Synopsis | Excerpt
You could drink a glass of milk straight from the cow, ride a dirt road in the back of an old pick-up truck, and sleep on the back porch with a hound dog for company. A visit to Grandma and Grandpa's almost always promised a great adventure on their farm. Step back in time to the heartfelt innocence of a Southern childhood, a time when the rest of the world seemed far away and life was as clear as the morning dew on a ripe tomato.
"Y'all come back now, you hear?”
—An old Southern goodbye
by Martha Shields Crockett
I was raised in the "Y'all Come School of Southern Hospitality.”
If you're from the South, you know it well. For those of you who are not, I'll explain. The basic tenet of this school is that anyone who shows up on your doorstep—or who calls or writes to say they're coming—is welcome to a meal at the very least, but also a bed if need be. No questions asked. No payment required. In fact, any offer of payment must be turned away with a show of offense at the offer. This offer is extended not only to friends and family, but also to just about anyone you know and to anyone who might know them.
My father was a Southern minister. Not "Reverend” or "Pastor.” He eschewed those titles. "Preacher” was acceptable because he did preach. But as he explained it, he was merely one of the brethren in the congregation, the one that the others paid to minister, so that's what he wanted to be called.
Being raised a preacher's kid—PK, for short—had many ramifications in my life. The one most relevant to this story is the fact that we moved quite often. As much, if not more, than military families. By the time I was eighteen, I'd lived in thirteen different houses. This meant that we had an extensive network of brethren across the South. Colleagues of my father's and friends we'd all made during our brief stays in various places. We were forever hopping in the family Rambler to visit them, or to attend a revival on the other side of town, or for my father to preach a revival for a church in another state, or to visit family who'd stayed put in Florida. There was even a vacation or two thrown into the mix. In other words, my childhood in no way could be considered still. We rarely traveled outside the South—I can only remember a couple of trips above the Mason Dixon line—but travel we did.
You would think that during all these trips, I would've stayed in a lot of motels. But try as I might, I can only remember a handful of rented rooms. And believe me, I remember each and every one because I loved to swim and motel pools were a huge treat. My sister and I could swim at night in a motel pool without worrying about critters nibbling at our toes. They had lights under the water, for goodness sake. If a cottonmouth happened to slip into the water—which did happen (to us kids, any snake in the pool was a cottonmouth)—we could see him coming and swim in the other direction like Johnny Weissmuller chasing a crocodile.
But, as I said, motel rooms were few and far between. The vast majority of family trips were spent in a succession of private homes. I was acquainted with some of the people who put us up, either from one of our brief residences in their fair town or previous revivals there. But like as not, I'd never set eyes on them. Sometimes even my parents hadn't. When someone discovered we were going to, say, Boston (one of the two ventures into bona fide Yankee country), they would inevitably say something in the nature of, "My Great-Aunt Mildred lives two miles from Plymouth Rock.” They'd lean closer and confide, "Married a Yankee after the War, bless her heart. She'd love to hear a proper accent again. I'll call her in the morning.” So we'd stay with Aunt Mildred. And even through all those impositions, I can't remember a single time when we were greeted with anything but open arms and hearts. And when we left, the last thing my father would say before he backed the Rambler out of their drive was, "Y'all come.”
Not the elaborate "Y'all come now, y'here,” that The Beverly Hillbillies put into popular culture. Just a simple, sincere, "Y'all come.”
And come they did. Over the years. my mother must've cooked thousands of chickens. Baked chickens, chicken pot pie, chicken and dumplings. Any way you can cook chicken… except fried. Now my mother was a marvelous cook. It was, after all, what she majored in while earning her M-R-S degree. But she refused to fry chicken, and that was my favorite way of eating it. Consequently, I anticipated church dinner-on-the-grounds with great relish, where there was invariably a bounty of chicken fried up by the best cooks in the church. But fried chicken is a story entire unto itself. Suffice it to say, my mother would not drop a single leg into Crisco.
Mother never gave me a satisfactory answer about why the menu invariably featured chicken. When I was old enough to notice the plethora of poultry farms across the South, I concluded chicken must've been cheaper to come by. An important consideration when the Lord is on hand merely to bless the chicken, not to divide the white meat and the dark as he did the loaves and fishes.
