My father-in-law was a great man, though he was known only to a lucky few. His name was J.B. Graham, simply that, not John Bryson or Joshua Brandon, just “J.B.” He was one of the oldest of thirteen children. For most of his adult life he lived in Thomas County, Georgia in a small community called Merrillville where church was the center of everything. It was a place where everyone watched out for the best interests of everyone else. Papa made sure all the widows got their screen doors repaired, their wasps’ nest killed, and that they had plenty of vegetables from his bounteous garden. He could be seen in his overalls and, for most months of the year, long-sleeved shirt, riding his tractor working long rows of tobacco or corn or soybeans.
His appearance on Sunday was quite different, however. He’d be spiffy as they come with pretty shirt, tie, and creased trousers. The ladies at church liked to comment on how nice his clothes looked and he’d say in his cute, humorous way, “But what about the hanger?” And he’d wink at his wife of fifty-plus years knowing he’d be lost choosing his own wardrobe.
Papa wasn’t originally from Thomas County. He came of dating age living in Danielsville, Georgia north of Athens. I was from north Georgia also, farther up in the hills near Clarkesville. Papa liked to tease me about “my” mountains which, he said, he’d seen once and that was enough. He said I had one leg longer than the other from growing up in the hills. He didn’t talk much about “his” north Georgia and I knew it was because he was so in love with the wide sunny fields of south Georgia where he met his bride. But one rainy day as we all sat on the porch he launched into telling about what it was like “courting” in the old days. I was intrigued and jotted down a few notes as soon as I got home. Here’s some of what he told us.
As he talked about his teen years in the 1930’s, I felt I was looking in to glimpse him on a Saturday evening or a Sunday afternoon, riding a mule to see his girlfriend.
“It was an easy quick mile or so over the creek, along little woods trails, and through a field or two from our house to where–oh, I can’t remember her name now–but to her house. But if darkness caught me, I couldn’t find those trails and had to ride three miles, going around on the road.”
The darkness always came too quickly, he said, before all the sweet things had been said, before all the pound cake had been eaten, or the fresh churned ice cream. He would begin to take his leave with the sun setting red fires up the trunks of pine trees. But by the time he finally really left the friendliness of the swept yard and the gentle maiden, he could hardly see her wave to him from her porch. Only a stone’s throw down the road, darkness engulfed him as if a thick blanket had been thrown over his head.
Papa looked around at the porch light with insects buzzing around it, at the nice floodlight in the yard, and he said, “You don’t know what darkness is until you get in that total country dark with no moon or stars out.”
He said one time he arrived at his own little road, still on his mule, and decided to light a match. The sudden flare spooked the mule who went one way while Papa landed somewhere in the other direction in a bramble.
Sometimes, many times, in fact, he didn’t have the luxury of riding the mule. Remember, there were thirteen children many of whom were boys. I guess they drew straws or something to see who got the only mule, and he didn’t always win. Once when he was on foot, he left in time to get home before dark. He thought. He was depending on a short cut, but he ended up in the middle of a woods with not a peep of light anywhere. He would have welcomed even a firefly.
“I stumbled along, tried to miss the briars and the logs, and got so turned around I didn’t know where in kingdom come I was. All I could see in any direction was the blackest dark you ever saw. Ain’t any darker down in a deep well.”
As accident would have it, he fell eventually into the road, plummeting several feet down an embankment. Standing and shaking off his humiliation, glad no one could see him, he realized he didn’t know which stretch of the road he’d fallen into. Should he go right or left? Feeling about for some landmark, he suddenly spied the flare of a tiny light far down the lane and somehow he knew that was home, that his mother had lit a lamp for him.
Flashlights were hard to come by, he said, and batteries weakened quickly in those days. In a big family like his, you might get the use of a flash about every six months, the mule maybe once a month if you were really lucky.
“And, you know,” said Papa as he rocked on the porch watching rain drip off the eaves, “the darkness was blacker in those days. But don’t think I was giving up on my Saturday night freedom. The girls were mighty sweet!”
At that point my mother-in-law, Elizabeth, punched him in the arm and said, “All right now, that’s enough of that old stuff. Are you ready for a cup of coffee?”
And he always was.
On August 29 my husband’s parents would have been married for 78 years.