Each of us has moments in our lives that, while not great revelations or “aha” events, do aid us in how we react to situations and respond to circumstances in the future. These moments may not seem substantial at the time. Upon reflection, they could have produced a totally different world if a response had been delivered differently. My life has been filled with moments such as this. But let me set the stage for one such event.
Being a product of the 1950s, I have witnessed many changes to the world and advancements in technology, but people really haven’t changed that much. But alas, technology has little to do with my story. In fact, people and the lack of technology are more relevant. As I said, growing up in the 50s things were a little different. They were even more different for a little red headed boy who lived in the not-so-big city of Graham with his mother, four sisters, and his father the Baptist minister. But of course, my father was not just any Baptist minister. He was the pastor of a country church in, oh, let’s call it Cedar Grove, North Carolina just in case this tale might see the light of day. A thriving crossroads in Orange County that could boast of Pope’s General Store and Acme Feed and Seed, a quarter mile down the “highway”.
Just so that you have a good feel for the setting, the church was a white, wood frame country church set back off the road in a wooded glen. There was no heat or air conditioning in the building (which might explain the dwindling attendance in the winter months) but it wasn’t so bad in the summer with the large oak tree canopy providing shade. The church interior was well appointed with two large ornate chairs behind the pulpit and a choir loft that would seat upwards of twenty choir members of various singing ability. To the left of the pulpit was the black upright piano with a floor fan behind it. Why anyone thought that the pianist would work up more of a sweat than anyone else was puzzling to me. I certainly would have appreciated a little of that breeze while wearing my dapper little sport coat and snappy clip-on tie. The sanctuary was filled with rows of homemade pews that were constructed of long slats with one inch gaps between the slats. This construction and its tendency to expand and retract when under pressure was a constant amusement at the expense of the more rotund members of the congregation. Many pews were marked by a variety of cushions in a wide spectrum of designs. These served as reservations for individual family pews much like the tartan designs that designated a Scottish Highland clan.
The congregation was made up of about 150 members, a regular mega-church of the era. Attendance numbers were quite another matter. Members came from such far flung places as Rougemont, Hurdle Mills, or even Efland. The membership was predominantly divided along the family lines of Crabtree, Porterfield, Horner, and of course Smith. So any church vote nearly always resulted in a four way tie. The attendance highlight of the year, other than Easter or the Christmas pageant, was the annual Homecoming Sunday with dinner on the grounds. One such Homecoming Sunday produced the “aha” moment that I referred to earlier. The very moment that, had a response been delivered differently, could well have rent the universe in two, or more likely started a shooting feud.
One year, around 1963, on a beautiful May Homecoming Sunday, we were headed to church from our home in Graham. It was a thirty minute ride to church each way and afforded us children a chance to catch up on our sleep or play our favorite car ride game of “Stop touching me; Mom she’s touching me.” As we approached the church, our Dad gave us some last minute instructions for the Homecoming meal.
“Kids, listen to me. It would probably be best if you eat only the chicken that your mother brought. And if you want anything else, let your mother get it for you.” Father said this as if he knew a secret that we were not privy to.
“Why?” I asked. For that is just what an eight year old kid is supposed to do: ask why.
“Well” Dad replied, “Some of the ladies don’t use Crisco to cook their food like your mother, especially sister Bessie.” Sister Bessie was an older lady of the church and very faithful in attendance. My suspicion was that she just wanted to keep up with all of the goings on. Her name certainly fit her description as she was a rather round lady, who seemed to always wear a black polka-dot dress and hat that made her look like the Guernsey cow on the milk carton.
I couldn’t just accept that as a final word. Being the sharp, inquisitive young man that I was, I pressed for more information. “Well what does she use?”
My mother, of course, went for the shock factor in the hopes of putting an end to the discussion and replied, “Possum fat and lard.”
“Oooo, yuck!” was the immediate chorus that sang out from my sisters. They performed it with such perfect pitch and timing that any of the church quartets would have committed the sin of envy. But it had the effect on me that Mother desired.
