By Lise Funderburg
Copyright © 2008. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
In March of 2004, just when the urge to rake out garden beds and plant summer bulbs is too strong to resist, despite the possibility—the near certainty—that snow will come again to Philadelphia, I pick up my father and his wife and head south.
We drive from their suburban retirement community to Philadelphia International Airport, then fly to Georgia, them in business class, me in coach. In Atlanta, we rent a car and aim for Monticello, a small town surrounded by small towns: Zebulon and Sparta, Musella and Smarr. This is Monti-sello, not -chello, seat of Jasper County, home to the fighting Hurricanes, one-time buckle on the Georgia peach-growing belt, birthplace of my father, and the town he shunned for decades, until 20 years ago when he gave in to a childhood dream and bought a farm a few miles from Monticello's town square.
Across the seat of our full-sized sedan, I see my father, George Newton Funderburg, grow more energetic with each mile. He looks out the passenger-side window as big-box malls trickle away, replaced by pine forest and signs for barbecue. My father is a handsome man. I tend to look at him through a lens in which surface and shape hardly register, except as conveyers of emotion, but I can see that at 77, he has barely a crease in his skin, much less a wrinkle. He is still in the vicinity of his peak height, 5 feet 11 inches, and his close-cropped hair, never grown long enough to complete a kink, is slightly more salt than pepper. His face and body are well-proportioned, except for the large-belly/no-posterior dilemma that plagues many men after a certain age, and his gray-blue eyes and meticulously flossed, brushed and later-life-orthodonticized teeth sparkle with charm and good humor when the spirit moves him. Down here, most people look at his skin, the color of faded parchment, and call it "high yellow." Up north, most people assume he's white.
Dad interrupts his own reverie with projections: how we'll occupy ourselves on this trip, what changes we'll encounter, what will have stayed the same. He anticipates, accurately, that we will find his 126-acre farm-cum-vacation home in pristine condition, thanks to the attentions of Troy Johnson, a friend and fellow retiree who watches out for the house and three ponds, the ancient grove of pecan trees that yield seemingly on whim, and several well-manicured pastures Dad rents out to the cattle-farming Howard brothers, 48-year-old identical twins named Albert and Elbert.
Down south, spring has advanced. Pear trees are in full bloom, naturalized daffodils stripe the just-greening pastures with yellow, and deep red camellias dot walkways and yards, sentries at every door. Sweaters need to be kept nearby but not on, windows are cranked open to ensure a cross breeze. We make good time from the airport to the farm, just over an hour, and Dad and I don't bother to unpack before we turn our attention to the two items on our agenda: roasting a pig and getting him some chemo.
First, the pig. In January, my father read a newspaper article that chronicled the author's experiment with cooking a 70-pound pig in a Cuban-American–designed roasting box called La Caja China [kä-hä che'-nä]: a simple plywood cart lined with metal and designed to suspend coals above rather than below the meat. The outcome, sweet and savory, succulent and crisp, earned the paradoxical moniker "pig candy."
My father has always displayed a fascination for crafty mechanics, for improved ways to clean and fix and open and close. Clever inventions and well-prepared food both make my father's list of favorite things. Together they are irresistible. Dad instantly ordered the largest model Caja from its Miami manufacturer and had it sent to the farm.
In Monticello, population 2,500, with its intertwined bloodlines and relationships, word gets around. Dad tells everyone we run into about La Caja China, or "pig box," as we have come to call it. He informs anyone he can corner that he's looking to find a whole pig: that he needs it dressed and delivered and preferably 100 pounds, which is the box's stated maximum capacity. He mentions this to Connie, the cashier at the Tillman House Restaurant. He inserts this into small talk when he's charging wigglers and deer feeder pellets at Monticello Farm & Garden. He broadcasts it at Eddie Ray Tyler's barbershop, where one or two men sit in the defunct shoeshine stand that serves as a waiting area whether someone's in Eddie Ray's cutting chair or not.
Dad mentions his pig quest to Marshall Tinsley, a handsome man close to 60 with a strong, open face and a brilliant smile, despite a few missing teeth on the bottom row. Marshall is a mason twice over: by trade and also as a 33rd-degree Free and Accepted Mason of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia, for which he serves in the office of Worshipful Junior Grand Steward. Marshall's first visit to Dad's farm was to fix a screen door. His skill and thoroughness caught my father's attention, and now Marshall comes to Thanksgiving. One time, he even brought the turkey, which he'd deep-fried at three minutes per pound.
