This morning I woke up in Alabama. There’s nothing terribly spectacular about that fact I think. Just a man and his wife, their two kids, and his mother-in-law struggling to gain consciousness in a hotel room in the Deep South… I did what I do every morning upon waking up. I hit the ground and said my morning prayers. Praised be God! I’m alive. I got out of bed unassisted. I required no help in getting dressed. From the looks of things through the room-darkening drapes, the sun was out. My watch told me that the temperature hadn’t crept too high. This was going to be a beautiful day and my heart is full of joy. I have a lot of prayers that I pray every morning. It’s structured. I’m not saying I pray like Rainman or anything but if you mess with my routine I will cut you. I continued praying silently as I left the room and headed to the lobby for coffee. The trip downstairs took a little longer than it should have. I could not board the first two elevators due to overcrowding. Hoop skirts and parasols take up a lot of space. I told you there was nothing strange about waking up in Birmingham.
We’ve traveled like this many, many times to where we have the unpack/pack thing down. The lady at the front desk marveled at how quickly we managed to get everything back into the car so efficiently. “Y’all must have done this a time or two befo-ah, I should declaaayah.” I nodded politely. My daughter and her grandmother came past the front desk. “Ya’ll fav-uh; but I reckon yal’l get that a lot,” said the lady behind the counter, now staring at my daughter and me. I whispered to my wife: “If we pay her no heed perhaps she will ignore us.” We went back to packing the car while the attendant busily replaced the carafes of coffee with bottles of gin and a bowl of sloes mixed with sprigs of mint. If I hadn’t been so scared I might have been tempted to stay and check this party out. As she placed the bottles down I heard her softly singing something about the land of cotton and old time days, silently moving apostrophes as she did so. I walked around the vehicle shoving each member of my family inside, slamming doors behind them. Then I locked the doors, rolled down my window, shouted “We won the wo-ah!” and sped away.
Absolutely none of that may have happened in reality. I just needed some kind of device to get my story going. You see, it’s actually the morning of day 3 as I write this. When we reach the end of this dispatch you might see why I am writing this then or now or whenever it actually is. Let’s pick up from the only part of that tale that was true. That would be the part where I woke up and prayed.
We packed the car and headed to mass. My son and I were both wearing long pants despite the increasing heat. That’s because we would be heading to a place that required a certain dress code. My wife had chosen the church from a list online. It was about a half-hour away. She had to remain in the car to get on a business call so Wilma, the kids, and I all headed into the tiny, almost mission looking church building. The sign out front declared that “All are welcome here!” And what a strange way they had of showing welcome. We encountered a Catholic mass in Spanish with heavy doses of Latin – as in, the priest seemed not to be able to make up his mind. For instance (and I don’t know much Spanish) the priest prayed the Our Father in Spanish, said something rapidly in Spanish directed toward the congregation, and then chanted the Pater Noster. We approached for Communion. For such a “progressive” looking church building we all knelt at the rail to receive Communion on the tongue. Again, I prefer to receive Communion kneeling and on the tongue but all of this seemed so disjointed. Regardless, we had been blessed to stand at the foot of Calvary and I can’t ever complain about that.
We drove a little further down the road and stopped in at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Yeah, we’re those kind of people. And this is where the pants come in. Some shrines like their visitors‘ legs more covered than others. I don’t mind. It’s not like it’s 1800 degrees out today or anything. We’ll offer it up. This shrine was built under the direction of one of my heroes, Mother Angelica. Here was a woman who didn’t take any nonsense. A beautiful place it was, too. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere was a large church with an enormous plaza, visitors center, and the requisite gift shop. In fact it was both the best shrine gift shop I ever saw and one of the most beautiful churches too. I had to force myself to leave the gift shop before I spent a small fortune. We stopped at the crypt-level church to pray at Mother’s tomb and then it was on our way again. A quick lunch (at five different restaurants to accommodate five people who suddenly remembered it’s Friday and we’re not eating meat; a quick change for father and son into shorts; and we’re on our way.
