The other night, I asked my husband a question. If he had to distill all of childhood into one memory, what would that memory be? He had to think about that one, but I was ready to share.
I was an only child born to older parents. We lived in the house my parents built on the family farm in rural North Carolina, and my aunts lived on their own parcels of the land. Jennie Elizabeth was a single woman, and she resided in the family farmhouse at the center of the property. She was a lover of animals–dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, miniature goats. She lived in the same house her entire life, and travelled in her retirement to New York City and the Bahamas. Vashti lived to the left of us across a field, and she was widowed by the time I was a preteen. She made the best iced tea ever, and I would often go across that field on a summer morning to eat stewed yellow squash and watch Bob Barker with her. Madeline Shore, whose husband died when I was a sophomore in college, lived to the right of us, two fields away. She was an RN employed as the head nurse for Western Electric in Winston-Salem, where she and my father worked. The main family crop was tobacco, and I grew up playing in the nicotine-redolent rows and “helping” during priming and packing. I have memories of feeding hogs and watching them slaughtered, and I never bought a potato (my uncle Eb grew them for the family) until I moved away for college. The old saying is certainly true: I never really knew what I had on that old farm until it was gone. Most of my family on that side are gone, and I have moved away from my hometown to start a new adventure living in Emerald Isle, NC on the coast. Recently, I began to archive old pictures that had been too painful to review until now. I prepared books for grandson, two sons, and daughter. My question to my husband came from this exercise in facing the past and the inexorable roll of time. What was the most wonderful aspect of my childhood?
Twice a year, for many years I went with my beloved aunts, my father Douglas Webb Grubbs and my mother Mozelle Lawson Grubbs to Myrtle Beach in a Greyhound bus driven my Mr. Barr and guided by his wife Rachel. There is no doubt that my love of the coast and my happiest self are tied up in the memories of this special journey.
The trip began in the early summer, when my father and I would drive over to Rachel Barr’s house to pay for the coming trip in the fall. Mr. Barr had a mailbox decorated with the Greyhound Bus greyhound. We would be welcomed into Rachel’s kitchen, and she would give us the itinerary for the weekend excursion to Myrtle Beach, SC. I was always speechless that my father paid for this special trip–he was very frugal– and I was in awe of the process. Then, I would have to wait until the first Friday of off-season, when I would be picked up from school and we would drive to North Side Shopping Center in Winston-Salem–the meeting place for the bus.
Jennie, Vashti, and my mom made the tomato sandwiches for our evening meal, and Mag’s husband Oscar would pick us up. We would head down the road. First stop: Kentucky Fried Chicken on Deacon Boulevard, where we purchased a fragrant bucket of chicken to supplement the sandwiches. No feast prepared for a royal meal was ever as wonderful to me as that tall warm bucket of chicken. Later in the evening, we would stop and eat our dinner. I would have to wait for the Colonel.
We then stopped at my aunt Madeline’s in-laws where my Dad and Mag would be waiting for us (they came directly from work at Western Electric in Waughtown). All assembled, we headed from the in-laws on Glenn Ave. across 52 to North Side, where the Greyhound Bus stood waiting. Its belly was open, and Mr. Barr stood beside it with a smile and a fragrant cigar. Piece by piece he would carefully place our luggage. Mag said good-bye to Oscar, and as he drove away, my heart fluttered. We were going to Myrtle Beach!
Down the highway we went. I sat watching the Piedmont flatten out into the Sandhills and the afternoon ripened into the dinner hour. Along about Ellerbe, Rachel would come on the intercom and announce that soon we would stop. Mr. Barr would open up the cargo hold and take out a gigantic ice chest full of cokes. Each passenger got one of these frosty treats, and we sat in our seats after stretching our legs to munch on the tomato sandwiches and the fried chicken. No meal before or after can match my memory of this repast. It was a meal shared in love and childlike excitement. My aunts, usually rather grim and practical women steeped in the death-oriented southern culture of the Primitive Baptist faith, were merry and gay and there was laughter and anticipation. I was usually the person under 45 on these trips, but that didn’t bother me. The shared meal on that long-ago bus remains one of the most sacred times I have ever experienced. There was love, joy, and a feeling of lightness–we were going to the beach!
