When we made it down that stretch of Gap Hill Road to the bottomland of Dog Creek, the cars pulled off into the weeds. Aunt Oma was already out of her rusty, once-topaz Ford Tempo directing me.
Her voice quivered as she shouted, “Pull off right here.”
It was a commandment.
She stood in the middle of that nowhere road shouting at all the cars in this caravan. The way she was guiding traffic made me think she had come here before to scope the place out and imagine what the perfect version of this day would be like.
She had been 80-and-never-saved. Now she was 80 and heaven-bound, and the reality of this new development gave her spunk, made her appear almost in a waltz, as if she were dancing as she signaled another driver to slow down and turn the wheel now. It was the way her feet slid, rather than stepped, her fragile, skin-and-bones body moving with a glide rather than a jolt.
“The Good Lord is so–good,” Brother Carl had said as he finished up the Sunday service 15 minutes before back at Rugged Fork United Baptist Church. “Let’s all go down now and be a part of this miracle.” Upon this dismissal, little kids had run out the door at the back of the room. They were like thoroughbreds released from the starting gate.
Aunt Oma was almost as fast. She didn’t say, “I’ll see you there,” to Dad and me. She didn’t ask if we needed directions. She just went.
It had been Aunt Elva that called me a week ago to say Aunt Oma was saved. She told me about this revival up in Hart County that Aunt Oma had insisted on going every single night. How even though Oma couldn’t half see driving in the dark, she still went to Brother Carl’s house one evening after church toward the end of the revival. How after she ate a piece of chocolate pie, they had gone into his living room to pray. She told me how Aunt Oma had said she got up and stomped her feet when it happened, like she just couldn’t help herself. She told me about the baptism and she finished with, “Ya’ll need to be there for your Aunt Oma next Sunday. It won’t hurt you one bit. Bring Darrell, now, won’t you?”
Even though Oma had run out of the church to be the first to the creek, it wasn’t hard finding her. The only traffic in this green corner of Hart County seemed to be going down the hill. Aunt Oma fanned her hand really fast when she saw my car, directing me to pull up alongside her. I rolled the window down, the car idled. She put her hand onto my window seal like she was holding the car still, keeping me from driving away. She bent down, looked over me to the passenger seat at Dad, right into the eyes of her little brother. It was like she was giving a child an ominous warning, almost whispering a secret. “It’s muggy out. Ya’ll mind.” Was she nervous? Was she thinking about how sharp the cold water was going to feel when Brother Carl laid her back into the creek like a dancer getting dipped?
Just ahead an overpass spanned the creek, and on the other side the land rose sharply from the bottomland into the woods. I pointed the nose of my car at the shallow ditch and the car’s axle boot let out a squeak that sounded like Dad’s old brown rocking chair. The air conditioner fan hummed to rest underneath Dad and I as we tilted steeply towards the field.
“Put me in the corn,” Dad said.
It was the first thing out of his mouth since we left the church. These stalks were not yet two feet high, certainly too young for ears or tops, but the corn was thick, thick enough to obscure the loamy soil of the valley, thick enough to make one think this was going to be a good year for harvest.
I stepped out onto that tar-bound road. The engines of the other cars went quiet, one-by-one, until all I could hear was the gurgle of creek water. A steady sound of Hart County, being pulled off to the ocean one granule at a time. The chirp of an Acadian Flycatcher was in a far-off tree, its voice waiting to swallow a passing insect. Sweat on my neck. The sun was shining between towers of cumulus. A shelf of haze floated over the bottomland, so thin it almost wasn’t there.
Oma abandoned her car parking duties. Her long skirt swished as she hurried to be the first to the creek. She called over her shoulder to me, “Help Darrell, now.”
I walked around the car and took my father’s hand and helped him out of his seat. At first, we thought it was just a bout of depression. But then more. A new stutter to his speech. Hiding in the basement. Forgetting his way home one evening, and calling from a payphone finally saying, “Come find me.” He kept talking less, forgetting more crumbs of information.
There was a washed out footpath that led steeply down to the creek bed. Dad took his time here and stepped down like he was newly learning to walk. The congregation from the church approached in twos and threes from their own cars and bottlenecked behind him. No one was impatient, though. Dad stepped down the ruts of eroded clay and over discarded RC and Nehi plastic bottles that had washed here in a rain.
