Well, this is our last full day here in Starhill. We’ve had a marvelous time. Ruthie has been strong enough to spend time with my kids, and they’ve all had a great time playing with their cousins. It’s hot as blazes here, but we all went fishing on a neighbor’s pond this morning, and my city children caught a bunch of small bream, which delighted them.
I’ve had a great time eating fresh tomatoes and other vegetables from my dad’s garden. When I was visiting our pals David and Edie Varnado — more on that visit in a sec — at Camp Topisaw in Mississippi, I looked into David’s copy of “Real Cajun,” New Orleans chef Donald Link’s cookbook. I saw a simple recipe for a savory pie using stuff we already had at Mama’s house. I cooked two of them the next day, and they were a huge hit here. I present that recipe to you here, from memory:

1 pre-baked pie crust
fresh sliced tomatoes
fresh sliced onions
pepper jack cheese
12 oz. cooked bacon, crumbled
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slice tomatoes, arrange in layer on pie crust, then season with salt and pepper. Top with layer of thin-sliced onions. Repeat. Grate a good layer of cheese on top, then sprinkle with crumbled bacon. Bake for 25 minutes. Let cool thoroughly before serving.

I tell you, depending on how fresh your tomatoes are, this is terrific stuff. I found the pies a tad watery from the tomatoes, but I think I didn’t let them cool enough before eating. Everybody here thought they were terrific. I think when we start getting fresh tomatoes in Philly, I’m going to alter the recipe to use a plain white cheese (not pepper jack), and to add dried rosemary and thyme, to make it Provencal. Anyway, there’s a good, cheap and easy summer recipe for you. Can’t wait to buy Link’s cookbook.
Our short trip to the McComb, Miss., area to visit the Varnados at their Camp Topisaw was great fun. We got to see the cottage where Edie makes her terrific soap (which you can order online by following that link), and explored the gorgeous Rose Gate house next door, which the Varnados rent out to guests who want a woodsy getaway. After a dip in Topisaw Creek, we dried off and went to Vespers at McComb’s Christ the Saviour Orthodox church. There was so much spiritual light in that little parish, if I can say so, and it was a kick to meet Fr. Benedict Crawford and Matushka Anna, who comments frequently on this blog. Fr. Benedict and I are both former Catholics who have a fondness for monasticism. If you live in southern Mississippi and have any curiosity about Orthodoxy, by all means visit this wonderful parish.

