My granny Naomi moved herself and her boys back into the little shack that she had grown up in. Her Momma didn’t mind her pretty daughter and her fine young grandsons coming back home. She just had one rule that they all had to follow: they all had to be at church every time the doors were opened. Naomi and her boys hadn’t attended church due to the fact that Harold Turner wouldn’t set foot in God’s house, likely for fear of being struck down dead right then and there. Granny Naomi had a beautiful rich voice though, and it had been sorely missed by the choir since she had been gone. Besides her need to save her boys, the hymns that she had learned as a girl had given her strength and hope during her dark years in the prison house that Harold Turner had built for her.
Naomi noticed that a few things had changed at Chapel Springs Baptist right off. First of all, the girls that she had once known and played with had all grown up and now they had families of their own. Since Naomi hadn’t been allowed to entertain guests or go anywhere not chaperoned by Harold, she had missed seeing how much other people’s lives had changed besides her own. Now she was meeting old friends and making them new friends again.
And she was singing in the choir. Everybody sitting down in the congregation would have a hard time looking at or listening to anybody else when Naomi would stand up in the choir loft to sing. Her voice never over-powered, but it lifted above the other choir members and ran through everybody. Her voice was so sweet and pure that when Naomi would sing “Amazing Grace” there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace.
The world shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun refuse to shine; But God, who called me here below, Shall be forever mine.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we’d first begun.
One Sunday morning about a year after her exodus from Harold Turner’s house, Naomi saw a new face down in the congregation. She had a good view from her perch in the choir loft… and he had a good view of her too. Just about the only time the two took their eyes off of each other was when the preacher told them to bow their heads to pray.
After the service Naomi was standing outside with her momma and her boys when the stranger walked up to introduce himself.
“Good morning, ladies. Good morning, gentlemen.” He nodded to the boys. “I would like to introduce myself. My name is Archibald McCracken.”
The little boys all laughed to be called “gentlemen.”
“Good morning, Archibald McCracken. I’m Naomi Turner, and these are my boys Mattie, Mark, Luke, Johnny, and Henry… and this is my momma, Joy Smith. I don’t believe we have seen you around here. Are you new to town or are you just visiting?”
“Well, I’ve not moved yet, but I am looking at some property just down the way. I’ve taken a job with Tusculum College and I will be moving here late this summer. I heard your pretty worship music coming from inside, and I could not resist coming in for the service.”
“Well, we are very glad that you did come in, and welcome. Come back any time.”
“You are most kind. I will look forward to doing just that.”
“You talk funny.” A little voice interrupted the grownup’s greetings.
“Henry Roland!” MeeMaw Joy scolded.
“It’s all right. I suppose I do sound funny to you. I know that you sound a little funny to me!” And with that he gave Henry Roland such a sweet smile that it made Naomi’s heart miss a beat.
“Where are you from, mister?” Mattie asked.
“I am from a town called Boston. Most of the people there sound funny…but I may sound even stranger than most, because I was raised in a house full of noisy Irish.”
“What’s Irish?” asked Henry Roland.
“It’s a type of big red dog, dummy”, said Luke.
“No it’s not you big know-it-all, it’s a little island country over by England. It’s part of what they call the United Kingdom.” corrected Mattie.
“That’s very impressive, son. You know your geography well. Ireland is a complicated country though. My family is from Northern Ireland, and we are Protestants like you…or at least all of us except our mother who is a Catholic.” Archibald gave the boys another smile that made Naomi’s cheeks feel warmer than the day called for.
“What is Protestant and cat lick Mr. Cracking?”
Everybody laughed at little Henry Roland, and he didn’t know what was so funny about being “Protestant or cat lick”.
“It’s not ‘Mr. Cracking, Darling one” Naomi gently corrected. “This nice man’s name is Mr. McCracken. And a Protestant is a Christian, …”
“But a Catholic is different kind of Christian. They have a different kind of service and they have a Pope.” interrupted Mattie excitedly. “We learned about Ireland in school and how the English and Irish don’t get along. The English Kings and Queens have been telling Ireland what to do for about forever… and the Irish don’t like it. Kind of like how the English and King George tried to tell us what to do over here and … hey… Boston is where they had that big tea party!” Mattie proudly announced, realizing that he listened in class more than he thought.
