the obituaries, traditional and formal, made me more embarrassed than ever at the excesses of such in The Patriot-News, my hometown paper and the paper of record of the capital city of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

While I was reading my newspaper, a couple in their forties sat down at the table beside mine. They clasped each other’s hands, bowed their heads, and the man offered, in quiet but audible words, a blessing over their Egg McMuffins. I was astonished, and moved. You just don’t see that where I come from. As a matter of fact, you don’t usually see it in my kitchen these days, now that Lynn is grown and gone. It’s as if collecting ourselves and making ourselves mindful of the abundance in our lives, mindful of the toil of farmers and migrant workers and factory processors that made our meal possible was something we did only because that’s what responsible parents do, and only when the child is present.

I thought about that couple all the way across the Long Creek Highway to Walhalla. and I thought once more of the young woman from Bob Jones University, less than a hundred miles from where I am sojourning, who in 1966 believed that I had been laid on her heart as a special prayer concern. At St. John’s in Walhalla, I was welcomed one more time by people who remembered me from last week, who said they were glad I’d come back. The pastor preached on the story of Moses raising a bronze snake on a pole to redirect the attention of the whining, miserable Israelites who had forgotten their good fortune in being led out of Egypt and were complaining about the food.

I’m a stranger in a strange land here, and suddenly some things are clearer than they are at home. It is all too easy to see the people I am moving among as less sophisticated than I, less worldly. Pastor Coffman reminded me that, like the Israelites, I have forgotten somewhat just how much abundance is mine, so that a couple taking the time in a public restaurant to offer a blessing together seems a curiosity to me.

I’d spent time last night with people who had gathered to eat and sing together for the benefit of neighbors in need. It occurred to me tonight that I cannot have been the only one there who didn’t know the people who would benefit from their generosity. The people of St. John’s don’t know me, yet they remember me, welcome me back, ask after my work here at Hambidge.

We are called to lift each other up, Pastor Coffman said. We are called to be a light to each other. We are called to carry each other.

I have been lifted up by these good country people, my way lighted into a new week. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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