The Smell of Home: A true Christmas story

a slice of sweet potato pie

a slice of sweet potato pie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

25 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sue Vincent
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 01:35:21

    A beautiful memory, Kanzen… and yes, sometimes you just have to listen and go with that voice. x


  2. bkpyett
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 04:29:15

    What a touching story Kanzen, I loved how the recipe was rightfully passed on to Junior.
    Thank you for sharing this delightful memory. 🙂


  3. lorriebowden
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 07:48:17

    Oh Kanzen! You touched my heart in a very huge way. I read the story first and then had tobread itbaloud to my friend. We both had tears in our eyes and our hearts were billowing with love! Thank you dear one for a special memory. Much love for a beautiful Christmas


  4. joannesisco
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 07:51:28

    I love this story so much Kanzen ❤


  5. Let's CUT the Crap!
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 09:26:38

    Where do I start? I love the part about arguing with God. What an unexpected surprise to find Junior in your new part of the world, after not seeing each other for years. The meeting was meant to be so the secret would be sent where it belonged. This is a magical story. Wow. ❤


  6. The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 21:24:47

    Happy Holidays to you and your family from all of us over here. ❤


    • kanzensakura
      Dec 16, 2014 @ 21:45:42

      Happy holidays and b less ings to the whole crew in your household and all those animals you love and protect at the shelter!

      Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Tab®|PRO


  7. Bernice
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 21:32:37

    What a beautiful story! I would be the same as you. Safety first when it comes to helping someone broken down on the side of the road. But what a nice ending!


  8. Tina Blackledge
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 23:11:38

    What a wonderful heart warming story! Thank you for sharing such a cherished memory. What a glorious gift you were able to give back to that loving family. A gift he gave to you when your heart was breaking. How truly wonderful the Lord works things out even when we do not realize it until much later. My grandmother made the most delicious home made fudge and she tried to teach me but it never turned out for me. My younger sister was able to do it so we still have access to to Grandma’s fudge. Of course, it is not the sweet treat that makes us happy but all the loving memories that give it value. Blessings to you.


    • kanzensakura
      Dec 17, 2014 @ 16:11:34

      It is indeed those loving memories….for just a moment, you can close your eyes and taste or sniff and it all comes back and for that brief time, you can hug them with your heart.


  9. wholeproduction
    Dec 17, 2014 @ 19:53:13

    Mhhh I love me some sweet potato pie 😀


  10. kanzensakura
    Dec 17, 2014 @ 20:32:58

    So do I. And Mr. Mc ‘ s is one of the best.


  11. SirenaTales
    Dec 18, 2014 @ 17:20:49

    KANZEN!!! I remember reading this magnificent tale, beautifully told, from awhile back. Yowzer, lady, you do spin a fine, touching tale! This may be my favorite piece of yours, combining as it does your magical storytelling, signature humor, yummy food, and abundant grace. Thank you so much for the tears of hope, redemption, heavenly aromas, and love. xoxo


    • kanzensakura
      Dec 18, 2014 @ 19:39:42

      Thank you so much. It has been a very hard few months for mee and your words lift my heart and make me smile Bless you dear lady. Christmas blessings, joy, love, a nd abundant happy memories in the making to you and all those you love. ♡♡♡

      Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Tab®|PRO


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