Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Stories We're Finally Old Enough to Tell: My Grandmother's Sunday School Report

Mississippi (and Arkansas and Louisiana) writer Ellen Douglas waited until she was in her late 70s to publish her book entitled Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell (Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 1998). The book tells some unflattering, shattering, truthful stories that implicate her own family, friends, and neighbors in deeds less than noble.

I understand Douglas' reluctance to tell tales about her family, loved ones, and close acquaintances. But I also understand her growing sense of urgency, as she moved into her senior years, about telling the stories given to her to tell. Our stories are, after all, all we have, in the final analysis, and they're our stories: no one else has them, because no one else has lived our unique life, in our unique skin.

Here's one of mine:

My grandmother (my paternal grandmother, a very devout and exceedingly hardshell Southern Baptist) comes home from Sunday School one Sunday all a-dither. It seems that airplanes and such are, well, signs of the end times. Child, I want you to know: we're living in the end times! Right now!

The bible says so. And her Sunday School teacher had confirmed it, so it has to be gospel truth, don't it?

And, come to think of it, is it any wonder in the world that the colored people are totally out of control? My Lord a'mighty, can't even get onto a bus nowadays without having to deal with them sitting big as life all up in the front seats, grinning to beat the band while we scramble to the back of the bus.

If that's not end times, I'd thank you to tell me what is!

My aunt, who teaches English at a Southern Baptist college at which my uncle, my father's brother, is academic vice-president, responds to my grandmother's Sunday School report by exclaiming, "You don't say?" That uncle and aunt will produce two Southern Baptist ministers among their three children. The aunt is herself the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister.

Then after she says, "You don't say?" she looks at me and smiles. 

And winks.

The photo: a picture of the Baptist singing school my grandmother and her siblings attended in Louisiana in 1910. Her brother Elbert was the teacher of the school, and three of her sisters and three brothers are in the photo with her. My grandmother, Vallie Snead, is the young woman with her left hand on her hip (a typical pose) in the middle of the third row. At the right end of the row in black is her sister Hattie, who's in mourning because her husband had just died.

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