The way I discovered, once and for all, that the Daily Show interviews are not staged – that is, that there are still people out there who agree to appear on the show without realizing they will be mercilessly mocked – was when Steve Colbert came to Dublin, Georgia, the town my grandparents live in. The segment was about a curious incident in which a deer crashed into a taxidermist’s shop, breaking the storefront window and badly injuring himself. Needless to say, Colbert had a field day probing the country bumpkin shop owner for theories as to why a deer would do such a thing. The local paper, the Dublin Courier Herald, reported on the filming of the show, conveying nothing but pride at having Comedy Central make a pit stop in their tiny mid-Georgia town.
This is the town my mother was born and raised in, a place of endless one-story brick houses with carports and American flags on manicured lawns, more Wal-Marts than bookstores, and “Jesus is Coming Soon” billboards lining every main road. I’ve visited this town a couple of times a year ever since I was a baby, and yet it never ceases to amaze me that anyone at all – let alone my mother, a seemingly normal individual – could survive childhood in such a place. For fun, kids go on church outings and poke giant fire ant hills with sticks, just to watch the ants scurry away. It’s the poor man’s form of cow tipping.
Ever since I was a little girl, my mom would give my sister and me a crash course in Bible Belt manners on our plane rides to Georgia. We would practice replacing “Oh God” in our vocabularies with “Oh my goodness,” and “Shit!” with “Oh foot!;” memorizing the Lord’s Prayer; learning such songs as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot;” and practicing what I’d say when Granddaddy inevitably turned to me before a meal and said, “Hannah May, why don’ you ask the blessin’?”
Although I would truly rather move to Iceland than the middle of Georgia, I’ve always loved going there, much in the same way I loved traveling in India and marveling at my own extreme foreignness. The European Union has regions as diverse from one another as Turkey and France; we Americans have the South and California.
My grandparents, however, are not as impressed with the vast differences between the United States’ various regions. As far as they’re concerned, “God’s country” is the only acceptable place to be. That my mom is living in Boston is bad enough, but at least they have Protestantism. Now that I’ve moved to California, well, I may as well have joined a cult.
The last time I visited Dublin with my mom, it was after 9 p.m. by the time we walked up to my grandparents’ screened porch – complete with the requisite rocking chair and loveseat swing. My grandparents must have eaten at least four hours ago, but my grandmother had a full meal waiting for us on the table, along with two tall glasses of cold lemonade. The zipper peas, corn, and string beans were all from the garden, alongside warm applesauce, sweet potato souffle, and biscuits. (It has taken years for my grandmother to stop preparing meat for us. She still always insists I should try her “vegetable” soup: chicken broth with chunks of ham alongside peas and carrots). And of course there was a “salad:” red Jello with frozen strawberries in it, atop a bed of cool whip and graham cracker crust.
“Now Mama, you didn’t have to do all this!” my mom said, instantly slipping back into her strong Southern accent. My mother and I sat down and looked at each other awkwardly for a few moments, not knowing whether or not we ought to say the blessing. (I have to remind myself sometimes that my mom is in the company of her parents.) Finally, my grandfather announced from his seat on the couch, “I reckon y’all are ready to hang on the feed bag. Go ‘head. Grab it and growl.” This is one of the ways he has softened in recent years, that he doesn’t tell us to ask the blessing if he has already said grace earlier in the evening.
We always eat in the “den” – a combination sitting room and dining room – where two grandfather clocks tick, tick, tick day and night. My granddaddy has set them so that one goes off just after the other: midnight strikes twenty-four times. Above the TV is a sign that says, “Big problems? God is bigger.”
“I see you got your trousers rolled up there,” Granddaddy remarked to me as I shoveled peas into my mouth. “They’re not draggin’ all over the place like usual. You know, I got me a pair a real sharp scissors:.”
“Don’t make fun of me, Granddaddy!” I protested.
“I ain’t makin’ fun of you! I just don’t understand you.”
After dinner, Grandmama brought out a garden fresh blueberry cobbler. As she dished it up for the four of us with vanilla ice cream, she gestured toward Granddaddy and said, “He helped make this one.” Granddaddy looked all about as if confused. “Mama, dagummit!” he said, rather enigmatically as far as I was concerned.
