[At the time I made this post, the following image (which you can click to enlarge) was the banner image for this page.]
As much as I hate to bump the visual tales of my lumberjack brother down the page, I’m way overdue in explaining the current banner photo you see a couple of inches above this text. It is not stock photography or something funny I found on the internet. It is, in fact, a little piece of my life, and not (really) because of its inspirational message.
For most of my life, my mom’s sister’s husband was the pastor of Plantersville Baptist Church, a tiny country church in Grimes County, Texas. For those of you needing larger, more recognizable landmarks, Plantersville sits between Stoneham and Dobbin. Uncle Mike entered my life when he married my Aunt Molly when I was about five years old (I was actually a specific age – I just don’t remember what it was). At the time, we lived near Aunt Molly and her son Clint, who is two years older than me. At some point Clint and I decided we were "cousin-brothers," and it stuck.
Uncle Mike’s arrival on the scene was significant for a lot of reasons. Aunt Molly and Clint’s Dad divorced before Clint can remember (I think), and there was also a brief chapter involving another step-dad who was, to put it kindly, friggin’ nuts. I spent a lot of time with Aunt Molly and Clint, so having a stable, fun man in that environment was great. It’s not that I lacked that in my own life with my Dad; it was just a welcome addition to the part of my life spent with Molly and Clint. And though I knew very little of the world and its fallen ways at that age, I remember knowing that this was a very important development for Clint as well. It’s not that Clint didn’t have a Dad who loved him; he did and does. But for that part of his life, Mike was the new every day guy, and I somehow knew that was a good thing.
Molly was not Mike’s first wife either. I suppose it would be more polite for me to not mention these parts of the story, but life isn’t always polite, and our stories are what they are. Besides, I don’t know much about Uncle Mike and Aunt Molly’s marriage, but I know their journey to the altar still stands in my consciousness as one of the greatest tales of love, loss, and redemption I’ve ever heard. Perhaps, with their permission, I’ll tell it here someday. The relevant details are that they dated in college, had their photo plastered on the cover of a religious magazine, broke up, rediscovered one another after many years and much pain, fell in love, got married, and had three beautiful girls. And by "rediscovered one another," I mean Aunt Molly hunted Mike down by lying to his mother because she knew his mother would never knowingly allow Molly near him again. I’m telling you, it’s a terrific story.
After a couple of years, they moved from Houston to a trailer house next to the church building in Plantersville and we moved from Houston to Longview (and then Crane). From that point forward, I spent what would amount to a month or so every year in Plantersville. We were usually there for a couple of weeks in the summer, and one of those weeks was always Vacation Bible School at the Plantersville Baptist Church. This was like a trip into another world for me, and in my memory it plays out like scenes from a children’s adventure book.
The time I spent in Plantersville was a curious mix of pure rural Americana, old time religion, true familial warmth, and snipe hunting. Yes, Uncle Mike found all sorts of joy in putting me and Clint through an array of humiliating and terrifying experiences, including the hunting of the mythical snipe (which actually exists) and keeping us up late watching horror movies so that he could scare the bejesus out of us later. We also watched The Karate Kid 27 times in a two week period in the summer of ’85 or ’86. The Norvell family did not own a VCR until 1989, so a trip to Plantersville also (oddly) meant I’d make every effort to gorge myself on this new fangled technology that allowed a guy to watch real, commercial-free movies on the living room teevee.
Sometime when I was in high school, our family Thanksgiving gathering also relocated to Plantersville. This event now involves 50 people (give or take), most of whom are related, cramming themselves into small spaces for days at a time. This year there will be four babies present at this gathering who were not with us last year. We multiply much more rapidly than we die, and Plantersville will no longer hold us. We’ve moved to a nice Catholic retreat center down the road, which is ironic both because this part of the family is historically very Baptist, and because a handful of Catholics have married into the family only to subsequently unmarry themselves out of the family (with, I believe, one exception).
Anyway, the little white frame building that housed the Plantersville Baptist Church became very, very familiar to me over the years. The main building stands today as the oldest frame church building in the state of Texas, and a historical marker will tell you things like this:
Organized May 19, 1861, by elders N. T.
Byars and George W. Baines. The Rev. Mr. Baines was the
great-grandfather of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon
Worship was in a schoolhouse until erection of this building, which was dedicated Aug. 4, 1872. Cost $2,701.73, paid in gold. Church bell came by oxcart from San Antonio. Building, including pews (hand-hewn), is in original state.
Some will find these facts uninteresting historical or religious relics. Perhaps I’d be one of those people if significant chunks of my growing up weren’t set around and inside that relic. Aunt Molly married Uncle Mike there. Other family members, including my
arsonist middle brother and his wife, Beth, have taken their vows between its walls. I pledged to two flags and a Bible there summer after
summer (and have repented of some of that since). I’ve played countless
games of hide and seek or flashlight tag in and around it. For over twenty years I watched
Uncle Mike shepherd a small, peculiar group of farmers, recluses,
and poor folks who scattered themselves among the pews. And I sweat and
squirmed through more Sunday services than I can count. Even through much of my childhood, the building was not air conditioned, and those 1872 hand-hewn pews were not built for comfort. They are shaped like this: L, but feel like they are shaped like this: /_
And it is one of these pews that you see at the top of this page. I believe this photo was taken at Will and Beth’s wedding, and I love it. The mixture of the simple, theologically imprecise spiritual enthusiasm and rebellious disfiguring of hand-hewn pews that merit mention on a historical marker (you can see that "original state" might be a bit of a stretch) reaches a place so deep within me that I can only communicate about it through laughter. I have no idea who carved what I simply refer to as The Plantersville Masterpiece, but I feel like I know him well. If he was found out, I’m sure he was reprimanded soundly. And, if I know the team he was pledging his allegiance to, I suspect they’ll be greeting him with high-fives on That Day. What a team, indeed!
Below are some assorted photos from Will and Beth’s wedding to supplement the story. They got married in November of 2002 during the Thanksgiving extravaganza, and Aiden was two months old. He’s the wide-eyed piglet you’ll see here. This series also features Britt with hair (LOTS!), me and both brothers when there was less of us in general, and my Mamaw (who you should read about here). She was with us for two more Thanksgivings after this one. Click the photos for bigger views: