Last month I promised to share two stories about my grandfather, the most influential man in my life. I introduced him in the story titled, He Knew Everything About Everything. This is the second offering of the man I called Papa. Both stories were presented in my first book, Halfway Home from Kinderlou.
Get Your Reward — “Way Over Yonder“
George Uskin Alexander was husband of Maria for 56 years, father of 14 children, 30 grandchildren, Christian, scholar, and no-nonsense disciplinarian. Maria (Mama), adored Papa. My memory of their relationship is the love and respect they gave to each other, how they apparently solved temporary differences without arguing, and my grand mama’s adorable reference to her husband, friend and companion — “Mister Alexander”. Nobody ever heard her address or refer to him by any other title.
Reverend Alexander knew exactly where he was, where he was going, and how to get there. He knew these things because he considered God and himself, in that order, the prime movers of his destiny. Papa made clear what conduct he found worthy of applause and what he deemed unacceptable, and he consistently praised that which he thought was pleasing to God and punished that which comforted the devil.
G. U. Alexander controlled as much of his environment as he could, since he was convinced that success or failure in life is determined more by what you do for yourself than what others do to you or for you. Therefore, he openly disfavored triviality, and he disdained slothful, trifling behavior, since it showed a person’s disinclination to work, or to use whatever gifts they possessed for self-improvement. Papa directed so much time and attention to help me appreciate that the essentials for self-sufficiency are information and self-governance. “James Eddard, the things you do when you don’t have to, will determine who you are when you can’t help it.” He would add, “And, if you’re well-spoken and know how to behave, other well-spoken, well-behaved, and successful folks will invite you into their company.” Then my mentor explained. “If you’re well-read and well-spoken, folks will understand you. If you’re well-behaved, you won’t embarrass them, or yourself.” Papa also used a variety of other teaching techniques, including lectures, sharing of ideas, and frequent oral exams to make sure I heard his words. Each time he uttered his messages, he also expected my immediate “Yes sir, Papa,” to acknowledge my understanding. My grand papa was a rigid, but fair man.
Papa kept informed of happenings in his immediate sphere, as well as those events and attitudes in distant places that could affect his and his family’s survival. His daily source for news was The Valdosta Daily Times. If he was not on the porch to receive the daily paper, sometimes I would take it and attempt to read the major stories to prepare for our discussions. If my reading of the newspaper preceded his, I was strongly advised to keep the pages in numerical order.
Another channel for news was from those who passed his way. Following the crash of the stock market in 1929, America’s economy also crashed, causing massive national unemployment. In March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), as a government work relief program. Even though more than three million men were employed building roads and restoring forests, it was not enough to combat the expanding poverty. Some men took to the highways in search for work, anywhere. Those who passed our home shared the same demographics: White, ages 25 through 50 years, generally able bodied, each man wearing a mask of hope which covered exhaustion and desperation. My grandfather sat on his porch preparing his sermons and watched the parade of hitchhikers along U. S. Highway 84, then a major East-West corridor. Occasionally he would rise from his rocking chair, attract the attention of a traveler and beckon. “Come brother and rest for a spell.” Then Papa set the stage by extending his hand and introducing himself. “I’m Reverend George U. Alexander. You may call me Reverend Alexander, Mister Alexander, or Brother Alexander. How may I address you?” Papa was giving a signal that “uncle” was not an optional greeting, as was often given to Colored men who had obviously outgrown “boy.” Then he would inform Mama. “Mariah, we have a guest. Could we please have some lemonade?”
If the visitor traveled from Cincinnati, Papa might ask if his course was by way of Lexington, Kentucky, Knoxville, Tennessee, through Chattanooga, to Atlanta, or did he take a path Eastward through the Carolinas before entering Georgia at Savannah. Within five minutes Papa knew the traveler’s origin, his direction, which crops were the most abundant along his trail, weather conditions, the essence of the major events, and how folks were making ends meet. He was updating information supplied by the last journeyman. If the weather was inclement, or if the sun was setting, Papa often invited the weary traveler to spend the night on the porch. “Mariah, our guest would like to rest here tonight, could you please prepare a pallet?” The education levels of these men were as varied as their ages. One visitor stayed at least two days. He and my grandfather sat and read books from Papa’s library, then discussed issues that learned people understand.