The only exceptions I can remember to chicken dishes were the times when the menfolk had gone fishing. Then mountains of crappie and bass replaced the poultry. I understand that many a chicken dish across the South was replaced by venison or quail or duck, but the men in my family were not huntsmen, so game wasn't in the realm of my experience.
The longest stretch of residence we ever spent was in a small town northeast of Atlanta that has since been swallowed up by that massive city. When I was two, my father had been hired by a small group of brethren to build a church from practically nothing. We started meeting in the chapel of an old WWII military hospital. Those were the days when the only way to get to the top of Stone Mountain was shoe leather, decades before they completed the carving on the side. Under my father's ministry, the church grew to almost four hundred people, one of the largest in the area in those days. The congregation was as dynamic as Atlanta, with people moving in and out all the time. So when I was eleven, they began to plan a ten year reunion.
I'm not certain if my father came up with idea or exactly who, but most members of the church were enthusiastically behind it. They set up committees and spent six months planning the event for the next Fourth of July, figuring most people could take vacation days to drive in if they had to. Since I was still mostly kid, six months seemed a lifetime away. So I shoved it into my peripheral attention and went on with my life.
The trouble didn't start until a few months later. Along about April, I remember Mother telling Dad, "J.C., Myra James called today. They're coming for the reunion. I invited them to stay here.”
The Jameses had been friends of my parents' since high school. This was both good and bad news for me. They were an interesting family that we'd seen several times over the years. Not only was the father a rocket scientist, literally, both his and his oldest son's names were Jesse James, which I always got a kick out of hearing. However, the middle son was my age, and a nastier boy you'd never meet in your life. Jerry James was a skinny, buck-toothed, tow-headed boy with a cow lick growing right out of his forehead. He reminded me of Dennis the Menace in every way, and every time we were forced into close proximity I told him that he should've been named Jesse instead of his big brother, because he was the outlaw in the family. I stopped telling him this when I figured out that he actually liked being called an outlaw. The degenerate.
Dad merely nodded to Mother at her announcement and said, "It'll be good to see them.”
Nobody asked my permission, of course, even though I would be forced to move in with my sister for the duration of the visit. My sole comfort was that it would be worse for her than for me. Being thirteen made Nona a teenager, and she had all the arrogance that went along with that distinction. Her disdain irritated the stew out of me and I loved to cause her misery every chance I could get. So having the Jameses stay with us during the reunion wouldn't be all bad.
A few weeks into June, I overheard my mother calling my father at the church office. "The Hollingsworths are coming to the reunion, too. They asked if they could stay with us.”
I couldn't hear my father's reply, but in the following conversation, I definitely heard Mother say, "the kids can sleep on the floor.”
I hated sleeping on the floor. They were called hardwood for a reason.
So when mother hung up the phone, I asked indignantly, "Who are the Hollingsworths?”
She raised her eyebrow, but answered me patiently. "They used to live on the other side of the Dixie Highway. A big yellow house with black shutters. Lots of hydrangeas. You remember.”
I didn't remember, which must've been evident on my face because mother continued, "You remember Mark Grady, don't you?”
"How could I forget him? He's the slimy toad who tried to kiss me in first grade.” I was not a fan of boys until I hit puberty a couple of years later. "He's coming? And Jerry James, too?” I pictured all kinds of horrible scenarios in their company.
"We haven't heard from Mark's parents yet. The Hollingsworths are Mark's grandparents.”
So they were old, which meant I couldn't throw a fit about them making me sleep on the floor. "Why are they staying with us?”
"They might not. I'm going to try and see if the Sherwoods can put them up, but right now they're out of town visiting their daughter in Macon. So I can't check with them until next week.”
Which meant she'd forget. Mother could remember every recipe she'd ever come across, the steps required for earning half of the GirlScout badges, and the words to nearly every book in the hymnal, but the details of ordinary life often slipped from her mind. I can't tell you how many times I had to walk home from school after dark because she'd forgotten to pick me up after whatever club meeting I happened to be attending. And if mother didn't place the Hollingsworths with the Sherwoods or somebody, it increased the odds of Mark Grady staying at our house. Jerry James was bad enough. Having both of them would be the end of life as I knew it.
