My mother, Chickie Ling, Jerome, Arizona, around 1920

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dinner on the Ground

This was written a few years ago and aired on Georgia Public Radio in 2006.

It was hot and muggy the Sunday Linda and I walked up the brick path to the old church in Savannah, Georgia. It was Homecoming and we were coming home. Our friend, Allison, had been invited to preach the sermon, and Linda and I were there to hear her. The setting held special meaning for all three of us. I had grown up in the church; Allison had arrived as a teenager and found her calling and her future husband there. When Linda was a child, her aunt had led the choir and she had memories of visiting at Easter to hear “Low in the Grave He Lay, Jesus My Savior.”

It had been close to thirty years since I’d set foot in the church, the last time being for the baptism of my eldest, now twenty nine. Sadly, the church I’d grown up in, married in, and christened my baby in had burned at some point after I left home, but a new one, larger but almost an exact replica, was now taking its place. The original building had a rich history. It had been used as a hospital during the Civil War, and what later became the choir loft had earlier been built for slaves who were invited to hear the Word of God, but not in any kind of proximity to the white folks. The current church was a testimony to what a modern church could be, open to all, at least theoretically, and filled to capacity at not one, but two, Sunday morning services each week.

I was surprised at how I felt as I took in the church and its surroundings. My chest was full of memories and my head resonated with the realization that I was stepping where I’d stepped as a little child, a young bride, and a new mother.

We were on the lookout for Allison, who had come early to preach at the nine o’clock service. We found her in the social hall, drinking a Diet Coke, and resting up for her next performance, looking not at all like our friend in her clerical garb. She also looked hot. Heat was a big issue to our mid 50’s menopausal minds and bodies, and we were worried that the stalwarts were going to win out and dinner would, indeed, be served outside, although thankfully no longer laid out, picnic fashion, on the ground, as it had for Homecomings a hundred years ago. I had already been chided by Linda for wearing stockings, something we purported to be against because of feminist issues. In actuality, our stand had more to do with queen-sized versus regular, control top as opposed to sheer, never mind how they hold in the heat.

We took a tour of the social hall where my wedding reception had been held. I couldn’t quite get my bearings until I found the large room where my new husband and I had fed each other wedding cake and considered a future that we never could have foretold. In the back, next to the bathroom, I found an old picture that captured my big brother and me sharing a crowded front pew in what must have been a contrived photo shoot since my brother never would have sat on the front pew, and definitely never would have allowed me to sit with him and his buddies; and there was my best friend, Francine, across the sanctuary, appearing forlorn without me by her side. As I looked closer, I could see my father sitting in the back, wearing a bow tie that I still remember, quietly offering support from behind the scenes. That bow tie was the only ostentatious thing about my daddy.

When I couldn’t locate my mother in the picture, I decided that it was most likely she who had coordinated the picture taking, and she who was working the shutter on the Kodak. When I was a child, ours was a family that, like so many others, virtually lived at the church. It was not only our Sunday morning, but our Wednesday night, and Saturday afternoon, too.

It was getting close to time for the eleven o’clock service so Linda and I made our way into the sanctuary in order to get good seats. Settling in, I couldn’t help but question why God had allowed the uncomfortable antebellum wooden pews to survive the fire when so little else had. Watching Linda open her fan with a flourish and produce several of her mother’s linen hankies in readiness for the heat and what we were looking to Allison to provide for us, that being a helpful sermon and a Good Cry, I was reminded of how artfully my friend had mastered the Steel Magnolia, Faded Flower of the South, persona.

While I mindlessly gazed at the other church-goers taking their seats, Linda squinted at a hand-written sign a few rows up, a sign that sat atop a pile of bulletins. “Marcia, what does that sign say?” she asked in her exceptionally Southern and somewhat loud voice. I was forced to inform her in my not as melodic but even louder voice, “It says, ‘Large Print’, the sign says ‘Large Print’.” We made good use of the hankies as we stifled the titters and snorts that came with the understanding that the “Large Print” sign needed to be printed in yet larger print in order for some of us to read it.

The service began with the preacher making announcements and asking for prayer requests. At some point before the offering plate was passed, he told the congregation that, because it was Homecoming, he was going to continue with the tradition of having folks call out the names of people, living or dead, who had been meaningful to them in some way. Linda’s mama’s handkerchief got a second round of use when I heard someone, someone I didn’t know, call out my dead daddy’s name. Chasing after my drooling eyes and nose with the scented linen, I knew I was heading toward a memorable memorial meltdown. I was a menopause-driven train careening into the station without benefit of either brakes or Arrid Extra Dry.

