Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home
Elevation 690 Ft.
March of 2004, just when the urge to rake out garden beds and plant
summer bulbs is too strong to resist, despite the possibility -- the
near certainty -- that snow will come again to Philadelphia, I pick up
my father and his wife and head south.
We drive from their
suburban retirement community to Philadelphia International Airport,
then fly to Georgia, them in business class, me in coach. In Atlanta,
we rent a car and aim for Monticello, a small town surrounded by small
towns: Zebulon and Sparta, Musella and Smarr. This is Monti-sello, not chello,
seat of Jasper County, home to the fighting Hurricanes, one-time buckle
on the Georgia peach-growing belt, birthplace of my father, and the
town he shunned for decades, until twenty years ago when he gave in to
a childhood dream and bought a farm a few miles from Monticello's town
Across the seat of our full-size sedan, I see my father,
George Newton Funderburg, grow more energetic with each mile. He looks
out the passenger-side window as big-box malls trickle away, replaced
by pine forest and signs for barbecue. My father is a handsome man. I
tend to look at him through a lens in which surface and shape hardly
register, except as conveyers of emotion, but I can see that at
seventy-seven, he has barely a crease in his skin, much less a wrinkle.
He is still in the vicinity of his peak height, five feet eleven
inches, and his close-cropped hair, never grown long enough to complete
a kink, is slightly more salt than pepper. His face and body are
well-proportioned, except for the large-belly/no-posterior dilemma that
plaguesmany men after a certain age, and his gray-blue eyes and
meticulously flossed, brushed, and later-life-orthodonticized teeth
sparkle with charm and good humor when the spirit moves him. Down here,
most people look at his skin, the color of faded parchment, and call it
"high yellow." Up north, most people assume he's white.
interrupts his own reverie with projections: how we'll occupy ourselves
on this trip, what changes we'll encounter, what will have stayed the
same. He anticipates, accurately, that we will find his 126-acre
farm-cum-vacation home in pristine condition, thanks to the attentions
of Troy Johnson, a friend and fellow retiree who watches out for the
house and three ponds, the ancient grove of pecan trees that yield
seemingly on whim, and several well-manicured pastures Dad rents out to
the cattle-farming Howard brothers, forty-eight-year-old identical
twins named Albert and Elbert.
Down south, spring has advanced.
Pear trees are in full bloom, naturalized daffodils stripe the
just-greening pastures with yellow, and deep red camellias dot walkways
and yards, sentries at every door. Sweaters need to be kept nearby but
not on, windows are cranked open to ensure a cross breeze. We make good
time from the airport to the farm, just over an hour, and Dad and I
don't bother to unpack before we turn our attention to the two items on
our agenda: roasting a pig and getting him some chemo.
pig. In January, my father read a newspaper article that chronicled the
author's experiment with cooking a seventy-pound pig in a
Cuban-American-designed roasting box called La Caja China
['kä-hä 'cheÝ-nä]: a simple plywood cart lined with metal and designed
to suspend coals above rather than below the meat. The outcome, sweet
and savory, succulent and crisp, earned the paradoxical moniker "pig
Dad ordered the largest model Caja from its Miami manufacturer and had it sent to the farm.
inventions and well-prepared food both make my father's list of
favorite things. Together they were irresistible. My father has always
displayed a fascination for crafty mechanics, for improved ways to
clean and fix and open and close. Over the years he has plied Diane,
Margaret, and me, his three daughters, with laundry tables, vises,
fingernail buffing systems, magnetic polishing kits, and Evelyn Wood
Speed Reading Dynamics. Efficiency is his aesthetic, and in any given
room of his various abodes, you are assured of finding flossing
materials -- waxed thread, plastic, and mint-impregnated wood -- in the
drawers of ubiquitous side tables that support the ubiquitous lamps (You can't read in the dark), coasters (Put something under that glass), and Kleenex (Who's sniffing? Blow your nose!).
is my father's über-hobby. He'll become possessed with something new
(thank-you notes, golf, people's middle names), and, like polar bear
club swimmers on a winter beach, he'll plunge in completely, then
retreat from the depths, shaking off water and done with it all. If
there's an instructional video, all the better. Sometimes watching that
is enough and he won't expend energy on the actual doing of the thing.
This was the case with net fish-ing and square-foot gardening, horse
whispering and harmonica playing.
