Christ of the Ozarks is 1500 feet tall, a monumental rectangular savior. Next to its 340 ton concrete base, my shrinking grandfather stood shaking, his quiet voice straining over the wind.
“Sheila, get the car.” My grandfather’s somewhat garbled speech was made worse by his dentures, which were always on the verge of coming loose. He bypassed my aunt, eyes fixed on the streaked beige van that stood opposite the gleaming monolith. “I’m going back to the car.”
Our 2007 Arkansas pilgrimage had been laced with tiresome stops, half -hour naps and the continuous search for benches. In summers past, vacations with my grandfather meant 6 a.m. departure times and hours of driving without rest stops. There were museums to visit and bridges to cross and mountain gorges to look into. Moments of exhaustion were moments wasted.
Though my mother and aunt complained mostly of the physical fallout, the more troubling inconvenience was Grandaddy’s frequent misperceptions. Over breakfast, my grandfather placed us in Missouri and Alabama and accused my mother of misplacing plane tickets to a trip that didn’t exist. The day before, he lost his medicine, and once during lunch he called me by his sister’s name.
This afternoon’s struggle was one of scheduling and repetition. Our schedule said that we would be visiting the nearby religious museums bordering the giant stone statue. And afterwards, a particularly preachy play depicting Christ’s last days.
Periodically, we assured my grandfather that the play was at 8 p.m. – not in an hour, not three hours ago. My mother tucked the tickets into her front fanny pack pocket for instant verification.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with your grandfather,” she muttered for the thousandth time, shielding her eyes for a better look at God’s face.
As always, she turned to amateur diagnoses. Dementia and Alzheimer’s were favorite candidates. Cancer and tumors came as close seconds. And as always, the devil was thrown into the mix for good measure.
My mother has a penchant for off-the-cuff medical assessments– a strong cough means tuberculosis, a wrongly buttoned shirt means arthritis. For Grandaddy, though, the pastime seemed not only crass, but inaccurate. I couldn’t be expected to remember what I had for breakfast. Neither could my grandfather.
When I was eleven, I found myself crammed in the backseat of my grandparents’ minivan, en route to Dolly Parton’s theme park. We listened to bleating love ballads and God-strewn country hymns, barreling along the Interstate with a homing beacon locked on every nearby Race Trac.
Before the rollercoasters, we prayed. Fifty unknowns laid hands over my grandmother’s brain tumor in an off-road church with hard wooden pews and a formidable, gold-leafed Bible big enough for two laps. I watched them pass oil over my grandmother’s head, take turns speaking in tongues. I was afraid of the parasite growing inside her skull. But halfway through the prayer circle, she leaned close to me and whispered that she wasn’t afraid to die.
This was the precursor to healthcare in my family – let go, let God, and let the travel agent take care of your booking. This reserved for extreme cases, of course. Personality changes took precedent over pneumonia and expensive illnesses over an invasive cough. Eugene Springs was our third health pilgrimage. Not that anyone else called it that.
Six years later and one state over, my name slipped into the meal-time prayer list, along with Grandaddy’s. And though this could have been for any harmless reason, I shuddered for the worse. For some years I had been a point of contention in the family — dateless, opinionated, non-denominational. God and men were hard to find with those personality traits.
Standing in the Arkansas heat surrounded by religious iconography, I diverted my attention away from the nice, Christian, shorts-wearing girls my age and toward more appropriate amorous prospects. Underneath my jeans, several thin scars patterned my skin, growing in frequency near my hips. My mother pointed at the dried blood at the end of each day and asked me how I managed to get ketchup on my pants. She shook her head, wondering contentiously why I wanted to look thrown away.
With Christ towering on the hill above us, my grandfather settled on a bench.
My mother and aunt set off to verify our tickets at the box office, leaving me as unofficial babysitter — the job details of which were to get Grandaddy interested in something, anything. We had already completed “The Living Bible” tour – a sanitized, tourist friendly rendition of the Holy Land, complete with a foam-rock wailing wall and devoid of any begging children or Palestinian check-points. We bounced along in a tumble-down tour cart, surrounded by eight under-informed but enthusiastic strangers. Beside me, Grandaddy, the eight time veteran of Israel tours, smiled and nodded his head as a freckled announcer pointed to landscaped gardens and described a Gethsemane I had never seen.
Later, I walked through the resident science museum. Cavemen mannequins worked peacefully along with brontosauruses and mutely hunted velociraptors. The electronic tour guide in my ear explained that all creatures had appeared on earth at once, and that no major structural changes had been made during our 6,000 years on planet Earth. A dated and chintzy looking fossil display touted the museum’s own tribute to the downfalls of fake science.
In previous years my grandfather would have declared both of these tours sacrilegious for their factual failures. He would have taken aside employees and plastered pocket napkins with obscure historical facts and contexts pulled from who-knows-what book. During one of the two trips abroad I took with him, he spent 20 minutes explaining to a check point official that Jesus was born in the spring, not the winter. Otherwise, where would the shepherds get their sheep?
I waited for him to gain vehemence over this newest travesty. The fact that he didn’t do so was, of course, nothing but heat exhaustion. In the tired, slow afternoon, we looked like two strangers exchanging pleasantries.
“Did you like the tour?”
