Today the temperature hit 102 degrees while I interviewed an eighty-nine year old Tennessean. She cried cool, forgotten tears then slowly wiped them away as they rolled past her tired-out cheekbones. She told me to call her Grace instead of Miss Grace when we first began. Me, sitting close enough to hold her hand now and then, typing as fast I can when she races up another hilltop of stories that can make the hairs on the back of my neck itch.
She speaks with a voice that is just the opposite of what her name suggests. "Simple elegance and refined movement” could never capture or tame her -- she was and is much too free for that -- but her honest grit gives way to something waiting below, and it reaches out to me like a child that's been overlooked.
It is a gamble to listen to such personal things from a woman who says exactly what she thinks. My girlish instinct is to duck and cover from the words that fire from her seasoned Southern tongue. They shoot past my ears then echo into them like a misfired rifle. These grown-up fingers have learned, though, to type without judgment, and so they scurry across the keys and gather up her words as they fall. I roll the dice again and wonder what Grace will say next.
She throws a “Dad Gummit” out across the table, frustrated by things she cannot change now, then calmly lobs a “Pawpaw” to me with that certain Southern charm that reminds me why I am here – to listen, take notes and observe – all the while feeling privileged to be in Grace's company on this fiery June afternoon. Then, while she shows me pictures of her children when they were young, I watch the brutal Southern sun outside her bedroom window steal the innocence right out of the sweet blue sky.
On my drive home, cool air soothing my face and neck, I think about the day she learned to shoot her first gun, “A beautiful .22,” she said. She was seven. It was 1929, the beginning of The Great Depression. The same year her mother died.
I drive past a giant Magnolia tree and it sparks an outline of a wiry brown-haired girl in heavy black boots and a plain white cotton dress. She is walking alone, setting out into the lush shady woods of Tennessee to escape the burning afternoon heat -- her sandwich in one hand, her gun in the other, her Daddy’s dog by her side.
Now, I am beginning to understand.