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A moonshiner, a merciful grandmother, a lesson in grace

It was the perfect summer.

My cousin Lila and I were teenagers, staying at the place we loved best, our grandmother's house in the mountains. We had just climbed to the top of the one-room schoolhouse on Devil's Fork Road where my grandmother taught for years. Now, Lila and I lay stretched out on the roof, surveying the world around us.

From our perch, we had the advantage of both sight and sound — a clear view of the looming mountains and of Devil's Fork Road beneath. We also had the advantage of sound echoing off the rocks — for suddenly we heard the noise of racing motors. So, we waited.

Soon, in the distance, we saw them — the lead car, riding low to the ground, coming on fast. Behind it a jeep, rocking slightly, trying to catch up — the revenuer chasing J.R., the local bootlegger.

Like others who made and sold corn whiskey, J.R. had beefed up his car's engine and suspension system so he could carry a load of moonshine and outrun the Feds. It was an endless game of cat and mouse that, at the moment, J.R. seemed to be winning.

Word was that people who lived near Devil's Fork were targeted for J.R.'s "business" — and might find a still hidden on their land. As it happened, my cousin Lila and I stumbled onto one while hiking in the woods. The man sitting there — a guard, we supposed — waved us away with his shotgun and said, "Git!" He didn't have to tell us twice.

We told my grandmother, who wasted no time in sending a message to J.R. She was giving him "fair warning," she said. If he ever put a still on any of her land, she'd report him "quick as a flash." Lila and I exchanged glances. This sounded like Adventure.

Days later, the unexpected happened. Word spread that J.R.'s little boy was gravely ill with lockjaw and not expected to live through the night.

My grandmother went into action. Gathering a few supplies — gauze, alcohol, flannel cloths — she called a neighbor to drive her to J.R's place, and within the hour was knocking at his door.

Back then remedies for lockjaw were few. It was difficult to treat and often fatal, affecting the muscles and nerves, even sending toxins to the brain or spinal cord. A person with lockjaw suffers pain and muscle spasms, or stiffness in the neck or jaw. The infection may spread, making it difficult to breathe or swallow, causing high fever and even convulsions — risks extremely common to children.

J.R.'s son was burning up with fever, so the first thing my grandmother did was to repeatedly sponge his arms, legs and chest with alcohol. Now and then she sang to him. After about an hour, the child began to sweat profusely — signs that the fever was breaking. But he still couldn't open his mouth enough to take medicine.

Now, my grandmother began sponging his mouth with warm water — and praying. She continued the sponging and the prayers all night — and along about dawn, when the first pinkish streak lit the sky, something wonderful happened.

The little boy looked up at her, opened his mouth — enough to take his medicine — and smiled. "The sweetest smile ever," said my grandmother, giving credit to the Lord for his recovery.

On that summer of long ago, what my cousin Lila and I saw as Adventure was really a lesson in grace. For whenever a need arose, my grandmother's natural inclination was simply to try to fill it. She had lived long enough to know that adversity had to be faced, not dodged. And though her choices were often hard choices, they reflected a personal code. Foremost, she had learned to give thanks in difficult circumstances — to recognize and be grateful for unexpected gifts. By her lights you treated everyone with kindness, with a severe mercy — even bootleggers like J.R. — whether deserved or no.

We forget sometimes how fragile our lives are, and how easily shattered, until something comes along to remind us. Until, perhaps, a grandmother steps in, or a little boy smiles.

As far as I know, J.R. stayed in the moonshine "business." But he always gave my grandmother's land a wide berth.

Lila and I would have other summers perched atop the schoolhouse, looking down on Devil's Fork Road, remembering this particular year and its unexpected gifts. And yes, remembering to give thanks.

Tampa Bay area resident Faith Barnebey spends her summers in Blowing Rock, N.C.

A moonshiner, a merciful grandmother, a lesson in grace 08/24/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 4:30am]
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