There are stories in my mother’s bible. The bible I have. She had several. She wrote in all of them. Of all the things she wrote, this is my favorite:
Walk straight on my son, do not turn your head, do not look back. You are going to the land of our Lord.
Mama wrote that the quote came from I heard the Owl Call My Name.
I had never heard of that book, so I looked it up. It’s a novel from the 1960s, by the writer Maragret Craven. Perhaps you know it?
Native American mythology says if the owl calls your name, death is imminent. Young Anglican vicar Mark Brian is gravely ill, but doesn’t know it, yet. His bishop, knowing that the young vicar is unlikely to live more than a couple of years, assigns him to the most difficult parish, a group of remote Indian villages on the British Columbia coast, among a people who are also waiting for the owl’s call as their culture slowly dies.
It was made into a movie. But if I had to guess, I’d say my mother came across the book during the time she was living and working in Anchorage, Alaska, which she did for many years. My father’s last dutyrequest was for Alaska. Had things worked out the way my parents intended, it’s likely I would have grown up in Alaska and not Georgia. I’ve had several family members live in Alaska – my brother, my mother, my own son. I have never, ever wanted to go, not even for a visit. When my daughter dated a boy from Alaska, I had an absolute conniption fit, which I regret to this day. I must have apologized a gazillon times to her already over that, but I just couldn’t- still can’t handle – the emotional turmoil that Alaska evokes in me.
(Sarah Palin didn’t help matters none).
Do people see therapists about their emotional conflict over a territory? Okay. I mean State. Regular people, I mean. I’m not talking Woody Allen.
When people tell me how beautiful Alaska is, how grand the mountains, the glaciers now disappearing, I think about the mosquitoes the size of camels and the distance between Starbucks.
I’m a writer. I seek connections, not remoteness.
The cravings I have are for oak trees laced with Spanish Moss, flamingo pink sunsets over Mobile Bay, the smell of pine sap on hot days, the warm sugar sands of the Gulf of Mexico, the deep fried catfish at any lean-to shack in the Southeast, and the lyrical cadence of my people when they speak about anything.
I think I pitched a royal fit over my daughter dating a boy from Alaska because deep down in my heart I’m holding out agains t all odds that she marries a good southern boy from Mobile or Murfreesboro or Macon. I need me at least one southern grandbaby that talks the way my kin have always spoken.
I’d pray for that if I believed in a Wizard God. I don’t.
Most of the time, more and more these days, I have a difficult time envisioning God. Sister Tater thought it outright heresay when I told her I didn’t really believe in a heaven as the ultimate gated community. She believes wholeheartedly that heaven is mansions and streets of gold. I used to think that way, too. I am not sure when I quit believing heaven in the conventional sense, but I suppose it had something to do with a preacher’s pitch on heaven sounding an awful lot like somebody trying to sell me real estate in South Florida. Lots of mansions and marble and gilded gold.
It doesn’t sound at all appealing to me.
When Mama died, I went to my brother, the engineer, and asked him what he thought. Did he think of heaven as a gated community in the South Florida way? Brother John replied that he didn’t know (of course, none of us but the dead ever do). But, he added, all that really mattered was that wherever God was, Mama was with him.
My brother’s ability to be rationale rarely ever makes sense to my creative way of thinking, but that right there, that was like the most profound thing my brother ever said. I have returned to it time and time and time again.
The quote Mama wrote in her Bible, precedes this moment in the Owl story:
In the last house of the village, Peter, the carver, lay awake also, and he remembered that in the old days when a great chief died, his soul came straight back to the village in the sleek black body of a raven, and the soul of a lesser man returned in his own body no higher than an inch or as a ha-moo-moo, a butterfly. Peter did not believe this literally. Yet, it seemed likely to him that the soul of the young vicar would return to the village he had loved, as would his own, and surely it would be most inhospitable if no one was awake and waiting. Thus, he dressed and sat on the top of his step in the dark night, and hearing the rustle of a some small night creature he, too, spoke softly. “It is only old Peter, the carver, who waits here, friend.”
In my latest novel, Burdy, there’s a scene in which Maizee tells Burdy all about the glories of heaven, about who all was waiting for her arrival.
Yet, no matter how much I read the other stories in Mama’s bible, there are times when the Land of the Lord seems as remote to me as Alaska. You ever feel that way?
Karen Spears Zacharias, author of Burdy (Mercer University Press).