That Sunday, the church was packed; some families even had to share their pews with non-family members. After the sermon, we filed out of the church to the tables that had been constructed under the oaks out back. The ladies of the church all spread their feasts out on the tables. A wide variety of fried chicken, pot roasts - at least I think that it was pot roast - potato salad, green bean casseroles, collard greens, and biscuits of all shapes. The dessert table was filled with cakes and pies of every flavor and color. The cakes and pies seemed to keep switching positions on the table as if someone wanted to ensure that their offering was certainly consumed. It would have been a personal affront for one of the ladies to have to slink back to her car with anything other than an empty serving dish. After everyone had consumed all that they could hold or dare to partake of, everyone began to pack up their serving dishes and head to their cars. At this point, Sister Bessie produced a cake that had yet to be defiled by a cake knife. Walking up to my father, Bessie presented him with the baked concoction of dubious origin and ingredients and said, “Preacher, I made this here cake special for you and your family.”
“Why thank you, Sister,” he said.
Baptists tend to call each other brother and sister a lot. I was leaning toward not letting anybody know that I might be related to some of them. As we loaded up in our station wagon to head home, all of us children jockeyed for positions in the car as far away from that cake as possible. To be honest, I wasn’t so sure that thing was dead yet.
“What are you going to do with that, that thing?” my mother asked.
“I’m not sure,” was Dad’s reply.
As soon as we were out of Orange County and sure that no relative of Sister Bessie might be in the vicinity, my father stopped the car at a gas station. Since it was Sunday, and way back in the 60s when no one ever dared to be open for business on a Sunday, it was a deserted locale. Dad took the cake out of the back of the wagon and scraped it off of the cake plate into a garbage barrel. Then we quickly sped away from the scene of the crime. Each of us kids knew the unspoken rule of a minister’s family was to never speak of what goes on in our family to any of the members of the church, especially this incident.
We eagerly awaited the next Sunday to see how Dad was going to explain the demise of the putrid baked goods. Mother washed the cake plate until it was probably cleaner than it had been since its creation the previous century.
So finally Sunday arrived and as we drove to church, Dad gently reminded us to never speak of “the cake” to anyone.
“If any of you mention what happened to Bessie’s cake, I will take my belt to your bottom until you can’t sit down for a week!” Father could not only preach fire and brimstone, but he could wield it with the belt also.
As the worshippers left after the service that morning, Dad shook hands and spoke with each as they exited the back of the church. As Sister Bessie came through the line, Dad presented her with her cake plate all the while praying that she would say nothing to him. All of us kids and my mother were anxiously waiting to see how he could possibly get out of this without breaking one of the Ten Commandments.
Then Sister Bessie asked, “Preacher, I hope you and the family liked the cake?” We all collectively held our breath waiting for what would undoubtedly be a lie. If Dad told the unvarnished truth at this moment, in front of so many people, the church would likely split over such an insult to someone’s family member. Baptist churches, in fact, have been known to split apart over such weighty differences as the type of toilet paper the church was to buy or someone getting to sing a solo before another person. But those stories are for another time. Anyway, we stood there waiting for the response that very likely would bring about an apocalyptic event or at the least a Biblical plague.
“Sister Bessie, cake like that just doesn’t last long around our house” was Dad’s reply.
From that moment, I realized that there was a way to always tell the truth and still allow everyone to walk away with a smile on their face and morals intact. It was not necessary to explain every action in its most brutal detail. There were tactful ways of extricating yourself and not insulting anyone. Hurting someone’s feelings over an attempt to do good was never going to accomplish anything. Not long after that Sister Bessie passed away and I think that cake recipe was buried with her.
But years later as a grown man, this lesson came back to me. At the time, I was living in an apartment in Burlington and in the apartment beneath me was an older lady that liked to mother me in her own fashion. One day after coming home from work, Mrs. Waters met me on the stairs with one of her homemade spice cakes. Why couldn’t it be vanilla or lemon, maybe chocolate? Not wanting to offend her, I thanked her for it and took it upstairs with me. Later that evening I threw the cake into the trash can and washed off the plate to return.
After a few days I walked downstairs to return the plate. When Mrs. Waters came to the door and took the plate, she asked me “How did you like the spice cake?”
To say the least my mind was scrambling for a response. Then the incident from my childhood came back to me and I blurted out with a smile on my face, “Cake like that doesn’t last long around my house.” She smiled and seemed quite pleased with herself. I don’t know if I was missing something in the delivery or if I returned the plate too soon, but I ended up with a spice cake every other week until I moved out of that apartment four months later.