Aunt Oma had made it down to the water and stood on the pebble bank watching everybody descend through the washed out little gulley, arriving at her baptism spot, as if they were climbing down onto a stage from a balcony. She wore simple clothes for the occasion—an ankle-length, navy blue skirt, skin-toned pantyhose and a white button-up blouse with long sleeves. It had a lacy collar. The white Tretorns on her feet contrasted with her dressed-up look, but these would protect her feet in the mud against the rocks. I thought it smart that she didn’t wear jewelry—just her glasses that had always, ever since I was a kid and she babysat me, magnified her eyes, like an owl’s, like a detective’s. Like always, her glasses were slipping on her sweaty nose.
She never had done anything with her hair. For two decades, I had come to know her wash-dry-and-comb look. I hold this disheveled grey in my earliest memories. I remember her sitting with a TV tray on her lap, watching America’s Funniest Home Videos on Sunday nights at seven, and her hair sticking up like she just got out of bed. But on this day, she wore barrettes just off her temples. She had on make-up too, a conservative shade of pink mauve, probably one touch of the brush on each cheekbone and a swipe of lipstick. She looked graceful.
Brother Carl was standing beside her at the water’s edge. I didn’t like thinking of him as Brother Carl, as if I were a member of this congregation, but it was all I knew to call him. He wore black slacks and held the same Bible he had read from earlier at the church. He had on a plain-white button down that was too big already, but he also let it hang too far out from the belt, so that it ballooned around his stomach. It looked like a marshmallow shirt. His hair seemed to be puffing in the steamy bottom.
Everyone gathered in a semi-circle at the bank. The congregation fell quiet. Voices decrescendo’d. A little boy flicked a pebble into the creek and the water plooped as it swallowed the stone. The boy’s mother grabbed his shoulder and pulled him against her long denim skirt. Then just creek water. And bird sound. And a truck coming down the road towards the bridge, the sound of its tires like tape being pulled off of the roll. It was so humid the tar in the road might have still been liquid.
Brother Carl allowed these sounds to linger. Dog Creek lapped against the muddy bank. The pitch of the car engine heightening until it hit the joint of the bridge, then the Doppler switch of sound, a low pitch of horsepower as it disappeared into the woods and started climbing the hill on the other side of the bridge.
Maybe it was involuntary. It was as if she couldn’t stand the anticipation any more. The silence must have lasted longer for her than for me. Aunt Oma stammered out, “I want to thank you all for coming,” as if she were hosting the event.
Aunt Oma was still dry when it thundered. In the preceding moments, Brother Carl had led off with a prayer about how Oma spent her life waiting for this moment, how she had devoted to praying for her salvation for decades, and how she surely deserved a mansion in heaven for her devotion to the Lord all these years. He ended his prayer and the congregation affirmed it all with a nod of their heads and a loud “Amen.” I heard Dad murmur “Amen” a second later.
Brother Carl talked to the congregation about how Aunt Oma had been the oldest person he had ever witnessed saved, and how it only got sweeter to watch with age. She blushed like she was receiving a compliment for something she had done right. He was talking about the night one week ago that Oma had come to his house to pray after an evening revival service.
“She was bent down, praying on the carpet in the living room when I saw the spirit of the Good Lord come over her,” he said. Brother Carl knew it was real by the way she smiled.
I wondered how the rest of her life got skipped over in this speech. I had seen pictures of her when she was in her twenties and thirties. Dad told me how she left town on an L&N train and moved to Louisville and worked for BellSouth, in a high-rise right downtown. In one picture, she was standing beside the Ohio River in a Derby hat. Behind her, the Indiana bank far off. She was in a crowd of laughing, smiling people. She held a drink—what must have been a mint julep. In Louisville, she married and had a son, Danny. The son grew up, the marriage ended in divorce. I guess the job at BellSouth didn’t work out, either.
The Aunt Oma I grew up around was an old lady already from my child eyes. By the time I was born, she had already been back home for 20 years. She took care of my Mammaw Strode and complained about her back hurting. She complained a lot. About the squash rotting in the garden, about the price of the gas bill. She had a dog, Poo-Kay that had sores all over his back. When Mammaw Strode died, Aunt Oma moved into a trailer out by the Denny Doyle Ballpark and lived there until she started wandering out into the road at night.
I grew up knowing Aunt Oma was going to hell.
