Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #5:
Yes Virginia, there is a Hardscrabble. But it’s in Indiana.
Of course, there are lots of persons, places, and things for which the adjective hardscrabble provides just the right mixture of grit and struggle. Hardscrabble farm, hardscrabble town, hardscrabble folks, hardscrabble road, hardscrabble frontier, hardscrabble existence. Even hardscrabble font. That would be Courier obviously, thus the layout of this meditation.
But for me, the word will always be linked with . . . Baptists. Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma Baptists to be precise. Hardscrabble Baptists. A couple of days I ago I mentioned my hardscrabble Baptist grandmother, Nana Jewel (only way back then four days ago, I used to write it hard-scrabble; I’ve softened up a bit since then).
Here’s a picture of Hardscrabble, Indiana.
[I swear to you, dear Ironic Advent Meditator, I could NOT find one picture of Hardscrabble anywhere. Eventually, I will drive over and take a picture of the white farm house and Trinity Life Center--its two known buildings, and of scenic (maybe?) Mud Creek.]
Here's a picture of Mercedes, Texas.
[In fact, this is the very building in which I attended Junior High School, although, in my day, it was in color. I once scored four points in a basketball game in that building. And got spanked by the Spanish teacher. On different days. I also had a crush on Vicky Wade the entire time I attended Mercedes Junior High.]
My dad was a poor kid, especially after his father died. But a poor city kid. A Houston kid. So, he did not answer to hardscrabble adjectivation. If a stranger would say, "who's that hardscrabble kid over there?" young Charles Ricke would never turn around and say, "who me?"
My mother on the other hand, coming from the aforementioned hardscrabble Ozark Mountain Baptist stock, born in a farmhouse on a stormy night with the help of a doctor fetched by horse and buggy, and, at the age of ten making a trip by bus from one of those farms all the way to Houston with her two younger sister in her care and all their belongings in a pasteboard box (don't you love long sentences?), both earned and embraced her hardscrabble identity.
Although we lived in the rather lush (especially if you sort of squinted your eyes and ignored the irrigation canals) lower Rio Grande Valley, she would often ask my father (it's possible that she didn't really ask nicely)"to go for a drive." This happened pretty often on weekends, although we somehow made it to church even if it was at the Sunday evening Spanish language Mass in Harlingen (the last mass of the weekend in a 50 mile area). And we would drive, away from the lushness towards . . . the not-so-lush. Towards Zapata or Rio Grande City to the west or George West to the north. That was about three hours one way. And they didn't have any MacDonald's when we got there.
[Behold the red/orange pointer thingee.]
What they did have was hardscrabble farms. And memories. Because this was one of the places, the closest to where she lived now, where Nita and her family had worked as tenant farmers.
George West doesn't exactly look like this now, and, even when I was a child, they might have had a Tasty Freeze (and I know they had a county courthouse), but none of that mattered to Nita. Both here and in nearby Three Rivers and further up north near Abilene the time we passed through on a trip out of state, she would ask dad to turn down this road, then another, then on to a dirt road, trying to locate the exact house or even just the exact land where she and her mother and father and grandparents and three siblings had tried to eke out an existence from this damned hardscrabble world.
I'm pretty sure we thought that part of the trip was depressing as hell. Looking for home? Home is in Mercedes, Mom. 1545 South Ohio. With us. See Ironic Advent #2.
She would take a sip of her medicine (scotch whiskey with varying degrees of water) and, more often than not, start to sing. If she really had had too much, she might break out the harmonica, which she played badly. I can just about hear her singing in a slightly slurry voice. That's not a bad memory. Not all bad, anyway.
O Susanna, she would sing. O I wish I was in the land of cotton. She might try Danny Boy but she couldn't sing it except almost as a bass (which sort of defeats the purpose of Danny Boy). Plus she couldn't really remember the words. "Oh Danny Boy, la la la la la la la la." Dad sometimes would get going and try to sing Laredo or I've got spurs that jingle jangle jingle. And they might even sing together a little, although that was rare. At least I don't remember much of it. Dancing, I remember, but that's another story. Those kids could dance.
On these trips to her hardscrabble roots, Mom would find her home. Kind of. And she'd remember her songs. And try to share them with the family she had now. I sometimes am afraid we didn't appreciate them as much as her two sisters on the bus ride to Houston probably did. But I appreciate 'em now. Hope that counts for something.
My Advent meditations this year are about a search for roots. There's plenty more to blah blah blah about it, but I think the connections are pretty basic. There's that whole prophecy of the Messiah, very popular during Advent, "A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his hardscrabble roots." My Sweet Lord Jesus was hardscrabbled, living in no paradise, sleeping on the dirt, on a cuss-word basis with the scrawny fig trees.
And as much as I like Christina Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter," with its "snow on snow on snow," the real thing was more like dirt on dirt on dirt. But something grows anyway. Maybe. Out of that apparently god-forsaken promised land. Out of my memories, good and bad. Out of Nita's ironic journeys with her family away from her home to find her home, so she could sing again.
But there was something else she was in search of. Something that made her the envy of all her snooty Protestant neighbors in "lush"(well-irrigated) Mercedes, Texas. Tumbleweeds. Yep, Tumbleweeds. Like these, for you city folks.
And that's about what they looked like too. At the end of a long day of driving and memories, Mom would all but insist that she wasn't going home until we found some tumbleweed to take back with us. And, somehow, Dad would usually find some. Or at least he did in our late fall drives. Because Mom was not just bringing home a little hardscrabble memory to chew on until our next long trip.
"No sir," as J. R. Wade (the beautiful Vicky Wade's uncle and my best-friend's dad and my dad's best friend) used to say. It wasn't for nothing Nita brought home those scrawny excuses for vegetation. She was making her own Ironic Advent liturgy. Because our house became known all throughout Latitude as having the only snowman in the area. All it took was three tumbleweeds, several cans of that fake spray snow stuff, a hat, some buttons, and O Susanna, you had yourself a hardscrabble snowman for Christmas.
If you've stayed with me this long. Thanks. What can I say, I like long drives. When my daughter Lauren was a little child, we'd go on long drives and sing in the car. Some of the songs that mom taught me and other ones, especially Peter, Paul, and Mary. And Bible songs. Someday maybe she'll return to some of her childhood haunts to chew on roots. Not today though. Today is her birthday.
As a reward for all of my friends, here is my mom's favorite song. Played by a 101 year old man on the harmonica. PRETTY REDWING
I wish I had a record of her singing it, even with her croaky bass. In fact, there are no good versions of it online (except for some amazing instrumentals). Later, when she wasn't communicating in the nursing home, she would always open her eyes and respond when I sang this, along with Amazing Grace and Morning is Broken, her two favorite hymns.
Anyway, ya'll have yourself a hardscrabble Advent. I'll see ya in George West. Down some old deserted road. Saturday, I swear I'm driving out to Hardscrabble. And dreaming of Vicky Wade.