Sunday, February 24, 2008
Giving People a New History
It’s taken a while for my week to settle down enough for my muse to visit. It has been a busy and hard week but I finally arrived at this glorious and peaceful Sunday morning. I sit with the best breakfast you can have: coffee and a box of Russell Stover dark chocolates. The chocolate is in honor of my church’s 12th annual Womens Retreat held this weekend, the first one I’ve ever missed. They have the most marvelous retreat which always includes a whole table of chocolate and snacks in addition to the two massage therapists they invite. Most of the important women in my life will be there this weekend and it’s nice to know they are praying for me.
One of my plans for my stay in Pearlington is to visit each of the churches in town. I think there are about six so that should be fairly easy. Today I’m going to the Greater Mt Zion AME church. And they don’t start until 2 in the afternoon. Much better than the First Methodist who surprised me with an 8am service that was over before I got there.
One of the many wonderful things about spending four months in a disaster recovery camp is the cool people you get to hang around with. Like going on a retreat with women I’ve known and loved for thirty years, this camp pre-selects the people I spend my time with. They are invariably an easy going and loving bunch of folks. They’re people with not only good intentions but a common sense approach. I would risk the estimate that over half of the volunteers we get now are repeat visitors to Katrina recovery. And most of them are returning to Pearlington because they love these people as much as I do. This makes it easy to slip into a comfortable routine and not waste a lot of time.
By the time the three groups left camp yesterday morning I knew I would miss them and hoped I’d see them all again. One angel had heard me say I wished for more flowers in camp and when I woke up yesterday morning we had pots of pansies all over the camp. One team bought me a bouquet of cut flowers. I think this was in apology for making fun of the way I talk, which, obviously I don’t think I do, but I’ll take the flowers anyway.
The crowning glory to our time together was Friday night when the two teams from Pennsylvania and New York (Georgia went home that morning) went out to dinner to celebrate the week. We travelled in a caravan of about four vehicles, which can be a laugh in itself. The first place we went was too crowded and had an hour’s wait so we got back on the road. Trying to get 24 people organized can be a process and it had taken longer than expected to gather and leave camp so we were starved by this time. Friendly grumblings went around and we settled on just about the first thing we saw that wasn’t a national fast food chain.
It was BB’s BBQ Stand. The “B” stands for the Brooks family. As a native Texan, I can be picky about my barbecue. This place had two of my three requirements for decent ‘que. Good barbecue should have: first, a pile of wood stacked outside and, second, the smell of smoke when you roll your window down. If there’s no wood, there’s no smoke and without smoke, it’s just a roast with fancy ketchup. This place didn’t have my third criteria: namely, that I don’t trust a barbecue restaurant that is too clean. Good barbecue usually creates a layer of smoke that has laquered the tables and chairs like fine varnish. This tells me they’ve been in business a long time and many others before me have trusted them with their hunger.
The restaurant has not achieved the smoke veneer simply because it was destroyed by the hurricane and only recently rebuilt. Once we got inside we found a family-owned business with two generations running the place. Oh, yeah, they had a history of good barbecue.
We were the only customers in the place and found out they were just about to close when our cars drove up and emptied our crowd but they welcomed us in. After a great meal we stayed to visit and hear their Katrina story. I never got their first names but the mother told of her preparations when she saw they would have to end up swimming for their lives. She made sure her adult sons all had leather belts on and divided them up, pairing the stronger swimmers with the ones who she knew would need help; “You go with him, you go with him. Hold on to each other’s belts and don’t let go.” She spoke of how they had been slowly rebuilding their business. The walls are bare right now but they want to decorate with pictures of their customers.
Every team, every week, ends up being my favorite. We had three different groups last week, working on about eight houses, all at different stages and with different challenges. The work ran the gamut from a simple and straight-forward drywall job to almost rebuilding a 105 year-old house that most people had recommended bulldozing.
But the house had been part of this young mother’s family history and she couldn’t give it up. So the Baptists came and worked one week and we worked on it last week. (Many times different groups will work on the same house. And it’s common for a single house to have had four or five groups rebuilding it by the time it’s finished.)
Pay Day was Thursday night again, Neighbor Night. Chloe sang for us, as has become our tradition. This time I had bought a Hannah Montana CD so I was ready with her music. She’s now gained enough command of her “stage” that she had us move tables around to give her more room.
The Pennsylvania team brought Phyllis with them-- a lady with vast camp cooking experience who could turn the most ordinary of ingredients into fine cuisine. And she pulled out all the stops for Neighbor Night. After dinner and introductions she asked for time to speak. She told how she had asked one of the homeowners what she missed most of the many things Katrina took away. Beverly said it was a quilt she had loved for years. What only God knew was Phyllis’ habit of always traveling with things to give away; coats, toys and, for this trip, a quilt.
As she started speaking about a quilting friend and some of the traditions among quilters, other women teared up. Phyllis’ friend died of breast cancer. And the tradition among quilters is that when one of them dies, the others take her quilting fabric and continue for her, thus insuring that the fabric never goes unused or discarded.
Phyllis said this friend had left behind a small box of fabric but it contained enough fabric to yield seven quilts so far and they still have fabric left. Even the men were in tears by this time. The friend who had died left behind a continuing ministry.
When Phyllis presented Beverly with the quilt she had packed before back in Pennslyvania not knowing what she would do with it, I realized it matched Beverly's house perfectly.
It reminded me of another family from a Baptist church in northern Mississippi who gave Miss Henrietta their antique bed frame that had been in the family for a couple of generations. There is no way we can give Katrina Survivors their past back. But sometimes we can give them things that come with their own special history. And, with the Brooks family, we’re building a new history to replace the old one.