Still further up the same road (and keep in mind at this point we’re only about 30 miles from where we left this morning) we stopped at another shrine. I have a former student who is currently walking the Camino in Spain, mocking me every few minutes on Facebook with her pictures of beautiful places along the way. It is as if she is saying “Ha! You will never make it to Spain but I am here!” Yeah, toots? I’m doing the Northern Alabama Catholic tour. You don’t even know… OK, so it doesn’t quite work the same. This shrine is more of a grotto than a specific place of pilgrimage. It’s another spot that I had visited years earlier with my brother (see yesterday’s post). It’s called the Ave Maria Grotto. Here’s the story… About a hundred years ago, give or take, a young Benedictine monk arrived at St. Bernard’s Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. Possessing an artistic streak, he began making “models” of buildings he remembered from his native Bavaria. He constructed these out of rocks, twigs, broken dishes, basically anything he could get his hands on. He began making more and more “buildings”, placing them on the grounds of the abbey. Eventually his creations were arranged around a long and winding pathway and people come from all around to see what one monk could do with the other monks’ garbage. At one point Wilma, making note of the literature that said “friends would bring Brother Jozef old pottery, dishes, and knick-knacks, asking him to fashion them into his miniature displays of cities like Jerusalem or Rome.” Said my mother-in-law while staring at a crucifix made out of dozens of seashells “He must have had a lot of beach friends.” Oh, and the gift shop strikes again. “Look, kids, it’s all the same at all of these shrine gift shops. Holy cards, books, and statues of saints. Don’t get too excited,” I said as my gaze turned toward a holy card of a Fulton Sheen statue holding a stack of his books. They’re getting clever, these shopkeeps.
Packing the family back into the car I drove across the northern reaches of Alabama as I cut a diagonal path toward the northeast corner of that fair state. We had planned to stop at a place I had not been to yet but that my wife had visited once as a child. There is a mountain lookout near the convergence of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia appropriately named Lookout Mountain. From the summit, a piece of private property known as the very touristy “Rock City”, one can see seven states. After paying damn near a hundred bucks to enter I wondered aloud whether those states were frustration, anger, seething rage, depression, etc. However, after wandering the grounds – following the paths laid out by the owners – we reached the lookout point and it was well worth the money. Not only was the view spectacular (you couldn’t really see seven states, or at least I couldn’t) but experiencing the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things most people never get to see and doing this with my wife and children brought a great joy to my heart. Additionally, the grounds feature lots of story-book themed motifs. I’m still not sure why there were hundreds of garden gnomes placed throughout the park and we may have in fact been paced under some kind of Wiccan hex by signing the credit card slip. Time will tell. To be safe we may return to Mother Angelica’s grave for protection.
Finally we headed out toward a nighttime stopping point. “Feel like driving past Asheville?” asked my beautiful wife. Asheville, NC lies a couple of hundred miles from Lookout Mountain. I felt like stopping right then and there, finding a cocktail, and getting into bed. But I knew we had to go on. And if she thought I could get us past Asheville then I could get us past Asheville. Along the last few hours of our drive my wife lovingly mocked me for my multiple stops. Look, my back can’t handle that many straight hours in the driver’s seat AND I need coffee. Thinking my passengers were all asleep I turned on some music from my phone. Came across an old album I used to listen to with my sister when we were young and used to go to Broadway matinees on the regular just because we could. After a while my wife opened her eyes, looked over at me, and said “You’re so strange…” “What?” I said. “Just rehearsing for my new production: Evita, a one-man show.”
And just as Mandy Patinkin was cryptically shrieking about Eva Peron’s missing body we arrived at our hotel. The time was 1:37 AM (hence the next day posting). A more thankful dad I really don’t think you could find – at least not in any of the states one can view from a mountaintop that might be in Georgia or perhaps in Tennessee. No matter, I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.