Back in the mountains where my people are from jobs were scarce. Pap could get work at the paper mill sometimes but he was never regularly employed. He didn’t sit around talking about retirement or his 401-K or health insurance for Granny, who everyone called “the crippled woman down the hill” or “up the hill” depending on where they were living at the time.
Their frig and cupboards were rarely ever full but something was always growing in the garden. People were always on the hunt for some way to make some money. Those with the least little bit of land grew a patch of tobacco alongside their tomatoes and their corn. That was their money crop.
Some took to the woods in search of roots to sell. The New Life root would fetch them a buck-and-half a pound, green, and over $3 dried at the market in Knoxville. The New Life root has always been in big demand because there’s some that believe in its medicinal properties. They say that the New Life root is a memory-maker. They say it can make an old man lucky. They say it will take away the fatigue that comes with living the ordinary life.
Not that my people ever used the New Life root. They didn’t believe in all that nonsense. My people always got their New Life the same place they’d always gotten it — from John 3: 16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
No. There’s no indication at all that the people of the mountains used the New Life root for anything at all. Not that they didn’t use roots. They used roots all the time. Some of the ladies kept roots in mason jars right alongside the apple butter and the peaches they’d canned last summer. They had roots that would stop a headache, take care of a toothache, roots to thin the blood, roots to staunch the blood.
But they didn’t give credence to the medicinal values of the New Life root. The only value of “sang” as it was most commonly called among our mountain people was in its ability to be sold for cold cash. The Asian demand for ginseng has not diminished to this day. They say that because the roots of the sang plant resemble that of a man walking upright that the plant can restore an ailing person to perfect health. They say it can make old men new fathers.
Because I was raised in the flatlands along the Chattahoochee and not at the foothills where Aunt Cil kept her hogs, I have never been on a “sanging” expedition. Aunt Cil knew her roots. Knew which ones would give your new life and which ones would make your heart flutter. She also knew how to cook a biscuit to perfection in a stove heated with nothing but sticks of hickory. Every meal at Cil’s began the same way — building a fire in the stove.
I spent a lot of time with Aunt Cil that year Daddy died. She taught me a great many things, told me countless stories but Cil didn’t teach me the ways of roots. She did, however, teach me about the eternal life found in John 3:16. Years ago, when I sold my first book, I went back to that bend in the road where I spent so much of my time alongside Cil. I talked to the people who live on the farm now. The house has changed but the barn remains the same.
I remember as a youngster standing with Brother John on the rails around the hog pen, watching the hogs waller. I remember Lon, my older cousin, who was deaf and mute, and the way he would smile at us. If it hadn’t been for that pie-eating grin of his we’d have been scared-to-death of anyone whose only sounds were guttural. There were some who called Lon dumb. Deaf-and-dumb was how they put it. He was anything but dumb. If it hadn’t been for Lon, Aunt Cil would have left the farm years before her death.
She died only a couple of years after Daddy did. It broke Mama’s heart all over again. I still recall the ride through the holler in that Corvair, us three kids packed in the back seat like wooden clothespins, unable to flinch a muscle without it annoying another. David Gibbons, Mama’s friend who’d come along to help her drive, yelled at us to hush up and I don’t think we drew breath again until we reached the church where Cil, wearing a beautiful pink nightgown and clutching a bible, lay sleeping in a coffin. Decades passed before I visited that church again. I took some of the money from that memoir I wrote and bought my Aunt Cil the prettiest slab of pink Tennessee marble.
When she died nobody could afford to buy her a headstone so I bought one for my Aunt Cil and had engraved on it these words: Words rise up out of the country because Cil taught me the gift of storytelling.
Some people buy jewelry, some buy fancy cars to commemorate their successes. I buy headstones because I learned at an early age that death is the touchstone to which we all return, over and over and over again. My people have always understood that it’s not what we own that defines us — it’s who our people are. It’s the life they lead. The stories they create and the ones they leave behind.
I come from a long line of storytellers. People who know that new life isn’t found in a root. It’s found by those rooted in the Word of God.
Aunt Cil taught me that.
People spend a lot of time yammering about a New Year approaching and all that it holds for us. They chase after the promise of something new the way the Asians do the sang plant. Americans have become like a flock of Mockingbirds, flitting from one shiny new thing to the next.
I do not wish you or yours a Happy New Year.
I wish for you the same thing I wish for myself: A year from now I want more of the same I already possess.
I want to curl up before midnight with the very same husband I’ve been curling up next to for the past three decades. I want to hear him whisper the very same thing he’s whispered to me hundreds of times before: You’re deep, girl.
I want to be wrapped in another warm embrace by my children as they tell me about their day, about their friends, about the children they hope to have one day, or the places the long to go to. I want to hear their stories, over and over and over again.
I want to walk the beach with my sister and hear her laughter. I want to tease my brother about growing older or hear his stories about his new grandsons.
I want to rub Poe’s belly and tell the story yet again of how he nearly bit off my nose and how I had to pound on the door before the neighbors opened it.
I want to sit in Aunt Grace’s rocker reading a good book by Billy Coffey or Amy Greene or Tom Franklin or Shellie Tomlinson or Flannery or hundreds of others whose writing I enjoy.
I want to see the tulips bloom red and the lilacs purple. I want to watch another triple-overtime game, preferably one we win.
I want to open the Word of God and discover something new that I missed in the last reading. I want the Holy Spirit to prompt me and I want to respond quickly to that prompting so that I don’t miss a blessing that God intended.
I want to watch more sunrises and more sunsets.I want to stand underneath a starry sky and talk late into the night with a good friend.
I want warm tears to cleanse me from the inside out.
I want to remember those that have gone on before me and to say a prayer of thanks for all that they taught me, the things they teach me yet.
I want to place my hand over the warm marble at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and thank God for the men and women he has brought into my life and to remember that he is a God of restoration.
I want to walk barefoot through the grass at the church where Great Aunt Cil is buried and to kneel again beside that pink Tennessee marble and run my fingers over the words etched in stone: Lucille Shropshire Christian and remember the woman who told me the stories of our people and of the Jesus who gives us all New Life.
This New Year I wish for you more of the ordinary that you already possess.