Dad uses word of mouth to
support his passing fancies. In Monticello, population 2,500, with its
intertwined bloodlines and relationships, word gets around. Dad tells
everyone we run into about La Caja China, or "pig box," as we
have come to call it. He informs anyone he can corner that he's looking
to find a whole pig: that he needs it dressed and delivered and
preferably one hundred pounds, which is the box's stated maximum
capacity. He mentions this to Connie, the cashier at the Tillman House
Restaurant. He inserts this into small talk when he's charging wigglers
and deer feeder pellets at Monticello Farm & Garden. He broadcasts
it at Eddie Ray Tyler's barbershop, where one or two men sit in the
defunct shoeshine stand that serves as a waiting area whether someone's
in Eddie Ray's cutting chair or not.
At Eddie Ray's, the men sit
for hours, reading the paper and talking about politics and the land's
yield, which, these days, is suburban sprawl. Every few months, another
local farm is subsumed into Atlanta-orbiting subdivisions. The
prefabricated houses are vinyl-sided and asphalt-shingled, central-air
impervious to barometric shifts and connecting to the state capital by
way of long, arduous commutes. Developers swallow up fields and
pastures, enticing title holders to abandon the land that ate up their
parents' lives, maybe broke their parents' hearts. In the year of my
dad's birth, 1926, Georgia had more than 250,000 farms. Now there are
fewer than 50,000, with no signs of that number going anywhere but
down. Since 1959, when I was born, Georgia land dedicated to farming
has been cut by half.
As with seemingly everything else in
Monticello, the demise of farming is intertwined with race. My
grandfather used to say that once land went from black hands to white,
it never went back. My father has found that to be true in Jasper
County, except for this farm of his and a parcel of property bought by
the city manager. Those are exceptions, Dad says when I raise them. But they don't take away from the truth of your granddaddy's point.
When I investigate the claim, I find that Georgia farming is an
overwhelmingly white enterprise. The state's black population is almost
30 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, but nonwhites own only 3
percent of its farmland.
My father's lifelong love of farming has
never wavered, even as the romance of living off the land seduces fewer
and fewer people. And it truly is a romance, marked by all the
irrational fervor that accompanies infatuation. Obstacles for the
individual farmer are vast and varied, from agribusiness competition to
the disdain of the local labor force -- what dwindling labor pool
Still, Georgia is a farming state. It ranks first in the
nation in peanuts, pecans, and rye. It is also the number one producer
of broiler chickens and thus, not coincidentally, eggs. Jasper County,
covering 374 square miles, grows mostly corn and wheat. And despite the
seemingly irrevocable tumble toward suburbanization, a direct link to
nature endures among its people. Concern for weather is deeply
embedded, locked into their consciousness along with the taste of
summer's first ripe fruits and the smell of a coming storm. Everyone
talks about how it's been raining too much or too little, been too hot
or too cold. Crops are growing too fast or not fast enough. Pecans and
peaches are coming in good this year or they're not.
discusses these topics with endless enthusiasm, but his interest is
largely theoretical. Beyond fertilizing the pecan grove and ponds,
weed-whacking the fence line, and mowing the pastures, most of which
falls to Elbert and Albert, Dad's property is as much nature preserve
as it is agricultural enterprise.
Alfred Johnson, Troy's older
brother and a Monticello fixture five years my dad's senior, remembers
my father calling when he purchased the property in 1985. Dad had
bought it over the phone, sight unseen, knowing only that it sat next
to farmland his own father had once rented. Bubba, my father said, using Alfred's nickname. Bubba, I bought a pig in a sack.
Troy, Dad formed a partnership with Bubba. My father had the funds and
the spirit of adventure, but Bubba had the skills. He had been the
town's first black plumber-electrician, spent years as the local
demolitions expert in a terrain where holes couldn't be dug in the red
clay soil as easily as they could be blasted, and worked at
Georgia-Pacific's lumber mill for more than twenty years. Bubba's
grandfather owned more land than any other black man around, a
nine-hundred-acre farm in nearby Gladesville, where Bubba spent much of
his childhood. Bubba knew how to work the land.
From the start,
and aside from the occasional trash pickup or brush removal, my father
farmed primarily by phone. His hands are big but soft, not like
Bubba's. Dad pored over agricultural how-to articles and wore out phone
books looking for experts to call. He built his cattle chute based on a
pamphlet he saw on the county agent's bulletin board, and its
efficiency in holding cows for worming and tagging still prompts visits
from the curious and the admiring. He frequently prevailed on the
University of Georgia's Extension Service for information: on beaver
control and management, whether topical surfactant treatments would
kill the persimmon seedlings that grow out of cow dung, and what price
per inch he should pay for fish to stock his ponds with.
