We lived across the road from Ernest and Alma after we moved from Fort Worth. My parents were friends with them, and his step-mother was my grandmother’s cousin. Mark Twain observed it takes a really intelligent person to know how to cuss with finesse. Ernest must have been intelligent since he shocked my mother and grandmother by cussing every other word, and that was his trademark, the same as his roll-up cigarettes that he kept in his pocket and that on retrospect looked like a marijuana joint when he finished rolling it up.
He killed a big bird one time and dragged it up to our house, cussing and saying he damned well didn’t mean to kill this damned bird and what kind of bird was it after all. My mother had bird books, and she determined it was a whooping crane, an endangered species. “Well, I for damned sure didn’t mean to kill one of them damned endangered species. It’s kind of like a feller once told me . . .” That was his favorite phrase, even noted as such in the funeral.
Ernest was also a carpenter, and he built lots of houses in the area. That also was duly noted in the funeral service. What wasn’t noted: he spent hours roaming the extremes of his farm and the creek just to get away from Alma. With all the hours of roaming, he was so dark that one time the Mexicans he worked with tried to speak Spanish to him. His answer when he told my mother the story as they walked to the fruit orchard at the back of our property. “Don’t know why they’re trying to speak their damned gibberish to me, hell.” I know he must have inserted more cuss words than that, but I don’t know where to place them properly. And another story about his coloring: the border patrol sometimes flies helicopters overhead trying to find wetbacks working illegally on farms. They spotted Ernest and mistook him for a Mexican worker and kept circling round and round overhead.
Once he got called for jury duty, and in our county that’s for the whole week. You get called for one jury and then another if needed. My mother always got stuck on juries: a rape case that ended in a hung jury because of two old ladies, one who didn’t like the DA, and the other dismissed the testimony of victim’s son becsause children make up stories. Ernest served only one day. When he was called for voir dire, he maintained, “Hell, the damned man’s guilty. Why the hell else would they have this damned trial.” To his credit, I don’t think he ever said “god-damned,” at least not around women and children.
As for his relationship with my mother, we were never sure what it meant when he came to see her. They’d talk for a while on the porch and then head for the fruit orchard to talk some more. We were never asked to tag along. That perplexed me when I was growing up, and once in grad school, I asked my boyfriend Michael if he thought they were having an affair. He told me, “No, not your mother.” Everyone loved my mother, you see. Later now, I told my husband Tim about the trips to the fruit orchard, and he told me that it reminds him of something in Mayberry and he can in his mind hear Barney Fife saying, “Andy, you’ve got to do something about that orchard talking..” I prefer to think that Ernest really admired my mother and needed someone to talk to since he and Alma barely talked at all. Besides that, men liked Mother. She’d help Mr. Turner at the country store when he needed to go into town to buy supplies, and men would stop by just to talk to her. In other words, there was NOTHING going on between my mother and Ernest. That’s the way it has to be in my mind.
Now as for Alma, they married when she was sixteen, and he was twenty-one, I think. My sisters and I could never understand someone getting married that young, especially since in our family only after we got our degrees could we get married. But according to Mother, Alma’s father protected her from every boy who wanted to date her. She was obese, and not a prize, but on a dare Ernest set out to date her, and then he ended up married. Now at the funeral, the story changed: she first saw him when she was fifteen, and she told her mother, “I’m going to have that man. If I can get him.” A year later when she was sixteen, they had their first date. Then a week later they were married, and they were never apart after that. According to the young boy preacher, you’d never see one without the other. They were inseparable and a pure example of what marriage should be.
Many of the preacher’s claims fell short of what the “real” Ernest was. After all, it takes a genius to master the art of cussing. But fifteen years ago, Ernest was sick all winter and started going to church. “Because he got scared,” my daddy said, and I asked whether Ernest had quit cussing. Daddy never answered, but the boy preacher at the funeral told us about the “new” Ernest. He never knew the old, but the new Ernest changed completely when he came back to the church.
Ernest’s ministry was to greet people and make them feel welcome. My sister Monie missed the funeral because she got lost coming to the church. So she arrived late and stood outside in the big vestibule. She said, “I can see Ernest doing that. He’d make a great Wal-Mart greeter.” I told her Tim hates the Wal-Mart greeters, but that was Ernest’s ministry. A humble, but needed service for the Lord. And he’d always end with, “It’s kind of like this feller told me.” He brought people into the church. Teens admired him, and he kept many a boy from getting a “whupping” when he did something wrong and probably deserved the whupping to begin with. That’s their version of Ernest, not mine.
And this picture of a man who found Jesus fifteen years ago and turned from his past life of sin continues: he’ll live on. He’s home in heaven now with the little boy Alma lost when they were first married. Alma and Sheila (his daughter) and the two grandchildren (a fat boy named Daron and a pretty faced, fat girl named Jayce) can take comfort in the fact they’ll see Ernest once again in the great afterwhile, the great reunion when the saints will be gathered into glory. And they can take comfort that he made a difference in the lives of the congregation. After all, greeting was his ministry (repeated often during the sermon), and look at all the boys he saved from whuppings and all the people who came to the church and stayed because Ernest gave them a big Wal-Mart welcome.
All of which demolishes the Ernest we knew. The cussing orchard talker who killed a big bird and who got kicked off jury duty the first day. He’s gone. That’s the old Ernest, and the preacher never knew the old Ernest. The sanctuary of the church looked like a grade school cafetorium that had been transformed in a few minutes into a meeting place for the saints. A large screen overhead for viewing, maybe, the preacher as he preaches. Or maybe, it’s used to demonstrate the sermon with visual pictures. The room a little too warm. The fancy mic system not quite working when the first boy preacher told us that Ernest was born on March 4, 1925. And he married Miss Alma Patterson when she was sixteen years old. I sat on the second row of the break between the seats behind a fat woman who kept moving her head to talk to her daughter who had oily curly hair and should have washed it. This preacher I could barely hear, but the other’s voice carried well, and the cafetorium was almost full. I had anticipated coming to a service in a small rock church; after all, the church is called Rocky Point Baptist Church. But I had anticipated a small church, and when I got there, I saw construction in the background and drove right past, only to have to back up to enter the parking lot. They’re building another cafetorium sanctuary, and the family requests donations in Ernest’s memory be made to the Rocky Creek Baptist Church building fund as Ernest would want.
And again, there’s the new Ernest. At the conclusion of the service, they played a recording of “Daddy’s Hands,” recorded by a member of the congregation who couldn’t make it through the song without crying.
My comment: Why do boy preachers insist on their prettified versions? Why take the life out? Why deny that the “old” Ernest ever existed and perpetuate a revised saga about the “new” Ernest, the one who came back to the Lord fifteen years ago and turned away from all he ever was before.
I liked the old Ernest and the big bird that shouldn’t have been there to begin with, damn it. And those damned Mexicans who tried to talk their damned gibberish. And of course, the damned boy wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t guilty.
Give me the old Ernest who shocked my grandmother and mother and who cussed so much my sisters and I quit noticing it after a while. In the casket, his face pale and too white to be mistaken now for a Mexican. He’d spent the last two months in the hospital in San Antonio, waiting for the infection to pass so they could do open-heart surgery. But, for the love of God, I say please quit turning him in your Young Boy preacher mentality into a pasty version of what he once was, the ghost of a man you want to explain out of existence.
Donna Walker-Nixon founded Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature in 1997. She co-edited the Her Texas series with James Ward Lee, and she co-founded The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas. In 2010, her novel Canaan’s Oothoon was published. And she was the editor of Her Texas: Story, Image, Poem & Song.