Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Chapter 9, In which Irene is in her element
Irene was in her element as the pastor’s wife at the piedmont churches my father pastored. Her girls attended good public schools and, after some difficult adjustment and a lot of catching up, excelled. They were more help than hindrance now, handling their share of housework, the older ones helping pay their way by working the soda fountain at Cochran’s Pharmacy the same way a progression of pretty Covington schoolgirls made your shakes and floats at People’s. It was a choice job because, “It’s Kool Inside,” the penguin on the door told us, a rare thing in Carterville in the 1950’s.
Irene’s life had come a long way from being nursemaid to four baby girls in a seven year span in places like Devil’s Den without indoor plumbing and before Roosevelt electrified the mountains (although the lines only recently made it to Devil’s Den; no doubt pavement will follow.) And now she had the infant son whom she would raise to be a Christian Gentleman in a civilized world with four live-in babysitters competing for the privilege.
She had nice, solid, store bought furniture and milk was delivered cold to her door. In a niche apparently built into the house for that purpose sat a telephone with no dial, no buttons. When you were big enough to reach it you could put the receiver to your little ear and a lady would say, “Number please.” I remember when the delivery truck came and two men bought the big Zenith in, changing our lives forever, bringing “Mickey Mouse Club” to me, “America Bandstand” to my sisters, “I Love Lucy” and “The Red Skeleton Show” to my parents, although, except for my father, we all watched it all.
She and her husband were respected people in a community whose respect she valued. My father had started at a church without a church building. Goodyear had built only one church building, which the Baptists and Methodists shared, taking turns with the preaching. When the Baptists started meeting elsewhere, my sisters were disappointed to learn that most of the congregation and most of their Sunday school friends were Methodists. Methodism was big in Cartersville. The famous Methodist evangelist, Sam Jones, lived there.
When Wallace left fourteen years later the Baptist met in their own massive, columned brick structure shaped like a traditional cathedral, a cross with the choir loft and baptistry in the apse. My mother, of course, taught Sunday School and Training Union, ran the W.M.U. When she left, the church gave her, among other things, a china cabinet full of gossamer-thin porcelain that we never used unless we had company.
My mother, who, in my lifetime at least, never worked a paying job, played a large role in the family’s change of lifestyle. She encouraged my father’s self education, kept the babies out of his lap so he could study, and, working beside him in the cornfield beanpatch, corrected his grammar. Although he never lost the mountain twang, he eschewed double negatives and knew the difference between “good” and “well.”
My sister Joyce recently told me that the mother of my mother -- you may recall Lura Harkins, the “Tennessee Hall” -- was the daughter of British citizens. Her parents had come to Ducktown because the father -- my great, great grandfather, a Mr. Pruitt -- was an engineer whose skills were needed by the Tennessee Copper Co. She, my sister, also reminded me of something I’d known but forgotten, that my mother’s father and his brothers had been born and raised in New Orleans and that my grandfather had attended medical school but not practiced. There’s no telling what his speech sounded like. It could have been Cajun patois or it may have been that inner city New Orleans dialect that sounds more like New York City than Panama City.
At any rate, the dialect my mother spoke was not of Jacks’ River, though she learned it there near a logging operation the Harkins brothers had set up. Her great aunt came from England to visit her niece there and ended up having to stay for the duration of World War I. My mother recalled Papa teaching her to pronounce things one way and her aunt another.
Joyce speculated that we -- Wallace and Irene’s kids -- don’t sound like mountain people because of our mother, but while she was telling me this I was thinking she sure didn’t sound like Dan Rather. I also know that when at seventeen I entered Emory University, I was the only student from the Appalachian poverty belt, and my classmates -- who were largely urban southerners, Yankees, Jews or some combination of those elements -- had so much fun at the expense of my hillbilly–redneck twang that within two years I had changed my pronunciation to that of the standard American newscaster.
After I left that institution I came to see my change of dialect as a birthright-for-porridge exchange, and set about reincorporating Appalachian idiom into my speech, because when you loose that sense of place in your speech, you lose not only the expression, the way of saying things, but also the ability to communicate the ideas they represent.
An example. My mother-in-law, a southerner, married a man from Idaho and spent, as did my wife, significant chunks of her life living in Washington and northern Idaho. People there made fun of the way she talked, particularly, she told me, her use of “fixing to,” as in, “I’m fixing to pick up some Cocolas.”
“Eula,” I told her, clever and insightful son-in-law that I am, “you should have told them that there are some things you can’t say if you take out ‘fixing to.’ For example, ‘I’m preparing to slap a knot on yore head,’ just doesn’t cut it.” The sense of imminent corporal correction is lost entirely. A child would laugh, justifiably, at the parent who uttered such a threat, and things could only get worse from there.