I often struggle, as you may, with the question, “How do we talk with each other across the deep chasms that separate us?” Those great divides include those between black and white, between evangelical Christian and progressive Christian, between Republican and Democrat ... or you name it: rural and urban, educated and uneducated, rich and poor. Too often, we shout across those great divides.
But we may have a chance to save our nation and even our world if we start, not with those big scary abstractions like rural or progressive or white but with particulars: particular people, particular objects, particular events ... your granddaddy, your first car, your first day at school. Here’s an example.
Walt was my youngest uncle, my mother’s little brother. He was the last of my grandparents' children to die, three years ago, and with him a generation passed on. On trips back to Alabama, I would stay with his wife, Minnie and him. After she died, I continued to stay with Walt at their house in Columbia. Mornings after breakfast and evenings after dinner we would talk mostly about family and my work for that day, abiding all the time by an unspoken rule: avoiding politics, on which we differed greatly.
When his cancer came out of remission and he weakened, he moved into a nursing home in a nearby town. After that, I stayed with a cousin and visited with Walt in his new quarters. On one of those visits he surprised me with a gift, though he did not call it a gift when he gave it to me. But a gift it was, one that would appear mundane, even laughable, to someone who did not know its lineage. He knew, of course, but did not or could not verbalize what he knew.
The gift was a faucet, an outdoor faucet of brass, such as those found occasionally atop a short pipe in the yards of older homes. This one, however, was the faucet that had stood atop four feet of pipe at "the wash place," that center of activity that stood at the edge of my grandparents' ample back yard under a canopy of great water oaks.
It stood between the pumphouse and the cast iron wash pot that Eddie used to wash the family clothes each week. She built a fire under it to heat the water. At the wash place hogs were slaughtered and butchered every fall when Walt was growing up.
It was the place where, when I was growing up, I would clean the fish I had caught or skin a squirrel I had shot. From that faucet I would drink deeply after picking peas all morning or late afternoon after fetching the cows from their pasture up the railroad.
That faucet had seen "the place" when there were six outbuildings and a windmill standing by and when there were dozens of mules in the lot beside the haybarn. It had overheard spontaneous, loving chatter animating family reunions and Eddie humming hymns as she did the wash. Walt had been there for much of the faucet's life, and he gave it to me, with no fancy words but with his own hands, sitting there in his room at the nursing home.
And so, in that particular object, that brass faucet, there came together for me the intersection of his life and mine (a gift neither of us had asked for) and a hint of what, after all the sifting of life, is holy, even a sacrament.
Someone had mined that copper and zinc, elements laid down somewhere in the universe, light years away. Someone had mined and smelted that ore; someone had manufactured that faucet; and someone had delivered it to a small hardware store in south Alabama. Someone had laid the pipe from the pumphouse across the yard to the wash place; and someone had threaded the pipe and attached the faucet. And I had drunk from it, as Walt had done many years before.
And now I have this double gift from my mother's youngest brother.
Maybe you have such a particular uncle or such a particular object as that faucet. If so, we could share our recollections of them and get to know each other apart from any of those great chasms that might otherwise separate us.
Maybe we would each gain a friend, a neighbor, ... and maybe we could work together to create a more perfect Union.
Dick Conville is a longtime resident of Hattiesburg and retired college professor.