"I'll remind you,” I promised her.
She chuckled. "All right.”
Mother recognized her forgetful tendencies, but my father was so completely in love with her he thought it was cute, so she had no incentive to improve. If something was very important, she wrote it on the calendar. But that only helped when she actually remembered to look at the calendar. By the time I'd reached the advanced age of eleven, I knew that if I wanted Mother to do something, I had to remind her. Often more than once. To this day, I credit my mother's forgetfulness for both my excellent memory and my tendency to nag.
One week to the day, I reminded Mother she needed to call the Sherwoods.
"I called them yesterday,” she said to my surprise.
"And . . . ?”
"They're keeping the Hollingsworths and the Gradys.”
"I knew that snarly varmint was com . . . I mean . . . the Sherwoods are really good people.” Ebullient with relief at having dodged two bullets—Mark Grady and sleeping on the floor. I started to skip away when my mother's question stopped me short.
"Have you ever slept on cots at any of your friend's sleepovers?”
"Cots?” The only reason she would ask about cots was if we needed them, and needing cots was ominous. "At Amelia's. Why?”
Mother shrugged. "Looks like we'll be needing a few. Remind me to ask Helen at prayer meeting tonight. I'll ask the Mayfields, too.”
Nona walked in the back door at that point.
Mother's head turned toward my sister, but mother probably didn't even see her. "Who else goes camping?”
"Huh?” Nona stopped, then recovered quickly. She had two years more than me to be familiar with mother's ways. "Oh. The Stricklands and the Gutterys went to Red Top Mountain with us last time. Why?”
"Because we need a bazillion cots,” I told her in that you're-too-stupid-to-live voice that sisters save for each other.
"Cots?” Nona turned to mother and said in her best drama-queen voice, "Mother! You haven't invited even more people to stay with us for that stupid reunion, have you? Aren't the Jameses enough?”
Mother's attention came back from the land of cots, and she focused her eyes on Nona. "The reunion isn't stupid, Nona. But, no, we didn't invite them, exactly. They're calling for a place to stay and we can't turn them away.”
"Why not?” I asked.
Mother looked at me as if I'd just asked to live in Detroit. "It isn't done.”
The classic answer from mothers all over the South. No reason attached to it, but it was backed by many generations and hundreds of years of living inside the Southern box.
"Why can't the Bakers put them up?” Nona asked, thinking along the same lines that I was. "They have three extra bedrooms.”
"The Bakers' house is full,” Mother explained. "And the Thompsons' and the Abernathys' and the Collins' and everyone else's. When the elders planned the reunion, they never dreamed that so many people would come. But they are coming, and they have to sleep somewhere. The church is paying for the house we live in and it's right next door, so it's only natural that the overspill comes here. We may have to pitch tents in the back yard before it's said and done, but that's what we'll do if we have to. We're happy all these people are returning to celebrate the ten years our church has been serving the Lord. It's a wonderful and important event. Understand?”
Mother strong-eyed Nona into submission. "Nona?”
Nona didn't look happy, but said, "Yes, ma'am.”
Mother turned her attention on me. "Martha?”
"Yes, ma'am.” What else could I say? Mother was an expert at making my childish concerns seem petty in the grand scheme of things. Besides, with so many people we'd be forced to have potluck dinners, so fried chicken was a sure thing. And since it was summer, homemade ice cream was a definite possibility.
"I'm counting on you girls to help. With so many people, I'll be doing good just to keep up with the cooking. I can't have you girls running off to be with your boyfriends . . . ” that was for Nona, " . . . or to run around in the woods.” That was for me.
Not escape into the woods? For three whole days?!? Just kill me now!
"Martha . . . ”
I may be stubborn, but even I knew when to stop talking. Mother might seem like a mild-mannered preacher's wife, but she'd been known to wield a mean hairbrush to Nona's and my backsides. Besides, I always had back-up plans. I might have to invite company on my treks into the wilderness, but I could stand that for a day or so. While it was true that I valued my alone time in the woods, I wasn't completely anti-social.