“What?” Grandaddy popped his denture back in to place. “Oh yeah, yeah. It was good. The river looked like Jordon.”
The clear, manicured waterway in no way resembled the muddy, somewhat polluted Israeli river. But that was unimportant.
“When does the show start?” Grandaddy rose slightly from his seat. I put a hand under his arm and followed him slowly, away from the amphitheater. My pants snagged at the still fresh cuts on my legs. I didn’t bother to correct his direction. “I’m going to find a seat.”
Later, my grandfather accompanied Pontius Pilot’s suspiciously eloquent speech with a round of snores. He went unnoticed among the multitude of crying women with identical perms and the periodic Holy Spirit-inspired shouts that sounded from the ground seating.
Once the earthquake finished after Jesus’ death, my aunt dutifully closed her eyes and raised my grandfather’s hand for a prayer request. I lifted a finger up and hoped that God would see it.
The next morning, we left Eugene Springs to please Grandaddy’s need for sight-seeing. The first Wal-mart, my grandfather insisted, was in Branson, Missouri.
Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers, Arkansas – a one hour drive that was slowly taking us three. An hour into our trip, his frustration erupted into an uncharacteristic bout of yelling. This culminated in my aunt slapping my grandfather’s hand away from the steering wheel during particularly heavy traffic. Twenty minutes from our destination, we veered to the opposite direction.
“We need to leave now if we’re going to see the shows.”
That night, there were no shows scheduled in Branson. Dixie Stampede was taking a cleaning day. The local Grand Ole Opry had no scheduled singers. There would not be performances for two more days. By then, we would be in Georgia, and my grandfather off to another routine doctor’s visit.
“Now we’re going to be late.” My grandfather sucked loudly on a lemon drop and glared into the noon-day sun, his mouth puckered. “It’s five o’clock.”
Long past 6 p.m. the night before, Grandaddy had flipped numerous times past evening crime dramas and old movie reruns, looking for the evening news. I sat beside him – my mother and Sheila going over the next day’s medication, me pondering whether I could sneak into the bathroom for a few quick incisions. I started to reach toward my bag to sneak out a blade. Grandaddy offered me half an apple and gave me a tired, withered look.
When Katie Couric could not be found, Grandaddy laid down on the somewhat lumpy hotel mattress and demanded we turn the T.V. to his favorite station – Channel O.F.F.
The morning of our Wal-mart excursion, we piled into the van and forgot the tense shouting match between my grandfather and mother. I buried my head in 1984 and started making phrase comparisons for an upcoming summer book essay.
Time=money; money=the root of all evil. Time is in God’s control. God controls the root of all evil.
For two hours, I listened to my grandfather pop his dentures out of place.
In the mid-afternoon sun, Branson was bleached and faded – the underside of a gutted whale.
Like any respectable metropolis, the street lanes had been placed just so to encourage long bouts of slothful, two-ton snail traffic. We crawled past empty storefronts, glancing down side streets for a sign pointing us towards Wal-mart. And after the first few intersections, my grandfather tells my aunt to pull over.
“It’s right next to the shows.” Grandaddy unwrapped another cough drop and popped his dentures against the roof of his mouth. “We need to buy our tickets. You hear me?”
“With your gout?” Sheila laughed, but her throat seemed stuck. “I’m not pulling over.”
With no Wal-mart to be found, we settled for Wendy’s. Grandaddy’s leg shook against the chair as he stared at his slightly overdone sandwich. I took his cue and kept my eyes trained on the broccoli and cheese potato.
“You in school yet?”
“No,” I stabbed the meat of the potato and half-heartedly ladled sour cream into it. “It starts in two weeks.”
“You learning history?”
“We don’t past 10th grade,” I stirred the white substance, and wondered if I could get into my mother’s Tylenol without her noticing. “I’m starting my senior year.”
Grandaddy played with the wrapper on the outside of his burger for a few minutes before looking back at me.
“They teach you about the President yet?”
“The one from Texas. He’s not really the President, you know. We just let him run because he’s a smart guy.” After a few minutes, my aunt took the sandwich away from Grandaddy and started to remove the onions and lettuce. I affected a smile and took another stab at the baked potato.
“Texas isn’t really part of the United States, you know.”
As my aunt and mother talked about gas prices and wasted hours and I wondered whether to interrupt them for a listen in on what surely was my grandfather’s latest joke.
Grandaddy’s shelves were full of musty history books. The Christmas before Arkansas, my sister bought him a history of the Confederate state flags. The year before, my mother bought him a small replica of a Civil War cannon.
“Texas seceded during the state’s wars. Didn’t want to give up their slaves, so they’re a separate country. Mexico wanted ‘em, but they fought ‘em off.” He popped his dentures back in place and tore off a bite of burger. “We still allow them to participate in laws and elections, kind of like an advisor, but they’re not a part of us anymore. They’re the only one that got anything out of that damned war. Smart enough to get out before the Union took over.”
I watched the sour cream melt out of the sides of my baked potato and laughed quietly. And to my right, I listened to my mother mutter quietly, “What are we going to do about Grandaddy?”
Tiffany Stevens is a senior journalism and women’s studies major at the University of Georgia. When not in class, she works as a student journalist for UGA’s independent publication, The Red & Black. And when not engaging in those activities, she argues with strangers online. This, as one can imagine, is her most exhausting work.