“You don’t remember now?” Grandmama said. “‘Member? I gave you the stick of margarine and said cut it up fine as frog’s hair.”
“Well, it sure is good,” I said as I spooned another bite of warm cobbler into my mouth.
“Yessir. Dem Yankees wudn’t know what hit ’em,” Granddaddy said. Beneath the joke, there is a real question: Granddaddy has never stopped begging my mom to move back down South. “This is God’s country,” he says at least once a day, often as he walks outside to take down the American flag for the evening.
“Now Hannah May, you been down to Long Beach yet now that you’re all high and mighty in California?” Granddaddy asked me for about the tenth time. “We docked in Long Beach one time, back when I was in the Navy. Yessir, you gotta watch out for the strip joints and booze parlors down there, Hannah May. Now, I didn’t do that stuff, as you know. I stayed on the ship.”
Consuming alcoholic beverages is among the long list of things my grandparents have never done, along with eating pizza or Chinese food, and missing Church on Sunday.
Since I moved to California, the placement of evangelical literature throughout my grandparents’ house has become increasingly prominent. On this particular visit, there was a magazine laid out on the desk in an otherwise spotless house, opened to an article entitled, “It’s never too late for God.”
The next day, we took our traditional outing to Dairy Queen. Aside from church and driving to the farm, going to Wal-Mart and the DQ are about the only times my grandparents ever leave the house. “How ’bout some DQ after dinner?” I asked Granddaddy, referring to lunch in the traditional Southern way. “You got the money, honey, I got the time,” he answered as usual before revving up his old Chevy pickup and putting on his favorite song: “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”
On this particular drive to the Dairy Queen, Grandmama decided she’d had just about enough of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and turned on the radio, in which a news reporter was talking about a young man who was wanted for the brutal murder of his wife and mother. “Well I tell ya’, I reckon that boy is aimed to kill,” Grandmama said wisely.
Home from the DQ, where the clerks called us all “sir” and “ma’am” and actually carried our ice cream to our table, my grandfather motioned to me and said, “Let’s go look at the map,” one of his favorite leisure activities as it gives him an excuse to tell his “sea stories” about his 11 years in the Navy. I followed him to the wall map, where he moved his dirt-encrusted fingernail throughout the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska down to the islands below Hawaii. “It was all black folks lived here,” he began. “They was the commanders-in-chief of the ships. And now, on my boat, it was all a bunch a Georgia and Alabama crackers. They couldn’t kindly tolerate the black commanders. Now I said, ‘I’ll just stay below. I can’t associate with these black commanders.'”
“Granddaddy!” I exclaimed disapprovingly. I’ve never heard him say anything racist about black people – he usually confines his racism to the Japanese and occasionally the French. “I’m jus’ pulling your leg now,” Granddaddy said. “Truth is, I never felt that way. I played with all dem children like dey was my neighbors.” I believed him. In fact, during the 60s, my grandparents left their church when it refused to integrate, believing Jesus would never advocate putting up such barriers. Still, when Grandmama found out that one of my cousins got engaged to a black man, she shook her head and said, “It jus ain’t right. A blackbird don’t mate with a bluebird.” It’s tough to argue with logic like that.
Granddaddy’s finger, cracking with dry skin, traced a path through the Panama Canal all the way to Japan and back up to Sri Lanka. “Yep, I been all in here. We were here once, working for 36 hours in a 130-degree heat. Them Japs was circling ’round, kindly tantalizing. But we just stayed put ’till they left. Afterwards, we got up on deck, we jus’ stripped everything off. ‘Course warn’t no one but us up there. I tell ya’, you get goin’ and – hmmm that salt air. See, we was all covered in heat rash. And the salt air just wiped it all away. Now I ain’t lyin’.”
“I believe you, Granddaddy,” I said.
“You best. You gets to be 90 years old and you want to lie, you kindly have to work at it,” Granddaddy said before glancing back toward the map. “Well I tell ya, it is one big world.”