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Spooky Action At A Distance

Waiting for Grace

By Jerry Craven

That's when he chose to settle in a Quaker community, and it was during his Friendswood days that I spent some time with the odd scarecrow of a giant who had to be called Daddy Andy, though I was too young to draw many conclusions about him. He went for weeks refusing to eat anything except cornbread and milk, and he liked it hot, the cornbread, for crumbling in steamy masses into a tall glass of milk--and he didn't want to be disturbed during his meals, which he took in an easy chair and a darkened room. I didn't learn until decades later the cause of his dedication to cornbread.

He would preside over other formal lunches and dinners, especially on Sundays, sitting at the head of a table surrounded by Truett's family, which I joined for one summer; and it was there that he said such interminable blessings as to make me squirm with impatience. During the meals, he wrapped a huge hand around a glass of iced tea, and he chatted, and sometimes he moved food around on his plate. But he ate almost nothing for his presence was social, and he reserved his appetite for dining alone upon cornbread and milk. It was a diet that made him anemic, slow moving and bleached-out so that, Grandma Stella liked to tell anyone willing to listen when Daddy Andy wasn't around, dropping her voice and speaking in confidential tones, "If you press his thumbnail, then release it, all you see is white." The nail, she said was supposed to be pink and to return to pink after looking white from being pressed, but Daddy Andy's was white all the time on account of the anemia. My cousin Andy and I spent much time pressing our thumb nails to watch the white and the pink and to affirm that we weren't anemic.

Daddy Andy happened to be eating cornbread and milk when grace came upon him. He came in from work tired, from a day of making cabinets in one of Truett's houses. Truett built them upon speculation, called himself a contractor, earned a living for his family and for his parents by building homes in Friendswood and surrounding small towns, and Truett was good at his carpentry, having learned it from his father. The summer I visited Friendswood, Daddy Andy didn't work with much consistency, and he took off more time than he worked. "The truth is," Uncle Marvin told me with a wink and in a conspiratorial tone, "that my daddy is a tad lazy," an observation I repeated to my cousin Andy.

It wasn't a welcomed bit of information, not to Andy, who went into a rage, told me that Marvin was full of horse hockey, and delivered the proclamation with a red face, bits of spittle flying from his mouth, and shaking of fists; and my cousin refused to look at Uncle Marvin for the remainder of his stay in Truett's household. It was only a day or so, but it seemed longer because of my cousin's fury. When Marvin drove away, his wife Doreen languid and ill and seeming to wilt and his daughter Sandy looking puffy and depressed in the back seat, Marvin called out his farewells to all of us gathered in the driveway, then turned to me and said, "Hey there, big man. You tell little Andy goodbye for me, okay? Where is he anyway?" But he didn't want to know, for he backed out without waiting for an answer, and I was glad since I knew where Andy was and didn't want to tell or to lie about the matter.

He was fairly close to the top of a long-needled pine tree growing in the back yard, a tree Andy and I climbed to get away from Andy's sisters Stella and Mary, a tree Andy had shinnied up to avoid saying goodbye to Uncle Marvin.

Not long after my visit to Friendswood that summer, Daddy Andy made some dramatic changes in his life: he reverted to eating regular food, for eating Stella's cornbread and milk gave him anemia instead of God; and he moved from Friendswood without being pushed out, moved to spend the last two years of his life telling hired hands how to tend 500 head of angora goats so they produced plenty of mohair.

Cecil Brown's ranch nestled among hills and creeks near Boerne, just north of San Antonio, and it brought grace to Daddy Andy after the repeated failure of cornbread and milk, which had, after all, worked only twice. The first time was in Uvalde County back in 1929, and Daddy Andy considered it a coincidence that he happened to be eating cornbread dunked in milk when the aura gripped him and his vision constricted to a single bubble in the glass and time refused to pass and he understood, finally, why the Mormon girl had climbed into that black Ford with the man in argyle socks, and he understood the nature of the heaviness that gripped him each morning, and he understood other perplexing matters, hundreds of them. The understanding came in a rush to fill him in the forever of the moment when the milk bubble refused to change, and it didn't matter much that time returned to explode the bubble and restore in his vision Stella sitting across from him, looking at him in a peculiar way, his sons sitting at the table eating and talking; it didn't matter for he felt the contentment and peace that always came after his experience of grace.

Why had the Mormon girl left? Daddy Andy spooned a bite of milky cornbread into his mouth and tried to remember the understanding, but it was already slipping away. He had come to dinner late and found his family waiting for him before eating, and their presence pleased him. Everything pleased him, for he had just walked home from a nearby barn where he had sought grace in the arms of a woman named Angelica, and a real angel she proved to be though spiritual grace did not become a part of the experience, at least not until he got home, sat down with his family, prayed a blessing over the food, and looked at a bubble in his milk. So he concluded it was Angelica the angel and not the milk with cornbread that stopped time and gave him the grace of understanding.

Or he concluded it was the woman until over two decades later when, sitting in the house Truett had built for him in Friendswood, he crumbled steaming cornbread into a glass of milk and inserted a spoon to watch the edge of it appear against the glass. At that moment the aura of blessing washed over him, and he became still, waiting for grace. And it came in all its intensity and mystery in the way it had of blocking out his vision, restricting it to something small--this time to the metallic gray edge of the spoon against the inside of his milk glass, a tiny curved piece of space and time that filled the entire room, and he knew. He knew. And the knowledge brought tears of joy to his eyes.