"Yes, ma'am. I want to help.”
The look she gave me said she suspected I wasn't being entirely truthful, but she didn't say anything. Since I wasn't, I didn't say anything, either.
These were the times when it was best to hide the fact that you weren't quite the good little Christian soldier your parents thought that you were.
The Jameses were the first guests to arrive that Friday afternoon. As far as we knew at that point, we were planning on housing three more families, a total of eighteen guests in all. The four of us added made twenty-one humans and one sub-human (Jerry) sharing a twelve hundred square foot, three bedroom, two bathroom house.
Today I cringe when I think about the logistics of that many people in such a small space. Back then, I didn't have a clue. I was too focused on my personal inconvenience. I had no inkling of the headaches my mother must've suffered.
Mother, luckily, wasn't prone to headaches and never seemed ruffled or put out. She'd grabbed Nona and me before we could slip out of the house that Friday morning, and we spent the day doing slave labor. Which meant we cleaned. We even had to sweep and mop the cement floor of the basement. That's where all of the children would be sleeping—except for the Taylor's baby—plus the two hardiest adults. Mr. and Mrs. Martin weren't the youngest of our adult guests, but they camped and hiked and generally loved roughing it. So they'd volunteered to keep the children in line.
I didn't mind that one bit. Mr. Martin could do magic tricks and Mrs. Martin told the best stories. They had one daughter who was a year older than Nona and therefore of no interest to me. Back then, I categorized adults by whether or not they had children, and then by the relative interest to me of those children. Mr. and Mrs. Martin were infinitely more interesting than Cindy, who talked way too much about boys.
Our full basement was considered semi-finished. It had windows along the back side of the house and a smooth cement floor, but was not finished enough for living space. Nona and I played down there in the cold winter months and during the hottest part of the summer. It wasn't heated or air conditioned, but since it was surrounded by earth on three sides, it stayed comfortable year-round. Mother had secured enough cots and air mattresses to keep everyone off the concrete, so the weekend seemed doable.
I had just walked inside the front door, having swept the front porch, when a blue station wagon pulled up our the driveway. I recognized the driver and groaned. I'd planned to slip out to the quarry lake hidden in the woods behind the church and hole up until supper.
I eyed the path to the back door. Could I make it?
"Who's here?” Mother called from the kitchen.
I considered lying, but the dangers of hell-fire had been drummed into me since birth. Brimstone had always been a strong deterrent for me. Not that I had any notion of what it was, but it sounded scarier than vampires or kisses from boys.
I was stuck. So I reluctantly answered, "The Jameses.”
"Nona?” Mother called. "Run find your father at—”
"I'll go!” A reprieve! Dad was across the street at the church, directing traffic there. I dropped the broom and bolted out the back door before Nona could even look up from her teen magazine.
I took as long as I dared to find my father who, luckily, wasn't in the church office. When he and I walked into our house, the Jameses had already unloaded their car and were ensconced in the family room with glasses of sweet tea.
Dad, being Dad, exchanged handshakes and hugs all around, and I was passed along the James' line until I got to Jerry. It was the first time I'd seen him in a couple of years. He stared at me with a look I wasn't familiar with—as if he didn't know who I was.
It scared me, and without thinking about where I was, I blurted out, "What's your problem, Doofus?”
I cringed from Mother's rebuke, adding this public humiliation to Jerry's long list of crimes.
Luckily, my remark had hit its mark. Jerry's scary look was gone, and he covertly stuck out his tongue at me.
Finally something I could deal with. I stuck my nose in the air with a pointed sniff and turned to hug his little sister.
Just as everyone was settling down to their tea again, the Taylors arrived with their four young children in tow. A kind of friendly chaos settled over the house at that point which was not going to let up until everyone left on Monday. I'd been involved in enough "Y'all Come” situations by then that I recognized the good in them. For a brief span of time, my parents were too focused on other people to pay me much mind. I could pretty much do as I pleased, within reason.
At any rate, it wasn't remarkable.
