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Family Voices

ISSUE:  Winter 1993

I never saw the house where my grandmother and her numerous brothers and sisters were born and where they lived until they got married. If it was not burned—a usual conclusion for a farmhouse—it was likely torn down to make way for some industrial plant in that part of the rising affluent Carolina Piedmont, but I can imagine what it looked like. It was the ubiquitous two-storied, pine clapboard, comfortable house with a porch on the parlor side and a larger one on the kitchen side. It had grayed over the years, for it was never painted, I can bet: “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash,” But I do know a bit more than what I can imagine; the house was not far from the Methodist church, where they all were baptized and married and, if they could afford it, brought back for burial. And that church was part of their home life, too. It had a lasting influence upon their lives, particularly in their love of music.

It is a family story that in their home each meal began with the blessing of the food (usually a long one, according to tradition) and sometimes concluded with the singing of a hymn, one popular in the Methodist church of 1870’s or so. Among those most often offered as the “final blessing” were “Rock of Ages”—filled with an imperative (“cleft for me”) followed by a supplication (“Let me hide myself in thee”); and that sanguineous “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” with that terrible image of sinners being plunged beneath that flood to lose all their guilty stains; and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” but there must have been many more with such evangelical overtones. But if there was no suggestion, there was always “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” All of these were sung with “some fervor,” my grandmother told me.

The music did not stop at the dining table, which sounds ostentatious for that group gathered around a large kitchen table. Afterward, my great-grandfather would take out his violin and play something that he had heard. I don’t know very much about what he did to keep up a large family. I don’t think he was a successful farmer, and his farm wasn’t large enough to afford a manager or a group of share-croppers; but they all seemed to live well and endure to healthy old ages. I have his violin—or one claimed to be his by a somewhat crafty neighbor. It has every earmark of a Sears-Roebuck model of the 1920’s down to the fake label about Stradivarius having made it. But when my grandmother saw it, she was sure it was his, although all violins probably looked alike to her. “Yes, sir, ree-bob,” she said. She confirmed that it was her father’s by pointing out that it had a rattle in it “cut off the largest rattlesnake you ever did see.” According to common belief at the time, the rattle improved the tone of the instrument. With that the violin was adopted as genuine.

But the music didn’t stop at bedtime, I hear. All the boys slept in half of the attic, the girls in the other. And in going to sleep, sometimes they hummed to each other and to the younger children until tired enough to drift off in the arms of the Wesleys or the anonymity of a Negro spiritual or—who knows?—Apollo’s mystic trances themselves.

The love of music lasted not while they were at home but for the rest of their lives. My grandmother and her twin sister talked about those times and would hum a few bars and bring up something new that they had heard. My grandmother was named Virginia Cordova, called “Dovie,” and her sister was Alabama Mimosa, called “Mosie,” as if it were feminine for Moses. They had been named by missionary guests who were spending some time with the family, and their names proved that neither missionaries nor guests should be granted such a privilege. He spoke first and said that he was naming his baby after his home state and his favorite tree; he didn’t seem to anticipate a “Mosie.” She, not to be outdone, named her baby after her home state and a favorite Spanish city that she had seen pictures of: thus “Dovie.” There is something, once you get used to the names, that is a bit melodious for almost anything except for innocent babies. But the two, perhaps joined by such strange names, kept up a lifelong devotion to each other—and to music.

Late in life, both of them took up listening to the radio a great deal. With failing eyes but no loss of memory, they would sing their favorites to each other, particularly over a glass of my grandmother’s blackberry wine at our dining room table; sometimes they were repeated just so the other would get “all of the beauty of it.” Aunt Mosie’s all-time choice was “My Blue Heaven” when she was more than 60 years old: she particularly liked, and would repeat it several times, the last of the lyrics:

Just Mollie and me and Baby makes three We’re happy in My Blue Heaven.

She did not attempt the “Doo, doo, doo, doo” that follow.

Grandmother’s was “Carolina Moon,” which she called “sweet.” She sang it in a frail voice but in good pitch:

Carolina Moon keep shining Shining on the one who waits for me. Carolina Moon I’m pining For the place I long to be.

She said it reminded her of her courting days with “Tan,” her husband Andrew, who seems to have had no music in him and whose hobby was pacing the porch to watch the thunderstorms roll in.

But after her singing-and-wining sessions with her sister Mosie who had been gotten by a grandchild to drive her the few blocks to her house, my grandmother would declare that these “modern songs” were pretty, but they were nothing like the one she really favored, “In the Gloaming, O, My Darling.” And then, in that frail but perfect-pitched voice, she would sing the chorus as the years seem to drop from her,

Just a song at twilight When the lights are low, And the flick’ring shadows Softly come and go… . .

And a look that reflected her nostalgia would come over her, and she would leave the room to help in fixing supper.

Grandmother and Mosie never performed in public; neither of them sang in the church choir after they were married. My mother did for some years, but she enjoyed singing at home, too. Her Sunday afternoon hymn was “I Come to the Garden Alone,” that maudlin one that leads a listener to think that the singer is keeping a rendezvous with Jesus. My father would sit, I think slightly embarrassed, on the porch while her confession of the meeting (“while the dew is still on the roses”) rang through the neighborhood.

