Lost in Crawford
Sarah-Eva E. Marchese
Crawford, Georgia is a town of about three hundred people and not much more than four streets at its widest. So when I arrived there an hour and a half before I was to meet Mr. Marion Montgomery at his house, it didn’t occur to me to make sure I knew where it was. Driving through town had been an experience so fleeting I almost missed it. Finding his residence, I assumed, would be a cinch.
Confident I’d never get lost in such a small place, I decided to wait at the only restaurant in town called The Hut. Weeks later, I would eat cat fish and hush puppies there with Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery. A real southern place, they’d call it. It might even have been their favorite.
That first day in Crawford, I thought The Hut looked dumpy—nothing more than a house with mismatched tables where everyone sat together and talked. I paused at the door, clutching the flowers I’d brought for Mrs. Montgomery in one hand and my yellow legal pad in the other. Other customers looked up from their plates and chatter clearly expecting to know me. Feeling a little like I’d just barged into a stranger’s kitchen and helped myself to the fridge, I ordered a coffee at the counter and found an empty table. Before me, I arranged my legal pad and looked over my list of questions, carefully written on the first page of the pad. Good questions, I nervously hoped they were.
I’d come to Georgia that summer after my sophomore year of college with the overtly declared kind of goal that defines sophomoric: I intended to discover something unique and publication worthy about the South. The year before in a freshman honors class, I’d read Walker Percy’s The Second Coming. The book had made me feel like Walker Percy knew more about me than I did. Percy’s prose had become a golden light within me and when I had to pick a topic for my junior thesis, I knew I wanted it to be on him.
Despite the grandness of my intention to discover something academically valuable about the South, I’d put almost no thought into how I actually planned to achieve this goal upon arriving in Georgia. After a few weeks of angst, all I had to show for my “research” was a third shift job at the Waffle House (my logic being that it was Mr. Percy’s favorite eatery). Broke and without a plan, I’d called my parents in Illinois. That’s when my father contacted an old friend and secured one interview for me with Mr. Montgomery. One interview. That was it.
I’d hardly known what to ask Mr. Montgomery. My classroom discussions of The Second Coming and a half-hearted read-through of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood were all the credentials I had to back up the expertise on Southern literature that I planned to feign before him.
After finishing my solid coffee served at The Hut, I left for the Montgomery place with fifteen minutes to spare. Thirty minutes later, I still hadn’t found the house on North Elm Street. I’d driven down every single road in Crawford, I thought, as I reminded myself again and again that I was actually good at finding my way. Hadn’t I always known this? It was a gift of sorts. And there was the fact that I had navigated vacations in large European cities where I didn’t speak the language, using little more than my instincts. I usually didn’t even need directions, which is why being lost in tiny, English-speaking Crawford left me feeling defeated, embarrassed, limited, and just plain befuddled. I didn’t like it.
Again I’d find myself lost a few weeks later when I was in another small town, that time Covington, Louisiana and that time late to interview Walker Percy’s widow. To be fair, my directions did end rather vaguely: “Follow ‘bad dog’ sign to Percy’s.”
To find the houses, I had to ask postal workers for directions. Turns out, both Mr. Percy and Mr. Montgomery lived in an aura of obscurity at the end of mere paths. In Covington, I had to explain to the postal worker who Walker Percy even was.
“Oh, you mean the guy who used to carry a golf stick while he walked,” the postal worker had finally said. “Always said hello. Nice guy. He was a writer? A famous one?”
In the case of Mr. Montgomery’s house, North Elm Street was practically hidden in plain sight, a tiny lane running parallel to another residential street. I’d mistaken it for a sidewalk earlier. So much like their ideas would be for me, the homes of these two men were hard to find. Yet, once there, it would be harder still to remember how I could possibly have missed them.
Mr. Montgomery’s home had an immensity about it with four pillars that rose two stories high in front of porches. The front door was open, but for a screen on which I knocked. An older woman appeared from somewhere inside. I inquired if Mr. Montgomery was at home.
“He’s just gone up the lane,” she said. “He’ll be back any minute. You can come in and wait.” I entered into the main hall. There were two rooms on either side of equal sizes. I was just peering into the main parlor, filled with an odd cacophony of classic elegance and 1970s decor, when the door opened behind me. I turned and there Mr. Montgomery greeted me with a smile. He took out of his mouth a cigar. It was damp and well-chewed on one end, while still unlit on the other.