The Martins arrived just as Mother was putting the men to work grilling hamburgers for supper. As I'd hoped, Mother had enough helping hands in the kitchen with the other ladies. They shooed the children outside so they could speculate about the people who were coming for the weekend. They'd talk about such important things as what color hair Myra Hardy would have this year and how much weight Red Thornapple would have gained.
Nona took the two teenagers into her room to listen to records, and I organized the younger children into a game of dodge ball. I tried not to notice that every time Jerry caught the ball, he aimed dead-straight at me. I missed most of his throws, of course. I had dodge ball down pretty good by that advanced age. One time, however, he caught and threw the ball so fast that he got me smack in the side of the head. Even though the ball was soft, it stung.
I swung on him. "That hurt! You don't have to throw it so hard, Doofus!”
I fully expected him to retort snidely with something like, "You're supposed to dodge it, twerp-face. That's why it's called dodge ball.”
Instead, he rushed forward with a horrified look and tenderly touched the side of my face, brushing back my hair. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hit you. You turned right into it.”
Didn't mean to hit me?! What kind of nonsense was that? The whole point of the game was hitting people. That's how you got them out.
I didn't know what was going on here, but I didn't like it.
I shoved his hand away. "Doof—”
We all turned to see the church secretary running across the street. Her teased hair was bouncing in place, as was every other part of her.
Dad rose from his lawn chair. "Sister Bishop, I thought you'd have gone home by now. What's wrong?”
"I was just heading out,” she said breathlessly, "when a VW bus pulled into the parking lot. It's the Rutherfords.”
"The Rutherfords?” Dad repeated. "Did we know they were coming?"
Mrs. Bishop shook her head vehemently. "No, and we have no place to put them. I don't know what on earth we're going to do!”
"Oh dear,” Mother said from the top of the back stairs. She'd obviously seen Mrs. Bishop running and had stepped out to see what was going on.
Dad looked up at her. Mother's face tightened almost imperceptibly, then she nodded. "Of course. The Caruthers aren't arriving until tomorrow, anyway.”
Beaming with hospitality, Dad turned back to Mrs. Bishop. "Tell them to come on over here. We'll throw a few more hamburgers on the fire and figure something out. You're welcome to stay, too, if you can.”
"Are you kidding? I have eighteen guests at my house, waiting for something to eat. I have to go!”
Dad nodded patiently. "I understand. You go right ahead then, but please send the Rutherfords— ahhh, looks as if they followed you here. Good.”
Dad moved to greet the family of eight.
I felt nothing but relief. The Rutherfords had a daughter my age among their six children. I hadn't seen Amy in several years, but that didn't matter. It was someone to mitigate the presence of Doofus-Head.
The Rutherfords blended into the crowd—like ages seeking like ages. Just before we sat down to supper, eleven other unexpected guests arrived. Mr. Milam came with his five children in tow. His wife had died two years earlier of cancer, Mr. and Mrs. Harrold brought their two children, and an elderly couple named Rippey had to eat hot dogs because there were no more hamburgers left.
It took Mother until midnight to figure out where to put everyone and get us all settled for the night. Dad and the adult men scrounged the neighborhood for cots and air mattresses. Luckily, they found enough for the thirty-eight people we housed on that Friday night.
The next morning, the flood continued. The Caruthers arrived around ten to find our house over-flowing. By suppertime on Saturday, three more families showed up on our doorstep unannounced, plus the Widow Allredge. That made thirty-six unexpected boarders over and above the eighteen we had been expecting. With the four of us, there were fifty-eight people needing a place to sleep.
Being a kid, of course, I didn't add all this up until later. Still, even I knew it was impossible.
Luckily for my father's wallet and my mother's kitchen (and sanity), we didn't have to feed that many. The church was holding what amounted to a non-stop buffet starting at noon on Saturday and lasting through breakfast on Monday. Doughnuts and biscuits and fruit gradually disappeared, making way for sandwiches and chips and cookies, which changed late in the afternoon to tables and tables of culinary delights brought by the current church families, including a vast variety of the fried chicken I coveted. There was an official starting time for each meal, of course, with a blessing given after announcements and scripture. But there were so many mouths to feed that there was a constant line going down at least one side of the picnic tables set up for the occasion.
