by Randy Reynolds

H.R. Appling's voice was loud and startling, like the bark of a large dog in the dark or the siren of a police car you didn't know was behind you. His six words were uttered with such force they drowned out the sound of the Braves game on the black-and-white TV across the room from his recliner, drowned out the conversation between the young woman and the older woman in the kitchen and the two little great-granddaughters scurrying about the house. His volume even scared away my thoughts, whatever they had been, as I sat on the nearby sofa beneath the black velvet picture of Jesus that Sherry and I had bought from a vendor on the side of the highway. You know the picture--the artist glued silver sparkles around the head of a kneeling Jesus?

The first word was the loudest: "Min-EEEEEE!"

Women of a later era might have been offended at being addressed this way, but to Minnie Appling, it was just her baby crying and she scurried to take care of him.

"Min-EEEEE! Where's my crackers and milk!"

"Just in a minute, H! I'm coming as fast as I can."

By this time, in her sixties, she had already begun to shrink, as women do, and was probably even shorter than the 4 foot/11 inch height that she claimed. In comparison, her six foot/1 inch husband seemed a giant. That's what she did for him--made him bigger than he would have been without her. She brought him a spoon and a glass of Ritz crackers and buttermilk and told him not to get it all over himself and Dale Murphy hit a home run and H.R. yelled, "ALL RIGHT!" almost as loudly as he said, "JeZUSSSSS!" in the pulpit or "Min-EEEE! Where's my crackers and milk!" And I wondered how many times that scene had played out in their little house just off the pavement of Appling Road in Buford, Georgia.

Some nights in the 1970's when I lived a half hour away from Minnie and H.R., I'd pack my wife and two little girls and a tape recorder into the car and we'd go for a visit. If the Braves weren't on, H.R. would tell me stories for the book I wanted to write about him. He told me about his childhood fears and fights and working at the sawmill; about the time one of his brothers stabbed him in the chest and Minnie rubbed soot from the fireplace in it to stop the bleeding; rebuilding Miami after a hurricane almost wiped it off the map; his life as a prize fighter; being a detective in Chicago; confronting a gang of vigilantes who tried to stop his tent revival; and about taking off his shoes on a city street and giving them to a man who said he couldn't come to church because he didn't have any decent shoes.

H.R.could imbue equal heartbreak to someone's death and the latest Braves game. And he loved all that attention, telling his life story for me and my wife and our two little girls by the dim light of two ugly green lamps with dingy covers while Jesus' halo sparkled from the wall and Minnie looked on in adoration and the reels of my tape recorder slowly pulled his words across the recording head at 3 and three-quarter inches per second.

I wanted Minnie to tell her side, too, but she didn't do drama. She did thankfulness. She'd take the microphone and praise God for all the things He'd helped her through, but she never gave much detail about those things. Maybe she forgot the hard times that H.R. remembered so well. After all, she did say more than once, "I've got a good forgetter." She was proud of her three boys, but talked about how badly she wanted girls because she was going to name them all after flowers.

"I had Violet," she said. "But that was my only little flower. I was going to name the next one Petunia." I never knew whether she was serious or just going for a laugh, but I was always grateful her midlife child was an Uncle Donnie and not an Aunt Petunia.

To understand what Minnie Appling went through, you had to search for clues between the laughs. "We didn't have anything but biscuits and gravy for breakfast for a long time there. But one morning, I cooked bacon, eggs and grits and Violet looked all around the table and said, 'Well, whur's the gravy?' " Minnie would laugh so hard she'd get tears in her eyes and she always repeated the punch-line. " 'Whur's the gravy?' Poor little thing never had no breakfast before without gravy."

Minnie only told me one thing about her father and it, too, was something that amused her. Apparently, as a two year old I liked to eat dirt and her father caught me scooping some from a flowerpot. Minnie said, "You had dirt all over your face and you put your hands behind your back and he said 'What are you doing, boy?' And you looked up at him with a guilty look on your face and said, 'Hi, pop!' My daddy never did get over that." She'd laugh and repeat, "Hi, Pop."

So the dark-haired, fiery girl who came down south and captured H.R. Appling remains a mystery to me. And the young mother who had three boys and one little flower. And the lonely wife waiting at home for her husband to return from a revival. Week after week, I turned on the tape recorder and handed her the mic, but all she would do is tell something funny like her "Whar's the gravy?" and "Hi, Pop!" stories, and then testify.

H.R. noisily crumbled crackers into his buttermilk, the reels of my tape recorder spun, velvet Jesus sparkled on the wall, and Minnie Appling praised God for being so wonderful to her. The way she did it, you'd have thought that she had everything she ever wanted.

Here's a letter Minnie wrote on her only daughter's 46th birthday in 1979: