Thursday, March 03, 2005

Nostalgia, you say?

Nostalgia is Onion-Flavored
Road trips meant Funyuns
onion-powdered O's
crunching like the popping of rice
crispies in dad's old Mazda pickup
white with maroon stripe
that chortled through small East Tennessee towns

the first house dad remembers
white clapboard and blue shutters
the first church Grandad started
(the second, the third)
where the boy with one blue eye, one brown
fell off his roof-
into soft green tufts of grass and dandelions-
and lived.
where dad found his class ring
weeks after, thrown by a jealous girlfriend,
the emerald glass scratched,
obscured high school letters.

We munched and licked fingers
washed down with Mountain Dew
the Eagles crackled through speakers
the green and his years swished by open, breathing windows
while mountains towered leaf-topped, hung with clouds.
Yellow food, yellow drink, yellow
sun peaked through the hills
glinted off my fifth grade metal smile.

I think I wrote this for a creative writing class my sophomore year of college, but mostly this poem reminds me of my childhood and my dad. When I was a kid, he took me on these short day-trips to all these tiny towns around East Tennessee where he grew up. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and they moved around a lot. My dad's family would move to a new town, set up a church, and when they finally got it going, they would move on again.

In particular, I remember visiting this very tiny town called Flag Pond. I always thought it was the smallest town I'd ever been to, and I doubt you could find it on a map. My father showed me the house his family lived in while there and pointed out the small crick in back of the house, where, Dad explained, Grandad baptized him. For a long time, I imagined this scene, my dad in a white, kid-sized choir robe and my grandad in his shirtsleeves, dipping my father's small body beneath the water.

Of course, I doubt if my father's family had money for anything as fancy as a choir robe, but the image sticks with me. Besides the choir robe fantasy, another memory always comes to mind when I read this poem. When we pulled into Flag Pond, Dad parked his truck in a dirt lot across the street from a small church. As we walked across the two-lane highway, baking in the sun, he explained that my grandfather started this church. It was a Sunday, and all the churchgoers hung in small groups outside the meeting house, chatting, while kids chased each other on a grassy knoll near the treeline.

Dad walked up to a lady I'd never met before and asked if she remembered him. She stared at him for some seconds before admitting that he looked a little familiar. When he explained who his father was, she was delighted and hugged him excitedly. A few years older than my father, she had been his babysitter, and she told us that she now lived in the house where his family had. She gave us a tour of the sanctuary and gushed endlessly about what a great man my grandfather was.

Come to think of it, my grandfather died the year before I wrote this poem. He had always been a detached relative. I only saw him a couple of times a year, usually at Thanksgiving. My father always described him as cold and stern. Grandad barely acknowledged me except for the hug hello and the hug goodbye. Yet, to this woman, he was a great man. In fact, she called him her savior (small "s" here), because he introduced her to Jesus, because he baptized her. Grandad gave meaning and purpose to the lives of so many people, yet he seemed unable to truly connect with those who were closest to him. I couldn't understand this as a child. I was just afraid of him.

However, a couple of months ago, I visited his grave for the first time since his funeral. And I wept. I wept because I never really got to know the great man who brought love, acceptance, and hope to so many. I wept because I knew he loved me, but he couldn't show me. Not because he was emotionally crippled or had a bad childhood, but because he loved people by bringing them to Christ. And I never let him do that for me.

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