“Our phone is out and so I went up the lane to look for you,” he said. He spoke in a soft-tone with the pleasantest Southern accent I’d ever heard. His hair was short and gray. There wasn’t a whole lot there anymore, but it was difficult to tell. His face looked small and round. He had tan skin with soft wrinkles that made him quite handsome. He wore a short sleeved, white, button shirt and white pants that were dirty with stains remembering a history of many hard days at work on his knees in the soil. A thick leather belt wrapped around his waist. On his feet, he wore sturdy Georgia Boots of dark leather. The cigar, I’d soon discover, he wouldn’t smoke until late in the afternoon. That summer, I hardly ever saw him wear anything else.
I handed him the flowers and he exclaimed how his wife would love them. She had gone to a church meeting, he said.
Mr. Montgomery then suggested that we retire to the front porch. There, he slouched back into his chair, put his feet on the coffee table, returned the cigar to his mouth, and asked me the question I had been dreading.
“So, what are you writing about?” I started to talk in a mumbling tone, avoiding the end of my sentences and preferring not to start them at any sort of meaningful beginning either. Somehow, Mr. Montgomery carefully picked up the bits and pieces of my scattered thoughts and what was meant to be me interviewing him turned rapidly into him interviewing me. He seemed genuinely worried that my school did not have a core philosophy class or something, as he said, “to prepare you for the greater world of knowledge.” He wondered why I’d not been introduced to key philosophical ideas, novels he thought mandatory, and thinkers he considered the basic framework for intellectual growth. He asked me if I had read this or that and I said no, no, and then I began to say yes just for variety, while I hastily scribbled down the names of the books so I could read them later.
While we were in the middle of Mr. Montgomery’s assessment of my education to date, Mrs. Montgomery came home. She was thin, dressed in a simple pastel jumper with white skin and a voice that, I wrote later in my journal, “sounded like poetry.”
“Miss Sarah-Eva is just opening up to the world of knowledge,” Mr. Montgomery said to her as she stepped onto the porch and sat down in another chair. “She is beginning her intellectual journey.”
“I’m delighted that we’ve found another disciple of the Thomasian mind,” she responded. I wrote “Thomasian” down on my yellow legal pad. Something else to find out what it meant. (I knew right then, though, by Mrs. Montgomery’s tone, that I wasn’t the first confused, young woman with a head full of half baked ideas to appear on their doorstep. This relaxed me a little.)
Soon after Mrs. Montgomery returned, the phone began to ring as it would again and again throughout the day. Each time, Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery disappeared behind the screen door. I could hear them pick up the phone and Mrs. Montgomery say, “Hello! Hello? Hello, Alfonso… I can’t hear you.” I’d later meet this Alfonso, a Vietnamese gentleman who dressed much like Mr. Montgomery and possessed a southern accent he picked up from a childhood tutor. He worked at National Public Radio; Mr. Montgomery described him to me as, “the one celebrity we know.”
As Mrs. Montgomery talked into the phone, her voice rose at the end of her sentences, even when she wasn’t asking a question. She set back down the phone. The two proceeded to discuss at great length what had happened—a weirdly long period of time to devote to a simple phone problem, I thought.
As they talked, I sat alone feeling utterly out of control, an experience I tried to avoid as something of a matter of principle (and prided myself on how good I was at it). I could hear Mr. Montgomery propose that they might solve the problem by unplugging the answering machine and then, the slow scuffing noise of furniture being moved.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to buy a new one,” he concluded when they returned to the porch.
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Montgomery exclaimed, “another unforeseen expense. This month we have spent so much money.” Mr. Montgomery sat down in his chair while Mrs. Montgomery disappeared back into the house. Mr. Montgomery then continued his questioning of me.
“An education,” Mr. Montgomery finally said, “is keeping the important questions open and alive.” He said it like probably no one had ever told me this before, which was true. The mother I raised in me (to adapt a turn of phrase by Frederick Buechner) did not believe in asking big questions without clear answers and I always listened to her.
“You must always ask, ‘who am I taken in by?’” he then said, me totally failing to link his words I was writing down to the inner dialogue that made me disregard them.
“There’s more to a thing than you can realize and know. We have a limited knowing,” he explained, “for we as beings are limited.” “Nothing,” he went on, “exists without limits.” Each sentence Mr. Montgomery said hung like another home I couldn’t find.
When I left that evening, I returned to the dusty blue ranch I shared with two other college students and promptly ordered a heavy tome called Albion’s Seed. Mr. Montgomery considered it one of the most important books for me to read first. Nearly shaking in the knees from my own intellectual roast, I swore to begin the book as soon as it arrived.
