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Oral Tradition

Gramma fusses about getting ready for Camp Meeting this year, even though she has it organized down to the last baked bean and roll of toilet paper. She's been going every year since she was born, 1939, and so I guess she knows what's needed, but she really gets into the whole 'tradition' thing. I'll try to stick in something new, like my Walkman or Gameboy, and she just throws a hissy fit. "That's not what Camp Meeting is about," she says, packing her sun tea jar and a bag of lemons. "It's about family, and Jesus, and knowing why the good Lord put us on earth. Now where did you put the Skip-Bo cards?"

I find the cards and the board for the marble game, give them to her and tiptoe away. Grampa is sleeping in the living room in his wheelchair with all the shades pulled and I lay on the floor in the half-darkness. The wide wood boards are cool, but hard, and I can feel my ribs and hipbones grinding against them. My breasts are coming in at last (or should I say going out?) and they mortify me. Mortify is a good word, I learned it in Ms. Crawford's English class. It means death, as in my breasts embarrass me to death, or my breasts make me want to die, or my breasts are just killing me. All the clothes I own are now divided into two groups: Shirts That Show Too Much Boobage, and Shirts That Don't. Nothing worse than walking into a room and realizing too late that your breasts are pointing at people.

It must be kind of like that for guys when they get an unexpected boner. Boner is a funny word, too, and at first when I heard it, I kept thinking of Banjo, that little cocker spaniel that Gramma used to have. He would be wagging his stumpy little tail and I liked to grab it and hold on. Underneath the skin and muscle, I could feel his little tailbones. But I guess boners aren't really exactly like that.

Grampa wakes up. He does this with no sign of waking, just suddenly his eyes are open. "Where's your Gramma?" he says. "Time for the baseball game." And it is, too. Gramma turns on the TV and they both watch the game. Grampa falls asleep again during the fourth inning. Gramma watches the whole game, now and then gripping Grampa's arm when it gets exciting.

When I think about it, I've been going to Camp Meeting every year since I was born, just like Gramma, but fourteen years just isn't the same as sixty-one. Grampa never went to Camp Meeting when he was young, the year he met Gramma was his very first time. And he was just visiting a friend. So you never can tell what might happen.

Mumma and Brian aren't staying overnight this year. Mumma says it's too hot for little Kinsey, that she would get heat rash. Gramma fusses about that, too. "It's just for two weeks," she grumbles. "You'd think that for fourteen days out of the whole year, a person could go without their air conditioning. Lord knows, we all got along under more primitive conditions than this when I was a girl." She adds lawn chairs and camera film to her list. "We never get a chance to talk any more."

Mumma and Brian just say they have to work and they'll come out in the evenings. I'll help Gramma hold down the fort. I don't mind being the only one. It's hard on her, I know, to be away from Grampa. They've never been apart before.

Gramma fusses heavily the day we move into the tent. She keeps checking her lists to make sure she has everything. It's a matter of pride with her not to have forgotten anything. We hook the big wooden swings to the rings in the porch ceiling and cover the bench with an old quilt. She has all these pictures on the wall in her spare room at home, showing the family on the porch of the tent over the years. I like the pictures from the fifties, where the girls are all wearing short shorts and cat's-eye sunglasses, and the ones from the seventies, where they all have halter tops and bell bottoms. Some of the pictures have twenty or more people in them. Now there are only the seven of us. Gramma fills up the empty places on the porch with potted geraniums and petunias. It's my job to water them each morning.

Aunt Jody brings Grampa out for a while every evening. She stays at the house with him at night and he goes to day care for old people during the day. It's almost like he and Kinsey are the same age nowadays. They both wear diapers and sleep a lot. Aunt Jody likes to sit on the swing and say hey to all her old boyfriends when they walk by with their wives. She quit bartending and now she's learning to be a mortician. That's another word a lot like mortified, only it means an embalmer of the dead. "Funeral director, if you don't mind," she says. "It's about a lot more than just laying out corpses, you know. I'm going to really change things, too. None of this depressing organ music. Hey, Dwayne." She smiles slowly, her lips with their shiny peach color sliding back over her square, white teeth. "How y'all doin'?"

