I nervously dab my forehead with a handkerchief, jam my hands in my pockets and board a flight for the first time since 9/11.
My initial jitters recede before the desire to return home.
The drive away from the airport, through town and up the road that leads to our family farm awakens some infantile impressions. Look, there's Sparky's, a bright yellow country store. Inside, the dusty crannies of antique collectibles always struck me as somehow magical. Further down the road, a strip of shoddy stores, then the flimsy school I attended as a child.
My sister Mary greets me at the door. Her plump cheeks shake with laughter as she waves her hands about her extraordinarily pregnant belly. After all these years, she still has the casual energy of the little girl who used to hum to herself while collecting blackberries in our back yard.
All my brothers and sisters are gathered in the living room telling stories, talking about lifetimes. We're all proud we managed to hold onto the farm. It remains my father's legacy.
The talk is haphazard and flutters from topic to topic.
"Children don't learn because parents don't show enough interest," proclaims my brother Kent, whose professed goal as chairman of the county school board is to raise the level of education in South Carolina.
"Business is down," says my brother Bruce. This brings him some measure of joy, as he is a gravedigger.
Mary observes that 10,000 children were orphaned in 9/11 attacks. Clutching her belly softly, she says she will name her child Logan.
Later in the evening, we visit the sick at the hospital. There, I see an old man with tubes snaking from his mouth and nose. A lady bent across a walker slumps down the hallway. Every movement seems painful. It's never fun visiting the hospital on Christmas Eve, but I suppose that's the point. After Mama would herd us off in our youth to visit patients, she'd always say, "Now that you have seen the sick, perhaps you will be more willing to do good."
Back home, Mama, a spry 75, returns to the kitchen where she busily prepares a feast of chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, potato salad and cakes. We try to assist her but one by one are rebuffed. Mama goes about her work not as though it were holiday drudgery but a blessing. Indeed, she seems to swell with a special joy after forcing her children to eat to the point of exhaustion.
The next day, I stop by the cemetery where my father is buried.
Memories rush back. Father was a polite, respectful man, though I can't recall him ever smiling for someone else's benefit. His gift was to make the world seems somehow less immense by plowing through it. In my earliest memories, he is moving through the fields with the weight and force of a locomotive. He exuded restraint and discipline.
He passed those traits along to his sons. Each day at 5 a.m., we began a quiet assault on our surroundings -- cropping tobacco, picking cotton, slopping hogs. At times, I detested the rigor of our upbringing. It's only as an adult that I can thank my father for presenting such an example of order; for providing his children with a foundation for which to judge right and wrong, navigate our emotions and to push through life, rather than simply being carried along.
This sense of order and rigor impressed certain values on my young mind -- the importance of virtue and striving, and a hunger for knowledge. Learned young, the lessons stuck. Decades later, they remain not just as memories but as a constant source of rejuvenation - and a lingering joy in my heart.