by Luisa Kay Reyes
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound . . .” were the strains of music the few of us still present at the yearly homecoming at Old Union Baptist Church tried to sing, with only about two or three of us able to sing any of the verses past the first one. However, as we looked around at the silent church building and the largely empty tables lining the church cemetery, it was clear this tradition was fading into the realm of memory. And our attempt at singing the classic hymn was the best way for us to submit a tribute to the old country church.
Traditions come and go. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, depending on who is speaking. And in this particular case, I was glad that we had experienced the rural Southern tradition of all-day singings and dinner on the grounds.
For while we were in college at Judson and the University of Alabama in the latter part of the 1990s, after having lived in many different states and even in a few different countries such as Mexico and Brazil, we were considered the international ones in our college church group. After all, we sang opera arias at our parties for our fellow collegians and between the two of us, my brother and I, we spoke five languages including Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Latin, with ease. We didn’t hunt and fish, and I struggled with comprehending what a first down was in college football, so to our Southern friends, we were the least Alabamian a person could get.
At the same time, to our Northern friends in Ohio, we were practically Gone With the Wind’s Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. It was mind-boggling to all who made our acquaintance and yet, completely confusing, albeit natural to the two of us. After all, we were born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and had grown up accompanying our mother during every Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation to interview a lovely and spirited former Miss Georgia, who lived past where the paved road ended. And the charming Miss Lena was a childhood favorite of all of our elderly shirt-tail kinfolk, to sit for hours while our Mother gathered the oral histories of our Confederate ancestors who were with the 44th Alabama Infantry and buried at Camp Chase. With that kind of pedigree, one would think the matter of our Southern citizenship would be settled; however, since we had also lived in México City during our early childhood in the 1980s, we were thrilled when we toured the Westervelt Warner Museum of Early American Art in Tuscaloosa and spotted some microscopic, yet, traditionally dressed Mexicans in one of the paintings— much to the bewilderment of the docent who didn’t understand the source of our glee. While perhaps equally bewildered, our curious college friends soon learned to take this duality of ours in stride, especially on Sunday mornings. Then we introduced them to dinner on the grounds.
As the name implies, food and plenty of it is involved in dinner on the grounds. So it took very little prodding from my brother to convince our always-ready-for-a-good-and-inexpensive-meal university pals, to join us for a Sunday morning drive down to the Talladega National Forest. With the addresses of our final destination unknown and the directions to get there too vague to give someone who had never ventured down past the outer edges of the city, our patient and hungry friends would agree to meet us at our house. A group of six of us could climb into the same car and drive down together. This would inevitably lead to them undergoing a series of questions from our Mother about where they grew up and where their parents grew up, as she would try to ascertain why, as her linguistically trained ears detected, they didn’t have a Southern accent.
Time and time again, our mother would be surprised to find out that our friends had the history, heritage, and bloodlines of true Southerners. But, since people nowadays grow up with commercial media and other influences on their speech patterns, she begrudgingly learned to accept that some of our friends weren’t fibbing— they really were Southern . . . just with a markedly fainter drawl than our dear Miss Georgia.
Once we turned right into the national forest, the roads would leave their paved cousins behind and yield to their natural state of pure red dirt. Although, sometimes the pure red dirt was mixed with pure red mud. And since we would be driving through the forest, it is tempting to say that we enjoyed the lush greenery of the pastoral countryside; however, the reality is that most of the time we didn’t really know what color the leaves on the trees were. As the dust from the red dirt roads covered most of the visible foliage, it rendered their color bland and imperceptible. Nonetheless, we would just keep driving down a piece, then turn left where it felt right. There were no street signs or markers for the turn, and nobody over the years had ever sat down to figure out the mileage from the turn off the highway, to the turn past the bushes that the old folks called Keaton’s Corner, to the left turn up the hill. But it felt right to turn left there, and it usually was.
Once we made our way up the hill, we would come to a white clapboard country church that by this time felt like a welcome beacon of civilization. Usually, by the time we arrived at this Old Union Baptist Church, it was already surrounded by about two-hundred people and the strains of the shape-note singing could be heard through the car windows. The strains of music that sounded . . . better from far away. Far, far, away as the men leaning on their pickup trucks parked along the farthest edges of the clearing that was now a makeshift parking lot, would attest to.
Undaunted, we would park our cars, while our college friends would look around in amazement. While this was a staple of our childhood, this was their first time experiencing such a Southern tradition. Soon, their gazes would be reeled in as we’d be pressed to participate in the singing, since most of the singers were thrilled to see some “young folk” possibly joining their ranks. However, our contribution was, at best, minimal. Learning to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano in high school didn’t prepare us for the triangles and squares that make up shape-note singing. (Don’t ask me how it works, I still don’t know.) Nonetheless, we’d sing just long enough to allow us to be welcome, to what us eager college students considered to be the main draw of the day, the dinner part of the dinner on the grounds.
Out of habit, the morning singing, which usually began at nine or ten, came to a close to allow for the midday meal, my brother and I would rush out to help the older ladies set up their tablecloths and dishes along the long rows of cement tables just outside of the sanctuary, usually with an ant hill or two. And carefully, we would look to see which sweet potato casseroles looked like they’d be the best ones to eat first and then which green beans with bacon we could eat afterwards, to counteract the sweetness of our dessert first indulgence. For our college friends – and yes, us, as well – were happy that we didn’t have to worry about getting seconds or even thirds. As it would be traumatic to leave a dish uncleaned and have the elderly ladies thinking they were losing their cooking skills.
Once the blessing thanking The Good Lord for everyone’s presence and the delicious dinner was said, we would get in line and heap spoonful upon spoonful of fried okra and tomatoes, green beans with bacon, turnip greens with bacon, and lima beans – sometimes with bacon, too – upon our plates and proceed to happily find the best spot for us to indulge in our plates full of southern vittles. With tradition having long before established which families ate at which tables, it was easy for us to find our place along the gray cement tables that were always reserved for us and start eating and eating away.
We were usually too occupied with our appetites to join in the conversation very much, but we’d overhear the inevitable discussion about family genealogy and how far back people were able to trace the Ward family now. Could anybody link them to the Ward who was a member of the House of Burgesses and helped save the Jamestown colony from starving? Was there a link between our Wards and the prominent ones in England who married into royalty? Looking around at our rural surroundings, it didn’t seem very likely. But everybody brightened up at the prospect of such a connection, even so.
Before too long, we would be treated to the cemetery tour. Yes, every dinner on the grounds involves a cemetery. Which although littered with dormant headstones, often loosens the tongues of some of the elderly folk who take it upon themselves to surprise us with the tales of the times gone by. Tales including peddlers who were seen no more after entering the area and headstrong women who eloped against their parents’ wishes. For somehow, it isn’t the same to eat outside without the weathered and sometimes illegible headstones of those who’ve gone before, reminding us that as tasty as it is, the food we were now eating, wouldn’t sustain us forever.
Finally, after the hour-long break from the singing that is traditionally allotted for the dinner came to a close, we helped clear out the empty dishes from the table and sometimes, even make a feeble attempt at helping out with the afternoon singing. Truth to be told, our paltry aid hardly compensated for the hearty meal we’d just eaten. Nonetheless, the elderly folk appreciated our gesture, driving the distance from the college And we would make plans to come to the next dinner on the grounds. For yes, without fail, our esurient college friends would want to join us again.