According to Reverend Alexander, men and women of different races, religions, color, and political persuasions were all children of God. He simply addressed them as brother or sister. One day he deviated. After reading something about the Warsaw Ghetto, he kept repeating, “Those poor Jews. Those poor Jews. They, too, have suffered too much. Why is that madman doing those horrible things. If he isn’t stopped, no decent human being will be safe from his wrath.” That day, he called Hitler a scoundrel.
When Papa accepted an invitation to deliver a sermon, he also expected me to glean from his message new lessons or reinforcement of earlier teachings. His speech outlines were classics, the product of careful preparation. His delivery was forceful and forthright. Years of experience had taught him when to leave his script and extemporize. To deliver this phase of his message he would set aside his Bible and walk to the edge of the pulpit and advise the worshipers that, “… the rewards for keeping God’s commandments would come in Heaven … way over yonder.” Then he would add, “…be of Christian heart, mind, and soul, and prepare to don your robe and crown for an eternal stroll down the streets of gold, where you’ll reunite with your departed loved ones, while feasting on milk and honey — way over yonder.” By now, many persons in the ebullient crowd were shouting and responding, “Amen.” I was not yet 10 years old, and although the robe, milk and honey sounded attractive, I was well satisfied with the denim overalls, grits and cornbread in this world. Before offering the doxology, Papa led the congregation through his favorite hymn: “Take the Name of Jesus with You”. One day I asked him why he always ended services with that hymn. He answered, “James Eddard, when you take the name of Jesus with you, wherever you go you will never be alone.”
During the first week of April 1945, he was ready for Jesus to take the name of George U. Alexander and place it on the heavenly roster. He lay in his bed, as if conserving energy for a long journey. I could sense his imminent departure and was already beginning to feel the loss. Our last few days were void of the usual banter and sharp exchanges. What I later realized and appreciated was how he frequently contrived debates to give me a chance to examine and question issues, and to stand firm when we disagreed. Among his final acts of putting things in order, he called my mother Catherine to his bedside, unaware that I was in range of his voice. “Catherine, you have done well rearing your children. They have the basics to be good Christian citizens. However, you will have to watch James Eddard. He is not an ordinary child. His mind sometimes works faster than most adults. His life will be filled with excitement, created by his strong will and determination to do what he considers right and acceptable for himself, not what others think of him or what he should do. One day, it is possible that men all over the world will know his name.” Since that day, my mother frequently recited those words to me, for she knew this was deathbed advice. When she left the room, I re-entered to sit with him. His penetrating eyes stared at me and he said, “James Eddard, your grandfather is going to leave you pretty soon. You’ll have to carry on without me. Continue to find the answers to questions that bother you, trust in the Lord, and grow up to be a good man.” He then extended his hand for mine, as if to let us touch for a final time, or to shake hands as if signifying the end of friendly competition.
Even his final departure was on a Christian-like schedule. He said goodbye at 6:00 p.m., April 5, 1945 — Good Friday. The day before the funeral Mama washed and ironed a handkerchief which bore the embroidered letter “A”. The next day, a few minutes before we left home to attend the funeral, I watched as she carefully wrapped something in the cloth, placed it in her purse and firmly gripped the straps to confirm the precious nature of the contents. We rode to the cemetery during a heavy South Georgia thunder shower which left a puddle in Papa’s grave. For two men, the mere thought of lowering his casket into the mire was unacceptable. Without hesitation they lowered themselves into the pit, without removing their shoes, or concern for their suit trousers, and scooped the pool from the final resting place of their brother, neighbor, and friend. One man was Colored; one man was White.
Finally, the casket was opened for the last time. Those who wanted to say goodbye formed a line that threaded through the trees and down the muddy clay country road. And then it was my turn. I stood beside his motionless form. Despite the stillness of his presence I almost felt the command to recite his admonitions about self-governance, respect for myself and others, individual responsibility, service to the community, and to give thanks to God for my blessings. I touched his long fingers. Papa and I walked together for less than 11 years, yet he was one of the most influential persons in my life. I wanted to stay longer, but I yielded to Mama, who waited patiently for her final moment with her husband. She moved closer and I saw her open the purse and remove the handkerchief. She stroked his head with her left hand, as her right hand adroitly slid the handkerchief next to his side. Papa was now ready to present himself to his Master. Mama had done all she could for him in this world; she had delivered his false teeth. She leaned over and kissed his brow, smiled and said, “Mister Alexander.”
He was gone — way over yonder.
You have my permission to share these stories with your friends. To read a past Story of the Month go to www.jeatrilogy.com
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
James Edward Alexander
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