Grammy was one of those Hollywood-casting type of grandmothers; a great bun of gray hair on her head, long strong arms (the better to suddenly envelop any unwary passing grandchild), a kind face etched with soft folds of skin and a large body frame made sturdy through a lifetime of hard work. We felt we were in heaven or at least close to it when we awoke in that large wooden house with the smell of frying bacon and baking biscuits and the air alive with the distinctive bird song of the Bob Whites, urging my two brothers and me to come out and play. We spent a few weeks each summer exploring the woods, drinking lemonade on the shady porch, and chasing cows--which ran at large throughout the parish--out of Grammy's sprawling yard.
There were other clues that we were near heaven. As we approached Grammy's house each summer, driving along that rural blacktop road, we noticed as many churches as houses. We knew nothing of denominations or the various stripes and flavors of religion, but we knew holiness when we saw it, and this was the mother lode.
My family went to church, but not religiously. Mom and Dad told us we were Episcopalians, but they might as well have told us we were Pre-Mesozoic Amphibians. But here among the tall pine trees of backcountry Louisiana was rampant religion, where people went to church on purpose and often. Clearly, these were good people, better than the regular people we saw every day at home. They sat in rocking chairs and porch swings and waved as you drove by. They greeted you at the lone Texaco country store and gas pump with a hug and refrain, "This little man is Melba's boy? Well I declare!" When we visited Grammy, her house was buried with watermelons and freshly picked green beans and pies sent from the surrounding countryside. Everyone was good and kind with a gentle Southern humor.
Grammy would go to church on purpose and often, but my parents wouldn't allow us to go with her, so things were pretty good in that department. Once, when our parents sent us to the farm alone for a week, my mother consented to us accompanying Grammy to church. But, she admonished, "Don't pray."
My brothers and I had become little pawns in a religious war we didn't understand. Best we could tell, Mom didn't want our souls saved "in that kind of a church," and Grammy took it hard because now, as she broke the news to us for the first time, we'd be going to hell.
She didn't say exactly that we'd be going to hell. But she said that only true believers of her religion got to heaven. We were old enough to know that if you didn't go to heaven, you went somewhere else--and it wasn't Shreveport. Worse yet, we learned, tons of people would be going to hell with us, even the people in that little brick church next to Grammy's church. "They are Baptists," she told us in a tone that chilled our impressionable little hearts. We had no more idea what a Baptist was than an Episcopalian. Or Pre-Mesozoic Amphibian, for that matter. From her manner, we took it that Baptists were something along the lines of vampires or school principals. We had assumed going to church, any church, was a ticket to heaven, but we were astonished to learn that even in this holy countryside, where you couldn't walk 10 feet without plowing into the side of a building with a steeple or bell tower, that was not the case. Those "other" churches belonged to Lutherans and Baptists, Jurassic Reptilians, and people who watched television, and, well, it was an eye-opener.
After the service, everyone mopped up the tears and seemed to return to normal. They became the regular old uncles, aunts, and cousins, laughing, talking, drinking punch and exchanging produce like nothing had just happened. My brothers and I left church that night knowing that the world was divided into two groups of people: these guys and everyone else who was going to hell, which included us.
As we grew a little older, we decided that our people in Louisiana were still good people, just a little strange. Then, as we grew older still, we learned their righteousness was not completely without flaws.
One day I was complaining about my chigger bites. Chiggers are vicious tiny mites that devoured us when we played in the woods surrounding Grammy's house. The wounds they left behind itched worse than mosquito bites and seemed never to go away.
My uncle said in his smooth voice, "Chaaaaa-ley. We can't call them chiggers anymore. We got to call them chigg-roes." He laughed his gentle laugh.
Hearing my uncle talk like that made me sad. I learned that even in this lovely, warm heartland of Hallmark America, in this land of fresh-picked green peas and houses that smelled like bacon and fresh baked biscuits, everything was not perfect.
It took years for me to process the religious experiences of my early life. I went through a period believing that they were hypocrites because their lives centered on religion, and yet they engaged in a deep-seated form of racial intolerance fostered by generations of, I suppose, disinterest in everything except their sacred goal.
Then I spent a while judging them, because I realized so much trouble in the world has come from one group of people beating up other groups while trying to convince them they've found the only way to heaven. Hey, I figured, look at it this way: If you think you've found the way to heaven, then you've won the biggest lottery in the world. Relax. Rejoice. Be happy. If you won $100 million, you wouldn't go to war to convince others that your system of winning is the best. You wouldn't waste precious time on earth hating other people simply because they had a different idea of how to win $100 million. If someone asks, sure, be happy to share what you know. But what they ultimately choose to believe is not your problem.
But even later, when I grew up and found my own faith, I made the most surprising discovery of all. I loved my Louisiana relatives, and I realized they had taught me the most precious lesson of all. Although they may have not indulged in it, they taught me tolerance. They taught me to love people who were different than me and who believed something I found completely exasperating.
Funny what you can learn in a little wooden house surrounded by the frying of bacon and the baking of biscuits, with the call of the Bob White in the air.