The Third Row

Monday morning at 7 AM I was heading north on Interstate 55, heading toward my hometown. A woman I knew had died. She and her husband lived down the road from Mom on a few acres we had sold before I was born, and she and Mom were close.

Growing up, some of my earliest memories were of going to their house. The adults would play Yahtzee, and I would play in the living room, on the improbably white carpet. He was a few years older than Dad, and they had grown up together and had similar interests. They were very much a part of my life growing up.

Our lives revolved around the church down the road. It was a small brick building in those days before they added the fellowship hall and the new sanctuary. My granddaddy’s name was on the cornerstone, and my uncle had run the electrical for it when it was built. And generations of my people are buried across the street, in the cemetery there, including Dad.

They don’t really use the old sanctuary much anymore. It’s still there, though, and when I had finished eating my spaghetti Monday in the fellowship hall after the service, I crept over to the old building to look around.

It still looks the same as it did 40 years ago, except it doesn’t, mostly because I’m no longer the same. The first thing that grabs me is how small it was, just six rows or so of pews, and none of them really long. No wonder it always seemed packed in my memories.

The hardwood floors are still there, blessedly uncovered by carpet, as is the fate in many churches that tire of the upkeep required for hardwoods. The area behind the altar rail is carpeted now as it was then, although, in my memory, the carpet was maroon instead of the blue it is now. It is, of course, entirely possible they changed the carpet in the last 40 years, but it is far more likely that my memory is playing tricks on me.

The pulpit is now in the new sanctuary next door, with a piano in its place, which in my childhood was in the alcove to the right of the door. There was no sound system in those days, either, forcing Brother Leon to use his preacher’s voice.

The Heinrich Hoffman print of Jesus praying in the garden the night he was arrested is still there, in the same spot it was every Sunday of my youth. Just out of the frame of this shot, there were additional pictures of Jesus on each side wall, one a headshot and the other an improbably young Jesus, also prints from Hoffman. The headshot is still there, but the picture of adolescent Jesus is gone, a nail still sticking from the wall being all that proves I was not making it up.

Adolescent Jesus captured my attention to no end as a child. I would stare at him on the wall, beardless and with unruly hair, and wonder if he knew what he was in for, if he got in trouble a lot, and why his dad didn’t make him cut his hair.

The hymn board is still there, too. It always had the list of the hymns we would sing today, along with how much money folks had put in the offering the week before. I liked that the hymns were enlisted, as I would go through the hymnal and find the songs ahead of time and slip pieces of paper in to mark them so that I could find them later instead of being flustered and pressured when they were announced. Even then, I was searching for coping mechanisms.

In my memories, as a family, we always sat in the third row in this photo, on either side, but always toward the aisle if we could. I have lots of memories here. Mr. Hays interrupting the preacher, mid-sermon, that he had preached too long and it was time for lunch. Billy, who was what my people called slow and would now be considered special needs, always sang off-key but made up for it with volume and exuberance.

And I remember my daddy’s hands, curiously enough. In this memory, we are on the right-hand side of this picture, on our customary third row. He was wearing his one suit, dark blue, with a white shirt and red striped tie. I am to his left, and the preacher is praying. Daddy’s elbows are on his knees, his scarred fingers interlaced, forehead resting on his clasped, callused hands. His eyes were scrunched closed tightly as if, by sheer concentration, his petitions would go to the head of God’s line.

You could not have convinced me then that they did not.

My Favorite Sandwich

Until my late teens, my Dad worked for a propane company.

He literally sold propane and propane accessories.

In rural Mississippi, propane is a big deal. I live in town now, and we have natural gas piped in, but folks who live out in the county buy propane, and a giant truck comes out to your house and fills up a huge tank, and that is what fuels your water heater and your cookstove and your heater. Every small town in Mississippi has at least one propane dealer, and in my hometown for most of my childhood, that dealership was run by my daddy.

Now, they sold propane, but the propane accessories was where the money was. The showroom at the front of his building had propane cook stoves, propane fish cookers, and propane grills for sale. The markup on these was high, and after all, the more things you owned that used propane, the more propane you would buy. So every summer, they would have an Open House of sorts, where they would do some sort of sale and set up a grill in the parking lot in front of the building, and there might be balloons and, to highlight the cooking ability of this grill, Dad would put a couple of pounds of bologna on the rotisserie.

It was smart on a number of levels: Bologna was cheap, so this promotion was low cost. It highlighted a rotisserie accessory, which most folks didn’t have, and so they couldn’t replicate it without buying one. It smelled amazing, so it intrigued people who stopped by. And it just tasted good.