Dwayne (or Bill, or Travis, or Eddie) always smiles nervously. Aunt Jody hasn't changed much since the time when she posed for that centerfold and the wives always make angry faces when they see her sitting there in her short shorts and little cotton tops. She has real good legs for a woman over thirty, they're brown as peaches with little golden freckles on the thighs, and she likes to cross them real slow. "For example," she continues saying to me, while her eyes follow Travis (or Eddie, or Bill, or Dwayne) as he goes on down the path, "if a person liked to listen to Elvis Presley when they were alive, why not play Elvis music when they die? I'm not talking about the lively stuff, like "Viva Las Vegas", but you could play "Kentucky Rain", couldn't you?" She stops to wipe some drool off Grampa's chin. He smiles and looks vaguely at her. "And clothes, too. If a person wasn't the type to wear a suit, why not bury him in a golf shirt?" Although, to me, the thought of hairy dead forearms is not exactly attractive.

Gramma tries to talk Aunt Jody into taking a day off from learning about extracting bodily fluids. "Why?" Aunt Jody asks. "You know we'll only end up fussing at each other."

"We could talk about things."

"No, Mama. We never talk. We just fuss." Aunt Jody checks her hair in her compact mirror and winks at me. "I'll come in the evenings, I'm on a low-fuss diet these days."

During the day, most people have to go to work, and the only ones there are the old people and the kids. Gramma is always over at the canteen, helping to fix meals. I don't think they could even have Camp Meeting if she wasn't there to make hush puppies and fried chicken and 'nanner pudding. I hang out with my friend, Ashley, and help with the younger kids during Bible school. Not that anybody asked me if I minded doing it, somehow it's always just expected that the girls will help. Nobody expects it of the boys, which seems unfair to me. They just hang out at the creek all day long, fishing and sometimes skinny-dipping. One day, Ashley and I sneak off to watch them. Ashley says you can tell just by looking which ones will be successful in their later lives, but it makes me feel all fussed inside my chest to see them so I tell her I have to go help Gramma with the snapbeans.

Lots of people show up for Little Sunday, the first weekend of Camp Meeting. We all go to the arbor to hear the preachers and the singers. The Lighthouse Boys are here again this year, and June McSwain, and the Elizabeth City First Methodist Choir. Of course, what everyone really waits for is the Beeman Family. "I taught Fred Beeman algebra when he was in high school," Gramma says. She has a handkerchief tucked inside the strap of her wristwatch and she keeps pulling it out to pat Grampa's forehead. "And now look at him." I look all right. I've never seen so many good-looking boys in one family. Especially the youngest one who plays the bass fiddle. "We're lucky they come here at all," Gramma says. "They play in Nashville, you know, and Dollywood. But their mama's a Caswell, and the Caswells have been coming to Camp Meeting since the 1870's. It's tradition."

It's hot, really hot, even at night and Gramma lets me sleep on the upstairs porch. It's not much cooler but I like to watch the whole place slowly settle down and go to sleep. Then it's just me and the crickets and moths and the stars. The moon rises right up over the arbor, it's the prettiest sight.

Sometimes the boys will gather, quietly, whispering and passing a cigarette, and walk through the campground. I lay still as can be, my face pressed into the pillow that still smells of Gramma's iron-on starch, and try to hear what they're saying. Boys fascinate me, I have to admit. They're so different from girls and get to do lots better things. I know all about how girls have more opportunity nowadays, Aunt Jody is always telling me that, but it still seems like boys have more interesting lives. The only thing Aunt Jody ever did interesting was when she posed for that centerfold, and Mumma has never done anything interesting at all. Grampa helped blast holes in the mountains for roads, and Brian is a volunteer fireman and even stupid Lonnie Sigmon down the road drives a dirtbike in motor-cross races. The most exciting thing I ever did was ride the elephant when the Cole Brothers Circus had their show over at the elementary school. It's not a lot to look back on.

