You might be surprised to know that the biggest dilemma I faced while readying myself and the chirren for our cruise last week was not how to accommodate eight bathing suits, twelve pairs of flip-flops, 30 pairs of underwear and a mountain of other foolishness in the mere three pieces of luggage allotted to me by my Dear Mother, but rather what reading material I should take with me to the Bahamas.
I did a little research, looked into suggestions made by other travelers, contemplated classics like Treasure Island. I even considered something frivolous—I was going to be on vacation after all. Celia Rivenbark’s new book You Don’t Sweat Much For a Fat Girl was especially tempting, but me sitting on the deck of a cruise ship snorting…and I mean through both nostrils and choking on my own saliva the way all Ms. Rivenbark’s books are known to make me do…didn’t fit very well with my fantasy of lounging on the Serenity Deck, cocktail in hand, with the sound of the massive ship gliding smoothly through the royal blue waters of the open ocean lulling me into total relaxation.
What to read was the hardest decision I made about my trip. Harder than deciding which fine meals I would indulge in at the formal dining…would it be Baked Alaska or another serving of Warm Chocolate Melting Cake?... harder than deciding whether I would bother to get dressed for the day at all or just frolic around in my bathing suit for twelve straight hours, harder than deciding how I would gamble in the casino…the slot machines lit up and made delightful noises when you won, but the dealers at the tables would flirt with you for tips. Can you see the predicaments I faced?
Any-who, what I chose in the end came as quite a surprise. After much research and thumbing through many books at Books-A-Million and the Anniston Public Library, I was drawn to and ultimately selected Rick Bragg’s The Most They Ever Had, a collection of stories about the mill people of my very own home town.
I’ve loved all of Pulitzer Prize Winner Rick Bragg’s books—if you’ve never read All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man or the Prince of Frogtown, each a separate telling of Bragg’s family history, then you don’t know what you’re missing—and The Most They Ever Had didn’t disappoint. It was especially interesting to see from a literal distance the people of the mills Bragg writes about, the people I have lived with and alongside while taking them for granted my entire life.
I never made it to what I am beginning to believe an invention of my Aunt Gwen and Dear Mother, the fabled Serenity Deck. I couldn’t escape all those kids of mine for long enough. Truth is, I barely had time to read while actually on the ship and I was too worried about one of the little beasties drowning while at the beaches. I did, however, have occasion to read on the ride home from Jacksonville, FL thanks to Aunt Gwen’s desire to always be the driver and never the passenger on road trips. As punishment for keeping me otherwise engaged most of the cruise, I read the majority of The Most They Ever Had aloud to the chirren in the van. “Shut up and learn about the culture of your people!” I could be heard shouting over the den of noise between chapters. It was great! They listened, reluctantly at first but eventually with interest. It didn’t hurt that I’d threatened them with the additional torture of an actual book report if they didn’t cooperate. God, I love being a mother.
In the words of Mr. Bragg, The Most They Ever Had is “a mill story; not of bricks, steel and cotton, but of the people who suffered it to live.” It’s the story of my people, my great-grandmother Aggie, my grandfather Jack, my grandmother Rosa and the town where I was raised. It is a story I may not have appreciated fully if I’d read it just five miles down the road from the now silent and dismantled mill of its pages.