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Spooky Action At A Distance

Waiting for Grace

By Jerry Craven

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My grandfather found God in a glass of milk and cornbread. Maybe, Daddy Andy admitted to Cecil Brown, a Friendswood Quaker, God wasn't the right word, adding that similar experiences came to him infrequently over the years, and always they drifted into him with the slightest of warning. "Grace might be a better term," he said, then confessed that he had never found any words to describe the experience.

He and Cecil sat on soda-fountain stools drinking strawberry phosphates. "Andy," Cecil said, "you are a Friend to the very core of your being. You just don't know it." A drab of traffic went by on the narrow highway that was the main street of Friendswood and the only paved road in town, and the two men paused to look out the plate glass window of Pete Workman’s Cafe. The cars belonged to neighbors, who waved.

Daddy Andy tipped his straw hat to them then allowed as how friend was a good word and accepted the term, adding that he was also a Baptist, and Cecil shook his head with a tiny smile on the corners of his mouth.

"One time the spirit came to me while I was in the pits," Andy said, and went on to tell about the first day his older boys worked beside him for ten hours straight. A kind of peacefulness had settled over him, he said, as he listened to his sons talk about the blisters rubbed up by their shovel handles.

"They look like bubbles," Gorman said.

"Mine, too," Truett said and glanced at the foreman.

Neither brother dared pause for long regardless of the blisters, the South Texas sun, the fatigue, for there were others who would without complaint take their jobs, would shovel gravel into buckets like automatons, would work their ten-hour shift, collect the dollar for the labor, and return the next morning willing for another go in the pits. Andy, who wouldn't insist that he was Daddy Andy until his grandchildren came along late in the Great Depression, looked with pride at his boys, but he didn't stop shoveling. "They pop and lie flat," he said, meaning the blisters, "and in a few days your hands will be like tanned leather."

Marvin was too young for the gravel pits, Andy said, but the two older boys worked beside their father, each earning ten cents an hour, enough to feed the family and even buy some articles of clothing.

Marion Andrew watched his shovel bite into gravel, felt the resistance rattle through the handle, heard the crunch of stones, and the flow of work moved through his being. Hands like tanned leather he had said but the saying faded with the motion, the swing of his body to deliver the stones; even the feel of the handle faded along with the sense of sweating, the sun on his hands, neck, the smell of other men sweating, his own sons even--all faded until what he saw was stones, tiny lumps hardened to quartzite, agate, jasper and jumbled into the pit. He moved stones in the rumble of his shovel, the bite, the lift, the pitch to make them fly into buckets for lifting on ropes, and the ropes themselves vanished until nothing existed in Andy's vision but the pebbles, the gravel, the stones, and they sang with joy in their motion, as time changed meaning and joy rode the shovel to his hands, arms, entire body, a joy both wild and calm, both wide and deep, forever made into now and a glorious knowing, understanding, grace. Andy couldn't say when the flow receded and time started and again he stood in the hot Texas sun with his boys, nor did it matter much, for the returning of the world made only a dent in his happiness, and he felt much as he did after making love: complete and at peace. But Andy didn't tell Cecil Brown anything about the relationship between grace and sex.

Cecil, who owned a large percent of the land upon which the founders of Friendswood built their town, listened to Andy struggle with saying what he had become in the gravel pit, and Cecil understood, or he said he did. Andy wasn't convinced, though it pleased him to have a sympathetic audience, and it pleased him even more to be offered a job managing Cecil's ranch out in the Texas Hill Country, for no one who wasn't a Quaker had ever held that job.

"It will be almost like retirement," Cecil told him, "since you'll be the foreman and will get to tell the hired hands to do all the real work."

Retirement sounded good to Daddy Andy, who was practically retired anyway. He lived in a home that his son Truett had built, and he sometimes worked a few days to help Truett with his other houses, especially with cabinet making. It seemed to Daddy Andy back then in the middle of the century that he had worked plenty hard for enough years to earn retirement, even if hard work was one of the triggers to fill him with the something he variously described as peace, understanding, grace, love, and God.

But it wasn't just the gravel, not only hard work, not merely the relief of sex or any other exertion that could make his vision narrow to a point and grant Andy grace in the forever of now. Soft moments also worked, moments of cornbread and milk or sitting beneath a weeping willow where leaves drooped into perch water or moments of walking or anything, anything; and over the years Andy wanted to share the glory of those moments by telling others about the joy grace brought, the sense of knowledge and connection and intensity of it and the quietness and wonder of the bent joy afterward when time returned him to a dented happiness that still had power even if it wasn't the same as grace. But how to put such experience into words? The trick of it baffled him, though he tried, for he knew after such transcendence that the telling had to be preaching because of the holy nature of the experience, and he knew such preaching was something expected of him.

If anyone demanded to know who expected him to preach, he would pause, feel perplexed for a moment in his reaching within for answers that in their stubborn reluctance remained amorphous, then say, "God," though he knew people wouldn't understand the term God as he meant it, knew they would envision a man-like being when Daddy Andy knew that which granted grace in gravel wasn't a man at all but an understanding, a flow that defied being encased in words, any words, so the term God would have to suffice. He didn't know the term mystic experience, knew virtually nothing of the world's great religions, so he had no background upon which to lay his experience of transformation--except for the thin, watery vision of Southern Baptist theology, though he had no formal training even in Baptist thinking. His preaching made use of symbol, of the language of protestant ministers as he heard them, of stories and fables drawn from scripture, stories Marion Andrew sometimes took literally in the normal functioning of time.