Chapter 2

 

Two days before Dad’s funeral, Nehemiah flew into Charlotte from Fort Benning. When Mom and I met him at the gate, she was able to muster the greeting Dad had come up with on the spot years earlier when Nehemiah arrived home on leave for the first time.

“The Army’s here,” she said with a broken voice as she tucked her head into his arms. His duffle bag slid from his shoulder.

“Mom, … I’m … I love you.” He placed the duffle on the floor and pulled her close with the tenderness he always showed her.

If there were looks — there were always looks — I didn’t notice them. A middle-aged woman crying in the devoted arms of a young black man in fatigues must have left a startling impression on a number of airport travelers that day. We had long ago supplanted indignation with compassion for those who couldn’t understand.

“I’m so happy you could get leave,” she said, stepping back to look at him.

“I wish it could be longer.” He reached over and placed his hand on my shoulder.

“Dal-rhymes-with-Hal,” he said to me. Not as impressive a greeting, but one that had stuck with me since I was a kid.

I drove us home as Nehemiah stared out the front passenger seat window, his eyes catching and releasing road signs and billboards and other objects as they passed by.

“It’ll be an interesting few days,” Mom said from the back.

“We’ll help with everything, Mom,” Nehemiah said. “I don’t want you to have to worry about anything.”

“What are people going to think?”

“Please don’t worry about any of that, Mom. Not right now.”

No one said anything for a couple of miles, and then over the hum of the interstate, Nehemiah said, almost to himself, “He was a great man.”

On the day of the funeral Nehemiah remained composed and focused. As we walked from the church to the gravesite, he asked if I was embarrassed.

“Where’s your dress uniform?” It occurred to me at that moment he wasn’t wearing it.

“It attracts too much attention,” he said. “People should remember that his life was about a lot more than adopting me.”

“No, I’m not embarrassed,” I said, less composed and truthfully unsure of my feelings.

Once we were seated with Mom at the graveside, I looked out at the people gathered and did feel embarrassed. I felt I was in a fog and that everyone else could see things quite clearly, that everyone except me knew what had led to this. I felt hollow and ashamed.

Before us was the poplar wood casket with the gloss mahogany finish that the funeral director had convinced us best suited Dad. The long brass handles along the sides were sweating, and the flowers on the top of the casket were rigid and erect as they bathed in the North Carolina humidity.

Standing in the front of the crowd and its scattered umbrellas just on the other side of the casket was Esther. Her short, stout figure was less commanding now, and her posture seemed deflated by what must have been years of quiet sorrow. She raised her thumb to her face and smudged tears into her dark brown cheeks. Esther and I lost each other to a storm of sorts, one caused by my grandfather, who, when he was alive, always left devastation in his path. Esther had been our maid from the time I was born until I was six, just after my parents adopted Nehemiah. She left our employment mostly against her will during the calm from the eye of that particular storm, the storm that involved Nehemiah’s adoption. She had had as much a hand in raising me as Mom until shortly after we moved to the old Lowder Farm just outside of town. But the pressure from Stony Gap’s black community became too much to bear, particularly because we were Keepings, and particularly because my grandfather, Pop Keeping, was the reason Nehemiah was an orphan.

Esther knew, as my parents did, the adoption presented extraordinary opportunities for Nehemiah. But regretfully she had to say goodbye. I remember her last day as if it was yesterday and still get emotional thinking about our tearful embrace in the driveway before she left.

“You’re my precious one,” she said to me as she held onto me tightly. She had often said those words to me, softly and in private. She was warm and selfless and the one I always ran to and threw my arms around for any reason or no reason at all. Saying goodbye was like losing a parent. “You’ll always be my very precious one,” she whispered before getting into the car that drove her away.

Reverend Speight waited at the head of the casket as people finished gathering around. Behind Esther stood a surprisingly large representation from Eastside, the black section of town. Many of them had known my father; they all knew of him. Some felt he had helped them in ways that were difficult to measure; some felt he was simply Pop with a veneer.