Albion’s Seed was hardly the riveting stuff I’d expected. The book recounted the history of how the South developed socially and culturally based on waves and movements of immigrants. These were the important questions to which he referred? I could see no reason why I needed to know about who came across the Atlantic when or how southerners used to parent their children. There was nothing flashy and beautiful about it. I thought I was too interesting for this dry, useless stuff. Deeper still, I was building up an inner wall—I didn’t want to face the embarrassment of knowing so little again.
A week or two went by. At night, I worked my third shift. For most of those long ten hours, I stood behind the counter watching condensation drip down the large windows that looked out onto a parking lot and imagined myself away. The country was heading into a recession. No one was eating out. The college kids were all gone for the summer. So few customers came through our door that I earned about three or four dollars an hour. Unable to make my rent, and mustering all the self-pity I could claim for this, I planned to give up my room and rent a scratchy orange couch in the dining room instead.
During the day, I talked endlessly with my roommates about the band we meant to start. I was to be the guitarist and singer, neither of which skills I actually had. Reality and its bothersome limits wasn’t something to which I paid much heed. How much more delightful to know two chords and pretend knowing twelve. (My inner mother told me I had to live in this imaginary self because the real world was an evil, Godless place that swallows up good girls.) I’d probably have continued in such a masquerade till the end of the summer—and maybe on into adult life—if one morning, while I was still in bed, our phone hadn’t rung. I groggily answered it. At first, I thought it was a friend from college or maybe someone calling to book the band.
“This is Marion Montgomery,” the voice said. “I wondered when you’d be visiting us again.” I was just ready to fake an excuse (what with my demanding job and music career) when Mr. Montgomery added that his daughter was wondering if I might babysit. Sheer financial need brought me back to Crawford.
My afternoons with Mr. Montgomery seemed in some ways a hard penance for my babysitting wage. It felt painful, almost, getting my head to digest the seemingly obtuse phrases that Mr. Montgomery spoke. My notes from those sessions are testament to my slow and scattered processing of the strangeness that he uttered.
Within us, I scrawled, there was the actual, or that which is limited, and the potential. To achieve our actual, we must learn to be within the limited knowing we humans can achieve. Within these limits, we can know an object’s essence or the “beingness” of a thing. Yet, if we are open to this limited knowing, there we find the potential in us—the “perfection of our specific intellectual soul incarnate.”
We reach our nearest to the intellectual soul incarnate through metaphor, he then told me, adding that, “There is a throughness with metaphor.” He compared for me the French symbolists of the 19th century, for whom a symbol was a mere mirror to see our own reflection, and Dante’s symbol that was a window to see through. By way of this throughness, he explained, we could see the divine as manifest in the sacramental experience in nature.
“Metaphor,” he went on, “is a proportionate spectacle perceived in the senses. It is a revelation, a moment of grace. Through this,” he said, “existing in the natural world becomes sacramental.”
I wasn’t convinced. The limited knowledge we have about sacraments like communion, I thought to myself, is that it makes church last at least fifteen minutes longer. I’d long ago begun to equate communion with a well-timed toilet break. Now Mr. Montgomery wanted me to believe it was a metaphor in nature? Absolutely not. I mean, how does one ever prove such a thing?
“The accident of a metaphor is outside of the literal,” he continued, while adding it was something being lost at the end of the twentieth century. I hadn’t, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, had much in the way of English classes during my education. I probably couldn’t point out metaphor in Yeats or Shakespeare, let alone live it with my own eyes, ears, heart, and soul. By education and instinct, I was a literalist to my core.
Reading things in a literal fashion is one of the serious problems with the end of the twentieth century, he explained. It was a result of science and the disintegration of language. Words, he said, didn’t mean anything anymore. People now filled their emptiness with “spectacles” and “sentimentality”—bloody scenes on the television and idealistic solutions that only led to destruction. Such sentimentality, Mr. Montgomery claimed, “leads to the gas chambers.”
“The longer you look at an object, the more of the world you see in it,” Mr. Montgomery concluded. If we use all our senses to experience, “all would turn to experiencing creation. It is the moving from knowing to naming.” Mr. Montgomery liked to use his baby grand-daughter Nelita Rose as an example—how she was a new object, of sorts, with a wholeness about her. She was a named particular that reached to the divine. The sweet talk of a doting grandfather, I thought that was.
Nelita Rose’s mother called her “Sweet Ole Thing.” She was a scrawny baby with big eyes and pale skin. Her brother Thomas, at that time about four, was delicate too and mightily curious. Mrs. Willey, the children’s mother, hired me to watch them while she planned a birthday party for her father.