Just as Allison was being introduced, her many credentials touted, a little boy behind Linda began to squirm and complain, his father unable to quiet him. Before I knew it, Linda had turned around and was saying something to the poor little child, whispering from behind her fan. When I asked her later, she told me she’d promised him a cookie after the service if he’d simmer down, but his look of absolute terror during the entire sermon made me doubt her explanation.

Allison addressed the congregation and spoke from her soul, telling stories and weaving her message without really preaching. She made reference to the place and time of our childhood, a place so beautiful it flirted with magical, a time so finite, it, like my daddy’s bow tie, should have been captured in a snapshot. As she ultimately made her compelling point, sharing her personal life pain to heal others, I was reminded of how successful we three, Allison, Linda, and I, have been in life, if not in love.

Before the benediction, the preacher made the announcement that the Homecoming dinner had been moved inside to the social hall because of the rain that had started up during the service. Linda and I did a mental, hankie-embellished, high five, thankful that our hormone depleted and therefore perspiration-prone bodies would be spared the Savannah humidity as we continued to support Allison by partaking in the pot-luck delicacies provided by the church members. I was particularly impressed with myself as Friend of the Visiting Preacher, and therefore special guest, as Linda and I followed Allison to the front of the lunch line, ahead of the people who had brought the food.

In spite of my iffy emotional state, I successfully maneuvered the lunch line, basking in Allison’s and my dead daddy’s reflected auras, bypassing the lesser folks as I dipped into the macaroni and cheese, potato salad, chicken tenders, and honey mustard sauce, little of which was likely homemade for this new millennium Homecoming meal. Continuing with my all-yellow luncheon theme, I selected banana pudding for my dessert.

Keeping my eye on the clergy table where, for once, I would be sitting, I successfully traversed the crowded social hall with its portable furniture moved in from out at the last wet moment until I came upon a little boy, not the same little boy that Linda had earlier terrorized, but another little boy. This particular little boy had somehow managed to get ahead of me in the lunch line, a transgression he would live to regret. Just as he was digging in to his baked beans, his fruit salad, his spaghetti bake, my karma met his as the toe of my high-heeled shoe, sweatily sliding upon my stockinged foot, caught the leg of his hastily-placed chair, and, in slow motion, I felt myself going down in what can only be described as a noteworthy fall from grace.

I have a confession. I am a faller. I have a history of falling. It’s as if I have a life-long inner ear condition that causes ditzy dizziness at the most inopportune times. While a college freshman, I fell at the University of Georgia, attempting to cross the street from Brumby Hall to the Krystal, carrying my drawing board, a fall significant enough to make me change my major. I’ve fallen in the dark; I’ve fallen in the light. One time, I stepped in a dog dish and slid across my wet kitchen floor, pulling off an extremely painful but almost perfect split to absolutely no applause. Now, I’d fallen in a church social hall in the midst of sweet memories, gentle ghosts, and terrorized little boys.

Linda, who was behind me, says that all she saw was yellow everywhere and macaroni in the little boy’s hair. Allison, who was in front of me, says that, when she heard the commotion, she was ninety-nine percent sure it was me. What I remember is the little boy’s father trying to talk me off the floor as I attempted to clean the honey mustard sauce out of the treads of his child’s pristine sneakers. I also remember potato salad and banana pudding painting a grisly Pollock-like picture on the linoleum and people walking around it all, kindly trying to act like they hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.

In retrospect, I have to say that my Homecoming visit was a good one. It gave me the opportunity to reunite with good friends, departed family, and lost childhood. It was certainly memorable, not only for me, but also for others. So what if gracefulness is not my strong suit. That’s okay. We all have something to offer and I’m glad I when I can be of help.

And what a help I was when, on that one particular Sunday in over a century of many such Sundays, I was able to contribute something that only someone with my special gifts could manage. It makes me proud that, at future Homecomings at my old church, as folks gather round the table laden with yellow food, they just might remember the stained and sweaty lady who gave her all in an attempt to bring back the tradition of dinner on the ground, and their blessing, in my honor, might include something akin to “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

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