Mr. Hathaway, a once towering man, stood in the very back. This decorum had been his custom in the days when his posture let him see over everyone else. He wore a signature dark brown suit with a matching narrow-brimmed hat, but he was thinner now, and there was a graying hue to his aging dark black skin. For him, this day was hallowed. That my father had taken his own life was a meaningful if not seismic beginning to the end of what Mr. Hathaway had for years considered the bane of his people, namely, their mistreatment by the Keeping family.

Mr. Hathaway had been the honorary mayor of Eastside since as long as anyone could remember. Officially, Eastside was governed by Stony Gap’s town council and had no separate mayor. But Mr. Hathaway, a scowling and visibly angry man, had presided over the community of Eastside since the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. Pop used to call him Martin Luther King Junior Junior. His rallying talks of that period, which he delivered to black congregations at various Eastside gatherings and in neighboring counties as well, are legendary for the crowds he drew and the noise he was able to generate among the black population in the area. He was handsome, his youthfulness mirrored King’s, and his message raised the hopes and expectations of those separate but equal. But while his speeches were fashionable at the time, they had little effect on improving race relations in Stony Gap, a town for which the status quo of segregation and animosity suited a majority of blacks and whites alike. Stony Gap’s civil rights movement was confined mostly to Eastside’s hair salons, community centers and the Eastside Baptist Church, and it played itself out mildly and hardly in due course. It took fifteen years for the town’s schools to become integrated; discrimination perennially out-performed any legislation passed to banish it; and fair housing laws did little to address the biggest complaints of the local movement: the unfair real estate practices of Pop Keeping.

Mr. Hathaway had never given up the cause, but he was a time-trodden man, and his age and bitterness now undermined his authority. In spite of all of his earlier inspiration, change would come about in Stony Gap as it always had: watered down and uninfluenced by its own necessity.

Jim Creech stood close to where we were sitting. He was my Dad’s number two at the bank, and my boss. A decade earlier, he had moved to Stony Gap from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to become the president of Stony Gap’s Chamber of Commerce. He had worked at the Spartanburg chamber and served on the city council there. Shortly after taking the job at the chamber, he found himself at loggerheads with Pop over the issue of tax abatements and incentives for industry. Creech could see the future as clearly as my grandfather and felt more efforts were needed to prop up Stony Gap’s textile industry. Pop thought these efforts would be a burden to property owners and, particularly, a detriment to his business interests.

After several years of jousting with “that squirmy little son-of-a-bitch,” as Pop referred to Creech, and two months before Pop died, Pop, in a manner typical of his achievements in business, lured Creech away from the Chamber with an unreasonably high salary. He put him in charge of business development at the bank, reporting directly to my father.

Dad and Creech had become good friends before Creech came to work for the bank. They had met on the golf course, and Dad could often coax him into a Sunday morning round. Mom, too, was very fond of Creech. He was much younger than my parents, so she felt maternal toward him, something he countered by being flirtatious with her, which she found charming.

Mitzi Holt was there with her mom. We made eye contact, but I resisted that manner of glance that amounts to an embrace from afar. It had been years since I’d last seen her and even longer since I’d finally lost my crush on her. Her hands were clasped in front of her, and her head was bowed slightly, her hair now more brown than blond. Her stiff navy suit fit poorly and stood up straight when she did not. Gone was the erect frame that moved with a quiet confidence through the hallways in high school and gone was any sign of her remarkable spirit. She slouched not from deference on this day but from the years of mounting self-doubt and what-ifs brought about by a rough boy back in high school named Eddie Lambert. She broke up with Eddie years after graduation, but not before he had crushed out of her everything that was extraordinary. He was two years older, a high school football star, and a bully. We all watched in disbelief as he wrung her of her intrinsic joy and robbed her of any notion of how true love and kindness can feel in careful arms. Eddie was a cretin. As I looked across at Mitzi, I was saddened not to see that desirable woman we’d been promised in high school. She looked back at me through gapped bangs, not sympathetically but imploringly, as if her own mortality had been brought into question by the clock we all hear ticking at funerals.

“We are gathered on this sad day,” Reverend Speight began.

