“You can take the boy out of the country,
but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
—Arthur “Bugs” Baer
I am by my home state of Arkansas about like the old Texan was by his when at the funeral of a friend he stood up during a lull in the eulogies and proudly exclaimed: “Well, iffen ain’t nobody got anythang else to say ‘bout the dearly departed, ah’d jist like to say a few words ‘bout TEXAS!”
Well, I haven’t interrupted any funerals yet to talk about Arkansas, but I will admit that I have been tempted on occasion to leave behind a few color brochures on the subject.
And why not? After all, out in the country churches I was brought up in the pews were always well stocked with funeral parlor promotions.
As pretty as they were with all those Bible scenes in living color, I can’t recall that those old hand fans did a particularly good job of cooling us off, especially during those sweltering two-week summer revivals, but I would have to admit that their popsicle-stick handles made great spitball launchers for us kids. Till Mama caught us, of course.
Still there’s somethin’ to be said for sittin’ and danglin’ your bare legs over the edge of an old uneven-legged, homemade slat pew in an unair-conditioned country churchhouse on a scorchin’ August evenin’ listenin’ to a red-faced, shirt-soppin’, brow-moppin’ Baptist preacher while watchin’ a busy dirt-dobber makin’ his rounds and wearin’ out both your wrists fannin’ your feverish, sweat-soaked face and shooin’ off blue-tailed flies.
But there is a consequence, an indelible trace left upon the heart by such experience. To this good day, more than sixty years later, I never hear or sing those old hymns we sang like “Amazing Grace,” or “In the Garden,” or “In the Sweet By and By” without experiencing a strange bittersweet emotion: a sort of odd mixture of joy and pain, of peace and unrest, of a sense of tremendous gain and of unspeakable loss.
I think it has something to do with an old saying about being able to take the boy out of the country. I can’t honestly say that I’d care to go back to that way of life on this earth, even if it were possible—which it’s not. But if you know what I’m talking about, then you will understand what I mean when I say that those were the days!
My Country Grandma’s Visit to New Orleans in 1900
“In God’s eyes at least, nobody from Arkansas is ever a nobody from Arkansas.”
Good-natured, easy-going, and self-effacing, my grandmother Peacock loved to tell amusing anecdotes and stories, particularly at her own expense.
One of her tales that I recalled hearing again and again was so typical of her that after her death I wrote it up to share with family and friends, especially those who knew her best. That story is cited below:
In the year of Our Lord 1900 my paternal grandmother, Simeon “Simmie” Marius Sumrall, sixteen-year-old daughter of George and Molly Lampton Sumrall of Selma, Arkansas, was allowed to make a railroad journey to faraway, fabled New Orleans, Louisiana, to visit her Aunt Roma.
As the story goes, Aunt Roma had left her unsuspecting family one day working in the cotton fields to hitch a ride to Tillar where she caught the first train headed for the Crescent City, never to return. Later she sent for young Simmie, supposedly to try to “liberate” her from rural oblivion.
In later years, Simmie loved to laugh and tell everyone how backward and ignorant she was in those days. For example, she told how, sleeping in a Pullman berth for the first and only time in her life, she awoke the next morning to find her discarded and sole blouse hanging out the open window, flapping in the fierce breeze, caught precariously by one loose button. Gingerly and with great dexterity, she finally managed to retrieve the precious garment by use of an old-fashioned high-top shoe buttonhook, which now adorns the lid of my late mother’s cedar chest.
Later, upon her arrival in New Orleans, she was met by her elegant but rather high-toned Aunt Roma who had come down to the station to pick up her young visitor in a regal livery carriage.
Laying eyes on Simmie, who had ridden most of the way with her head stuck out the window so as not to miss the fascinating sights in her first exposure to the outside world, sophisticated Aunt Roma was appalled at the sight of her countrified niece’s soot-blackened face, wind-twisted hair, and ill-fitting homemade clothes. Quickly, she bundled her into the carriage, drew the curtains, and hurried her off to 121 N. Miro Street where she set out for herself the impossible task of transforming her protėgėe into a proper lady.
It was as part of this Herculean Pygmalion effort that Simmie was taken to a fancy French restaurant where she promptly horrified fashionable Aunt Roma by drinking from the finger bowl, openly gawking and loudly talking, and stubbornly refusing an elaborate shrimp dinner with the ringing pronouncement, “No thanks, mister. Where I come from, we don’t eat crawdads!”
Needless to say, Simmie’s visit did not result in either a move to New Orleans or a noticeable change in her laid-back, down-home country ways, for which those of us who knew and loved her are the beneficiaries.
Instead, shortly after her return, she married twenty-year-old Thomas Benjamin “Tom” Peacock, who was to become my paternal grandfather (and the namesake of my younger grandson Thomas Benjamin “Ben” Peacock).
From my grandmother Simmie I inherited two family treasures. First is the original 1850s Peacock family Bible with handwritten records of the births, weddings, and deaths of my Peacock ancestors in Georgia and Arkansas. Second are several letters written by my grandfather Tom and my grandmother Simmie in 1900 before they were married and while Simmie was staying with Aunt Roma in New Orleans.
My grandmother’s father, George Sumrall, was from Southwest Mississippi (“between Hazelhurst and Gallman”). Sometime after the Civil War, he migrated up the Mississippi River to Southeast Arkansas in response to advertisements and circulars touting Arkansas as “the land of opportunity”—a slogan later adopted by the state and featured on its license plates.
In my possession is a letter written by a Southeast Arkansas Southern Baptist church to George’s home church in Mississippi requesting his letter of membership—plus a Christian “character reference” offering assurance of his faithfulness and good standing.
George’s wife, Molly Lampton, from Kentucky, is thought to be a distant relative of Jefferson Davis.
My grandfather Tom’s father, George Levi Peacock, was born in Georgia (and is the namesake of our other grandson, Levi Jesse Peacock). George was part of the family clan of Methodist-ministers and planter-farmers who migrated to Southeast Arkansas just before the Late Unpleasantness Between the States seeking new lands both to sow and to reap: to sow cotton and to reap souls. One of them, Jesse Peacock (also the namesake of our little Levi Jesse) , was one of the founders of the Mount Tabor Methodist Church beside which Mari and I will be buried.
A tenth-generation Southerner (with roots in Tidewater Virginia, Eastern North Carolina, and Middle Georgia), I was born eighty years after the migration of my Peacock ancestors to SEARK in one of their converted dog-trot houses. Though I have been far away from my rural ancestral birthplace for more than three decades, I am, and always will be, proud to say, “Thank God I’m a country boy!” (To see a video of John Denver singing that song which he wrote, click here.)