I'll never forget that weekend. It was like a huge, never-ending dinner-on-the-grounds. Hundreds of people were there. Most brought lawn chairs and sat in groups talking and eating. Games were organized for the children by some of the more active adults. Back in those days, adults rarely participated in anything more athletic than a bowling or softball league.
Among those hundreds of people, at least half were children, so I was having a blast. I only caught occasional glimpses of my parents and didn't see my sister Nona at all.
Until late that afternoon, when Amy Rutherford and I wandered into the church basement to cool off in the air conditioning. Mother and Nona stood in the doorway to the large adult classroom, looking in.
Mother brightened as she spied us. "Martha, good. You and Amy run get Jesse James and as many of his friends as you can. I need at least four men.”
"Which Jesse James?” I asked.
"Oh, right. There are two. I suppose either one will do, but I was thinking about the younger one. Jerry's brother, not his father.”
"Yes, ma'am!” I spun to obey orders when she stopped me.
I halted. "Yes, ma'am?”
"After you find Jesse, go find your father and tell him to beg, borrow or steal at least twenty more cots.”
"Dad would steal?!!”
Mother rolled her eyes. "It's just an expression. Go on now.”
"On my way. Com'on, Amy!”
After completing our missions, Amy and I wandered back. Mother was in her element, a general marshalling the troops. She had Jesse and his friends removing the chairs and tables from the two largest Sunday School rooms. When Dad arrived with only three more cots, he and Mother had a heated discussion about what to do.
I listened in. When the obvious wasn't occurring to them, I tugged on Dad's rolled-up cotton sleeve. "Dad?”
He glanced down. "Not now, Martha, we're—"
"What about the pads on the pews upstairs?” I asked before he could dismiss me entirely.
Dad and Mother looked at each other in surprise.
"I can't believe we forgot about the pews!” Mother exclaimed.
The church had installed red velvet pads on all the pews the past winter. All the best churches were doing it.
"Out of the mouths of babes…” Dad said. It was one of his favorite Bible quotes. I never really understood it, and always bristled at being called a baby.
Mother kissed me soundly. "Thank you for being brilliant!”
"How are we going to do this, Lu?” Dad asked. "They're detachable, but some members might object to us placing brand new pads on a concrete floor.”
"Wooden pews would be a much more comfortable base to sleep on than concrete floors, anyway. On the other hand, some might to object to bedding down guests in the sanctuary. And they'll have to be the kids. Those pews aren't wide enough for most adults.”
Dad bristled at that. "If any members do object, they won't for long. There is nothing sacred about the sanctuary. Besides, it's called a sanctuary for a reason. Just as the inn sheltered our Lord in his time of need, so will we shelter our brethren who are in need of a place to sleep!”
He punctuated his comments with a finger pointed skyward. Like most preachers, Dad tended to get a bit dramatic when his passions were aroused.
And so the sanctuary became a dormitory for a couple of nights. I slept on the third pew with Amy. The boys slept in the back. Mrs. Martin slept on a cot at the front of the sanctuary to watch over the girls. Mr. Martin slept at the back with the boys.
The only real problem was the lack of showers. In those days, church bathrooms had no baths. And we certainly didn't have a gymnasium with accompanying locker rooms like so many do these days. No, back then, a church was solely a church. Gymnasiums were only at high schools, colleges and the occasional community center.
I tried to offer what I thought was a good solution to the problem. I suggested that the children bathe in the baptistery.
Needless to say, I was not thanked for my brilliance this time. Even my father was appalled at my lack of respect. Since I'd been baptized in the Santa Fe River in Florida with alligators and snakes and fish and frogs and no telling what other critters, I didn't understand the distinction. And to tell the truth, I think that most of my father's reaction was for the benefit of church members within earshot. A lot of what I was allowed and not allowed to do as a child was dictated by the possible disapproval of church members. I resented that fact as a child, but now I understand that every occupation has its own restrictions.
One good thing came out of the bathroom situation. Because all the dormitory residents had to use the shower in our house across the street and use was limited to the capacity of the hot water heater, I didn't have to take a bath until Monday evening. Not that Mother knew, of course. I simply lost myself in the shower shuffle.
