2015-07-22 / Living & Style

From A Former South Georgia Girl

by Rheta Grimsley Johnson

It was already South Georgia hot in the early morning when we buried my mother in her hometown of Colquitt last week. We fought back tears and fought off gnats as a man with a low, sweet voice picked and sang “Farther Along,” the old hymn she used to hum when she rocked my baby brother.

Colquitt was Camelot to Mother, as seen through the organdy lens of time and distance. Spring Creek was crystal clear and full of bream. Oak Grove Church was Freewill Baptist, the brand most likely to get you to heaven. The people were all honest, the fields greener, the wind mills higher.

Mother taught school a few years in Colquitt, till she had her first child, my older sister. Then I was born and Daddy took a job with a grocery company and we moved to Florida. But all her life she talked about her short teaching stint in Colquitt, as if it had lasted 50 years, not 5.

I’ve heard her say she wished we had never left this town of peanut farms and raised sidewalks and small-place gossip. “I’ve moved 17 times,” she would complain, then imagine aloud how she would have had a “real” home in Colquitt.

I loved the place, too, and summers with my grandparents were a highlight of childhood. We swam at Williams’ Mill and shopped in Wyatt’s Grocery and made daily invasions of a dime store called the E-Z Shoppe. It was a kind of glorified camp. My grandfather taught me to drive at age 10 on roads with no traffic, and we climbed the fire tower at the edge of town. We balance-walked utility spools through pastures and played “Let the Old Cat Die” on the porch swing.

But it was deeper with Mother. She loved the way the dirt smelled after a summer shower, and the accents, which are as different from Montgomery or Memphis as French from German. She liked knowing the people, and being known, and remembering for whose wedding my grandmother had crocheted the edges of pink pillow cases. She was of this place and knew it.

I saw it through her blue eyes last week. The preacher who spoke didn’t know her, but knew they were distant kin. She would have liked his graciousness, his humility, the way he did his homework and got it just right.

The man who sang didn’t know her, either, but he searched till he found the song she loved in an old shaped-note hymnal. Then he nailed it.

If you make it to nearly 90 and aren’t a former president, there won’t be many people at your funeral service. But the ones who are there will have a deep and abiding love for you, or at the least a history with you. They will know your people. They will be your people.

And so it was with Mother. In a graveyard where the church is missing since a tornado moved it from its foundation, we told her goodbye. It is a strikingly beautiful cemetery. On one grave there are 19th-century, life-sized statues of a couple sitting in Italian marble chairs. On another, a granite silhouette of Elvis. Most of the markers are more ordinary.

But it is the setting, not the decoration, which make it beautiful. The fields around it are lush and forever, and no concrete or billboards or parking lots mark the decade or even the century.

Nobody lingered long. The heat was bearing down on us like an enemy army. But I looked around at the simplicity of the place, the purity, if you will. And I understood, at last, why she wanted to come home.

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