By Michael Ledwith
July 24, 2022
I drove to my aunt’s house after walking the graveyard, through the gravestones, trying to remember who was who.
She lived by herself in the country, a half mile from her sister, a hundred yards from the dirt highway. There were pecan trees in the front, a chicken coop in the back.
A big barn near the catfish pond close to the woods.
The house was one of the first real houses (not ready built ones) that sprung up here and there in the fifties when small farmers in Georgia made a little headway against grinding poverty, and finally had some money.
Indoor bathrooms, electric stoves, washing machines.
We sat at the kitchen counter and talked while she cooked supper.
She was a great cook. An even better baker.
Tonight, chicken and dumplings. As a city kid you tried not to think that those chickens weren’t from a store, but had been picked out from those in the coop. That the nice old lady stirring the pot had not wrung their necks. That they had not run around with their heads flopping this way and that for a while, before flopping down in the dirt.
Plucked, cleaned, chopped up, and the parts thrown into a big pot of boiling water by my aunt as she talked about who was who in the graveyard.
Over on the counter was a yellow cake with caramel icing the thought of which made me wonder why we had to have chicken and dumplings first.
After a while she said, tell me if I’m talking too much.
Her voice was strong with a Southern accent that pronounced certain words as they had been pronounced in the 18th century…oil, sin, and she ‘might’ to this and that, and ‘declared’ rather than said.
No ma’am, keep talking.
We left the chicken and dumplings to simmer and went into the living room with its wood panels and hand tinted colored photos of my cousins. She sat in Floydie’s easy chair and I on the couch near the gun case.
She said, you know, these walls don’t talk.
I realized that life had moved on from the house full of kids and her quiet unassuming husband who mostly sat in that same chair and watched his family grow up and fly away.
Grandpa used to criticize Floydie for having no ambition, she reminisced, that and for driving a Ford. My brothers would make fun of him eating cornflakes with grapefruit juice and for never being in a fight. I loved him. Maybe not at first, it was more a deal of me being able to get out of the house, but it grew. We got real comfortable together, but then he got cancer and died.
Yeah, I said. I liked Uncle Floydie. He was a good man.
She told about what happened after they put him in the ground.
She started going to revivals. Traveling preachers would come through every month or so.
She said: They’d announce the day at Sunday church, and I’d usually go. Better than just sitting in this house. Better than looking at the TV.
But, then one night, coming back from a revival meeting down near Lax, I pulled into the drive out there, and was scared to go into the house. Pressed down into the seat scared. So scared I couldn’t even look out a window.
I had never felt that kind of scare before, she said, not even when they told me that Floydie was going to die.
I sat there for an hour and when the feeling lessened, I came in.
The next day, I called my pastor and told him I wouldn’t be at the revival that night. He asked why? I told him I was scared to leave the house by myself, that someone might break in and be waiting for me when I got home. I’ve got guns, and have carried a gun sometimes, but this was different. It might not be someone, but something, I told him.
He said he would come by and pick me up, take me to the revival and bring me home. That he would walk me into the house and check all the rooms before he left.
I said I know we don’t believe in it, but bring some holy water to scatter around.
The pastor brought his deer hunting rifle, but it was no comfort. I thought that maybe I’d never find comfort in my house again. With everyone gone, the memory of everyone that once lived there pushed down on me.
He drove me back from the revival and walked me in.
It was no use.
When he left, I went into the bedroom, sat on the bed, and the scare rose up. It shook me.
I wasn’t going to cry or whimper; it will pass I thought. Then the room started whirling around me as I sat on the bed. Slow at first. Then faster.
She said I clung to the quilt to sit up straight.
It was like being in the center of one of those cat’s eye marbles I played with when I was a child.
Whirling around me, the colors beautiful.
Then a voice said, Do You Know Me?
What? Who is this? What do you want, I said out loud.
Then the same voice much deeper, louder:
Do You Know Me?
Then I knew.
Yes. Yes I know you.
The voice said, if you know me, you’ll never be afraid.
She stopped talking. We heard a car pull into the yard and honk. It was her sister.
She looked hard at me and said, I’ve never been afraid since. I’ll never be afraid again.
I said to her, I wish I could believe. I wish I could be a believer.
Don’t worry Michael, you will.
Michael Ledwith is a former bag boy at Winn-Dixie. Worked on the Apollo Program one summer in high school. Army officer. Ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Surfer. Rock and roll radio in Chicago. Shareholder, Christopher’s American Grill, London. Father. Movie lover. “I am a river to my people.”