When the room returned to leave him with bent happiness, the knowing receded but the memory of its presence did not, and he stirred the spoon, remembering another time when he held a glass of milk, a time when he had understood great mysteries as well as small ones, and he thought of the Mormon girl for the first time in years. So it wasn't Angelica, he thought, and marveled that her name came to him, for he had not thought of her in years, either.

The next morning he informed Stella that he would eat nothing except cornbread and milk, and she nodded her acceptance. "I'm not a bad man," he added, remembering the Mormon girl and the name Angelica, though he could not recall the face of the angel woman. What he remembered was the feel of her skin, the hot smell of hay and the itch of it, the odor of large animals in the barn--horses? cows? He couldn't remember which, though he did remember with precision the bubble in the milk, and it was as vivid in his mind as the curved bit of spoon inside the glass that had, the night before, become the focal point of his vision when time lost meaning and grace swept over him.

Stella looked at him in the same peculiar way as she had so many years before, or at least Daddy Andy imagined she did, and she said, "You're a good man, Andrew, and I won't hear anyone tell me otherwise." She made him cornbread for lunch and dinner that day and for many days more, even after a doctor over in League City told him he was anemic, that cornmeal bought in grocery stores was stripped of its kernel so even with milk it didn't provide him with all the amino acids his body needed, that he must eat other foods, meat especially, if he wanted to become well. Andy thought the doctor might be right, but his quest for grace was more important than food, than health, and he instructed Stella to continue preparing him only cornbread and milk, though she wore him down with sighs and pleading until he understood grace wouldn't be easily enticed again.

sea shore

It came to him one final time, and it took two years to arrive. When it did, it came with water and not milk or bread.

The ranch he managed sat on a limestone aquifer that leaked springs from the base of hills, giving water to the creek in spite of a long drought. Live oaks covered the hills, along with cactus, lizards, and more dust than Daddy Andy ever wanted to see, especially along the dirt road leading from the blacktop to the ranch house. Cecil Brown had commissioned the building of deer blinds high in two of the biggest sycamore trees in that part of the state, though they weren't blinds at all but open platforms high in the trees, each with an impressive ladder running up the tree. Daddy Andy climbed to a platform once, and he found it a strain on his heart. He had to stop many times, though he pretended it was to admire the view each time, pretended with a pretense he knew to be a lie, for he could no longer sleep at night lying on his left side because of the pain of angina, and he knew his time was short. It was a blessing to be old, he told himself, a blessing to awaken most mornings without the heaviness emanating from his groin, a blessing not to feel driven to seek female companionship in barns and in dark, secluded places where he would unroll a blanket, though at the same time as he gave thanks for being old he muttered against the loss of the heaviness and the drive. It wasn't completely gone, but the fires no longer burned with compelling passion. When he reached the platform high in the giant sycamore, his first thought was that here would be a good place to bring a special friend and unroll a blanket.

The platforms commanded a view of a meadow planted with alfalfa and fenced to keep out cows, though deer jumped such fences with ease, and during deer season Cecil liked bringing friends to climb to the platforms where they sat on lawn chairs to smoke and talk as if they were in their own backyards. Always deer came to the meadow, and always the men on the platform killed as many as they wanted, though it was one of Cecil's unbending rules that they dress out and haul away the meat they shot.

The ranch house itself had oaks and willows shading it, and it had a large screened porch that became the bedroom for Stella and Daddy Andy during the summers, or at least for the two he spent on the ranch. Down a hill from the house stood a barn, a small one that served only as a place to store hay; beside the barn was a fenced area where several cows wintered, and not far beyond the barn ran the large creek where year round there was enough water for bass. In the yard, between two oaks, Daddy Andy hung a hammock for his grandson Andy to sleep in during the summers.

Granddad died of a heart attack in August, 1954, near the end of his second summer on the ranch.

Earlier that summer, he and my cousin Andy walked across a field not far from the house, a field often planted in hay but left fallow that year, a dry field and dusty, one where horned toads and centipedes might be found in the shade of rocks. The two Andys came across a wet spot in the field, a surprise because of the drought. Daddy Andy sent my cousin back to the house for shovels, and the two dug through about a foot of soggy topsoil to the limestone rock from which poured a steady stream of water. "This is a miracle," Daddy Andy declared, and his grandson agreed; there seemed no reason for the earth to produce a spring there in the middle of a dusty field and in the middle of a dry year. "Bring the wheelbarrow and a couple dozen of the bricks stacked by the house," Daddy Andy said. "Watch for centipedes." He explained that they would brick up the spring so it would flow with clean water.

While his grandson was gone, Daddy Andy set one knee in the wet, bent down and drank from the spring, and it was while he was drinking that he felt the aura of blessing come upon him. He unbent from drinking, and, resting on one knee, watched water bubbling from the limestone as it loomed large in his vision, as its presence obliterated all else, as the knowing came upon him, the certainty of grace coming within a crack in time as the water had come from a crack in the rock, grace that descended upon him this time with the brilliance of the sun itself, and when time returned with a grandson pushing a wheelbarrow, Daddy Andy dropped his other knee into the wet and rocked back, still filled with joy though it was unlike the sun, more like the after image on his eye when he looked away from the sun, and he felt the tightness in his chest, the angina, a sign that this would be the last time, a sign that he was finally finished with waiting for grace.