I turned 50 this year. That means I’ve survived four years longer on this planet than my father did. Dad never met either of my daughters.
Since my first grandchild came into my world six years ago followed by her sister and then brother, I’ve been thankful for my good fortune. I’ve thought about the precious time I’ve spent with my grandchildren so far, about how there are so many things I can teach them about life, nature, this place, our culture. I thought about what they would miss if I were to pass away while they were still too young to understand so much of it. I thought about, if that were to happen, how very little they would really know about me and how that lack of information might somehow alter what they knew about themselves.
Sure, they’d have stories from their mom, aunt, grandmother, and other family members. They might run across people who knew me, and they might hear an anecdote here and there to get a general feel for the character of the man they knew as “Pa.” But I worried that — grateful as I’d be for those people who would keep my memory alive — the experiences might ring hollow for my grandkids.
This was basically how I felt after my dad passed away when I was 24. I’ve been so thankful for those stories about him. But I still feel like I never really knew him as anything but “Dad.” And how could my daughters ever know him as anything but a collection of other people’s ideas about who he was? He left no words of his own to help me or them understand who he was as a person.
So here’s this book full of my words for my grandkids (and kids) that’s here now — even though I plan to stick around for a few more decades — and long after I’m gone.
Most of the 220 pages are composed of previously published work, but there are a few originals in it as well. I’m also positive that it’s full of typos and oversights, and I could have done a damn sight better with font selection, size, and such. But it’s done, and I’m tired of messing with it. A book designer I am not.
I hadn’t planned to actively market the book, but the publishing company I used automatically markets it to Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and book stores across the globe so I figured I might as well let folks know. There’s a small sampling from the book’s introduction just after this letter. Maybe the stories can help you or someone you know cultivate that sense of place and a deeper love for our home near the river and between the mountains.
Johnny Carrol Sain
I imagine that by the time you’re reading this on your own, you’ll be well into your teen years. That was my suggestion to your mom, anyway, because there are some word choices and ideas in here that require a more mature mindset to fully appreciate. But as of this writing, Nixie Carrol, you are five years old. Lenny Renae, you are two. And, Luke Henry, you’ve been here for only six months. This book is for each of you, my grandchildren
In these pages you’ll find a collection of essays about my experiences in the rural southern Ozarks and River Valley of Arkansas along with some insights into the culture of the region of which I am a product. I was born here, have lived my entire life here. And I’m quite certain that if your grandmother and I were to move anywhere else, I simply would not be me. My roots run deep in this place and because of this, yours do as well.
Most of the essays were previously published in various magazines over the first 10 years of my career as a professional writer, which didn’t start until I was around 40 years old and is an interesting story in itself. But I’ll save that for another time. There’s not really a central theme to the essays, though, I’m sure you can find some semblance of a pattern here and there.
Actually, I’ll save you the trouble: The central theme is me. These stories are simply me, and I’ll explain the “why” a few paragraphs down. I tried to categorize them, but there’s so much overlap that a clear demarcation is impossible. Some should probably be in one place and others might really work better in another, but what’s done is done and the book is already published. We’ll all just have to accept that the borders are not much more than a flimsy pretense of order.
I want you all to have this collected hodge-podge of stories for a couple of reasons. The first is because there’s a heritage here in this often overlooked land of humble hills and creeks that I hope you come to appreciate and love just as I do. And there are layers within this heritage impossible for me to convey without writing. I hope that through these essays you’ll come to know and embrace where you come from and that this acceptance will help you understand who you are. This little strip of flyover country, featuring the oldest mountains on the planet and a society moving at what seems a snail’s pace compared to the rest of the world, is your place. But also understand that the whole of the planet is your place, too. As the creek once told me (another interesting story that I’ll save for yet another time), there is nowhere on the globe that you don’t belong. You are a product of your specific place and, even more, you are a product of Earth
I also want you to have these stories because there is another heritage beyond the natural and cultural that resides within me, your grandfather, that I need to share with you. I want you to see how I became the person I am because those experiences helped shape your mom, and those long-ago experiences will also help shape you. I’ve fumbled with the proper way to define this legacy for days now. It could be what some folks call spiritual, but I’ve never figured out what that word really means. Whatever you want to call it, I don’t believe you can fully realize its depth unless you can know me, in some small way, as just a boy and then just a man, as just another human being.
But we all know that I’m more than just another human being. I am, after all, the blessed soul so very fortunate to have helped welcome you to this world, who stood with your grandmother beside your parents as an assistant guide and teacher on your first, and hopefully several more, legs of this wondrous journey. I am the man honored beyond all I deserve who gets to be your Pa.