The Willey home looked like a converted barn in the middle of the woods with large bookcases that stretched over a doorway and unmade beds stuffed into corners. It was a scattered, warm place and I noticed that Thomas ran through it with hardly any supervision.
The more I watched the stranger still it was. While Mrs. Willey smothered Nelita Rose with tenderness, she treated Thomas like a small man. He seemed master of his little world and, on one occasion, threw his play sword at her. She merely glanced at him. We had to speak quietly when we talked about sex, she said. If Thomas asked what “sex” meant, she would have to tell him. No “it’s a special kind of hug” ruse or shaming the child for asking. He’d simply get to know the truth.
I’d never seen such independence and self-authority given to such a small child or parents being dictated by truth rather than what they thought was “right.” My judgy inner mother was just about to write Mrs. Willey off as a bad parent when, from seemingly nowhere, I remembered something Mr. Montgomery had said: Always ask, who am I taken in by? Following in gentle succession, I then recalled something from Albion’s Seed. It was a description of typical mothering techniques among backcountry women. The mothers smothered the babies with affection while they give the small children uncomfortable amounts of freedom. It’d seemed a tedious, useless bit of information to read at the time. But there in the Willey kitchen, it questioned the singular, inner voice that had dictatorially ruled me as long as I could remember.
Between the babysitting and my job at the Waffle House, many days passed where I didn’t have time to visit the Montgomery home. Still, every Sunday I joined them at their Anglican Church. Mr. Montgomery had extended the invitation after he explained how, unlike most other Southern writers, he hadn’t turned Catholic.
“Our [Anglican] priest is a good Thomist,” Mr. Montgomery told me, adding what their Bishop always said: “I like to believe that if Percy had come to our church, he would have become Anglican.”
Just as Mr. Montgomery spoke of the sacramental being in little Nelita Rose, here again the sacraments were more central than I’d seen in the Lutheran church back in Illinois where I’d taken my first communion and confirmation. Incense filled my lungs and coated my skin. The congregation chanted large parts of the service. When we proclaimed together, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come into my house,” I felt my own body tremble. I am the house of God however much I mess up. I am a home. The thought rang through me into dark places I didn’t even know I had. One question, from my black places, shouted back.
Why would God want to bother with me? The idea of God somehow being in me seemed impossible. In fact, I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t think this way.
After the service, people didn’t race back into their other lives. They all joined each other in the fellowship hall where they talked for a long while. I stood next to Mr. Montgomery as I sipped a cup of coffee and children ran around screaming. When the priest and other members of the congregation came up to us, he told them I had felt, “at home at our church.”
The simplicity and particularity of what he said almost shocked me. I’d never actually asked myself if I felt “at home” anywhere, let alone told Mr. Montgomery that I had felt “at home” there in his church. My inner mother didn’t allow it. To be at home in one place meant being a stranger in another and that was too much loss of control for her to stomach. And yet, when I heard Mr. Montgomery’s words, it was as though I were looking through a small window within me that had opened that day in the Willey kitchen when I recognized the parenting from Albion’s Seed.
Wondering where Mr. Montgomery had gotten such a notion, I thought about what I had said to him: that the solemnity, but also joy, that I felt within those walls reflected a God I hardly knew but somehow had always believed existed, as though He’d long ago been written into the ancient fibers of my being. Had Mr. Montgomery actually named the experience I described to him? Is this what he called knowing the essence or beingness of an object? The possibility of tangibly experiencing what he’d described grounded me a little, as nothing had ever before.
As the weeks passed, I found myself often checking the world around me and my own reaction to things according to the few concepts Mr. Montgomery had shared that stuck in my scrambled brain. When my roommates blew me off one night we were to practice the band, my furious and hurt diary entry turned into wondering if I was missing some hint of irony. Or perhaps, I scribbled, their actions weren’t just a great injustice against my person, but rather a metaphor about something bigger. I ruminated on whether or not my love of photography was in fact because I liked to exaggerate reality, transforming it into what Mr. Montgomery called “a spectacle.”
During my third shift, I watched more closely the functioning of the community around me and notice the near ritualistic tenor of its beat. I shared the shift with three women. Tracy, a deeply religious mother who, on our first day, told me she gave away her favorite frog ring to a biker that summer at the Christian Biker’s Association. She added that while she still liked jokes, as a Christian she didn’t want to hear any words, “four letters and up.” Amy, a small-framed girl who couldn’t be much more than eighteen, described herself as, “the lesbian around here.” The third woman was Laura. Laura could not wait on tables without our help, asked brooms if they wanted a bath, apologized to donuts before eating them, and once pretended to don a helmet before shooting her fellow employees with an imaginary machine gun.
