Montgomery, Alabama—I am standing only feet from Hank Williams’ gravestone in Oakwood Cemetery. Hank is joining me for lunch today.
On my lunch menu: a SPAM and mustard sandwich.
Long ago, my cousin and I spent a few weeks in Montgomery when he was visiting his girlfriend in Hope Hull. We were eighteen. We couldn’t afford a motel, so we slept in the back of his truck. We cooked suppers on a propane burner. We bathed in truckstop bathrooms.
The things a lovesick teenager will do.
On that trip, I visited Hank Williams’ grave for the first time. It was night. I stood before his tombstone and my cousin asked me to sing a few bars.
I sang “Mansion on a Hill.” We removed our caps.
High-school-age kids came upon us. We could see their headlights and hear them snickering.
“Have some respect!” shouted my cousin. “Audrey Williams was kin to my mother!”
I made the Sign of the Cross and took a knee, even though Audrey Williams was about as kin as Forty-Mule-Team Borax.
The high-schoolers apologized and left; we laughed until we turned purple. And we ate SPAM and mustard sandwiches for supper.
We did that for my father’s sake, he loved SPAM almost as much as he loved Hank. My father used to cut little chunks of pink meat with his pocket knife, drown it in mustard, and place it on white bread.
I never cared for it.
Anyway, Hank’s music was my father’s music. And it ties me to him, somehow. I can see Daddy sitting on a porch, singing “Hey Good Lookin’” and whittling, while I sit in the yard, eating mud.
After my father passed, I listened to one particular Hank album until I wore it out. Because back then, Hank Senior gave me the same feeling I missed. A good feeling.
The same feeling once gotten from a man who came home from his job, smelling like hard work and body odor.
For years, I kept some of Daddy’s shirts around. I wouldn’t touch them unless I needed to. These ratty things weren’t for touching, they were for smelling. I would press the fabric into my face and breathe.
So that’s what Hank Williams is to me. He is sweat, pomade, and soot.
Yeah, I know a lot of people prefer Elvis, or the Beatles, or the Grateful Dead. Not me. Give me Hank, Babe Ruth, a can of SPAM, and I’m liable to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.”
I hear a car engine idling beside me.
I am about eat my sandwich when I see a Chrysler approaching. An old woman rolls her window down and pokes her head out.
“Do you work here?” she asks.
“Me? No, ma’am.”
“Oh, I saw you eating and I thought maybe you worked here.”
Her name is Helen. She’s elderly. White hair and pearls. She sits in the passenger seat, her sister, Mary Rae, is driving.
She’s looking for her husband’s grave, but can’t find it in this tall grass.
I learn that Helen was a lifelong Montgomery native until her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was sixty-six when that happened. She’s a lot older now.
After he passed, she moved to Birmingham and hasn’t visited her husband’s grave in a decade.
She points beneath a grove of oaks. “I think Harrison’s over there somewhere. Would you help us look?”
I wrap my sandwich in foil. I step through the high grass, scanning headstones for the name “Harrison.” The car follows behind me, idling. It doesn’t take long to find her husband. Helen is overjoyed.
“Thank you,” she says. “Coulda never found him in this long grass.”
We bid each other farewell. I watch them from a distance. They place a bouquet on a headstone. They fold hands. They bow heads. Maybe they’re crying. I can’t be sure.
I bow my head, too.
After all, Helen and I aren’t that different. Not really. We’re both here for the same reasons, sort of.
People like us come to these places to feel things. We come to remember. Because remembering is all you can do once the ratty shirts have lost their smell. And because remembering just feels so good.
Rest in Peace, Harrison.
The SPAM sandwich wasn’t half bad, Daddy.