But that, for my close family, was about as far as public performance went. That was left to Uncle Oscar, whose middle name was Erastus. My grandmother was more embarrassed by his name than by his eccentricities. She connected it with some unfashionable family, perhaps even black, in the county. But she had been told by a Methodist missionary’s daughter that in Greek it meant “beloved,” for he had been the one who ministered to St. Paul in Corinth. No matter: it was, for her, a “tacky” name.

Uncle Oscar had been a rural postman, who, after farming and delivering mail, had turned to preaching; he probably had enough time on his rural routes to renew what all the family had—a close acquaintance with the Bible—and to read some Biblical Aids to Sermonizing. He came to visit us once, on a memorable visit, and (of course) to go to church. It was a big Methodist one, thought to be based on some English cathedral in its architecture; it wasn’t, although it had three huge stained glass windows and a three-manual organ, usually softly played by a local bank teller. It was early winter, as I recall, for the men’s suits still smelled of that gasoline-like cleaner that was used in the 1920’s. After the service, nearly a sophisticated one for upper South Carolina or anywhere else, Uncle Oscar rose to ask the minister if he might say a few words to his brothers and sisters here gathered. I doubt that the minister had ever had such a request, for he made no objection, and I thought rather graciously invited Uncle Oscar to come to the pulpit. He walked with alacrity to the front in a kind of “Paul-come-again” stride and began to speak; he went on, for one of my cousins timed it, for 45 minutes. His text, which he must have been reconstructing during the preceding sermon I guess, was the first verse of the fifth chapter of Galatians, announced in a voice that equaled those at Pentecost: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ had made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” St. Paul may have had other ideas, but Uncle Oscar linked this verse with bondage to strong drink, which he had never had to renounce, but he might have had some others, less abstemious than he, in mind. The congregation might have been thankful, if they had looked it up in their pew Bibles, that he didn’t go on to the second verse of that chapter.

The harangue was loaded with stories of deserted wives, faithless husbands, neglected children, all the victims of drink. For that church—in that community—this was almost like news from another planet. But it sank in, even with the minister getting more and more irritated and restless. But not his congregation: they hung on every word and were moved by each. As Aunt Mosie said, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the church—and that minister couldn’t hold a candle to Oscar.”

But when the words stopped, the family tradition took over—a hymn. It was one of those rousing gospel songs of some years before, probably one that the younger people had never heard. I know part of it, for with that unfathomable memory he would sing it at every family reunion. It was the kind of revival hymn that associated railroads with pilgrimages. I cannot remember all nine verses, but I remember the first:

Life is like a mountain railway With an engineer that’s brave; You must make the run successful From the cradle to the grave. Watch the curves, the hills, and tunnels, Never falter, never fail! Keep your hand upon the throttle And your eye upon the rail.

The hymn ends with the point of it all, as I remember it:

Just keep Christ as your conductor On this lightning train of life; Always mindful of obstructions Do your duty, never fail! Keep your hand upon the throttle And your eye upon the rail.

Somehow Christ as the conductor and each of us the engineer of a coal-burning locomotive is something like the co-pilot— not the pilot—that we have more recently heard of.

If, in that church there had been applause, Oscar would have gotten more than the minister, I’m sure. “Not a dry eye,” Aunt Mosie would say every time she told the story.

After the sisters passed their 70th birthday, they didn’t sing as much. They may have thought it indecorous, having achieved the status of “old ladies,” as they called themselves. Grandmother did hum a few hymns when she went out to feed the chickens, but that was about it. Instead of singing, the sisters went back in memory to their childhoods to talk about things that had happened at home. They regaled each other with what they did remember: the death of an old dog, an elopement that had taken place that had startled the neighborhood, finding a snake in the outdoor privy, and the like. They talked, too, of household remedies—what to gargle with when you had a sore throat, how to make a good mustard plaster. But one that I remember was about an onion’s power to keep infection down. If someone was sick with a disease that could be spread, a cut onion under the bed would keep the sickness confined. And so when my brother had diphtheria, the first thing after the diagnosis was to cut an onion in two and put the two halves under the bed. Of course, mold appeared on the surface, and that was proof enough that the germs were being caught. Oddly enough, years later, when I first read Ben Jonson’s Volpone, their conversation came back. For Sir Politic Would-be in one of his “projects” advocated fumigating ships with onions cut in half, for the “onion. . .doth naturally attract the infection.” If it changes color, he believed, it will instantly show there is contagion “Or else remain as fair as at the first.” Renaissance folkbeliefs do not die easily in the South.

As I remember they never talked of death, theirs or others. They were far too lively to do that, I believe.

And that was why, when my grandmother died, we had no idea of what hymns she wanted at her funeral. The service was held at home, the open casket lying in the dining room in as much state as she had ever known, banked with flowers. The family sat in the adjoining breakfast room, and those who came to the house sat in the living room on those uncomfortable chairs that the undertaker provided. Around the piano at the end of the room gathered those of the Presbyterian choir who could come. They, not grandmother, chose the hymns. One of them was “For All the Saints,” which she would have thought pretentious. They struggled dutifully through all six verses, and by the end of that even the big-bosomed soprano was exhausted. There were no hymns, blessed relief, at the burial. But if there had been in that late November afternoon, I think she might have been satisfied with something like a song at twilight.


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