Each night, no matter how much Amy and Tracy made, they’d leave part of their tips in Laura’s almost always empty jar under the cash register. Laura didn’t even know. I found these acts of generosity unfortunate, so desperate was I to have enough each month for my couch. Every time I heard the clink of the change, I wanted to scream at them: At least tell Laura so you get the credit! You have rents at the trailer parks far costlier than mine and children who need new shoes and dream of tee ball, a reality I found harder and harder to ignore. I watched these women give up their tips knowing full well that they themselves did not have enough. Their action became a sort of meditation within me, a chant of its own.
Sitting on the porch with Mr. Montgomery, I told him about my experiences at the Waffle House. How I had started to leave Laura quarters too. How terrified I’d been as I knelt before the jar for reasons I could not understand. The fear lasted until the coins clinked in the jar and I felt something ache deep within. I didn’t know what. It felt like goodness, but was too humble to go by such a name. Because of this humility, I knew that the ache was not my own. I told him as well about the company rule that we had to feed everyone who entered the restaurant, even if they had no money. One night, I had served grits and eggs to a homeless man who sat at my counter drawing a picture of a house on a napkin. When he was done drawing his house, he made a cigarette using the napkin as paper and bits of tobacco stored in a small tin. The tobacco came from cigarettes he found on sidewalks. When I placed the grits and eggs before him, I felt like I was giving him something more. I was expressing in a particular moment a promise to him that existed beyond me and even the restaurant: He was always welcome at the table.
“Is it,” I asked Mr. Montgomery hesitantly, “a sort of metaphor for the sacrament of Holy Communion?” Mr. Montgomery smiled.
“You are changing,” he said. “You see more now. You will change in reaction to your openness to things.” Then, Mr. Montgomery said something that fundamentally changed my life. “God acts you into being,” he told me. With these words, I knew that that was what I had felt when I knelt before the coin jar.
God might tug from within me, if only I was willing to open myself to the possibility of limited knowing. If only I gave up the idea that I lived beyond and unbeholden to the limits of my being. If only...I searched for the word to name what this meant. When I came up with it, I almost smiled. It meant accepting that I am lost all the time.
Just weeks before, I’d arrived haughtily in Crawford thinking I could never be lost in such a tiny place. Now, I remembered that those who lose their lives save them. Those who save their lives will lose them. Mr. Montgomery had put it another way. “We all fall victim,” he said. “That’s why we need to be shot every day.”
I didn’t know how to name my human limits. Even the idea of admitting only to knowing two chords on the guitar felt like a death (which, in a way, it was). But as I watched Mr. Montgomery light his cigar, I knew I wanted to learn how more than anything else.
You must always ask, Mr. Montgomery had said, who are you taken in by? I realized even that summer that this admonishment had also to apply to Mr. Montgomery himself. The last words in my notes are scrawled big and underlined twice: “Cannot Just Take What He Says.” Which may be why, after a year of writing and thinking about Pierce, Percy, and Triadic language, I did go on to other thinkers, ideas, and theories; The “greater world of knowledge,” Mr. Montgomery might have called it. I kept questioning and turning over what I read. My summer with the Montgomery’s did not transform me into a Thomist. But it did transform me.
It has been ten years since I sat with Mr. Montgomery on the porch. In the course of that time, particularly when I felt especially lost and weary of the burden, I would send a letter to Crawford, Georgia. Within a week, one would always return to wherever I was. His response would be typed on the old type writer where he wrote his books.
The letters never had the quick claims of “you can do anything!” or what always seemed like good advice I should follow: “Yes, Sarah-Eva, get a real job.” No, he would again remind me that so long as I am lost, I will always see more. Such sight is my home, a place deeply limited by my humanness. But in my recognizing and seeing within my own limitedness, it also is a window through which I might see metaphorical glimpses of the divine as manifest in the sacramental experience. His words each time were like bullets, wounding my ego and setting my intellect free to journey, whatever the price, toward the broken openness where faith bumps into being.
“If you are true to the reality of the world,” Mr. Montgomery would say, “you will say more about the world than you expected to say.” I’ve taped these words above my desk. With no more letters to come ever again from Crawford, I want to make sure I never forget what I learned from this remarkable man.