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Bonding with Family - Part 2: Use of a Crowbar and Pitchfork
SSar's Beast
Cut back to last Saturday afternoon. My parents, Joel, and I were driving south through Kentucky to reach Tennessee, more specifically Nashville, to pick my aunt up from the airport. After severe fluffing around (it took a while to ensure my parents, who were not carrying cellphones, understood the uses and limitations of Joel's iPhone) we figured out how to notify my aunt, and my grandmother, that we were running an hour late.

When we finally caught up with her (80 minutes after her plane had landed), Aunt Roberta (henceforth Berta) was wonderfully unflustered. She flourished a novel, commenting that this must be the first time she'd started and finished a book in the same day. She waited patiently for us to run around the airport buying coffee. We set off again. Conversation flowed surprisingly easily.

It was getting on to evening. Dad led us on a quest through the streets of Franklin, Tennessee, for a roadside barbeque joint. By the way, New Zealanders, a new frame of reference is required. "Barbeque" in the southern US is a delicacy whereby pork is marinated and smoked, then shredded. You eat it with hot sauce. Dad found the perfect establishment, got us food, and encouraged the proprietor to tell Dad his life story. (He was a retired barrister from California).

It was nearly dark by the time we began the last leg of the day's journey - about 90 minutes along the Natchez Trace, an ancient highway now surrounded by a national park. Bobcats darted across the road. We nearly hit a deer.

Something about sitting in the back seat in the dark roused story-telling instincts in Mum and Berta. Mum is the oldest of four siblings; Berta is the youngest. They are eight years apart in age. So they began to tell stories about their childhoods, some of which overlapped, some of which didn't. It was late, and dark. So were the stories. I sat silently enthralled because neither of my parents ever talked much about growing up.

Finally, we arrived in Waynesboro, Tennessee, where my grandmother has lived for the last quarter-century. Grandma, my uncle Glen, and his sons (late teenagers) were waiting up in Grandma's little living room. She lives in a sort of retirement block, with a single bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a sitting room. Somehow, Glen, Berta, Shawn and Patrick were going to spend the next two days sharing it with her.

The motel was nice, and Dad again coaxed the receptionist to tell him her life story. She too was from California, and had got the money to buy her own house as an inheritance from a 93-year-old friend. She had 17 cats. I think if Dad had been allowed to keep talking, he might have won an invitation to hang out with those cats. He really misses Rikki right now.

Mum and Berta and I decided to attend church with Grandma the next morning (First United Methodist). The rest of the day was spent in pleasant but awkward time-killers; a barbeque (the kind New Zealanders understand) and a drive out to the local air strip to see the plane Grandpa almost finished. The air strip was a really depressing sight. When my parents and I visited in 2003, it was maintained well, and on the day we were there several people were working on their planes and taking them up in the air. A friend of Grandpa's took Mum and me up in his own plane, and it was magical.

There's just something about going up in the air in a contraption that fits in a garage. It has amazing immediacy. In a commercial airplane, where you can't always see the propellor, you can't see the controls, you can't always see the ground, your disbelief is automatically engaged. It's as if you are simply taking place in a ritual that will deliver you at your destination. In a tiny three-seater aircraft, all that is stripped away. The wind goes through your hair. It smells a little of fuel (depending on the position of the engine). When you lean, you can see the effect. It's so incredibly real.

Okay, so I did it once seven years ago. It had an effect.

On Sunday, though, there was no one at the air strip, the runway was patched with weeds, and Grandpa's plane, sold to someone else and never quite finished, was occupied only by a small wasps' nest.

So guess what we did on Monday? We drove to a part of Wayne County called Houston, and tried to help recover what could be recovered from some homes ruined by floods.

About a week previously, the nearby creek had flooded horrendously, such that we saw one battered remnant of a house which had ended up about 100m from where it started. The people on this road were very poor, and the construction of the houses wasn't brilliant to start with.

How did we get involved? Well, through Grandma's church. The First United Methodists seem to be an organised bunch, and the church leader told us on Sunday that a group from North Alabama was going to be coming up this week, and we should help out if we could. It seemed that pretty much all of us, except Jim, wanted to come. (Waynesboro, by the way, is not far north of the border between Tennessee and Alabama).

anord has always talked about having an above-ground pool as a marker of white-trash poverty. I never really understood this - having a pool at all, unless it's a kids' paddling pool, implies a certain affluence in New Zealand - until I saw these houses. There was the house, with the garage, and equipment. There was the once-pretty, now-rotting deck. There was the pool, uncannily pristine.

The first thing we were set to do was using crowbars, hammers, and two-by-fours to tear apart the rotten wood of the collapsed deck, and stack the timbers where they could be collected later. That was okay. As Joel put it, mindless destruction is kind of fun. When the deck was torn up, we moved through the yard collecting trash, pulling river debris away from structures and possessions, and taking everything unwanted to a dumpster down the road a little.

