Dovie Ella Crowe was as sober as a cemetery and as sane as Gandhi. She could shake laughter out of a funeral procession. Restore calm to a wailing toddler and peace to a broken-hearted teenage boy.
I know this because I was the toddler and the boy. Dovie Ella Crowe was my grandmother. The only woman I have known who told me she once heard a voice spoken by a man who was not there.
I believed her. I still do.
My Granny married Ernest Keyes because he was beautiful. Sober, he could set loose a loveliness into the air around him. A sweet and tender feel about life for which there are no words. Je ne sais quoi the French would say. Charisma in English. Long before Dos Equis gave the world its most interesting man, Ernest Keyes became the thrall of my Granny. A smart and handsome charmer who became hopelessly thirsty for opium.
My grandfather, Ernest Keyes, lived and died as an opium addict. Because of this, my Granny heard a voice she could not explain. I still can’t.
He had come into their home in a standoffish hollow of North Carolina,”as full of the stuff as I had ever seen him,” my Granny told me. I was a boy when she told me of his addiction to paregoric. My granddaddy had been in his grave many years when she told me of the night he died.
“He tore up my supper table, got up and went and flopped down on the bed,” she said. “I gathered myself up and went on to work. When I pulled the door to, I said out loud to myself, ‘How much longer am I gonna have to put up with this.’ And over my shoulder, clear as the stars, somebody spoke the words, ‘Not long'”
And it wasn’t long.
My Granny went on, walked to the road, got on a bus, went and got her hair fixed in Marshal, worked her second shift in the cotton mill where he worked, too, and then came home. The hollow, dark as a well bottom. The nearest soul, miles away. The door creaked into that dark, I am sure.
But for the first time in a long time, the little house held nothing to fear.
“I got a lamp on. Went back to the bed to check on him,” She told me. “The flies were already there. They had got to him before I did. I believe he was dead before his face hit the pillow.
You may think my Granny a poor grandparent for telling that to a child. I do not. She knew I would have to live in the same world in which her beautiful love had turned ugly and wrong. She figured start me early in the truth of what can take possession of a lovely man. She told me of this to make a man out of me early. She wanted me to believe in the miracle of a voice she could not explain.
I can’t explain it now.
I will not deign call it the voice of God, though it might well have been that, or some minion of a Divinity we can never fully grasp or explain this side of the dirt that will one day hold the least meaningful part of us. My grandfather went into a hole in the Grandview cemetery well before his time. He chose opium over his daughter and son, his wife (my mom), his only blood grandson. I am that grandson, left to tell the story of his waste, and the voice that told a brokenhearted lady her suffering would soon end.
I tell of it here because the voice resonates now — to you and to me and to everyone who suffers abuses or despairing of any brand. How much longer must you endure sufferings inflicted by another, or yourself? How long should you?
I believe that metaphysical mystery that spoke into my Granny’s ear had been gnawing long at her soul. Go. Get away. She had already sent my mother away, to be raised by an aunt in peace. An act of love. At last perhaps, my Granny had spoken an authentic, surrendered, naked prayer. “How much longer?” She asked for no miracle except an answer. She asked out loud, meaning to get an answer, and she got one. The answer had been there all along, like the mythic brain of the Tin Man and the courageous heart of the Lion. “Not long” had been the will of her loving indwelling spirit of God all along. She, for some reason, became the rare mortal to have a supernatural experience with the truth that there is no God who wants you suffering for long.
I believe my Granny heard that voice. It was no synapse run amok. No insane ease given a dis-eased mind. Simply a desperate lady in a desperate time, somehow able to hear. Her voice came on the night that saw the end of a broken good man’s life. It was harbinger of a new beginning. A new peace for people he loved.
I will leave it for you to decide the source of the voice. The meaning you find in those words, “Not long.” What they have to say to you and me in our times, you can ponder and decide.
And if they are to bring you peace, here and now, I pray they won’t take long.