NOTE: I originally posted this in 2012. We all have stories and memories that are part of the fabric of our lives. This is one of those stories. It happened about 10 years ago on a cold, sleety day in December as I was making my way to be with my mama for Christmas.
I’m sorry. This might be a little long for some of you, but I hope you will read. I was born and raised in the South and except for occasional sojourns on Long Island, Philadelphia, London, Tokyo, and San Francisco, I have lived in the South. I grew up in a neighborhood close to the Duke east campus. People had lived there in the same homes for generations. We knew each other, knew all the stories about each others’ ancestors, who had converted their sleeping porches and when and when finally (we were among the last) who sold their portion of the mews and sent their last horse to live with relatives in the country.
In 1965, the impossible happened – the Pollard family next to us, finally died out. The house was sold to strangers – maybe even folks from up North!!! Of course, if they were connected to Duke, it might be okay. Imagine everyone’s surprise when an African-American family moved in. Well, nobody moved from the neighborhood or did any nastiness; after all, that Greek family had moved in a couple of streets over and nothing bad had happened. In fact, they organized block parties and gave away thousands of Christmas cookies!!!
The McGill family consisted of the father Richard, his wife Arlene and sons – Junior (my age) and Bob. Mr. Mc and my dad became instant and best friends. The two sons kept to themselves and Mrs. Mc considered us all a bunch of jumped up no accounts because after all, she was descended of long standing upper class Creole families in N’awlins, so there!
About three weeks before the McGill’s first Christmas in Trinity Park, the neighborhood was permeated with the most delicious, spicy, mouth watering odor. It was slightly familiar, but better – richer and headier. I took it upon myself to go through the hedge and knock on the McGill’s back (kitchen) door. Mr. Mc himself answered and greeted me with a huge smile and welcome on in. I looked in amazement – covering every surface in the kitchen and the dining room beyond, were sweet potato pies. The kitchen was warm from the ovens (like us, he had two stoves – a gas and a wood burner). My eyes were huge and I looked at him and without having to ask, he said, “Sweet potato pies. Every year, our church has a fund raiser to provide clothing, food, toys, rent, whatever for the needy in our parish. I bake 100 pies for sale and I do that because I bake the best. I am the king of sweet potato pies.”
“Here’s one that is a little ugly and I was going to cut a slice and have with a cup of coffee. Want some?” “Yes sir, I surely do.” and we proceeded to sit and eat and chat. I discovered why my dad just loved him – funny, erudite, gentle, kind, generous….I fell in love with himself. “That is THE best sweet potato pie I have ever had. How do you make it?” His eyes twinkled at me and said, “Won’t tell you, it’s a secret.” And from then until I left for college, sweet potato pie and coffee became a yearly tradition with us. Sometimes we were joined by Junior who like his dad, was quite a cook. Like his dad, big, gentle, kind, and funny.
Years later, I was living in Philadelphia. One morning, I received a call from my mother. My papa was in hospital and it was not going to be good. I dropped everything and caught the first flight home. All the way, I was truly a wreck. I jittered in my seat, bit my nails, thought about a future that did not include my father. I wondered who would pick me up from the airport. Papa always did. I came to the baggage area and there was Mr. Mc waiting for me. when I saw him, I began crying and he folded his big self around me and held me tight. We grabbed my bag and went to the car. In the car, as he was driving me home, he handed me his handkerchief and said, “Let me tell you how I make my sweet potato pie. But remember, it’s a secret and you can’t tell.”
My father died. I don’t remember much about the events of the days. I choose not to. Hidden in a blur of an unmended heartbreak, those memories will remain that way.
One thing I have learned in past years, is this: Don’t fight with God. He always wins. And when he tells you to do something, don’t argue, just do it and save yourself a lot of time, trouble, and stupid. More years later: I was driving down a lonely stretch of Rt. 360 to go visit my mom. It was a bleak, wet sleety day. On the side of the road, a black van was pulled over with the hood up. Two huge men were standing beside the van looking into the bowels of the vehicle and looked up hopefully as I drove past. God says “Go back and help them.” and of course, I argued. it’s desolate, I don’t know them, they’re big, blahblahblahblah. God says, “Go back and help them.” and He said this several times. About two miles down the road, I pulled over and just gave up.
“Alright already. I’ll do it. But I’m just going to put my window down a bit and ask if they need help.” God says, “Whatever. Go back.” I u-turned and headed back. I pulled beside the van and inched my passenger window down. The largest man leaned down and looked in the window. Suddenly, he said, “Kanzen?” I looked closer – “Junior?”. Immediately I unlocked my car door and he climbed in. “We need help. I’m on my way to Clarksville to preach a funeral and the van just stopped. I can’t get a call through either.” No good coverage in that area…”I go right past that funeral home. Y’all get in and I’ll have you there shortly.”
As we rode to Clarksville, the associate pastor crammed into my small back seat and Junior with the passenger seat back as far as it would go and our shoulders touching each other like old friends. We talked about the past years to catch up. Mr. Mc had died two years earlier. I told Junior how grieved I was to hear this. “y’know Kanzen. it’s hard and this time of year, it is just harder. The house don’t smell right. I know you understand.” I nodded. I did indeed understand. “I’ve tried to fix those pies, but they aren’t right. Mom lives with us now and she has talked about how she misses Dad. How she would love to smell one of his pies, just one more time.”
I sat in silence for a couple of miles. I thought of my papa. I thought of Mr. Mc and his grieving son beside me. I smiled and though I had tears in my eyes, I turned to him. “Junior, I know how to make your dad’s pie. He told me when papa died. I’ll tell you, but it’s a secret. You can’t tell anyone.” and I began to tell him the secret of Mr. Mc’s sweet potato pie.
A couple of weeks later, I received a note in the mail. “The house smells like home. The home smells right. God bless you. Merry Christmas.”
And no, I’m not going to tell you. It’s a secret. Merry Christmas and God bless you. May your home be filled with love and joy and making of memories for your heart.