Southern Cultures 9.2 (2003) 91-97
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The Fruits of Memory
Amy E. Weldon
Each fall I receive an exact intimation of how far away I have become. Such signs are not always dramatic, the Old Testament notwithstanding. When God, or memory, or the past, or any stern force wants to get your attention, the ways are legion. Ravens shriek over Ezekiel's cowering head, branches burn and are not consumed, a child turns in a ninety-year-old womb. There's a secular version too: a taste of a coming season in the wind can sweep your whole life past you, rich in portent. Elizabeth Spencer in The Voice at the Back Door describes this as "the dusty stir of autumn in the twilight," with the indescribable "quality beneath the eagerness and color that tried to speak and could not." Such thoughts are designed to haunt, in one way or another.
But there are different kinds of haunting. And different kinds of ghosts, which live in different places. The most powerful ghost that reaches for me in early fall, here in Chapel Hill, lives in a grocery store, in neat ranks of plastic snap-top boxes [End Page 91] with stickers bearing the name of an orchard in Wadesboro, North Carolina. The phone number is included on the sticker, in a shade of green that almost matches the contents. Antiseptically, rebelliously, inside the box nestle thick-skinned globesof golden-green, sprinkled with microscopic brown freckles and sometimes wide, harmless liver spots, like those on the hands of a beloved elder. Scuppernongs.
The folksy humor that such a name encourages, popularized in tiresome public-radio commentaries about Mama 'n' them, should be fiercely resisted. This name is a rich briar patch of syllables, strange with the forbidding strangeness of ancestor stories that terrify when viewed with humility. Trivializing the name because of its link to the memories of individual and collective rural pasts means trivializing the namers. It means trivializing southern rural life, and it means scoffing at the darkness from which the stories reach for you, opening their scarred palms. The words of those stories taste as dark and rich as any fruit. Your great-great-uncle stuck a knife in a man's back when he cut in front of him in line at the cotton gin. Your great-aunt, the youngest child of a family that included six older brothers and a mother who beat them all with a mule bridle, struck out in the middle of the night to elope with a traveling salesman. Your grandfather, her second- or third-oldest brother, was still cursing the spot, forty years later, where the salesman's car outdistanced the Hupmobile bristling with father, brothers, and shotguns. You imagine that girl's frightened anger and shudder, but you lean [End Page 92] into the touch of the stories on your shoulder, amazed at how gentle those long, rough hands can feel.
And there is no way now to explain or relive to yourself that gentleness—the paradoxical draw of the way of life that can produce such violence—except to lift that clamshell box from the grocery-store shelf and take it home, and once home to eat them, one at a time, remembering how far away the time was when you ate them where they, and you, belonged. Twenty minutes into the country from the Alabama town where he maintained the controlled chaos of a small-town doctor's life, near the tiny, lyrically named settlement of Oak Bowery, your grandfather kept a farm—a farm your family has sworn will be the last of its holdings to go in times of depression. Here he maintained a herd of Angus and Hereford cattle, and a lake of catfish, and an orchard of plum and peach trees in which you were forbidden to climb but did anyway, and a rustling, purple-smelling fig tree, and a well of pure water that tasted like the tin dipper on its nail above the wooden well lid, and a scuppernong arbor. [End Page 93]