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Life gets enriched by the subtle things
Now and Then
roger branch

The closing decades of the 20th century and early ones of the 21st gave us a flowering of southern literature, southern authors writing authentically about southern people and places. Jan Karon and Nicholas Sparks meaningfully painted my “other” state, North Carolina, from its “high country” to its beaches.

However, my favorites are the ones who have sung the song, which is Georgia: Ferrol Sams, Olive Ann Burns, Lewis Grizzard and Janisse Ray. There are others, of course, but I get to have favorites.

In his slightly fictionalized autobiographical books, Ferrol Sams took a loving but clear-eyed look at growing up in small town Georgia, including its ugly patterns of race and class a century ago.

Olive Ann Burns died before completing her “Cold Sassy” chronicles, but left us with vivid pictures of her North Georgia community, including a mill village and its impoverished, looked-down-upon people.

Lewis Grizzard was much more than a standup comic with a typewriter. He understood and cared about the common folks from which he sprang. Too bad his physical heart was not strong like the one in which he held his subjects.

Then there is Janisse, fierce lover and protector of the Altamaha and the piney woods and creatures, great and small who try to live there.

They are gone now, except for Janisse, who continues to write, save old things like churches, plant, grow, harvest, preserve and mostly live off the land on a farm near the river in Tattnall County. Yes, thank God, she is still with us and going strong.

Terry Kay was one of my all-time favorite writers. His “To Dance with the White Dog” is about death and loss and much more. For many years, it was required reading for my course on Death and Grief at Georgia Southern. “The Runaway,” a more recent novel, is complex and textured, digging deeply into race and class.

Terry Kay died recently on Dec. 12. 2020. Many of his readers remember his first book, “The Year the Lights Came On.” Set in his native Hart County, it describes the changes wrought in the everyday lives of village boys by the coming of electric power. They were Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in forest retreats deep into the evening. In time, lights inside the homes and other amenities powered by electricity overpowered the lure of the forest and loosened the ties that bound the little bands of boys who adventured there.

Indeed, it is nearly impossible to capture in words the impact of electrification upon the lives of people in the rural South. Imagine the simple matter of getting a good night’s sleep with the help of fans on summer nights. It was not air conditioning, but it helped and better rested people worked better the next day, got along better with other people and were healthier.

Without electricity there was no running water for kitchen or bathroom or for watering chickens, livestock, flower gardens, vegetable gardens or anything else. All water for all purposes had to be drawn from a well, one bucket at a time. Well, a few people had pitcher-pumps that often had to be primed to work.

Hot water in volume required many buckets of water heated by fires under or around syrup boilers or the black pots used to wash clothes. Kettles of water heated on wood-burning stoves supplied hot water for washing dishes and for the occasional winter bath in a galvanized washtub after the kitchen was vacated. Running water with a hot water heater was close to miraculous. Quaint as they might seem now, wringer washing machines were better than washing clothes outside using wash pots, wash tubs and clothes lines in weather that was always too hot or too cold. Hot water at the touch of a faucet handle made doing dishes comparatively pleasurable. Anyone who could afford to install a bathroom could take a warm bath anytime and never had to dash out of the house when nature called.

It is obvious how much electricity improved the lives of women. Their hardest work was eliminated or made much easier. More should be added. Electric stoves provided nearly instant heat and cooled quicker than wood-burning stoves that left kitchens hot for hours in summer time. Using electric irons was far less hot and difficult than flat irons heated in fireplaces or on stoves.

Electricity’s advantages were not confined to the house. Outside chores were easier and done more quickly. Filling large drums and tanks required only hoses and twists of handles. Gardens were saved from drought. There was plenty of water for making syrup, butchering hogs and cleaning fish and game.

Life was enriched by more subtle things. Even before television, radio opened the home to a wider world of entertainment and information. Electric lights encouraged reading. Deep freezers preserved foods across the seasons and varied the range of foods available.

Some bemoan the fact that air conditioning and television vacated front porches on country homes, thus reducing spontaneous visiting. But few would really like to go back to the good old days without electricity.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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