Small Southern town life can be so restorative to one’s soul. They aren’t paradise — everybody in St. Francisville is still reeling from the murder of a child here a couple of weeks ago — but things like that do not define this town, nto by a long shot. I was over at Ruthie’s a short while ago when there was a knock at the door. A woman they didn’t know brought them a box full of prepared food for lunch. There’s an ongoing list of local folks who have signed up to cook for Ruthie and her family, to spare her the work of having to prepare meals while she’s battling cancer. Turns out this lady and her family just moved to town. She heard about Ruthie’s situation, and signed up for the list. In the box of food, she included a hand-written note of encouragement, promising prayers and saying that she hopes to meet Ruthie one day (I think Ruthie did go to the door to say hello). It’s just amazing, how good people are being to my family.
James T., a fellow I grew up with, has worked most of his adult life at the War Veterans’ Home, but had a religious conversion at some point, and pastors a small country Pentecostal church in the next town over. When he heard about Ruthie’s situation, he started coming by to pray with her and for her. Ruthie’s so grateful for that. James even raised $300 from his tiny congregation for her. These folks don’t have a lot, but they’re sharing what they have. It’ll get to you if you think about it.
Yesterday, Father’s Day, I was standing in the kitchen making the tomato pies when James came in the back door. I hadn’t seen him since we were kids. He looks well, and it was great to see him again. His father died a month or so ago, and he’d brought his ailing mother out to visit the grave, which is in a cemetery at the end of our road. James swung by to say hello before they drove on. It was an unexpected treat. James’s mother sat in the car; I was given to understand that she’s very frail and sick, and suffers to some degree from dementia. When James got ready to go, my mother, who had been outside talking to Miss C., James’s mom, came back inside crying.
After James and his mother left, Mama sat down at the kitchen table and cried. She said Miss C. is in a bad way, and it hurts her (Mama) to see her old friend so sick and broken. Listening to Mama talk about her, I thought about what a hard, hard life Miss. C. had had. She was born into a Cajun sharecropping family, and married early. She never learned how to read, and knew nothing but back-breaking work in the hot Louisiana sun, all her life. I haven’t seen her since we were children, but I remember her skin was the color and texture of leather. Summer in and summer out, she worked her fields by the modest cabin where she and her husband and son James lived. She had rough manners, and a lot of people around here looked down on her. Not my mother. I recall being at the baseball park (James and I played Dixie Youth summer ball together), and my mom sometimes being the only woman who would talk to Miss C. Mama made a special effort to treat her kindly, because, as Mama would explain, it hurts to be left out.
In the summer, Miss C. and her husband would bring fat, sweet watermelons to us, and at Christmastime, Mama took presents over to them. Mama grew up very poor, and remembered well what it was like to want. She told me on this trip that when she was six years old, she had to walk a mile to school, past a sawmill, all alone. If it rained, she had to cover her head with a newspaper, if they had one, because her family couldn’t afford an umbrella. She spent more than one winter without a coat. They were that poor. My mother is a naturally compassionate woman, but I’m sure that the empathy she’s always had for underdogs, and for the marginalized and excluded folks comes from her own childhood. I remember as a boy being frustrated with the way she would do on holidays, spending lots of time putting together little gift bags of candies for each child on the school bus she drove. She shut me up by telling me once that for some of the children that rode her bus, this little gift bag was one of the only things they were going to get to celebrate the holiday.
Mama knew childhood poverty, and remembered its humiliations.
Anyway, on Sunday morning, Mama sat at the table crying softly over her friend, Miss C. She said that Miss. C. was struggling through her sickness to talk, and kept patting the tops of her thighs, saying, “Christmas! Christmas!” Mama realized that she had given Miss C. those pants for Christmas one year, and Miss C. was trying to let her know that she remembered.
“I kissed my fingers, then leaned into the car window and touched them to her forehead,” Mama told me. “I told her that I loved her. She kissed her fingers, reached through the window and touched my forehead, and said, ‘I love you, Miss Dorothy.'”
Mama broke up, and excused herself. I sat there with Julie, and I lost it too. I told Julie, “That lady [Miss C.] has had an unbelievably hard life, and my mother is one of the only people in this world who treated her with dignity and compassion. That’s my Mama.”
And it is. She wouldn’t know how to be any other way. I shared that story with Ruthie this morning, and she told me that she learned the wisdom of refusing to return cruelty with meanness from our mother. “Don’t you remember, Rod, the stories about how [various older family members, now dead] would be so nasty to Mama, trying to put her down and make her feel like dirt?” said Ruthie. “She never fought back, and she kept doing nice things for them when they needed it.”
Ruthie’s right. I wish I could be more like our mother in that way.
As I said, today is our last day here, and the kids are trying to get all the time in with Aunt Ruthie and the cousins as they can. I’m here in my mom and dad’s house trying to print out for Ruthie all the blog entries I’ve done about her, and all the comments. She wants them collected. They comfort her. You all have been so kind to her, with your prayers and wishes. Whatever is to come for Ruthie and our family the rest of this year, I’m grateful for this week we’ve had down here. I do fear, though, for our little Lucas when we leave. He’s six, and by far the most emotional of our children. He’s also especially close to Ruthie. The other morning, Lucas woke up early here at my mom and dad’s place, put on his shoes, ran across the wet grass, let himself into Ruthie’s house, and climbed into the bed with her. I imagine that little boy’s blond hair bobbing as he ran lickety-split across the field to get to his aunt, for whom he prays every night back home, and who is always on his mind. Every night — I mean every night — Julie and I have to answer his questions about cancer (they are always the same ones), and sometimes hear his ideas for saving Aunt Ruthie from the disease. Leaving tomorrow is going to be especially hard on him. Love always is.
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