Saturday night's supper at the church was followed by a homemade ice cream party. There must've been fifty churns going. The old-fashioned kind with rock salt and store-bought ice and hand churning. Nothing electric back then.
As I always did at home, I took a turn at churning the vanilla ice cream that my mother always made. After a few minutes of the monotonous activity, I looked up to see Jerry James and Mark Grady whispering together and pointing at me. I stuck my tongue out at them, but didn't scare them away. As I sat fuming, I decided the best defense was a good offense, so when Mr. Rutherford relieved me at the churn, I called to Amy and a couple more of our friends and we chased them into the woods at the back of the church. I pulled my female troop to a halt with a victorious whoop.
That's when I heard Mark call from somewhere in the trees, "Jerry loves Martha! Jerry loves Martha!”
Mortified, I turned to my giggling friends and vehemently denied any romantic involvement with a boy.
I couldn't help thinking about Mark's words during down times that night and through the next day. This was the first inkling I had of the heretofore disgusting feelings I'd observed between men and women. Because I couldn't understand those feelings, I dismissed them all as crazy and dismissed any notion that I might one day feel the same. Not that I had any feelings other than abhorrence for that slime ball, Jerry James.
Still, it was as if the first gray light of a romantic dawn had seeped into my awareness.
It worried me.
All that evening as the children settled down on our pews and the next day during the church service and celebration, I caught Jerry looking at me. Then something startling occurred to me. He hadn't denied Mark's accusation.
By Sunday afternoon, I had to escape.
My favorite place in the entire world at that stage of my life was a small quarry lake hidden in about a hundred acres of woods that stretched away from the church. As soon as I could slip away, I disappeared into those woods and followed a familiar path. Just as I reached its granite edge, I realized I wasn't alone. Spinning, I spied the outlaw. He wasn't even trying to hide.
The fear that had been niggling at me for the past twenty-four hours rushed in.
"What do you think you're doing?” I said with more bravado than I felt.
He shrugged. "I dunno. All that wasn't fun anymore,” he waved a hand back toward the church. "I thought maybe… I dunno… I'd see what you're doing.”
"I came here to be alone. I don't need any—”
"Jesse said they used to pick blackberries somewhere back in here. Think maybe we could find some?”
I straightened, distracted by one of my favorite things in the whole wide world—blackberries. Nona and I usually picked them in the early summer so Mother could make blackberry cobbler. We hadn't picked any yet this year because we'd been too absorbed with the church reunion.
"They're this way,” I called as I started running deeper into the wood. "I hope the birds didn't get them all.”
Five minutes later we found the bushes, still laden with very ripe berries. We started picking.
"Oww!” I stuck my bleeding finger in my mouth.
"Oww, oww, oww!” Jerry did the same thing.
Our eyes met and we laughed.
"Now I remember. Nona and I always wear gloves and long sleeves to pick them.”
We did manage to carefully pick a few, and ate those. We weren't too serious about it, however, because we were both still full from the enormous bounty at the dinner-on-the-grounds.
I asked Jerry questions about Huntsville, where the Jameses lived, and we talked about how we felt about going into the seventh grade.
We talked as we meandered back to the festivities. We were having a pretty good time, actually.
Then, suddenly, when we were only a few yards away from seeing the church, the outlaw leaned over and kissed me—smack dab on the mouth. It was so quick, I didn't know what he was doing. Then he sprang away and disappeared.
Stunned, I watched him run away. I didn't know what to do. I certainly wasn't going to run after him.
My fingers touched my lips, which stung from the unaccustomed pressure. My first kiss.
A smile crept across my face. It wasn't so bad.
I didn't see Jerry again, except in a crowd. He acted as if nothing had happened, and so did I.
We spent another night on the church pews, then everyone left the next morning.
The Taylors were the last to leave. As they pulled away, Dad called, "Y'all come!”
I turned to my parents. "You know, if y'all would stop saying, ‘Y'all come,' maybe they'd stop coming.”
Dad chuckled and wrapped his arm around Mother's waist as they walked into the house.
My parents never stopped saying, "Y'all come!” and people never stopped coming.