Speight had been at our church for sixteen years, an anomaly in the tradition of the Central United Methodist Church. Our ministers would usually come and go every several years. But Speight, a populist minister – tolerant of devotional failings, alcohol, and a dirty joke or two – found himself quite at home in Stony Gap. He once said he found the church’s congregation to live in a “harmoniously reverent” manner. The abundant nature in which Stony Gap was nestled gave us a privileged exposure to God’s power and a keen awareness of His work. And so our devotion manifested itself not just at prayer time and in church on Sundays but continuously and anywhere. He was the only one of our ministers for whom Dad had any regard.

Dad did not go to church. He had stopped attending when he was a young man because he couldn’t tolerate sitting in the same hall of worship as his irreligious father. It made him feel hypocritical. Dad was moral, kind, just. Pop, who would sit with his arms crossed on the back pew, was not. Pop used God as notoriously as he used people, offering Him up as the ultimate cause of all misfortune, and Dad felt that attending the same church as Pop made it appear he was in some way excusing Pop’s beliefs or even subscribing to them. He decided he needed his own Sunday sanctuary, so he took up golf, which he played every Sunday morning instead of going to church.

Of course, this drew concern from the minister at the time, Stafford White, whose only lasting impression was his under-sized toupee. Reverend White would visit Dad at our home to plead with him to return to the church. During one of these visits he was overly critical of Dad for his brazen substitution of personal pleasure for religious devotion. Devotion, White would have it, meant church on Sunday, Pop or no Pop. Dad paid Reverend White no mind, and as he walked him to the door, he made a plea of his own by asking Reverend White to spare the congregation the distraction of his toupee.

By and by, given what everyone knew of Pop’s evil nature (no one ever shared the back pew with him), Dad’s absence from church began to raise questions about the authenticity of his religious devotion. Another minister, one who didn’t last for very long and hardly knew my father at all, referred to Dad once as a religiously handicapped individual, which amused my father. So my father separated himself completely from the Central United Methodist Church ‑ mind, body, and checkbook – and basked in the greater peace he found among God’s manicured fairways and smooth putting greens at the Uwharrie County Country Club. Within a few years he was proud to proclaim that he had reduced his handicap to a single digit.

Soon after Reverend Speight arrived at our church, he contacted my father, but not with the intention of trying to draw him back into the congregation. Reverend Speight had learned of the many good things Dad had done for the community, from the contributions of his time and money to causes and local charities to the adoption of Nehemiah, and he felt Dad’s good deeds were something he could make an example of among his congregation. Speight was different. He quickly recognized the reparations Dad had tried to make over the years for the actions of Pop. A friendship grew between Speight and my father, but to Speight’s quiet disappointment, their friendship never led to my father returning to the church.

Dad’s suicide and ultimate lack of religiosity created a dilemma for Reverend Speight when it came time to bury him. Reverend Speight usually closed the graveside ceremony by reading a passage from the bible of the deceased. It was his custom to choose a passage that had been underlined or marked by that person in his or her own bible at some point along his or her lifelong path to Jesus. But my father had never gone down that path. He had a bible, one he’d been given as a boy, but its only markings were several scratches on the outside of its cheap leather cover. It’s likely Dad had never even opened it.

Mom and I were called upon by Reverend Speight in our living room during his awkward visitation two days before the funeral to identify a passage that might “in some kind manner” explain my father’s “inner turmoil and his yearning for salvation.”

This proved to be no easy task. Mom was a devilish wreck, and with one apology after the next she kept changing her mind from Corinthians to Psalms to Luke and even to Job.

We went through both testaments so many times that when we’d finished, my father’s Bible was indeed well read. The brown leather cover was old and fragile, and small flakes of it had broken loose, smearing brown tint into our palms and fingers. We finally settled not on a passage from the Bible, but on a selection from the Methodist hymnal, which Reverend Speight had retrieved from his car for more inspiration. We bookmarked the page that contained the hymn “These Things Shall Be,” and Mom handed it back to Reverend Speight. As he took it from her, he noticed the stains on her hands. He quickly placed the hymnal on the table and grabbed both of my mom’s hands and held them together, open like a book, studying the stains as if they were a consecration. Then he folded her hands into his and bowed his head as if in prayer.

“We must try to believe, now, that he rests peacefully,” he said. His tone conveyed his near certainty that my father did not rest peacefully. “And let us take comfort in knowing that the good Lord has been benevolent in giving him an end to his troubled and difficult earthly journey.”