Marshall is somehow related to Holsey Tinsley (the childhood sweetheart and now second husband of my father's sister, Chase, which makes Holsey, I realize a few years after their marriage, my uncle) and directly related to the owner of Dave's BBQ & Soul Food restaurant, Dave Tinsley, who is Marshall's brother. Marshall has a bad back and a bum knee that collapses under him without warning. It looks like he's doubling over with laughter, except it's weakness and pain. He went through "the cancer," as some people here put it, and when he hears that Dad's prostate cancer has come out of a 15-year remission and that he'll have to have chemotherapy, Marshall recommends strawberry-flavored Ensure, which he drank when chemo killed his appetite, which was all the time. Dad is sure to mention the pig quest to Marshall because Marshall is well-connected through the Masons and work and church activities and through taking at least one meal a day at his brother's restaurant on Frobel Street, one block east of the town square. One of Marshall's closest friends is a heavily networked bus driver/prison guard/chicken farmer who goes by the nickname of Tater and is Marshall's partner in a venture concerning a herd of goats.
Before Marshall has a chance to make headway, Dad finds a pig. His pork conduit is Ben Tillman, owner and head cook of Tillman House, a restaurant 20 steps west of the town square, a square through which 18-wheelers still pass and people recognize one another's vehicles with honks and waves. In his off-hours, Ben does catering. If clients want help serving and cleaning up, he brings his little sister, Sissy Tillman Hulsey. Sissy may well be older than Ben, but she is a quarter of his size. He is monstrously solid, heavy but not truly obese. He's just big, as is his daddy, Mack, the former sheriff who bought the restaurant in the late 1970s but has since sold it to Ben and now just helps out, pouring sweet tea into to-go cups and putting Styrofoam containers into bags.
Ben's place is open only on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., but it easily does as much business as the nearby Hardee's and Dairy Queen and Big Chick combined, even though their doors stay open longer. Dave's comes closest to Tillman's in its menus and cafeteria line setup. The main difference is that most of Dave's sit-down clients and all of his staff are black. Most of Tillman's clients and all of his staff are white.
Dad's wife, Lois, is still asleep when he and I leave the farmhouse to go to Tillman's for breakfast the morning after we arrive. Inside the restaurant's front door, Dad takes off his taupe Stetson and places it on an empty chair. Cowboy hats are not a popular head covering in central Georgia—I can't recall seeing one on anybody else's head—but my father has never been a slave to fashion. He adheres to a foundation of cleanliness and good repair, but beyond that, function and comfort prevail. And innovation. For some years, he favored a stiff polyester traveler's blazer, the blue one with hidden pockets he had ordered from a stamp-sized ad in The New Yorker. He treats clothing as a uniform, a necessary accoutrement of living, but nothing more.
Tillman's business is brisk, as it is every morning, yet there are still plenty of open tables. We sit up front, near the entrance and cash register and recently expanded retail product line: shelves of jams, barbecue sauces and peppered vinegar locally brewed and bottled and canned. My favorite is "The Enhancer: The Sauce that Demands Your Imagination." We order eggs, sausage and grits from Connie, whose long brown braid swings down the back of her Christian rock concert T-shirt as she pads around the restaurant in high-top cross-trainers. She swallows the ends of words in the local fashion, talking about a husband who keeps her out of troub- and wondering at the end of our meal if we want anything el-.
The restaurant's cafeteria line and three seating areas are carved out of the first floor of a large, old, wood-framed house, obligatory porch out front. On one wall a horse halter hangs between two fur stoles sagging on metal coat hangers. Atop an upright piano, Little League team portraits alternate with historic shots of the area collected by Benny, the UPS deliveryman who is also an amateur historian. In a picture from the 1930s, a white man sits on a horse-drawn cart, legs primly crossed and hands in lap, presiding over dozens of black men in prison stripes and shackles.
There was a time, before the Tillmans bought the business, when we could not have passed through these doors and sat at a table. As Coloreds (or Nigras or Mulattoes or Blacks or whatever term was in fashion), we would have been relegated to the back door of the restaurant to buy our food and take it away. To my father, this past is direct, personal and constant, etching itself into his instincts. My father is as fair-skinned as I am, so the restrictions he grew up under, so largely tied to skin color, were, in his case, not actually because of the color of his skin, but because of the idea of skin color. To me, this past is historical, his story abstract. As a white-looking, mixed-race girl, growing up in the urban, integrated North in the 1960s, I have only heard of such customs.
We arrive on a Tuesday. The pigfest is set for Saturday. In the interim, Lois will ensconce herself in the sunroom's BackSaver lounger, set at full recline. Lois and my father have established fairly separate activity orbits in the 30 years they've been together (twice the length of his marriage to my mother). Dad finds projects, obsessions, intrigues to pursue, either telephonically or in person. His modus operandi is all operandi, all the time. Lois watches English mystery series and reads whodunits. While we're at the farm, the sunroom is her headquarters, and she has a mystery novel in hand, telephone and remote control within reach. She gets up only to use the bathroom and for meals, in both cases relying on a walker to keep her upright. Her mind is sharp but her balance is gone. It's brain chemistry rather than inner ear, the doctors tell her, and her only protection from dizziness and imminent collapse is to remain horizontal.