It wasn’t complicated: He went to the meat counter in the Big Star grocery and bought a 5-pound chub of bologna, which is just bologna that hasn’t been sliced. It looks like a huge hot dog more than anything else. It has a red plastic skin, which must be peeled away. Then it was threaded onto the rotisserie spit and scored about a quarter inch deep along its length in a criss-cross pattern. Then it was cooked for a good hour or two over medium heat and was periodically basted with a cheap bottled barbeque sauce.

The heat made the surface split along the score marks, and the sauce would seep into the cracks, and the barbeque sauce would sort of candy on the surface. He would keep one going all day, and would have another cut up into small chunks, which were speared on toothpicks for the customers to try as samples. But one advantage of having a dad who was the manager was that you didn’t just get the small samples: You got a barbeque bologna sandwich.

It involved a hamburger bun, toasted. On it, you put a dollop of cheap bottled sauce, a half-inch thick slice of barbeque bologna, all topped by a generous scoop of cole slaw. It won’t taste right unless it is served on a cheap paper plate, accompanied by a handful of Golden Flake potato chips, and paired with an ice cold Coke in a glass bottle that was purchased for a quarter from the cold drink box in the warehouse.

And for best results, it should be handed to you by someone who loves you.

For friends from other cultures

On the 26th day, I’m grateful for other cultures, and how they have influenced and shaped me.

In the 1830’s, Jonathan Hollowell and his wife Clara and their children Edwin and Calvin moved to Marshall County, Mississippi from around Goldsboro, North Carolina. They were one of many families that moved here after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, which removed the Choctaw and other tribes from the State and across the Mississippi River to western territories.

In other words, I am a Mississippian directly because my ancestors profited from the coerced removal of a culture and a people.

I grew up in Byhalia, MS. I had friends who lived in Pontotoc, MS. Went to Senatobia, MS all the time. They are all Chickasaw names. I never learned anything about the Chickasaw people in school. Never knew a Chickasaw person.

The main street of my home town was actually part of the road that was the Trail of Tears. I learned about the Trail of Tears in school. I did not learn it happened less than 500 yards from where I sat.

I learned I was not guilty. I did not yet know that I was, however, responsible.

Growing up, my world was very Black and White. Literally. I knew a (very) few Latinos, and no Asians. We went to Memphis occasionally, and there was a Chinese restaurant Dad liked up there, and he would eat with chopsticks like he learned how to do when he was overseas in the Air Force.

We ate Mexican food, but really, it was the Old El Paso taco kit with ground beef and refried beans from a can. That and bean burritos from Taco Bell was the limits of our ethnic food.

Of course, that wasn’t true. We ate copious amounts of sweet potatoes, summer peas, and greens, all cooked in ways passed on to White people like me from enslaved Africans generations ago. Likewise, the chitterlings and fatback and blackstrap molasses were all foods enslaved people ate because the wealthy landowners didn’t want it. The turnips we prized were originally food for pigs, but enslaved folks learned to make them taste great, and they taught the rest of us.

We didn’t count any of that. It was our food now.

I was sixteen and in Tulsa Oklahoma on a school trip before I would ever have a real conversation with someone who was not Black or White.  She was Chinese, and was there from another school up East.

Mark Twain said something to the effect that travel was fatal to prejudice, and while I want to argue with him, it certainly helped me. As I traveled and met and worked with Mexican and Guatemalans and Brazilians and Serbs and Croats and Indians and Chinese and Koreans, I learned we are far more alike than different, and that at the end of the day, we want the same things: To be safe, to take care of our families, to have hope tomorrow will be better than today, to leave a legacy in the hearts of our loved ones.

My curiosity has served me well, and my desire to hear their stories. To learn about their lives, to eat their foods, to share mine with them. This requires a level of intentionality: I have a relation who lived with her husband for 2 years in Germany while he was in the service, but she learned zero German, only shopped and ate American food on base, and used every chance to tell the rest of us about how much she hated Germany.

I don’t ever want to be like that.

A few years back, I spent a week in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I would love to go back and explore more, but one thing that struck me was how they actually had an indigenous culture there – White culture was not the default. The beauty, diversity, and richness that came about as a result of that was striking.

I have come to believe that all of us are smarter than any of us, and to be grateful for all my friends from cultures different than mine, who took me in, who fed me, who loved me when I made that hard, and who have enriched my life in innumerable ways.

Thank you.