Just as I was about to object, my mother wailed loudly, which I had never heard her do, and bowed her head to his hands and began to sob. “I’m sorry!” she cried out. “I’m so, so sorry!”

That my father was not a churchgoing man was never an issue among his friends and colleagues. But for those from Eastside, his seeming lack of devotion fueled their concern regarding his lurking malevolence. He was the son of Stony Gap’s most notorious racist, and in spite of all the good he had done or had tried to do in the community, most blacks felt the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree, that his generosity and giving did little to hide his superior nature. To feel superior to an entire people without feeling inferior to God created a doubly threatening figure and cast Dad as one who could never be trusted. My mother, whose religion over the years became stronger as my father’s became more questionable, couldn’t understand why the black population felt as they did. Dad had not been evil, nor did he appear distraught; he simply found his answers in places other than the church. And now, upon his death, and in keeping with custom, Mom had arranged a Christian burial, not necessarily so that he may be given a chance at deliverance, but to put into context the kindness he had tried to show on earth.

At the end of the service, Reverend Speight, standing at the head of the coffin in his black robe and white stole, asked those gathered to pass by the family to pay their respects as he read the hymn Mom and I had chosen. People formed a line as Reverend Speight began to read. Friends and well-wishers filed past us, some offering hugs, others a polite handshake or nod.

 

These things shall be: a loftier race

Than e’er the world hath known shall rise

With flame of freedom in their souls

And light of knowledge in their eyes.

 

Close family friends filed past, as did members of the community whom my father had counted on in various aspects of his life. Between their handshakes and mournful hugs, I looked down the line and saw a group of black people huddled together standing away from everyone else. Esther stood to the side of them looking at me, her eyes filled with tears. As soon as we saw each other she was overcome with grief. She stormed to the front of the line and threw her arms around my neck, pulling me tightly down to her. “You’re still my precious one, my very precious one,” she whispered into my ear. Her warm tears flooded the side of my face and felt like my own. “I love you so much!” she said.

Nehemiah placed his hand on my back, and, at last, I began to cry.

When everyone saw this, the line began to break apart as the white people invited the black people to join them. At my dad’s funeral, of all places, there was a brief but moving integration. For one cloudy moment between sun and rain, all anger, fear, and suspicion was set aside and the most was made of this man’s passing.

 

Nation with nation, land with land,

In armed shall live as comrades free;

In every heart and brain shall throb

The pulse of one fraternity.

 

Nehemiah and I often discussed why there were so many people from Eastside at Dad’s funeral. Perhaps some were there because they understood how hard he had worked for their progress, in spite of the obstacles that effectively kept their progress at a standstill. Most had seen Dad as a conflicted man guided by good intentions but constantly thwarted by all of Pop’s mayhem. Perhaps some, like Mr. Hathaway, were relieved to see him go and were there simply to see he made it into the ground. Whatever their reasons, they seemed to say collectively, “Thanks, mister, for letting us move on.”

The line moved slowly, wonderfully slowly. After embracing Mom and Nehemiah, Esther stood by my side as a member of our family, which meant a lot to me. Though many years had passed and our family bore no resemblance to the one she had been close to, her place in it had not changed. Having her beside me at my father’s grave that afternoon meant everything to me, and it was a fearless gesture on her part.

Mr. Hathaway walked by without removing his hat. I remember his stern eyes staring out at me from the darkness beneath the hat’s brim, their lack of sympathy implying that burying my father in no way buried the past. Perhaps Hathaway saw Dad’s suicide as God’s justice. Without a nod or any change of expression, he panned his eyes to Esther as he kept walking.

Once Mr. Hathaway had walked past, Esther held my hand and squeezed it in her soft and gentle way. “Precious,” she whispered. “So precious.” She closed her eyes and held her face to the clouds.

 

New arts shall bloom of loftier mold,

And mightier music thrill the skies,

And every life shall be a song,

When all the earth is paradise.

 

As I held her hand, I breathed in deeply and tasted fresh honeysuckle and loose dirt, both familiar since childhood. I remembered the short, crisp white cotton sleeves against her dark brown arms. Esther’s arms were the ones that had lifted me from my crib that stormy afternoon when I was two.

 

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