October 27, 2009
This past weekend saw a family reunion. This was the family that we spent every holiday with until the past few years after my grandmother passed away.... Hmmm... my grandmother... Zeddie Perry.. damn... I do miss her. She and her husband, H.C. "Doc" Perry, lived at the end of Doc Perry Rd. here in Newnan. The house they called home was built by my grandfather for his wife and three sons, Delmos(my dad), and his brothers, Thomas and Donald. It's a small four room home that I have seen filled with more laughter and love than you can begin to imagine. Every time I was around them tales and laughter seemed to pour from everywhere, it was infectious and a pure delight to behold. They were simple folk, God fearing and hard working. My grandfather bought his land from a mill owner that he worked for running a company store. He saw how the store kept the employees in debt to the company and vowed that he wouldn't fall into that trap. So he raised what food he could and made a monthly trip to the farmers market in Atlanta (in the early days they traveled by wagon) to get what they needed that they couldn't provide for themselves, in this way he saved his money and bought his land. My grandmother told me the story about how proud he was after he had made the deal. They walked the property line and crisscrossed over the land taking it all in. She confided in me that it made her tired and she wasn't really interested in walking every bit of it but, "It was what Doc wanted and I wanted to make him happy... he was so proud that he had something."
Timeless and plentiful were the stories that my grandparents told me. I would sit in awe during hot summer afternoons on their porch as my grandfather would whittle and my grandmother would run in and out of the house "fetching drinks". Doc, or Daddy Doc as we all called him would tell me about things like a turtle that would bite you and not let go until it thundered. The snake that you could cut up and watch as it joined itself back together was another favorite of mine. On one memorable occasion we followed him through the woods on a long walk until he came to an old stump. We stood transfixed as we watched him reach into the stump and pull honeycomb out and fill several jars with it. He was covered with bees but didn't get stung... It was amazing to see. Without a doubt that was the sweetest honey I have ever tasted.
For years some of the stories he told that held my attention the most were about jack o lanterns. They were the ghostly lights that you would see floating around in the woods late at night. He told me that he would be working at night about the place and often would stop and watch as balls of fire would float around in the trees. I would ask him what they were and he would kick his hat back on his head and say, "I don't rightly know... some folks say they are ghosts, some say swamp gas... but whatever they are, they look scary... but peaceful.." On one occasion he told me about being in a boat out on the pond down behind his house. He was having a good time fishing on a Saturday evening and the fish were biting pretty good, so he stayed out there as night came on.
"It was gettin' late... but I was catchin' fish pretty good and didn't want to quit.. I knew Zeddie knew where I was at so I didn't worry much about it, and stayed on..."
I knew this was going to be good so I settled at his feet on the porch step and tuned in for the tale...
"Well.. as it got dark I started hearing the beavers wakin' up.. They come out of their houses and started splashin' and playin'.. whomping their tails calling to each other.. then it got real quiet.. I knew they were going out to work on trees for their dams so I listened and sure enough I heard 'em chewin' and cutting after a while... I was at peace.. it was calm and quiet and the fish just kept on bitin'..."
He leaned over and spit his usual Bruton snuff into a Styrofoam cup he always had near at hand. Then he leaned back in his rocking chair and wiped his head with a handkerchief.
"Long about the time I heard the whippoorwills start up I got this funny feelin' like somebody was lookin' at me.... I kept tryin' to ignore it but it just kept creepin' back in on me... then all of a sudden I saw it...."
He paused for effect as the blood ran cold in my veins... Then I jumped as my grandmother came out of the door with, "Doc you ought not scare that child that way.."
He looked at her sideways and kept on... "It was the biggest jack o lantern I had ever seen in my life.. It came floatin' up over the dam out of the swamp and headed straight out over the pond right toward me.. There was just something about that light that wasn't right... Without thinkin' about it I tucked in and rowed that boat right back to the shore and walked home through the fog as fast as I could.. left that whole mess of fish laying there too... and it was good bunch of bream.."
"Were you scared?"
"No.. just wasn't comfortable with it, the colors were all wrong, like something sick.."
That was the day I had gone over there to spend the night with them. The summer of 1975, so I was eight years old... Later that evening we went into town, on the way back I started asking him questions about the jack o lanterns. My grandmother assured me that they were nothing to worry about, but I was afraid of sleeping out in the woods in that little house... All sorts of visions of sick looking green lights making their way through the woods up from the pond were running through my head.... About half way down the road to their house he slowed the car down, and then came to a stop. He opened the car door and stepped out, calling to me, "Come out here and look at this.." My grandmother and I both got out and he pointed up into the pines growing on the bank next to the road. And there it was.. A silent ball of fire about the size of a basketball slowly moving around close to the tops of the trees... I watched as it moved around for a few minutes then seemed to slowly fade away. He shook his head and looked down at me, "They're something to watch ain't they?" Indeed they were...
As I was sitting there Saturday watching my cousins talking and the kids running around I thought about all of these things at one time... Like a flood gate opening. I could hear them all.. the people that have gone on.. Woodson, Irene, Reba, Donald, Shirley, David, Daddy Doc, Grannie, and my Dad.. It was a hard thing to hear, their laughter. I thought back to the days when that little house would be packed with people and hotter than you could imagine, tables laden with food, Christmas trees piled high with gifts and laughter.... the laughter of wisdom and age.. of knowing, caring and love...
My cousin had brought pictures with her and as I flipped through them I was stopped cold at a picture of my grandfather laying on a bed with a baby.. I turned it over and saw "1967" written on the back of it.. I almost couldn't breathe.. I handed it to my mother and asked, "Who is this?"... She looked at it and without a beat she said, "That's you and Daddy Doc right after you were born.. taking a nap on his bed.." She handed it back to me.. It was all I could do to hold the tears in as I took my camera in hand and snapped a shot of the photo... I had never seen it before...
A few minutes later my sister and I stood next to the table, laden with almost everything I could remember from my childhood.. My uncle Thomas walked by on the other side from us and said, "What have you got on?.... Your mind?" He sounded so much like my Dad that I stopped cold and all my blood drained from me completely... I turned around and looked at my sister for a second and we both knew what each other were thinking... for that brief moment it was as if my dad had indeed walked right by us.. I turned away from her and teared up a bit.. Then headed for the dressing.. and damn.. it was as good as I remembered it..