Memory of an old but distant relative
| Some believed Vernon to be a good Christian man. Others believed the goodness might just be camouflage for his corrupt character. This contrast is varied among those who knew him. I believe there is clear evidence for both conditions. I knew him when I was a young teenager. My spiritual consciousness had not been awakened at the time so I was able to observe, probably with prejudice, evidence favoring camouflage.
He was a distant cousin of my mother and, as my dad used to say, from the halfassed side of the family. Me and his son, Elvin, who was a couple of years older than me, ran around together some in those days.
I remember spending nights at his house. On those nights, after dark we would sit around the living room chatting, playing a board game or working on a jigsaw puzzle, Vernon would abruptly stop everything and read a chapter or a passage, out loud, from the Bible. He spoke with a dry monotone voice and thankfully added no commentary.
After the Bible reading, he would insist that all the lights be turned out and we sat silently in the dark for a period of time. He held a flashlight and would randomly click it on for a second or two. I reasoned that it was to check that no one was asleep. Near the end of the dark time he would creep to the front door and appear to listen intently for anything he might hear outside. I wanted to ask why but didn’t.
Sitting there in the dark was awkward for me. I didn’t know what to do. Usually I would just fantasize about stuff I don’t wish to discuss here. . . Okay, just this one thing. His daughter, Joann, who was a little younger than me, frequently sat on the porch up at the store and ate ice cream. It was rumored that if you would buy her an ice cream cone, she would let you look up her dress while she ate it. I don’t know if that’s true since I never had the money to buy her an ice cream cone. My fantasy was more about having a nickel than buying her an ice cream. Thinking back, Joann gained a lot of weight that summer.
Vernon used to ask questions that lacked grace. If I wore a new shirt he would ask, “How much did it cost?” I always answered with a lie. He often asked how much money my dad made. I always said I don’t know. His facial expression told me that he didn’t believe me, but actually I didn’t know.
Vernon used to take up collections for people. This was in the days before abundant welfare programs, and whenever someone was down sick and couldn’t work, the custom was to take up a collection for them, a love offering Vernon called it. He was the first to begin taking up a collection. I wondered how much of the collection made it to its intended recipient and how much of it went into Vernon’s pocket.
Vernon was able to spin elaborate stories of those ailing and needing a collection. “Ol’ Ted Atkins ’as been laid up for a while,” he would say. “You know he had appendicitis and an infection set in after that. He ain’t been able to do a lick of work in more than a month. It’s good that they don’t have no rent to pay but he and his family has to eat. They’ve already eaten a bunch of their chickens. Only have a few left, just enough for a few eggs. And them hens don’t lay very much since they only eat what they can scratch out of the ground. The kids are doing the chores around the house and keeping wood pile up. And Nellie, she takes care of him, cooks and keeps the house up, though some say not so good. She’s never worked outside the house. So, anything you could give would sure help them out and we’ll see they are taken care of as best as we can,” he’d conclude.
Vernon died in 1995. I hear someone took up a collection to help pay for his cremation. –CP