By and by, it was time to get on the road again. Shadows lengthened into night, and we passed from North Carolina into South Carolina. Quaint towns passed before my window, and I began to see swamps and hanging moss as we neared the destination. More often than not, I would fall asleep to be awakened by my aunt Jennie who would point out the window. 11:30 -ish, and we were in Myrtle Beach. The bus took us by Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House and the Space Needle, a towering circular ride that would take you up high into the sky to see the panoramic view of the Grand Strand. I knew that Aunt Jennie would put her bags in her room and then head for the Space Needle. This was her adventuresome tradition. Palm trees and neon signs dazzled my rural eyes. Rachel came again on the intercom announcing that we were nearing the Poindexter Motel. She would give us our keys as we exited. Saturday was our free day until dinner, when we would convene for a short trip to Murrell’s Inlet for a “calabash-style” seafood dinner. The bus would lurch to a stop, and the door would open, and the breath of the Atlantic Ocean would flood my senses. How beautiful is the memory of the smell! My father would whisper something to me about the salt air–he had been in the Navy and loved the ocean. Off the bus and to our rooms and the impossible task of trying to sleep.
“I’ll come get you early,” Jennie whispered to me, for we were always the first to walk on the beach in the pre-dawn hours.
Flash forward to that a pre-dawn hour. Jennie and I sneak from our adjoining rooms and exit out the open hallway of the Poindexter. We leave our flip-flops behind, for we want to feel the sand and the water, landlocked visitors that we are. Out beyond the chlorine-smelling pool to the stairs to the beach–the ocean! I will never forget how beautiful Jennie was to me on those long-ago mornings or how her footprints looked in the wet sand as I walked in them a step or two behind.
The rest of Saturday was a flash of hot, bright wonder. Evening was a Greyhound trek to mysterious and moss-laden Oliver’s Lodge in Murrell’s Inlet, where I once astounded the assembled multitudes by consuming an entire adult Captain’s Platter and dessert.
Sunday involved a trip to the Holiday Inn near the old Gay Dolphin Gifts with my Aunt Vashti. It was our one precious ritual, this breakfast overlooking the bright Atlantic in a roof top cafe. I will forever be grateful for her giving this time to me, this special time. There was one late morning trip to the beach to say “goodbye” to the ocean, and then by 12 noon, we were loaded in the Greyhound, checked out of our rooms at the Poindexter, and ready to eat lunch at Morrison’s before the long trip home.
Imagine that the bus ride home has gotten underway. Folks are a bit sleepy from lunch. Rachel gets on her intercom to make an announcement: she will be passing out the mini-hymnals for devotions. It is Sunday, and there will be church on this bus. I shake off my sleepiness and take the paperback hymn book. There is no preacher; there is just Rachel Barr who says a sincere prayer and then asks for hymn requests. My Dad shouts out “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand.” We sing a capella as the flat South Carolina landscape rolls past. There is a brief meditation and then another request: my Aunt Mag wants to sing How Great Thou Art (a hymn that will be sung decades hence at her funeral). Those voices echo in my heart, and I never felt closer to the idea of G-d than I did sitting on that old bus surrounded by my people as we journeyed back home from the sea.
And of course these brief and beautiful adventures came to an end. Somewhere along the line, we stopped going to the beach together as a group on the Barr’s bus. I grew into a restless teen and my aunts aged and began to dislike traveling far from home. The Myrtle Beach excursions came to an end in fact, but they live on in memory.
As I told my husband, those trips were the best of my childhood. The memories of the Poindexter and the way it smelled, our tomato sandwiches and KFC, the humble yet powerful faith expressed in bus-bound singing–all of those things live forever in my soul as do Jennie, Vashti, Mag, Mom and Dad. We spend so much time deconstructing what happened in our childhoods and critiquing our parents, their failures and their successes. As I sit here writing in the 21st century, Jennie and Mag and Vashti and Mom and Dad, along with the Barrs and all the souls on those long ago trips are now dust. I have come to the end of innocence. I have sat at the deathbed of Douglas Webb Grubbs and held my Aunt Mag’s trembling hand as I painted her nails one last time as she approached death. I can never again be that little blonde kid who walked in Jennie’s footsteps on the beach on a Saturday morning that I just knew would last forever. I know now that there is nothing that will be forever of this earth. For awhile, I looked at this fact with abject terror. Now, I begin to see this basic reality of our humanness as sacred. We are dust, and yet we long for love, we hope, we embrace, we say our goodbyes, we remember, and we create. In remembering those bright moments of happiness floating in the black void of time, we defy the void and nullify death itself. What is death when there is love and tomato sandwiches and laughter and aunts who take us to bright, shining restaurants at the tops of hotels? And as I look back at innocence in an attempt to find wisdom, I realize that the words of that old hymn, the one Mag loved so and never failed to request: “Then sings my soul, my Savior G-d to Thee–How great Thou art, How great Thou art…” — were the purest form of praise I ever heard. When I look with longing for my “childhood’s faith,” I need look no farther than an old Greyhound Bus sailing through the sandhills back home to the Piedmont and Stokes County. I need look no farther for G-d than in the memory of loving hands slicing tomatoes or taking ice cold drinks from an ice chest.
I need look no farther than my heart.