“You are a history professor too Mr. Mattie! I think you may have a great future ahead of you as a diplomat or ambassador! Or a Professor like me! Maybe you could even go to Ireland one day and broker a peace treaty! Miss Naomi, I think that your boy is destined for greatness. I bet their daddy is proud of these fine men young.” Archibald smiled as he nodded his compliment to each boy.
“Our Daddy is gone.” Henry Roland said.
“And good riddance” Mattie said under his breath but just loud enough to be heard.
“Their Father has moved away. We haven’t seen or heard from him in more than a year.” MeeMaw Joy spit out the words as if she had a foul taste in her mouth.
“Well, I am sorry about that,” Archibald said, but he only partly looked like he meant it. He sensed that there was much more to know.
“Will your wife and family be joining you soon to look for your land?” Naomi cleverly directed the conversation away from that topic.
Archibald’s countenance went from lively to weighty. “I’m afraid not. My wife and babe are with God.”
Everybody cast their eyes down with those sad words. Everybody except Naomi who looked right at Archibald McCracken. And with a tear in her big black eyes said with great sincerity, “we are so very sorry.”
“It has been a while now. While it does still hurt, I take comfort that we had a few happy years and I have no regrets. I am glad they have each other.”
“Mr. McCracken”, MeeMaw Joy said out of the blue, “Our house ain’t much and my cookin’ is only half the time edible, but you are in luck today. If you would do us the honor of joining us for dinner we would be much obliged for the company. And you would get to taste Naomi’s prize winning chocolate cake with caramel pecan icing that she made us for our dessert.”
“It would be my honor, Madam. ” I can not think of a way that I would rather spend my day.”
Except for the quick trip back to Boston to retrieve his things, Archibald McCracken didn’t spend another day away from Naomi or her boys. And after another year, Archibald, with his happy and friendly way had made so many good connections that Robert P. Johnson, Esq. agreed to write-up papers for Naomi and Archibald. With the Chapel Springs Baptist Church preacher’s help, a new marriage certificate was drawn up and signed by the bride and the groom and new birth certificates were drafted legally changing the boy’s names from Turner to McCracken. There were no Turner’s left in town to protest… they had all left town and gone far away to escape their debts and their past. The sheriff and deputy had a new best friend who supplied them with their illegal swill. And there were no past-linking papers left due to the courthouse fire that had curiously occurred when a bolt of lightning struck the weather vane on the top of the County courthouse. A stray spark dropped into the attic below burning the legal papers that were stored there. The building structure was left intact, but all of the weddings, births and deaths for the years from the date of Naomi’s and Harold’s wedding until the year of Henry Roland’s birth were charred and completely illegible. There was nothing left to prove a thing other than Archibald McCracken was the legally wedded husband of Naomi and father to her boys.
“I’ve never known people with a name more fitting” MeeMaw Joy told her blissful daughter Naomi. “ Archie is always ‘crackin’ a joke and your always ‘crackin’ a smile and those boys are always ‘crackin’ up. It’s so nice to see them laughing and playing and just getting to be silly little boys. I hope that you’ll will always be just so happy. No, I don’t hope you will, I know you will.”
Tears streamed down Naomi’s face, from the knowledge that her mother loved her, from the joy of knowing that she would get to share the rest of her days with Archie, and from the relief that Harold Turner would never be able to do any of his kind of ‘crackin’ again. The kind that involved belts or whips or fists on flesh and bone.
Mattie was always encouraged by Archie and Naomi to seek and learn about all things that interested him. He enjoyed school so completely that he dedicated his life to higher education and became a Professor of World History at Vanderbilt. The other brothers followed suit and ventured out beyond their hills and mountains to follow the desires of their own hearts. They knew that there was a big world to explore, so they went out in search of their own place in it. Henry Roland, Naomi’s baby and my daddy, was the only one that stayed near his momma and Archibald McCracken. Archie had been more of a daddy to him than many fathers who are blood related. Henry wanted to stay close to home to help Archie manage the farm that was just down the road from Chapel Springs Baptist Church… the farm that my daddy Henry and his brothers had grown up on and where he had so many happy memories. He knew that one day Archie wouldn‘t be a young man anymore. Henry built himself a little house, the one where I was born, on Archibald’s land. In their old age, my daddy Henry and my Momma helped care for Naomi and Archibald.