Mom and Dad often talked about it in the front seat of our Thunderbird on the way home from church. “Poor old Oma, the Good Lord’s going to let her die and go to hell,” one of them would say.
I had watched Aunt Oma at the summer revivals in my childhood; she sat in the women’s corner at the front of church. People took turns sitting beside her, having illustrious conversations with her during altar calls. If they persisted long enough, she would go with them to the altar and pray. Year after year, she went to the altar and asked the Good Lord to save her. “Please Good Lord, why won’t you save me?” she begged. She prayed out loud, and I heard her say this. But she never shouted then, never stood up and stomped her feet, and everybody knew when she raised her head from the bench that nothing had happened just from the look on her face.
And all of this had seemed so believable to me as a child. How could it not when Mom and Dad said so seriously that Aunt Oma was going to burn forever? But, now, out by the creek, I was thinking of the mosquito that zipped behind my ear. About this day as a return to where I came from. About that particle of limestone that might be breaking free right now into the creek. How it will travel to the ocean. How it may deposit somewhere for a century and be one piece of millions in a sand bank where a fisherman will sit and sip a cold beer, where two will couple on an August night, where it will watch the seasons change. Until a spring flood will come and disrupt it, and then carry it on. Down the Dog Creek, down the Nolin and the Green to the Ohio. Past the industrial factory towers with their white steam rising out in the winter. Then the Missisippi, the Delta, how it won’t even hear the blues as it rides along underwater, on through Natchez, and how it will taste saltwater someday in the Gulf. As Brother Carl went on, I thought about lunch and where Dad and I might drive-thru on our way back to Bowling Green. Overhead, the bottom of a cumulus cloud was growing dark. I looked up through the humid air. There were mosquitoes flying in circles over the creek. The cloud had a thousand puffs and stretched straight up. A dome of cirrus arced around its top.
It was the type of thunder that crackles first. Like wood splitting. Then, the boom. Close. The kind that makes you feel the electrons on the back of your legs. The kind that makes pinpricks on your shoulder blades.
The congregation headed for the underside of the bridge on instinct. Aunt Oma watched them walking away for a second, disbelieving. Then Brother Carl grabbed her hand and pulled her on towards the bridge.
Dad and I crowded under the bridge too, our shoulders pressed together. We were the same height. Even if his mind was growing weaker, I could feel the strength of his body still in his shoulder. He was always so strong.
The rain did not sweep in, like it does sometimes, when you can hear it coming up your street. Rather, the cloud above sprang a leak. Pregnant drops fell fat onto the rocks in quarter-sized bursts. Droplets beelined onto the creekwater and shot up bubbles to mark their landing. And then the bottom of the cloud fell out. Rain fogged us in. A congregation of strangers who loved my Aunt Oma under a little bridge. The boy who tossed the pebble. The Mom in her denim. Brother Carl and his whole flock. My father and me.
This crowd of three dozen or so acted on instinct. As if they all had the thought at the same time. How they all knew it would be that song. They sang so loud, so suddenly. And they sang over the backdrop of rain. Over the sudden cascade of water that poured down from the bridge like a hydrant draining. More thunder. And the song bounced under the bridge against the cement and the pebbles and the creek water magnifying all of the voices. How they echoed! They sang so loud it swallowed the storm. And I heard Dad’s voice in the refrain, keeping up with them. How he knew these words so well.
In the sweet
By and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore;
In the sweet
By and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
How natural the words came off of his tongue. How I never knew before to listen to the way his voice sounded. Don’t forget this, I said to myself in my head. Don’t forget how he sounds when his voice is clear. When he isn’t stumbling for his next word. Remember how steady and in control he could be. How confident. How he talked to Tom at the barber shop when he took me on Saturdays to the Cave City square. How when Dad took his turn in the chair, Tom would pull his scissors away from Dad’s head when he earthquaked with laughter. How on the way home I rode shotgun in his little blue Mazda pickup. How I put my head out the window and let the loose clippings blow out. How Dad would punch my knee in an ole’-sport fashion and say, so often, “you’re a good boy.”
Derick Strode writes on matters of family, his father’s early onset Alzheimer’s disease and the Kentucky experience in creative nonfiction essays. A recent graduate from the Western Kentucky University Department of English MA program, he also holds a BA in English and an MAE in Student Affairs. He lives with his wife in Bowling Green, KY.
This is really beautiful.