Some of the houses on the street were simply condemned. We wandered, awed, through the wreck of one house. The family's main possessions had been taken away. All that was left was the walls, the particle-board-like floor, the friezes near the ceilings, a ruined couch... a lot of river debris... and three or four Justin Bieber posters in what was clearly a little girl's room.

We also had to put coats of bleach on a house where the skirting and linoleum had been taken away. Apparently it is a requirement that you do this three times to ensure that you kill the mold which might otherwise grow up. This caused a lot of problems in the last house. It was the most well-kept, and least-ruined, and we were kind of trying to fix the house without entirely taking it apart. The home-owners, a nice-seeming couple, were in and out, trying not to get under our feet. All of their belongings were piled in the centre of each room so that we could get at the skirting. We were supposed to be removing the running boards (I think that's the word for the panelling boards along the bottoms of walls) then drilling through to the insides of the walls so that we could get the bleach-spraying nozzle inside and get bleach inside the walls. But it got a bit confused. There were too many people (us very much included) who wanted to be told to do something, but kept being given conflicting instructions. We started to feel as though we might do more harm than good.

By "we", by now, I mean all of us who were being introduced as "Charlotte's family" - my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, my uncle, my two cousins, myself, Joel. If nothing else, we were bonded in our willing confusion! But it was getting a bit much. We conferred briefly, and then started to make an exit. It was around 3pm.

Then Ray, one of the leaders of the North Alabama group, sort of caught us leaving. He persuaded us that people had nearly finished fluffing around with the drilling, and we could help with applying bleach. Weary, but not wanting to look like we were quitters, we turned back, and tried to help again. But we were still getting conflicting instructions, the bleach sprayer wasn't working properly, and we made our minds up to really leave.

About then, Dad showed up. He was the only one of the family who hadn't decided to come along for the day. Bright and full of energy, he stepped into the house where everyone was working and chatted to Ray. The rest of my family stood about near our cars, tired after five hours' work, and more tired because of frustration. My uncle Glen was particularly frustrated - he works with air conditioning systems, and has some knowledge of construction, and had been having to take orders from members of the North Alabama team when he felt they didn't know what they were doing any better than he did.

Mum went in after Dad. I went in after both of them. Dad, because of having spent the day relaxing and shopping, was in a totally different mindset to the rest of us, and his visit was a little surreal. He dumped two enormous trivia books on Joel, a $2-shop cellphone attachment on Glen, and took off again.

At the end of the day, I was glad I'd gone along, and it certainly was a good way to hang out with my unfamiliar family in a purposeful way. And I know that some of what we did was useful. But it was a real worry that maybe not all of it was. Maybe some of what we did was simply inept and harmful. And these people didn't have anything to fall back on. They were hoping that that, and a couple of other parts of the county, would be declared a sort of disaster zone, which would entitle them to aid from the state. But they had no insurance, no savings. I felt so sorry for one woman, who told us, in a terrible smoker's voice, that she had cancer, and was too frail to go back into her house while the bleach was drying in it. She wanted to show us all a little device screwed into her kitchen wall, which folded out and was an old-fashioned sort of laundry drying rack. "This was my grandmother's," she said.

The North Alabama team told us, with a tone of censure, that the First United Methodist Church was the only local church which was helping out. After working through the afternoon, I had some sympathy with that. The North Alabama team had their T-Shirts and their kitted-out Disaster Relief van. They had their system, and their organisation, and even with all that they had, it wasn't perfect. Imagine how one of the other churches would have done if they hadn't had their systems in place. There are always a few people willing to help out; there are fewer who are willing to lead, and think ahead, and organise, and tell them what is to be done.

Glen, Shawn, Patrick, and Berta left on Tuesday morning. Tuesday and Wednesday passed pleasantly and uneventfully. Tomorrow, Dad will drive Joel and me down to Atlanta, Georgia, and he will then continue on to North Carolina, to his alma mater, Davidson. Mum will stay with Grandma for another week and a half, then go to San Diego to visit with my other uncle, Earl (the anarchist one). The "family" section of our holiday is almost over.

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You have painted a story of colourful photos with this post about your trip. I almost felt as though I were sitting next to you in that car, listening to those stories.

I am very much looking forard to hearing more of your travels. :)

Thanks! It's nice to know someone is reading my walls of text!

A thing to know about living in America: usually being declared a disaster zone only entitles you to low interest loans, which is still of absolutely no assistance to people with low incomes.

This kind of thing well illustrates why churches are so powerful, esp. in the South. They mobilize and help. You don't get that guarantee from the government. If you have money in America your standard of living is well above that you would enjoy in other countries of similar economic standing. If you're poor though... there are many people, too many people, in America living in about the same conditions they'd be in if they lived in Mexico, which is generally considered to be a much, much poorer country. I hope that lady's house gets sorted out and she can move back in.

I hope so too. Thanks for explaining that.

New Zealand is very secular and I haven't grown up with that experience of church action. I hope that what was begun in Houston doesn't just stop with that Northern Alabama group.

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