The Soup Kitchens

I write about Alabama with calm, but I have never been truly calm inside, writing about Alabama. Like about my great aunt. I didn’t “see” her until I was in my 20s. Until then I didn’t see much at all of one side of life. I write about her and her sister — my grandmother — and make sure to note at the top: ‘They rocked me until my feet drug the ground’ and managed to get me to bed without waking me up. But I was being rocked because I could not sleep and because I would have bad dreams and shake and cry. But that’s another story.

I learned there were multiple sides in the early 1960s but I did not connect the dots about bigotry and hate as I learned to do later, and still am learning. I was blessed in a cursed life to have multiple influences in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. I left in my 20s but took all the scars of the town with me. Like the teacher on South Park whose mother-in-law was from Alabama, he described her as being from the 7th level of hell. Some level. Don’t quote me. When I heard that, I thought I could agree.

But in the end, it is about the same anywhere in the world. One bunch of bigots can’t stand another bunch of bigots, with another bunch of love-everybody bots in-between, trying to keep their noses above water and survive.

“…not right in the head…’, was how the South of my father would describe me. Darn tootin’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The story was told a thousand times, if it was told once. I sometimes get a kicked-in-the-chest feeling, just remembering some of the horror stories that were hashed over with the details of our shared family history. Stories of father’s side and mother’s side. Stories that told me I did not have to worry about my mother’s side, her blood. I had plenty of good blood ancestry from my father’s side – well, at least on my father’s mother’s side.

I didn’t have to imagine much as the stories were told; I could see the places talked about because we still visited them in the countryside through the years – all of us. From birth until I was the one driving.

Harry died and I left the county and did not return for several years, did not return to live for a couple of decades.

I want to dig up the back side of that cemetery lot, have the DNA tested of whatever poor person was hidden back there, and see if amends can be made. The family law is written for that cemetery lot: no more burials – none allowed, on the entire back side of the plot with 8 “empty” gravesites.

Family tales told until dawn over coffee and cheese, Royal Cup coffee at that. And that is another story. A childhood full of drives starting from before dawn and returning home late into the night, having all day to trek around the family locations. Visits to counties and states where dead people once lived. Graveyards and family stories of remembered people. Good talkers and they liked to talk.

Cleaning graves and talking tales of family history

Wonderful people, people who nurtured me, who loved me and took care of me – up to a point. Then there was the reality of the bigots who did not practice what they preached, not even toward me, when I took a different path.

Harry was crazy. That was that. That was said and described. He actually included the Black people of the community when people gathered together to share food – like a food bank, like a 1930s-style soup kitchen. (Black people was not the term used when I was growing up, the term used was NOT the N word, not in my home. But the term Black did not come into use until later. None of these folks would say or tolerate the N word or any bad language — as a rule, mind you, as a rule.)

Of course he was crazy, Harry. That was crazy that he would invite all the people of the community. He was not perfect either, but the only answer to me was that everyone had to be included in sharing food, so he did. And, he added, the Black people brought more food than the whites anyway. My memories are not perfect about what all he said.

But the story of Harry, and the food was all about crazy. It would begin with Harry could have stopped the pawnbroker from selling Harford Farr’s rings and then he made a terrible mistake – he shared food.

Harry lost his day work, most of it. He was an accountant, bookkeeper, but his life was his church and he was the pastor of this little white board church in Maylene. One person and family after another turned from being his friend, after all Harry was crazy. He did collapse, it seems. I know it was said that his asthma often had him choking and blue. This might be because he went back to work in the steel plant., or tried to. Even the offices and all the air around the plant was filled with coal dust and more.

The tale would continue and expand: He came from a long line of crazies. I might wonder now if someone was describing Quakers when describing the Knights. East Tennessee and they stood with the Union in the American Civil War. Of course they were crazy as bats.

Save me from these people – such dual lives and faces. These people who I grew up emulating and then the stories finally begin to sink in.

Poor Harry.

Being tucked into a safe bed, warmed with a hot water bottle. Being rocked until my feet drug the ground.

I was devastated when I saw the woman in front of me breaking her best china because I did not know I could not serve the maid a plate of food on the good dishes. Not on any dishes, as a matter of fact.

I was sick, stunned, shocked when she flung open the door under the sink where the garbage bin was kept. There, in a clear baggie, like a men’s dry cleaners small shirt baggie, was a well used aluminum pie plate, and an old knife, fork and spoon. I was informed in no uncertain terms, that was what the maid Annie ate off of and she never had sat at her kitchen table, when Annie did eat, she would sit out on the back porch on the steps – winter or summer.

And she called Harry crazy.

I think I was about middle 20s, I didn’t last anywhere around home much longer. Go, anywhere, anywhere but there. Anyone but them.

In some ways my beloved mother was no better because she became such a collaborator. She would fuss at me, that I needed to go along to get along. But she knew I could not. She felt she had no option but to find a permanent roof over her and my half-brother’s head and try not to die during the years of beatings and hope her son did not die either, but they both came close.

But in the day, in the days of hope, we had St George Church and they had love for all and worked and shared to bring support to all people, and this came to me with my mother’s new family, my step family. The blessed Father Raya worked to spread help to the entire community and it spread over onto us. It was saving grace.

My life was the mixed marriage, a Catholic with a Protestant and the overbearing Protestant folks who would remind me my mother was going to hell, she was a Catholic. But Harry would dry my tears and tell me all of the folks have their place in heaven including my Catholic mother.

And someone called Harry crazy?

The evil of evil words that travel through time and stigmatize people, not just unfairly but destructively. It becomes imposed on the next generation and the next after that.

Gossip destroying lives, and livelihoods. Harry’s mother who would cry for her late husband and for her only son’s misfortune. A man pinned, like a wiggling butterfly by his wife’s relatives to be tormented because he did not turn out to be what the in-laws called acceptable. The sister played the piano and organ at the theaters. Everything was questionable and the stories grew over time. Words.

Wonderful memories of Harry preaching. Even through to my day, he was still preaching. He worked the rescue missions of Birmingham, the shelters, the soup kitchens and would deliver the service before the evening meal. He made these visits, when someone needed time off, and he was part of a rotation of ministers who would give their time.

He preached glories and joy and love, and to reach for love, and be, and want love. Yes, he would end with, we all need to come to the lord, and there is hell if you don’t. He would always make an invitation, ending a sermon, to come up to pray, to get back into the light, and love of G-d. He never judged, he shook hands, he sat, broke bread and ate with these men passing through.


I love this picture. Standing on the garbage can, for an outside photo with no flash. My soapbox lives on to today.

A much too long memory of the times.

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