"It feels good to eat with people when you're always having to eat alone," my grandmother's friend said at the Columbia, Mississippi Catholic church's monthly senior citizens' potluck. I didn't expect this from her, a lively New Orleans native who ran in at the last minute and brought her fried chicken, jittery energy, and ebullient commentary. But she's right: I love to eat, but it's just not as satisfying to eat by myself.
We go to Columbia, Mississippi because my grandmother, 82, and grandfather, 89, aren't able to travel anymore. They used to drive up to Memphis, no problem, but now it is iffy whether they should even be driving to Hattiesburg, twenty minutes away from their house, so driving for five-and-a-half hours is out of the question. For me, nervous as all get out about even lesser dangers, to be riding in the back of the Buick with my grandfather at the wheel is a major feat, but he is so gentle and funny and kind that I would sooner die if I offended him in any way. So we go places if everyone's up for it, and we visit their surprisingly vast and tightly-knit network of friends and relatives.
Even so, Columbia is small. I mean, it is tiny. It is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. People honk if they see us driving by and wave if they're sitting on the porch. My grandmother makes it her business to know what is going on with everyone, and my great-aunt writes the 'out and about' column in the local paper. (We always get a mention the week after we visit.) My mom and I walked around the Main Street square by the courthouse -- economy be damned, all the spaces were open and bustling, because everyone in this very small town has bought back into the gospel of going local -- and in the jewelry store, we talked to a lady my mom knew growing up, and I snagged a ridiculously ruffled summer dress at Berlon's Friendly Store, where my mom shopped when she was a child. Unable to identify the blond working at the clothing/Merle Norman store, church annuals are consulted and many phone calls are made, and we finally unravel the mystery of which Davis the clerk actually is after a forty-five-minute investigation.
Along with knowing who's related to who, food in Columbia is serious business. Basically, life there revolves around church, cooking, and family, just like it used to. My grandparents' across-the-street neighbors eat all their meals outside and hang out together all day because, according to my grandfather, that's how they do everyday life in Southern Louisiana, and after Katrina, these neighbors are continuing the tradition in Columbia. Now this was really cute when we arrived, seeing the kids play in an inflatable pool so large that it touched both sides of the driveway as they listen to all-1950's songs on the radio, but not so adorable late at night when I am trying to sleep. But this family eats their breakfast at tables in the carport and goes on through lunch and dinner, together, so it kind of made me dream about doing the same.
The day after we arrived, there is absolute quiet the potluck in a cavernous room at the church and then an explosion of energy as these sensible Southern ladies, who outnumber the men in attendance three-to-one, arrive with their dishes. Everyone seems to have collapsible quilted covers that they tie around their containers in order to make them easier to carry and to keep the contents warm or chilled. I feel so hungry as the cozies are removed; my grandparents never will succumb to the idea of supper in the evening; dinner happens at noon, and then they might have a piece of blueberry pie or pound cake before bed, but that's it. I woke up ravenous and I eye the dishes as they are set out: salads and entrées on the countertop, copious desserts on the side table.
We have sweet corn casserole, sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, fried chicken, broiled chicken, red beans and rice, garlic bread soaked with butter, baked beans, vinegary bean-and-vegetable salad, fruit salad slathered in whipped cream, baked spaghetti, and I think there's more, but that's basically all I can fit on my drooping styrofoam plate. Of course, we have a jar of sweet tea that is labeled with masking tape and a jar of unsweetened tea that is not marked. Everyone eats with pleasure -- the food is amazing since it was made by people who have worked on their home cooking all of their long lives, but I also notice how thrilled everyone is to be visiting and talking and laughing. I sit by my grandmother because I know from years past at similar events that one of her greatest pleasures in life is to order me to do her bidding in front of her friends so that she can display to her many friends how obedient and thoughtful her grandchild is. Out of practice, though, I mess up her tea order at first, which greatly annoys her, but then I save fact by fetching extra napkins, more tea, and then a brownie at her request. I have always been a fast eater -- my aunt calls me the little wolverine -- so already finished with my plate, I don't mind getting up and down for her at all. My mother, however, can't stop giggling as she watches me hard at work.
This revolving group meets every second Wednesday of the month, and I bet they wished it was more often. The eighty-year-old man sitting next to me can't hear but we repeat our conversations and questions for him until he does. There is much talk about who is seriously ailing -- one triple bypass happens the day after we eat -- and who is not able enough to come. There are prayers for them led during grace, and there are post-funeral thank-you letters passed around for everyone to read. I learn that even those who have decided to attend the Episcopalian church down the way still come back for the fellowship at the potluck.
And all of this does make me think. My grandparents, who moved to Columbia, the big city, after living for years in even-tinier Foxworth, Mississippi, are lucky, being one of the only couples in attendance. They have attended separate churches all their lives since my grandmother is a staunch Catholic and my grandfather is an easygoing Baptist. But other than that, they are intertwined in ways that I cannot even imagine. They believe the same things, they share the same opinions, they know all the same people, and they spend most of their time with each other. "It feels good to eat with people when you're always having to eat alone" rings true to me. I loved getting to go to the potluck with them and see how important it was to everyone. Now that I'm home, I do worry about what's going to happen when we lose them. I dread the tearful five-and-a-half-hour drive when it happens. But for a minute there, I was able to see them happy, surrounded by friends and comforting food, and to know that they are not alone.