Archibald went first before I was even born. Daddy said that at Archie’s funeral there wasn’t a dry eye. Everybody in the whole community had learned to love him so much, even the most stoic old codgers broke down and cried. There was standing room only inside, and more people poured out into the church yard. Dozens of people stood up to speak in eulogy, hoping to pay their final respects and to share what the happy Irishman had come to mean to them.
“Archibald McCracken would give you the shirt off his back.”
“And the shoes off his feet, too!”
“His red hair made him stand out in a crowd, but it was his laugh that would draw the crowd to him”.
His hair was bright, sure enough, but there was a light that glowed through him and warmed everybody near to him.”
“He was the friendliest man I ever knew, Yankee or no.”
“Folks like Archibald could make even the biggest cynic believe that the world is a good place to be.”
“He was a good husband and a good daddy.”
And on and on.
All through the service and the singing of Archie’s favorite hymns, Granny Naomi just sat there and smiled. She was just about the only person who didn’t cry. Nobody thought that it was odd that she sat with a look of contented peace. Archibald had been sick for a while and they had said their goodbyes in a million different ways. Archie losing his first wife so young, and Naomi living for so long without love, gave them both a greater appreciation for the special marriage that they had been so blessed to find. They had already shared enough tears in the years before they met each other, that they wanted to make certain that all of the days that they were given together were filled with smiles and laughter.
My Granny Naomi told me once “If I cried at that funeral I would have been crying for myself instead of him… and if there is one thing that I learned from my life with Archie McCracken it is to live everyday to it’s fullest. Life is to be used up…no remnants. I want to burn so bright and for so long that there’s nothing left of me when I go but a spent little nub. Like Archie, I want to know that I’ve been a source of warmth and light for all who have been near to me. Katie, this family has been given a lot, and I’m not talking about money or other worldly things. To have a family that loves you and friends who are there for you in both good and hard times, and to have peace… that’s everything. If you have that, then you know that everything is going to be just fine. Peace in your mind and love in your heart…that’s all we really need. And at the end, if you have had those two things, then you are rich indeed.”
Granny Naomi stayed in her house alone after Archibald died. Sometimes her boys who had moved away would come back with their families and stay a few days, and sometimes me and my brothers and sisters would be over there during the day or go over to spend the night. But on the nights when no body was with her, Granny would turn her light off in her bedroom every night at the same time. My Daddy would know to look out his window at just that time so that he could see the light go off across the way. One night Daddy was watching out for that light to let him know that all was well and Granny’s day was done. When the light didn’t go out, Daddy gave it a few more minutes and then a few more. Then daddy started to worry so he put on his clothes and headed toward Granny’s house. When he got there a few minutes later, he could see her sitting slumped over in her kitchen chair. Fear gripped my daddy as he reached for the door. When he got to her he could see that her dark skin was as pale as a ghost. Her tall strong body was limp as a rag doll. But as Daddy lifted her failing body to him, he saw that she was looking right at him, loving him with those beautiful black eyes. She smiled at him for a few long seconds, and with a look of absolute peace and tranquility she said, “Son, I’m gone.” And she was. Granddaddy held her lifeless body in his arms and cried for all that she had been and for what he had lost. She had been strong enough to save herself time and time again. And she had enough faith to save her family and to find a life of happiness when it didn’t seem like there was any happiness to be found. His momma had been a survivor, and he had been her baby. Now she was gone.
“They didn’t make many like your granny Naomi” Daddy told me once. “Not many at all. But I do believe that of all her grandchildren, you are the most like her.” I took that as the highest compliment. To me, my Granny had been a beautiful warrior, a goddess armed with a shield to protect her and the ones that she loved, and with strength and grace she was able to recover from her wounds without scars or bitterness. She was able to heal, recover and continue on with even greater strength than before. She never lost hope or the belief that something good would come to her. And she learned from all of the hardships what was important and what wasn’t.
Daddy said, “A person’s mortal flesh can get held down, but nobody can hold your spirit down. If it wants to soar then it’s going to find a way.”