My parents are still very young. They were on the early side of seventeen when I became more than a twinkle in their eyes. Children having children. Both with birthdays in January, married in April, pregnant (and barefoot, literally) in July of 1957.
Fifty-five years and a lot of living later we are all still around. They remain in love, and somehow, they continue to love me. They are older and wiser, but as for me, well, that’s a story for another day.
After fifteen long hours of driving from Austin, immediately upon arriving home in Ringgold, Georgia, the front yard overflowing with cars of family members, my brother Terry met me with “adopted” granddaughter in his arms and said laughingly, “Dad has a schedule for your day tomorrow. He’s been showing it to everybody.”
Now if you know me at all, you know why Terry was laughing. A schedule of anything is the furthest thing from my mind. I’m rarely on time, do not own a watch, and usually don’t know what day it is. Hmmm, maybe there’s a correlation here. Dad says black, I say white. Father, Son.
But as the day progressed and we veered from “the schedule,” we joked with Dad about it—and a sure sign there are cracks in the universe occurred. He said, “Well, you know Son, schedules are made to be broken.” What?
Mom and Dad’s morning ritual is breakfast at the Ringgold Hardee’s. (They obviously had made allowances for me in the schedule, since 8:00AM is almost their lunch time.) As we entered, it was very clear Mom knew just about everyone there. This was not just about food, it was a social event. It was fun watching her work the room.
They talked about how different the new Hardee’s felt (the old one was destroyed in the catastrophic EF-4 tornado that flattened Ringgold last year) and how difficult it was waiting until the completion of the new one.
One of the most touching moments of the day happened as my Dad recounted the story of one of their Hardee’s clan, Rev. Leon Hullender, and how for years, upon arrival, he would always say a hearty hello to everyone, and then plop down at his “reserved” seat and hold court. My Dad visibly choked up as he told how when Leon died, someone put a flower on that seat, and no one would sit there.
I had only seen my Dad choke up three times in my life. Three. When his Mom died. When his Dad died. And during his thank you speech at the celebration of his 50th year in the ministry. So that should tell you something about that.
The Road Trip
As long as I can remember, my parents have loved to drive. (Maybe that’s why I hate it.) Today was to be no different. They have a new car, a stylish red Hyundai Optima, and when I asked what they would like to do for their anniversary, it was clear they wanted to drive to Pigeon Forge for lunch at the Apple Barn. It’s a tourist town just outside the tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. That’s a two hour drive from Ringgold. A two hour drive. For lunch.
I remember as a kid driving from the mountains of Tennessee all the way to Juarez, Mexico. If you Google Map that, it’s about 1,421 miles and takes 22 hours and 53 mins. One way. This is what we called vacation. 46 hours and 2,842 miles of driving in six days. Did I mention how I feel about driving?
Dad proudly told me as we drove up to Pigeon Forge that he and Mom would sometimes drive up just for lunch.
Dad loves to stop on road trips. Often. It makes the driving seem longer. He told me they always stop in Loudon. So we did.
But the next stop, I was excited about. McKay’s is an anomaly that could only prosper in Tennessee. But prosper it does. It is a used book/record/video store. You take in your old stuff and trade it for money or store credit. It doesn’t sound like much of a business plan, but the place is always crawling with people.
When Mom sees books, her eyes light up. She is the reason I am hopelessly addicted to reading. On the trip up, she was talking about a book she had read recently that vividly describes a meadow in Austin that is covered each year at a certain time by Monarch butterfies on their migratory flight.
McKay’s is a bookworm’s paradise.
They also told me about beating the McKay’s system. They go to garage sales (every time we would pass a sign, Dad would exclaim, “Garage sale, Granny”) and buy used books, records and videos, then take them to McKay’s and make double and sometimes triple their money. Can you say entrepreneurs?
Special occasion eating for my parents is Cracker Barrel. No Ruth’s Chris for them. I’ve tried to take them to fancier places, but they just don’t enjoy it. A Cracker Barrel vegetable plate to them is finer than the tasting menu at French Laundry.
So to my surprise, we had lunch at a different restaurant. The Apple Barn. Think Loveless Cafe meets Cracker Barrel. The sign out front proudly states that every customer receives a free serving of apple fritters and apple julep.
We had chicken for lunch. We had it fried, potted and with dumplings. And it was good. Move over Thomas Keller.
We walked out happy.
I don’t recall my parents having much time for fun. They were hard workers. They believed that working hard and providing for family was the ultimate calling.
But I fondly remember playing horseshoes and checkers. Mom and Dad are competitive. I remember them playing checkers all night trying to beat each other. Some of my best memories are my brother Terry, baby sister Cheryl, and my Mom and Dad playing horseshoes in the back yard. For hours. Sometimes my Papa Elrod would join us. He had a very cool sideways spin that none of us could emulate. He was competitive too. Very.
So today we went bowling. Now, growing up we never bowled, because the only bowling places were full of those who smoked and drank. We did not support nor go to places where those things were going on.
But somehow Mom and Dad have found a bowling alley located in the Pigeon Forge Recreation Center. It is pristine and I must admit a hidden gem. So we bowled.
My Dad is ambidextrous, but bowls right handed and has a distinct dance to the left as he follows thru. Mom has a bad leg now and watches. She enthusiastically applauded and cheered every time Dad would have a good bowl.
We had FUN.
I heard Dad tell Mom as we walked out, “If I can keep this up and practice a bit more, I think I can really improve.”
Dessert is a big deal at the Elrod household now. I think it’s because we were so poor growing up. We never had it. Mom reminisced as we returned to the Apple Barn for what else—apple pie, fried and al a mode—about times when we had almost nothing to eat for weeks on end. And how she would go to our neighbors and see the food on their table and it would make her so hungry. But she was too proud to say anything.
Dad usually has a milk shake at Cracker Barrel for starters. Yep. And a bowl of ice cream every night. For seventy-plus years. His cholesterol is below normal and he is the picture of health. He has been to the hospital once in his life. And that just the emergency room for a few hours with kidney stones.
Why didn’t I get those genes?
The Trip Home
I have neglected to tell you, I had pulled my back out. So my usual hatred of driving was compounded by physical pain. I had been in the car for three days straight. My version of Dante’s Inferno. So it was with consternation that I heard Dad say we would go home the back way instead of the Interstate. Because there might be traffic in Knoxville.
I determined not to say anything, but Mom, being the empath she is, sensed my distress, and gently asked Dad, once we passed Knoxville, to get back on the Interstate. Thankfully, he acquiesced. The two hour trip back home still took over three hours.
As I squirmed in pain, wishing we would get home, it suddenly occurred to me. Dad was driving slow because he didn’t want the day to end.
At least that’s what I choose to believe.
Because I didn’t either.