1980s, with Bubba riding shotgun, Dad attended viniculture seminars and
cattle auctions. He and Bubba bought a bull and thirty head of beef
cattle, Herefords and Angus mixed, and enough grapevines to plant
fifteen rows, six vines per row. He joined the American Chestnut
Foundation, which counted fellow Georgian and former President Jimmy
Carter among its members, and Bubba planted the ten whips that came by
mail. In only the slightest nod to his and Bubba's advanced years, Dad
had a roll bar and seat belt installed on the riding mower. When Dad
had a sign painted for the entrance to the farm, he asked Bubba what
he'd prefer to be called: manager or overseer? Overseer, Bubba said,
without a moment's hesitation, choosing a title that, in their youth,
black men never held and that Dad immediately had printed in black
block letters across the bottom of the sign. Alfred Johnson, Overseer.
Every farm-related transaction was calculated for its impact on both individual and community. People are more likely to make themselves available to you, he explained, and no one feels taken advantage of.
When Dad hired people to do anything, he paid more than the going rate,
which he based on whatever various laborers told him they earned, or,
in the absence of such information, on what bag packers earned at
Ingles, the recently opened "American-owned" supermarket just around
the bend. Next to the Georgia-Pacific plant, a little ways down Highway
83, Ingles was the county's biggest private employer.
made Bubba a signatory on a local checking account so Bubba could be
the one to write checks when supplies had to be bought or work was
done. I never paid anybody, my father says. They had to go
to Alfred to get a check. And, boy, there's nothing that improves
relations better than having that kind of buying power. People would
come to Alfred and say, "Mr. George want to buy any more land? I got
forty acres out here." "No, Mr. George don't want to buy any more land."
father's agenda was to draw attention away from the source of funds and
to share the power that came with purchasing. Why? By way of
explanation, my father tells two stories. The first concerns my
paternal grandfather, Frederick Douglas Funderburg, who served as the
town's black physician for half a century, starting in 1922. In the
aftermath of the Great Depression, my grandfather had just started to
earn a decent living. He was walking through town when an old white
farmer (a redneck, my father says) called out.
Hey, Doc, the man said. How you doing? I hear you banking a bale of cotton a day.
480-pound bale of cotton was worth about fifty dollars at that time.
Somehow the man, although not an employee of the bank, knew the amount
of my grandfather's cash deposits. From then on, Grandfather took the
month's receipts, wrapped them in newspaper, and carried them off to
banks in Atlanta and in Eatonton, the next town due east.
If somebody knew you had money, my father explains, they'd figure out a way to get it out of you, arrest you, make false accusations.
second story takes place in the midst of Prohibition. Because my
grandfather had some standing in the white community due to his
profession and his light complexion, other blacks would come to him for
help negotiating the white-dominated social and legal systems: posting
bail, buying property, even arranging private loans, using their houses
and livestock as collateral. A neighbor named Charlie Couch earned his
living making moonshine and trapping rabbits. My grandmother was a
regular customer for the latter, often buying one rabbit for fifteen
cents or two for a quarter.
Mr. Couch came to Granddaddy and said, Doc, I got this two thousand dollars. I want to put it somewhere where it's safe.
Don't put it in the bank in Jasper County, Granddaddy told him.
Well, could you help me out?
Grandfather took Couch to the bank in Eatonton.
Hello, Doc, the banker said as soon as Granddaddy and Couch walked in.
I have Charlie Couch here. He wants to open an account.
What kind of account you want to open, Charlie? How much money you got?
Two thousand dollars, my grandfather said.
Come right in, Mr. Couch.
to my father's penchant for order and Bubba's ability to implement it,
often by himself, the pig in a sack turned out to be a prize. The farm
became a beautiful sprawl of cleared pastures, well-fertilized pecan
trees, manicured ponds, and freshly painted gates.
the farm came with a house, a single-story wood-frame building topped
with a corrugated tin roof. A small sitting porch faced away from the
entrance road, partially shaded by the largest, oldest pecan tree on
the property. The farmhouse, as purchased, came with tenants: Paul
Marks and his family. Marks worked a long career at a sawmill but had
been forced into early retirement by emphysema, the lung disease that
would make him weak, chain him to an oxygen tank a few years down the
road, then take his life.
Beyond any reluctance he might have
felt about dislodging the Markses, my father never considered living in
that building, which he refers to by its address, 294 Fellowship Road.
