She had never had a dining room or for that matter, never been in a dining room. A dining room would never have suited Louise in the first place. Her people were common people, but each one precious in Louise’s eyes.
Her large-footed, dark-stained, oak table sat in the middle of her kitchen. A store bought, brass, light fixture suspended from the ceiling, draped her table in light. Tall, ladder back, wooden chairs strong enough to hold a grown man, but gentle enough for a child to climb into, girded her table. The table, Louise’s table, so fondly referred to by her people as the "Eatin' Table;” was scarred with the history of her people. If you were to roll back the red-white checkered table cloth; you could see the stains from her people’s tears of pure joy and heart-breaking sadness alike that had puddled on its surface oh so many times.
The “Eatin’ Table” was always prepared for whatever life was throwing at its visitors. From a scrap or two of cold bacon and a biscuit or maybe a platter of steaming hot, salt n’ peppered fried pork chops; to a full-course southern affair. Many a family, friend and foe alike parked their often weary feet under the edge of that “Eatin’ Table.” Bellied themselves up to the table’s edge with mouths a waterin’ and bared their souls over Louise’s steaming pots and pans filled to their brims with unconditional love. Before one could get their napkin in their laps, Louise would heap their plates full of love and grace. Come one, come all; there were no strangers at Louise’s love affair laid out on her table. The forks, knives and spoons danced in the plates to a southern symphony orchestrated by her secret love language, food.
A language only a few ever have the privilege to be gifted with and even fewer that truly learn to speak with it. A language of love that has bridged the gap as old as time between world travelers of all sorts. Louise knew she had the love language gift of food. She could feel its blessing from every potato she peeled to when she embraced the fragrance of a bubbling hot, peach cobbler resting in her stove oven. From every pone of black iron skillet cornbread to every black-peppered, drop dumplin’; Louise’s love flowed. She knew, oh, how she knew. Louise knew while she watched boy-like smiles grow on the weather-worn faces of grown men just come in from their logging jobs for dinner. Hovering over their plates of Louise’s love like it could possibly be their last meal. She knew while setting a plate and dabbing at tears pooled up on her table that had fallen from a young woman’s cheeks; distraught because she didn’t know what she was gonna do with a husband that drank too much way into the night. Louise knew by mounding up hot roast beef and creamy, brown gravy over fresh, white, loaf bread in a bowl for the local preacher that just happened to be in the neighborhood. She knew she spoke the secret language of love through food when she could heal the scrapes of a grandchild’s bicycle wreck with homemade, batter-dipped corn dogs and a tall glass of Kool-Aid laced with enough pure sugar to heal those scrapes before you got up from her table. She knew just the right amount of love a situation at her table was gonna take, as she spread just enough creamy mayonnaise on that thick-sliced bologna and cheese sandwich served to the stranger that had knocked on her door asking for a cool glass of water on a hot, Tennessee, summer afternoon.
Louise had the revelation of her gift long ago, when she remembered the times that she was certain her cupboard didn’t hold enough food for all those little faces resting their chins on her table. But, through faith and prayer, her cupboard always seemed to bear just enough loaves and fishes for each of life’s seasons. Oh the sheer joy and elation she celebrated as a meal would come together. Watching her dear loved ones stuff their bellies as they gathered round her old, scarred “Eatin’ Table.” Louise collected each and every one of these precious memories and she wouldn’t have traded them for all the monies in the world. Sometimes chatter around her table would rise to a fever-pitch and her heart would overflow with joy as another fried chicken leg got scarfed off a plate and quieted the conversation, if only but for a moment. She took pride in knowing who could appreciate her hand-mashed, lumpy potatoes that drizzled her people’s plates with enough melted, sweet cream butter that they had to use their cornbread just to sop it all up.
The mercy, love and grace trumpeted by Louise's food somehow echoed out from her house on East Hudgens Street. Announcing there was a pile of cornbread flitters and a pot of ham-hocked, pinto beans just waiting to briefly lull you away to food heaven during your lunch hour. Louise’s love hung over her table decorated with so many dishes of food; that you had to stack them on top of one another just to squeeze your plate in for another fill-up. Your soul searching for just a little more of that comfort that tastes so good. The kind of comfort her people were seeking when they would all gather back at her house soon after having listened to a preacher speak the holy King James scripture over the grave of one of hers that had slipped away into eternity just way too soon. Louise spoke to her Father in heaven over kettles of creamy, stewed potatoes swimming in luscious butter. As her tears for the loss of a child mixed with the steam rising from one of her dented, hand-me-down pots on her stove. She prayed that her loved ones gathered around her table would not notice the broken heart she was trying so desperately to hide. So with grace, she would just blame it on the onion.
Louise’s family meals came to be known at all the corners of her people’s existence. Stories about her kitchen and “Eatin’ Table” were told near and far. Her next meal gatherings were anxiously awaited for by her people from Sunday to Sunday. With fightin’ over the leftovers of her love in between.
Louise would take her gift with her in a casserole dish tucked in one arm on her way to a Wednesday night church supper at her beloved First Baptist Church in Algood. Her little ones in tow and wearing shoes that probably fit just a little too tight. But she knew these suppers were a short, God-given reprieve from a long, hard day. A time to enjoy the restoring of her soul with friends and food. Where a good plate of perspective gave her hope for the future.
Some would say that Louise lived a thousand lifetimes during her earthly journey. And most would tend to agree. So if you looked closely; you might catch a glimpse of one of those lifetimes deep in her eyes. Or maybe if you held her hand, you could traverse another one of her lifetimes along a wrinkle in the soft, supple skin of her palm. If she had regrets, only her and the Lord knew about them. That would just be her way. Countless tears she has undoubtedly sown, because she knew how to reap joy for her people.
Lest we all forget, Louise was a young girl made into a woman and at one time most likely had dreams of her own. Dreams to be certain she held close all her life. Places she may have wanted to travel. Things that she may have wanted to experience. Maybe she wanted to feel her toes in the sand and be rinsed clean by the cool ocean waters. It’s quite possible she longed to see the sunrise and sunset someplace other than the mountains of her childhood. Or maybe she longed to be swept off her feet by a prince charming just like in the fairy tales she read as a child. We will unfortunately never know for certain. But, what we can certainly know is, Louise chose different.
Louise embraced her life at every situation. She found contentment when there was no hope. She used pure grit that we couldn’t possibly understand to put away self for her people. Although she lived the vast majority of her life in a house that she never considered her home; she made sure that it was a home to so many. Louise used her love language of food to make a difference in her corner of the world, just this side of heaven. And to beat all, she passed her worn out pots and pans full of love, grace, mercy and wisdom along to her people. I’m just not certain which ones of them fully understand and have embraced this precious gift. Only time may tell…