Hot, sticky, sweltering heat, mosquitoes as big as my fist, sleepless nights under dew-drenched sheets – this is how I remember Eastman, Georgia. It is a thousand one hundred miles away from my home in Colchester, Connecticut, and a thousand one hundred miles away in my mind.
Eastman, Georgia, is not the place where I was raised. It is not the place of my childhood friends. And it is not even a place that I like very much. I recently went to Eastman, home to a memory of a place that I had visited, but not too often, to a place I had heard talked of practically every day of my growing up. A place where my parents, grandparents, great grandparents were all born. It is the place where I first saw hogs, a mule and a moonshine still, and the place where the Pineygrove Baptist Church, founded by the Reverend Peyton Crocker around 1888, sits down a country road where the sweet smell of pine is heavy in the air.
I’ve been to Georgia twice in the last two years. But one of the reasons I always thought of it as home was because my father’s favorite song was Georgia on My Mind, by Ray Charles. My first visit after 23 years was to Atlanta to see my 83-year old cousin Mattie Ruth. I’d never been to Mattie Ruth’s house, and she told me that she wasn’t going to live forever, so I’d better hurry and get myself down there. So with some reluctance, and some dread, I went. On this trip I never made it to Eastman, although Mattie Ruth had arranged for someone to drive me. I had deliberately made my trip short, and graciously declined her generous offer citing lack of time as my reason.
My second trip to Georgia, just two years later, was also at the urging of Cousin Mattie Ruth. This time she persuaded me through her well-honed, well-crafted guilt technique, citing family members who had recently passed – including my own father – stating that the least we could do as a family was to be together at the Piney Grove homecoming on the fourth Sunday in July.
A small town in middle Georgia, Eastman is about three hours south of Atlanta with a population of about 10,000 people. One of the claims to fame of this rural community is that it is the home of Stucky’s, known for their candies made with Georgia pecans. Compared to towns in Connecticut where I live, or other New England towns, it appears as though this small southern town just happened. No planning here. Driving up and down the streets you will see stately old homes next to properties that look like they should be condemned, an ancient automobile repair shop right down the street from a pristine red brick church, and a downtown that looks like it has seen better days.
From early on in life I always heard people in my Connecticut family talk about going home. They usually went every summer for as long as they were able. They packed their cars, stuffed half asleep kids into the back seat, shoeboxes were filled with fried chicken sandwiches on white bread and off they’d go in the middle of the night, “to make good time.”
My recent trip home was less adventurous. I took a plane to Atlanta, and then had a three-hour drive to Eastman with my 85-year-old cousin Mattie Ruth, the self-proclaimed head of the family and her 70-year-old sister Altermease. This trip back home was for a gathering of the “tribe”, and we were coming together at the home church, in the hometown.
Since there was no room at the farm, cousin Mattie Ruth insisted upon putting up my mother and me at an inn.
Once in Eastman we were deposited at the Dodge Hill Inn Bed and Breakfast on 9th Avenue near the center of town. Mom and I were greeted by Miss Ann the owner, and her first cousin Miss Helen, who had been helping her out since the death of Miss Ann’s husband a year ago. Both women are widows, and both women are imbued with the type of southern charm typically associated with the concept of the genteel south.
“Welcome Miss Marilynn, welcome Miss Odessa. We sure are glad to have y’all here at the Dodge Hill Inn,” drawled Miss Ann.
“Miss Marilynn, you and “yo” mother will be staying in the Ancestral suite but it’s not quite ready. Would you and Miss Odessa like to have a cup of coffee while you wait?”
I find it odd to be in this place, and I am wondering what is going through the mind of my mother who lived in this town until she was thirteen years old. As I sit beside her on the velvet settee, and sip coffee from mismatched china, I know that fifty years ago this scenario would not have occurred in this place.
The reason we are here is the Fourth Sunday in July; Homecoming at Pineygrove, and at this time there would be a formal acknowledgement of all the Turner’s who had recently passed. The last time I was in Pineygrove Baptist Church was twenty-five years ago for the funeral of my great grandmother, Miss Mozelle. The time before that I was ten years old, and the whole family was there for the Fourth Sunday in July Homecoming.
My first remembrance of being in Pineygrove, is sitting on the bare hard wooden pews. Back in Connecticut, we had red velvet cushions on our pews. My mother and father are to my right, my three younger sisters lined up chronologically to my left. We are all wearing the brand new Sunday outfits that we had gotten for the occasion. My sister Charlotte and I are dressed like twins in matching white gauze dresses bordered with pink appliquéd roses. I have on white ankle socks with a lace ruffle, matching lace ruffled underpants, and black patent leather Mary Janes on my feet. My hair is done in two should-length braids that are punctuated by the white satin ribbons that match my dress.
At the age of ten I was unprepared for a service in a southern black Baptist church. I was accustomed to the sedate churches in New England where everyone sat rigidly in their pews, eyes straight ahead focused on the pulpit, no turning, no squirming, and of course no random or spontaneous shouting, clapping singing or talking. Pineygrove was not sedate. The music was loud, the clapping was loud, the singing was loud, and the whole place rocked. Even when they sang “Blessed Assurance Jesus is Mine,” I recognized the words, but the tempo was faster, more up beat.
Up in front of the church to the right of the pulpit sits my Uncle Moses with a group of men who form the amen corner. My great grandmother Miss Mozelle was also sits up front in the pulpit on the opposite side from Uncle Moses. As the oldest person in the congregation she is given the title of church Mother, and a designated seat beside the preacher.
The preacher is a man whose toothless pronouncements were affirmed by Uncle Moses and the rest of the men in the amen corner. This little man in his flowing white robes looked like a dove about to take flight as he crescendoed through his sermon, bringing the congregation to a frenzied peak, sucking the life right out of them, then gently, gently, gently, bringing them down and restoring the calm.
I sit in the pew, hands folded, legs swinging back and forth. Two of my sisters are looking bored, and the youngest one at fours years old is curled up on the pew and asleep. I do not know what to think about all that was going on around me, and then I see a lady in a red dress, very much the style of Jacqueline Kennedy standing in the center section of pews. Dancing, she moves out of the pew and into the aisle right next to me. She’s shouting and jumping waving her arms, moaning and groaning. I have never seen anything like this, and the ten year old me is shocked, but not frightened. My mother is beside me dressed in her brand new light colored shift, wearing a broad brimmed straw hat with a very proper ribbon around the brim cinched with a tan colored fake rose. I tug on her dress, “Mommy, mommy, what’s wrong with that lady?”
“Shush” she says.
“Mommy, what’s wrong with her?”
“Shush, and sit down.”
The congregation seems to spur this woman on in her frenzied state. Suddenly she falls to the floor. No one panics. The crowd seems to rejoice, and people just step over her like a tree trunk fallen across the road.
Marilynn S. Turner is an Associate Professor of English at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where she teaches writing.