Instead, he and Lois, his second wife, stayed at his boyhood home. By
then, the street he'd grown up on had been renamed Funderburg Drive, in
honor of my grandfather. Funderburg Drive had also been paved since
Dad's childhood, and the smaller, surrounding houses wired and plumbed.
years after Dad acquired the farm, Granddaddy passed away, and the
house in town was willed to his children. My father promptly bought out
his siblings' shares. But that house presented problems that made it,
too, an unlikely base of operations. Nothing was modern about it,
despite past claims to cutting-edge technology. It was, after all, the
first house on Colored Folks Hill to have indoor plumbing and
electricity, although the latter consisted of bare bulbs hanging from
the ceiling by a cord. No similar innovations followed those early
glory days, and from the day Granddaddy moved out in the late 1970s
until my father took up part-time residence, the house had been
tenanted by an eccentric local dentist who considered himself a
health-care protégé of my grandfather, who grew juice-bound wheatgrass
in wooden crates that seemed to take up every available kitchen
surface, every counter and tabletop.
It wasn't the house's
dog-eared kitchen or wood-paneled den that troubled my father once the
dentist moved out and he and Lois moved in. It wasn't the enduring
decrepitude of the neighboring shotgun shacks, wood-frame boxes packing
in one generation after another of the same families. The problem with
the house, to my father's mind, was its location. It sat squarely
inside one of the town's remaining all-black sections, the other
sections bearing names like Frogtown and Blue Ruin, as in the popular
brand of bluing, the laundry-whitening additive so many black women had
used to do white folks' washing. My father was sure most white people
would feel uncomfortable coming to a house on Colored Folks Hill, even
if they were too young to know that name for it or too polite to use
it. He was bound and determined that he would never host a segregated
event in Monticello. So he turned his gaze to the farm, outside of town
and free of racial associations, at least as much as a place owned by a
black man could be.
My father decided to build his own house. He
and Bubba discussed its siting: Dad leaned toward breaking ground along
the farm's northernmost edge, parallel to Route 16. Bubba disagreed.
There was the noise factor, first of all, between general traffic and
the constant rumbling of lumber trucks: forty-foot trunks of freshly
sawed wood jostling against one another, straining against their
chain-link lashings with every bump in the road. More important, Bubba
thought, there was the hill.
Along the property's southern
boundary, five yards or so from the cattle fence that signals the
beginning of a neighbor's pasture, was the farm's highest point. Bubba
had noticed its panoramic view during a foray on the riding mower. You
could see thirty miles to the south, he figured, all the way to
Forsythe and beyond. The next time my father came to town, Bubba drove
him to the apex. Dad looked out over the swells of grazing land and
forest and decided, on the spot, that Bubba was right.
only logical that the house you build from scratch is going to embody
your dreams. You might think that. You would not be my father.
had initially handed over to Lois the design aspect of the project, but
when her dreaming began to spin out of his control, he took the project
back and called up the architects who designed Waverly Heights, his
retirement complex ten miles from the center of Philadelphia. Waverly
has town houses and apartment buildings and a medical wing fused onto a
1912 manor house built for a railroad executive. Dad flew Waverly's
designers to Georgia, told them what he wanted, and wrote a check. They
measured the site, noted the direction of the sun, and drew up a plan
re-creating the single-level villa in which Dad and Lois currently
Granted, there are slight modifications: more square
footage to each room, higher cathedral ceiling, extra bedroom and bath,
sun porch, and the designation "354 Fellowship Road" rather than "Villa
13." Still, the overall effect is the same, as are the materials, down
to the brick wainscoting outside and slate hearth inside. And because
Lois is so constant in her household organization and spare decor, a
quirk has resulted: in photographs of family gatherings, it is nearly
impossible from backgrounds alone to tell the location.
house was built, exactly ten years after Dad's purchase of the
property, he changed the "Funderburg Farm" sign. He relocated it from
the rental house entrance to the new driveway laid for 354 and had it
amended to read "George's Hill." He also had Bubba's name painted over.
After eight years of partnership, serious stomach troubles and
surgeries gone wrong forced the seventy-five-year-old Bubba to step
aside and his brother Troy to step in. Bubba cut back to tending just
his own vegetable "patch" of twelve and a half acres, his grapevines,
flower beds, dozen cows, and three dogs. In place of Bubba's name, the
farm sign read "Elevation 690 ft."
One morning, Dad and I look
out over the biggest pond, the one that has a white sand bank
surrounding its dock, the sand installed subsequent to my sister
Margaret's offhand mention that a beach would be nice. Morning mist
hangs over the water, the sun just beginning to burn through, and a
majestic heron rises up from the opposite shore. It flies across the
pond and into a tree with vast, slow-moving wings that seem to defy
gravity. Look! I exclaim, the city child ever thrilled by
manifestations of the natural world. My father follows my pointing
finger in time to see the bird alight onto a branch.