Each night the number of visitors grows. Ashley and I get dressed up in the evening after supper. She put a lot of Sun-In on her hair this summer and it really looks good. Mine is all curly from the humidity, so all I can do is stick it up in a big bushy ponytail. I finally got Mumma to let me wear mascara, though, so we both look lots older than last year. We walk round and round the campground, over and over, smiling at the boys and looking to see if they're smiling at us. Taylor Witherspoon has been looking at me a lot, which is good since he's one of the few boys taller than me. He's wearing glasses now and it makes him look real smart, and he has this sort of slow grin that just does something to me. We don't talk much, but one night we're both sitting on Ashley's porch and when he goes to stand up, he puts his hand on my shoulder first. It makes a little thrill run right down my arm and out at my elbow.

Friday night before Big Sunday, the crowds really get heavy. Gramma has been cooking all day at the canteen. "It's too much," Mumma fusses at her. "You can't work all day in that hot kitchen, they shouldn't ask it." Gramma's mouth makes a real straight line and she begins folding napkins and stomps around, putting the silverware straight. Mumma sighs and sits by Brian, who's pushing Kinsey back and forth in the stroller. Brian is always a little nervous around Gramma.

"Yes, Miz Abernathy," he replies to everything she says. "You're sure right about that." I think Gramma just eats that up.

"I think they ought to go back to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the schools. And not forget that 'under God' part. Don't you, Brian?"

"Yes, Miz Abernathy. They sure ought to."

"The price of gas is something awful. I think the government should just put its foot down and refuse to have anything to do with those oil cartel countries. Don't you, Brian?"

"Yes, Miz Abernathy. It's a terrible thing, gas prices."

"Brian, are you being a horse's patootie?"

"No, Miz Abernathy. I try not to."

Jody brings Grampa in his wheelchair. Lots of people come by to say hey to him and Gramma sits next to him, her eyes sparkling. She talks and laughs and pats Grampa's hand. He smiles and taps his toe to the country music playing on the radio. Every time somebody new walks up, she tells him in his ear who it is. "The Sherrills," she says. "You remember, Junior and Kat."

"Junior and Kat," he repeats, nodding and smiling. He enjoys the homemade strawberry ice cream. Gramma spoons it carefully into his mouth and kisses him on the cheek. "Jenny?" he says loudly. "Jenny. Jenny?"

"I'm right here, Frank."

"Jenny! Where's Jenny?" he says loudly, and people across the way turn to look.

"Time to go home," Jody says, and undoes the lock on his chair wheels. "Mama, he gets worse every day, you've got to start giving some serious thought . . ."

"When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it, missy."

"No, Jody's right," Mumma insists. "You have to face facts, Mama, you're not as young as you used to be and Daddy's a lot of work. You can't keep on lifting him and bathing him, you're going to hurt yourself one of these days. Now that he's adjusting to the daycare, you should consider . . ."

"Well, I'll be dipped in crumbs and fried in hell before I'll let one of my daughters tell me what I can and cannot do!" Gramma's eyes are blazing and her short, curly hair seems to be standing up on her head. I can see the glare of the setting sun behind it outlining her skull. "We get along just fine, Frank and I, and if I need help with him, I have plenty of friends who'd be glad to give a hand. Glad to. Don't you be worrying about us. Y'all just go back to your air-conditioned offices and busy, busy lives and let us take care of ourselves." She glares at Mumma and walks over to Grampa, putting her hand on his shoulder.

"Jenny?" he says. "Don't fuss. You're always fussing."


In the morning, Gramma is in a bad mood. She said she'd teach me how to fry eggs, but it's not going good. I can't seem to get the knack of cracking the eggs open. "Like this," Gramma says, doing it one-handed into the electric skillet out by the back door. Only this time, the yolk breaks. Usually, she'd just flip it over, cook both sides, and make a fried egg sandwich out of it, but this time she makes a hissing noise with her tongue and tosses it out of the pan and into the grass. I don't know what to do, so I try to pick it up with a paper towel. "Oh, don't mess with it," Gramma says, her voice sharp and tight. I leave it where it is, on the grass next to the path, and later I see a dog run over and eat it. "I just don't know any more," she mutters. "Nothing's what it was." I decide that cereal sounds fine for breakfast. I'm not sure exactly what she's talking about, but I know that there's no dealing with Gramma when she's in one of her moods.

