Friday, December 19, 2008

Great Falls

Today I’m in South Carolina, with a long wait at the airport before heading home to Houston.
This was an unexpected trip. One of my cousins died last Sunday morning and his dad, my uncle, asked if I would speak for the family at the funeral (here in South Carolina we have funerals, not memorial services). A few years ago I made a commitment to always try to honor that sort of family request (I haven’t always been as good at that as I might have liked) so on Tuesday I flew “home” to South Carolina.

The funeral was in Great Falls, SC, the town where my dad and his 6 brothers and 4 sisters grew up (dad was the 10th of 11). In an era where going to college wasn’t just assumed, my grandparents accomplished a remarkable feat of sending all 11 off to college. Many, including my dad, returned to Great Falls to start their families, though eventually all moved away and only one (my uncle who’s son died) ever returned to live there. My parents were living there when I was born (though I was actually delivered at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, NC – about an hour away). Dad taught high math during those years and this week I ran into a few of his former algebra students.

There’s not much in Great Falls these days. The mill that was central to the town’s economy closed years ago. The town is a little too far off of I-77 (which connects Charlotte and Columbia SC) to benefit from traffic and at half way between each is too far out to be a bedroom community for either.

The funeral was at the Mt. Dearborn United Methodist Church. It’s the church my dad attended when he was growing up and the church where I was baptized. In fact until I was 4 (when my parents heading to Charleston, SC and the coast) I lived 3 houses down from the church.

My life was certainly shaped by my parents’ decision to move to Charleston. The Carolina lowcountry possess a unique culture of its own. I was reminded how much of who I am is a blend of my coastal experiences and “upstate” heritage.

Anyway, I hadn’t been in the Mt. Dearborn church in years and had forgotten how small the sanctuary is – I’d guess it sits maybe 100 – certainly not many more. It made me realize that there must have been a time when my grandparents along with 11 kids, spouses, grandchildren and various aunts, uncles and cousins must have filled half the place on Sunday mornings. We did again this Wednesday as we gathered to honor my cousin.

When I got up to speak I glanced out the window and saw that from the pulpit I had a perfect view of the front yard of the house I used to live in – I guess that’s why dad never wanted to skip a Sunday – it would have been too obvious! Somehow the combination of standing just a few feet from where I was baptized, looking out at the house where I lived and a sanctuary full of family got to me. I found myself suddenly more nervous than I can ever remember when speaking. I was glad to be wearing a robe because by legs were shaking so much.

I managed to hide my nerves in my voice and my Aunt Ruth (always one of my favorites and the only other Presbyterian in the bunch) told me I did great.

After the service we drove out to a cemetery out in the country were many of our family have been buried. After the committal we hung around the cemetery for quite a while. There is a good bit of family history told through the tombstones and they prompted lots of stories and memories. We finished back at the church were the members had preparedthe sort of lunch you can only find in the fellowship halls of small southern churches. In fact over the two days I was in Great Falls I ate more fried chicken and drank more REALLY sweet tea than I am supposed too – this would not be a good week for a blood test (and if you ever have the change to eat at the Wagon Wheel in Fort Lawn, SC don’t pass it by).

I am flying back today with a little greater appreciation for home, roots and the stories that unite families together. It was good to remember all that it means when I say that I am from South Carolina.

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