Several years ago, while working on Mother of Rain, the beginning of the Appalachian novels I wrote, I snuck in late to the evening service at Christians Bend Church in Tennessee. I had not been in the church since 1968. The last time I was there was for my great-Aunt Cil’s funeral.
Cil was the inspiration for the character of Burdy in my novels.
Just as Cil was central to my own life’s story, Burdy is the character central to all three novels:
“Burdy didn’t set out that morning aiming to get shot by the end of the day. But it was the cause of her wondering if Creator God hadn’t up and moved off the mountain to a whole new place, like a Yankee retiree relocating to Seaside, Florida. Some TV preachers liked to say God was put out with his people, his chosen people. Given all Burdy came to bear witness to, she could hardly blame Creator if he walked out on the whole lot of humanity and never looked back.”
I was in Tennessee doing research for the novels. I am not sure exactly why I stopped in the church that night, especially given I was late. I knew if I eased into the church late people would take notice. It’s not a huge congregation. Sunday evening services aren’t even a thing for many churches any more. Any stranger was likely to be noticed, but I thought I could sneak out as easily as I had snuck in. There would be no reason to stick around since nobody there would know me.
I think I went for the same reason I drive by the homes we lived in when I was growing up in Georgia. These are the talisman that I look back upon to remember the journey. Aunt Cil died only two years after Daddy. Brother John and I spent those early weeks after Daddy’s death with Aunt Cil up at Christians Bend. For decades, Aunt Cil lay in an unmarked grave next to her momma, Louisa Hobbs Shropshire in the church cemetery. For my people, tombstones were considered a luxury. Something only richer people could afford. Lousia’s tombstone is a hand-hewn cement slab. Even Grandpa Harve’s grave lacked a marker of any kind, although, somebody had bought one for Granny Ruth.
Four women surrounded me as I tried to ease my way out of church following the altar call. It wouldn’t have mattered if the preacher knew every single person in the pews, and knew them all to be saved in Jesus, there still would be an altar call. That’s the kind of thing that still takes place in Appalachia.
The women introduced themselves and I told them who I was. As I suspected, they didn’t know me, but once I mentioned my Aunt Cil’s name, every single one of those women had a story to tell me about Cil. They all knew her or knew of her. One lovely lady in particular, Pat Christian, told me she lived just up the hill from the church. She invited me up because she had something she wanted me to see.
A quilt my great-aunt Cil had made for her youngest son in 1967, the last year of Cil’s life.
Aunt Cil never had any children of her own to sew baby quilts for, so she did it for the young woman who had recently moved to the Bend. Quilting patterns were often included in newspapers or magazines during World War II era. This particular pattern, as best as I can tell, must have been one Cil or somebody in her church had saved and used. My friend Ellen Wade, whose family is also from Appalachia, has a quilt with the same pattern. As you can see from the photo, this quilt was hand-stitched by Aunt Cil.
Needless to say, I wept when Pat showed me this talisman, stitched with effort by a woman’s whose hands had comforted me time and time again. When Cil died in 1968, Mama had loaded us three kids up in her Corvair and with a friend made the nearly eight hour drive to the Bend. When the funeral was over, we made the drive home, taking with us nothing of Cil’s. Not her Bible, nor her silver comb set that she used every night to brush her white hair a 100 strokes.
This quilt was the first thing of Cil’s I had touched since we left Tennessee and moved off to Georgia that summer Daddy died. When I went to write my first novel, I set it at Aunt Cil’s because Christian Bend had been a community where I felt safe during a time when I needed to feel safe as a child. The novels are about how community can be a place of healing. A lesson we all have been made keenly aware of during this year of utter isolation.
On my birthday in November, Pat Christian’s son, Clark, contacted me. His sweet momma had passed away a few weeks prior. He and his siblings were gifting me the quilt Aunt Cil made. I wept then as I do again now, so grateful for their generosity. They understood what the quilt meant to me.
The quilt arrived a week ago in the mail in near perfect condition. Pat had taken such great care of it over the years. There’s no fading, no fraying. The colors as vibrant as they were in 1967 when Cil pieced them together.
When my memoir, After the Flag Has Been Folded (William Morrow) was published, I did two things with the advance of that book. I established a scholarship in my mother’s name at Columbus State University, the college in Georgia where Mama got her nursing degree. And I bought Aunt Cil a grave marker. On that marker, I had engraved: Words Rise Up Out of the Country. I have long understood that I am a writer in a large part because of the stories that Aunt Cil told us while sitting on her front porch or rolling out Angel Biscuits in her farmhouse kitchen.
But Cil wasn’t the only person I fashioned a character in the novels after. Cil had a step-son, Lon, who became the inspiration for Rain in the books.
Like Rain, Lon was deaf.
Deaf and mute.
I never knew what happened to Lon after Cil died. I heard he’d moved out of the Bend, but nobody seemed to know when he died, or how he died, or where he might be buried at.
Come to find out, Clark Christian discovered that Lon was buried at the cemetery next to Aunt Cil. And as with my aunt, and my grandfather, I have purchased a grave marker for Lon. It isn’t installed yet, but will be soon. Clark told me that the day Aunt Cil died, Lon could be heard grieving all over the Bend.
Loud wails rose up from the country.
Lon’s grave stone will match Aunt Cil’s. On it I had inscribed these words: “Helpers rise up out of the country.”
Because everyone who knew Lon, knew that he loved being a help. It made him feel needed, wanted.
Something we should all hope to be to someone – a helper.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain, Burdy and Christian Bend (Mercer University Press).