It rains that afternoon. I like rain at Camp Meeting. Gramma and I sit in the upper room and play cards to the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof. Little puffs of cool air slip in between the open slats of the wood walls. Gramma's hands shuffle the cards, her red fingernails flashing. I like to think about her being fourteen once, and playing cards with her Gramma during a warm July rain. "Gin," she says, and slaps down a fan of cards.

That night it's even hotter and we can hear thunder rolling up from the lake. It's gonna be a whopper of a storm, so Gramma and I take quilts and pillows and a flashlight out to her car, parked in the field beyond the furthest ring of tents. Gramma brings a jug of lemonade and some cookies, too. We nestle in the back seat, reading stuff from the National Enquirer to each other. Gramma keeps back issues in the car so she'll always have something to read when she's waiting at Grampa's doctor appointments. I like the ones with pictures of celebrity fashions, especially the ones showing the best-dressed and the worst-dressed. "You'd think they could do better," Gramma says, "with all the money they make. Look at that girl, she has a perfect figure, a perfect face. Then she wears that tacky dress. She's just a mess. They had style, in my day."

The rain begins really coming down, with flashes of lightning that make it like day and thunder that hurts your ears. I can see people in some of the other cars, their breath steaming up the windows. Gramma's perfume is stronger in this enclosed space. Avon's Topaze, which she has always worn till I can't think of anyone but her when I smell it.

"Grampa looked good tonight, didn't he," she says, more of a statement than a question. I think about how it seems like he has no chest anymore, he is so curled over on himself. "He liked the singing, I think."

This seems almost like talking. I roll over on my back with my head in her lap and my knees pulled up. "You met him here, didn't you?" I ask. I've heard the story a thousand times, but sometimes you just have to give a person their cue.

"He was visiting the Hendersons," Gramma says, her eyes closed. "He was just out of the service, almost 30 years old. I was only eighteen. He'd never seen a Camp Meeting before and they had to explain to him about why the cabins are called tents and suchlike. I was working at the canteen and he told Carl Henderson he'd never seen a woman with such a flat backside. I overheard him and said, quick as a shot, 'that's because I don't waste time the good Lord gave me just sitting on it'. He told me later it was what decided him to get to know me better. That I could give him a setdown like that without missing a beat." She strokes my hair for a while and I watch raindrops chase each other down the back window. "We were married before Christmas." Lightning flashes again and I can see Gramma's red lipstick looking dark against her white skin. I roll on my side and mush my face into her stomach. The housedress she's wearing smells like sunshine and warm breezes. "He was so good-looking," she says. "I thought he hung the moon."

She looks down at me, sternly. "Always set your standards high, girl. Don't date any stupid boys, you hear?"

I nod against her warm belly. "Yes, ma'am. I mean, no, ma'am. I mean, I won't."

"Your Grampa was a self-educated man, an intelligent man. He read everything he could get his hands on." After a minute, she corrects herself. "Is a self-educated man." Lightning flashes again, with thunder right on top of it and we both jump. "Mercy," she laughs. "Good thing old Banjo isn't here, remember how afraid he used to be of storms? Used to whine and fuss until one of us would go sit with him in a dark closet."

"I miss Banjo. He was a good ol' dog." I loop my first finger around Gramma's belt, tug at it a little. "I felt bad when he got old, he got so shaky and nervous. He shrank down to nothing." I twine my other fingers in Gramma's belt, too, taking hold. "Just like Grampa," I whisper. "He's disappearing bit by bit, like Banjo did."

"Not quite like Banjo," Gramma says, her voice quiet and tired-sounding. "Banjo just wanted comforting when he got sick. You didn't need to worry about leaving him his dignity. You didn't need to . . ." She hushes up suddenly and looks out the window. Thunder booms real close by and the car shakes with it. She strokes my hair again. "I know they want me to put him in a nursing home, but I just can't do it. I realize things are changing. I know they think I'm too old to take care of him but you don't just take the person you love and put them away! My mama and daddy lived in their own home right up until they died. People took care of each other in those days, that was what they did."