Lois seems relieved whenever my two sisters and I are around. For better and worse, we absorb our father's attention, and more than once, his tendency toward irascibility has prompted a reactionary alliance. I credit Lois for establishing the noncompete policy under which she and I operate: I was 12 when she became a part of my family, too young to do much more than feel resentful. Toward me and my sisters, and her own four children, as far as I can tell, she displays a curious blend of being unsentimental but generous, uninterested but accommodating. As physically inhibited as she is, she seems fairly content, and so I do little for her while we're in Georgia other than to bring her a glass of water, no ice, when she descends into one of her chronic coughing spells, or to ask her if she needs anything when I'm going to the store. Only rarely will she ask for something, and only when I'm already headed out on an errand.
In Georgia, my father lives from errand to errand, repair to repair, enterprise to enterprise. He keeps lists in a small spiral notebook or on index cards or the backs of envelopes, and he scratches off items as each is accomplished. Ever since August of 1985, when my two sisters and I flew down with him so that all of us, including him, could see the farm for the first time, one of his to-do items is to bestow allowances at the start of every visit.
The Chamber of Commerce welcomes you to Monticello, he says, then proffers a handshake, a crisp $50 bill (and after a few years and in a nod to inflation, a $100 bill) folded into his palm. He singles out each of us to do this, delivering his welcome in a low voice, as if the transaction is a secret to be kept. This largesse, this whimsy, from a man whose cash gifts for most of my life consisted of birthday checks for $5, half of which had to be given to charity and the other half deposited into a savings account. My sisters and I come to call his presentation the "golden handshake," and the joke of it is that, beyond purchasing nail polish from the drugstore or The Enhancer from Tillman House, there is nowhere to spend the money.
Tuesday's to-do list is shorter, less ambitious than usual. My father seems to have misplaced his up-and-at-'em. He has trouble climbing in and out of his high-riding, 10-year-old Isuzu Trooper, a small truck manufactured before consumer comfort was incorporated into SUV design. He alley-oops one leg into the truck using progressive swings, then shifts his body weight into the center of the passenger seat in labored increments before picking up the other leg with both hands and pulling it up after him. Sometimes during this process he lets out a little laugh, a chortle I take to mean: This is how it is. We'll just carry on. Do not pity me.
Old age is hell, is the most he'll say out loud. Or, tacking on the nickname coined for me by his one grandchild, My legs don't work so good, Leesee. For my father, this is as bare as he's willing to get. It's more than I am used to.
We turn our attention to chemotherapy on Wednesday, after breakfast at Tillman's. Dad's errand list is tucked into his breast pocket, and we climb into the Isuzu, which doubles as a mobile toolshed. In the rear cargo area, paper towel rolls commingle with green plastic five-gallon buckets that once held pond fertilizer and now await either the day's catch, pecans (when it's a good year), or roadside trash. Clever devices are always close by, most designed to save the operator from bending over. This includes two three-foot poles attached to wire cages that are rolled over the ground to snag fallen pecans. For efficiency's sake, Dad likes to operate both at once. Also, a long-reach, two-clawed trash grabber sits near a bag of used supermarket bags that are wedged between rectangular plastic tubs, one filled with fish kibble, the other with fish trap bait that resembles dried horse manure. Pliers and deerskin work gloves tend to remain up front, stuck between driver and passenger seats. A condition of using the vehicle is that one must keep the glove compartment locked at all times. It holds a loaded pistol. Inevitably, Kleenex boxes are within reach and miscellaneous tools are strewn around. You never know when you'll need to tie a hammer to a rope, heave it up and over the nut-laden branch of a pecan tree, and tug at the two rope ends until nuts shake off and fall to the ground, after which you can roll over them with the picker-upper cages.
Today, I drive. Dad began to criticize my shifting technique a year or so ago, wincing and groaning whenever the clutch-gas-shift interaction fell below his standards. Which was every time. But this day, he looks out his window and says, apropos of nothing, My vision seems to be getting fuzzier, and for the rest of my visit, the job of driving will fall to me by unspoken agreement. We must travel 30 miles to meet an oncologist whose offices are in the town of Covington. Dad no longer radiates disapproval when first gear hiccups into second or second stutters into third, but while I drive, he steadies the manila envelope filled with test results in his lap and dispenses orders.
Turn left, he instructs as I approach an intersection, after you stop at the stop sign.
