In my father’s first novel, “The Sweet Everlasting,” the main character, Ellis Burt, explodes in a rage and what happens next ruins his family. It’s a terribly sad tale, but the book has a kind of poetry to it and the tone and details are uplifting, too, much like a sad song can be.
His second novel, “Sabbath Creek,” tells the story of 14-year-old Lewis Pope, whose mother takes him on the run from an alcoholic father. Pope befriends an old, black man who oversees a run-down motel, a man who once played in the Negro Leagues with Satchel Paige and who has his own past of powerful tragedy. When the teenager runs away, he sets off events that lead to a loved one’s death. This novel, too, is terribly sad.
I can recognize a number of obvious echoes in these books with my father’s life. For instance, Ellis Burt cares for his former wife, Susan, in a nursing home. She’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognize him. As my dad worked on this book in the early and mid 90s, his mother suffered in a nursing home, never the same after surgery to remove a large brain tumor. In all the tenderness my dad describes Ellis showing Susan, I can see my father by his mother’s bedside, leaning down to softly kiss her forehead and caressing her hand, tending to covers and toenails. I feel sure that “The Sweet Everlasting” was a personal church for him during this time, a place to grieve and feel some solace. In quiet hours at the desk, he scribbled his truth, his hurt and soul — and, of course, his beauty with language, which he holds in spades — with soft Number 1 pencils on yellow legal pads. Those pads have always been his carpenter tool of language, at least as long as I’ve been here. He works to smooth off all rough edges until the piece has the right form and shine.
But I recognize something else about his novels. They are fiction, indeed. The life that he made with my mother included none of the drama that he framed in his books. My home life was nothing like Lewis Pope’s. Many great authors are not also great family members. Many leave wreckage in their wake. A truly bright beam of artful energy can also be a circling vortex of negative gravity, pulling everything else down in order to rise. Or, it can be quite the opposite. It can lift up others. He has always been this to me, to us. He has always played the part of comforter in my life. He has never let his work or literary name outweigh us in any way. I think he would find such a thing the epitome of blasphemy. He has a lengthy resume of awards — too many to list here. I know he is grateful for all of them, but he recognizes their limitations in happiness, in merit and meaning. He’s talked about that frequently.
But I sat in the center of the front row Monday morning with my mother, daughter, wife and son, watching as my father received his greatest recognition to date, induction into the Georgia Writers’ Hall of Fame at the University of Georgia Russell Special Collections Library. He joined Toni Cade Bambara, who was awarded posthumously, and who was memorialized beautifully by Dr. Barbara McCaskill. Large exhibits of both writers are currently on display at the library. As Judson “Mitcham,” my father will be remembered in the library next to Margaret “Mitchell,” which I think is pretty cool. Among the 45 in the Hall of Fame are Flannery O’Conner, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Alice Walker, Ferrol Sams, Erskine Caldwell, Sidney Lanier. I should list them all, but won’t. Author Phillip Lee Williams, also a Hall of Fame member, took the podium to introduce my father and I appreciated all his kind words.
My father talked of many things Monday. And I’ll hold his speech as one of the high points in my own life. It was beautiful. He talked of his connection to UGA, how many of us have gone there, and how his father took classes as a grown man working at the cotton mill in Monroe. He remembered walking up North Campus on a glowing day toward the library with his father giddy after seeing an A+ posted by his student ID number. He remembered how grateful his dad was to be actively learning. My father talked about seeing my mother for the first time in elementary school in a blue and white polka dot dress and being struck dumb. They’ve been married for 43 years and she seems as essential to his well being as food. She is powerfully generous in spirit. She is always one step ahead of those she loves, trying to think of how to help and comfort. And while she’s not a writer, I see her as my father’s equal in wisdom. She sees things with beautiful perspective. And I want to emulate them both.
My dad spoke of going to college with my mom in Athens and of the poem he wrote her two weeks before my birth, how the world of just the two of them would never be quite the same. He spoke of all that’s been in Athens that is no more: Barnett’s News Stand, “panty raids,” (back when female students had curfew), the old days of watching football games from the train track at Sanford Stadium. He recalled the voice of Larry Munson and how it carried the shared energy of Saturday partisan hopes. He spoke of how the birth of a child is also the introduction of a prior absence in your life. He talked of teaching psychology for 30 years at an all-black college and the kindness he encountered there. He spoke of writing and how it is a weapon hurled at death and despair, a spirit shared that extends beyond the writer to the reader.
As I attended the events this weekend, I thought how strange it is to watch a loved one memorialized before their passing. I am so grateful to have the opportunity, because I recognize the true rarity of such a thing. In our family, this past weekend will be a “sweet” and “everlasting” memory. My father will be remembered by Georgia as one of its best writers. But I’ll always know he is an even better “Pop.”
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.