"But I think that's what Mumma and Aunt Jody are trying to do for you, Gramma. They don't want to see you get sick too."

"I'd rather they bury us together than split us up."

Gramma's voice has that sound of finality, like when she told Aunt Jody that no way were they painting the house Wedgwood blue, it was going to stay white and green like it'd always been, and the thought of burying Gramma takes me so hard I almost start to bawl, my mouth wide open in a silent wail. I force tears and snot back where they belong and mush my face harder against her belly. Her hand curves over the back of my head and we struggle along for a few minutes, gulping and swallowing without saying a word.

The storm stops. As if it had wanted to go out with a bang, like 4th of July fireworks, it pounds out a final volley of thunder and lightning and then goes quietly away. Gramma pats my shoulder and I sit up, quickly wiping my face with the tail of my t-shirt. We gather our things and carry them back to the tent, dodging raindrops still dripping from the trees. The long wet grass catches at my ankles, soaking my sneakers and making them alternately stick and slide on the muddy clay soil. Even though it's after midnight, everyone's awake, talking and excited from the storm. Gramma picks up her pot of geraniums that had tipped over and presses the earth back down around their roots. "You'll be fine," she tells them. "Sun'll be back tomorrow."

Big Sunday brings the biggest crowds of all. Everyone dressed up in church clothes and carrying picnic lunches. Gramma goes all out, with slow-cooked barbecue, fresh-made slaw, silver queen corn on the cob. She doesn't have any truck with people who take the easy way out, bringing in tubs of KFC or cardboard boxes from the supermarket deli. "I just don't understand how people can let all their traditions die out." She puts her best tablecloth on the big rough table that Grampa built in the downstairs room a long time ago, and sets out real plates, not paper ones that can be thrown away afterward. Mumma has made lemon chess pies and Jody puts a jug of daisies in the middle of the table. Grampa is asleep in his wheelchair, but he wakes up when we're ready to eat. He still likes to eat Gramma's cooking, even if we have to cut it up real small. I take Kinsey out of the stroller. She's cutting teeth now and drools all over my good blouse. When she grins, all that spit makes a bubble. I get a slobbery kiss from her and sit down at the table, Kinsey on my lap. We all hold hands to say grace, and Gramma adds at the end, "And Lord, let us have many more times at Camp Meeting, if it is Your will, Amen." She tucks a napkin under Grampa's chin.

Everyone begins passing food around. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Taylor Witherspoon sauntering past and looking to see if I'm looking at him. I am looking at him, and smile to let him know that I like his looking at me. Mumma and Jody are giggling over some private joke. I help myself to more barbecue. It's good; sweet and spicy all at the same time. I chew for a long time, just absorbing the taste of it. From the next tent, we can hear music. Elvis Presley, singing The Wonder of You.

"That'd be a good song to use, don't you think? I'm gonna make a list."

"Miz Abernathy, did you hear that the Baptists are debating about whether to use cushions on the pews now?"

"People are too soft nowadays."

"Yes, ma'am. Well, maybe if they were softer, they wouldn't need cushions, heh heh."

"Pass me more of that slaw. It's awful good."

"Honey, who's that boy out there? He keeps looking over."

"Anyone want some cornbread? It's fresh made."

"Jenny? Where's Jenny?"

"Right here, Frank."


Note: Rock Springs Campground, in North Carolina, is the oldest existing site in the U.S. for annual religious Camp Meetings. For two weeks every summer, people meet for worship, singing, socializing and family reunions. The site consists of a large open-air arbor with pews, stage and pulpit, surrounded by concentric rings of hundreds of 'tents'; actually unpainted two-story structures with tin roofs and open-slatted wood walls. The term 'tents' goes back to the first year (1829) when people actually did arrive via horse and wagon and set up in tents. The camp meetings have continued annually since then, with the only exceptions being one year during the Civil War when Union troops were in the neighborhood and in 1948 when there was a polio epidemic. Twice the campground has been decimated by fire. In 1898, it was rudely disturbed by an earthquake, weakening the foundations of many tents and somewhat disturbing the tenters' faith in prayer.