Otherwise, we are mostly silent. I drink in the landscape as we drive north on Highway 83. Everything I see demands translation. I don't know the seasons, only that the azaleas here will be long gone before the ones back in Philadelphia come close to blooming. Wisteria, with its grape-bunch flower clusters, climbs up into the trees the way I know ivy to do, and kudzu druids loom at the highway's edge. Roll after roll of baled hay line recently shorn fields, and unpaved red clay roads splinter off to the left and right, marked by various signs promising religious fellowship, fresh eggs, or, come election time, the best bet for sheriff.
Pastures and pine forests dominate, interrupted by long, low poultry barns and pecan groves. The land in Jasper County yields up its bounty unevenly, and farmers are increasingly drawn to whatever requires the least amount of labor. One man can grow a 100-acre stand of pine trees by himself. One family can run a poultry operation of 100,000 broilers, the Chicken McNuggets and shrink-wrapped family packs of tomorrow, bred and plumped in six-week cycles. Crops take more hands than most farmers can find, none more labor intensive than peaches and cotton, the two that at one time made certain Jasper landowners rich.
I don't know many of the trees we are speeding past, why they grow the way they do, what it means when a stand of pines has burned down to charcoal, if that's a good or bad thing. Topography, too, confounds me. I understand the anonymity of urban grids, the consensual distance that exists between apartment buildings and front doors squeezed up against one another. But these one-lane highways are necklaces stringing together small-town pearls, each one a community in which relationships link across generations. The string itself puzzles me: I can't bring it into focus, but I suspect that an adage pointing up the regionally distinct ways in which discrimination is articulated socially and socioeconomically might be of help: In the North, supposedly, blacks can get high but not close; in the South, close but not high. In the South, the possibility of having some shared history if not ancestry, is great, unlike the autonomy I grew up with in the North, in the nation's fourth-largest city.
I don't know this world at all.
In cahoots with our father, my sisters and I have devised a plan that should allow him to continue spending spring and fall here without disrupting the chemotherapy that he is supposed to start and that, according to his oncologist at home, he'll stay on until it stops working. One of the mildest forms of chemo there is. Once a week, three weeks on and one week off. Not meant to cure—it's too late for that—but to slow the rampant climb of Dad's prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level, a number that indicates prostate gland activity and that has been doubling every month since the first spike was noted last year.
I presume cessation of treatments will be concurrent with death or in close proximity to it, since the cancer has already metastasized and can only be slowed now, not stopped. But chemo is chemo, my sisters and I reason: regionless. Surely the treatment will work better for him if administered in "Big Foot Country," as he has started to call Jasper County. So far, Dad's plan is to drive himself to and from these treatments. I'll pull over if I'm sleepy, he says. This reasoning, along with his diminishing vision, does not reassure.
The man we're going to see this morning, Dr. Carter, has provisionally agreed, pending the examination he'll conduct today, to administer chemotherapy to Dad in Georgia. Consistent with small-town interconnectedness, Dr. Carter was recommended by Dr. Troy Johnson, an emergency room physician in the nearby town of Milledgeville who is named for his uncle, and that uncle is the man who watches over Dad's farm.
At the start of the appointment, we find out that Dr. Carter has taught at Emory University in addition to running a private practice, and we can see he is a natural instructor of the best sort. In the tiny examination room, he delivers an exuberant, extemporaneous lecture on prostate cancer: its origins, method of progression, and available treatment modalities, along with their pluses and minuses. He is in constant motion as he talks, pushing his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose, gesturing and hopping about the room, practically acting out the disease and the steps we can take to combat it. He touches my father's arm from time to time, as if to seal a mutual understanding.
On the paper sheet that covers the examination table, Dr. Carter spells out "estramustine" and "antigen-resistant" with a thick black marker. He also makes cartoon renderings of the spine, the cancerous lesions that weaken it, and the weight-bearing bones of the body that are likely points for "spot-welding" radiation down the road. A fractured skull won't kill you, he explains, but a broken hip is usually the beginning of the end.
He pulls more paper from the roll above the table's headrest, joking that his nurses give him heck for wasting their supplies. He says "heck," not "hell," which may be related to the Pentecostal literature that fills the waiting room magazine rack and side tables. I brace myself in case he brings up God, not one of my father's favorite topics. When Dr. Carter leaves the room briefly, I walk over to the examination table drawings.
I'd love to take these home, I say.
Ask him, my father commands. When he comes back in.
A lab technician samples and processes Dad's blood while we're with Dr. Carter, and the minute the doctor has confirmation that Dad's PSA level is in the mid-300s, he advises us to schedule chemo with the front desk as soon as possible.
My husband, John, is coming from Philadelphia for the weekend, and we have reservations to return together on Sunday afternoon. When Dr. Carter says treatment can start on Monday, I decide to let John go back without me.
Lise Funderburg is a writer, editor and creative writing instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. This is an excerpt from "Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home" (Free Press, $24).