Friday, March 15, 2019

Put On the Grits!

John and Carrie Chesser Kennedy 

(This essay was originally published in my book Faith Breezes.  
I share it here in honor of the 100th anniversary 
of Vero Beach, Florida 1919 - 2019.)

Few people in Indian River County would recognize the name Carrie Kennedy.  They might know her sons, Thomas and Purnell.  But the lady who lived most of her life in the white frame house on the road that led down to the river passed this way leaving few footprints in the Florida sand.

To me, she was Mema Carrie, and she was unforgettable - nothing short of amazing.  She was a Florida pioneer because she had to be.

It was about 1910 when she and her brother traveled to Florida from their birthplace on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a spit of land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.  The climate there was making her sick - the doctors told her parents when she was a young teenager that if she didn't get to a better climate, she likely would not survive to adulthood.

So her family arranged for her to live with an uncle in Florida.  Florida at that time was mostly sandspurs, palmettos and mosquitoes, but its climate would be a bit kinder to her asthma.  The fact that she lived 65 years would have amazed those doctors.  And not only did she live, she married my grandfather and gave birth to six children,  five of whom survived to lead full adult lives.

A vision of what must have been the saddest, most difficult time in her life came to me as I read the cold hard facts of her life on a genealogy chart.  Comparing the dates of the births of her babies and then noting the death date of her one child that died, I realized that she had given birth to a daughter just about six weeks prior to the death of Johnny, her firstborn.  Imagine dealing with the demands and discomforts of recovering from birth and nursing a newborn, caring for another healthy toddler, and mothering a sick little boy in his final days.  The clash of emotions between joy and grief must have been unbearable.  How do you deal with such emotional highs and lows when your own health is so fragile?

On her birthday in 1929, as the horror of the Great Depression began to grip the country, her husband died.  She was left with five offspring ranging in age from 14 down to 7.  They had the house they lived in, 20 acres of grapefruit and the fish in the nearby Indian River.  Her oldest son, Thomas, quit school at 14 to support the family.

I'm told that whenever there was a crisis, her first response was to start a pot of grits cooking on the stove.  Whatever was happening, her family would need to eat.  Those grits were a staple in her household and a symbol of practicality with which she approached life.  They accompanied the many pans of fish her sons brought home from the river.

The family's very survival depended on those fish.  The tale goes that when the boys reached a certain spot on the road, they would begin to yell for their sisters and mama.  It was the signal for the women to start heating the grease that would fry the fish for supper.  If they had enough cornmeal, there would be hushpuppies on the side.  As a child, I would get a glimpse of those days when I watched my father cleaning fish for our own family's supper table.  As he deftly scraped away the scales and removed the innards, he must have been remembering the many times he did that same thing as a young boy.  

Some struggling families received government assistance during those lean Depression years.  As my father remembered, Mema Carrie was told they were ineligible because they had a grove.  A grove producing grapefruit that nobody had money to buy.  It was a bitter memory.

A widow living with children in the sparsely-developed Florida in the 1930s had to be tough, able to stand up for herself.  Carrie was.  Circumstances finally allowed the purchase of a car which took her and the kids to town...when there was enough money for gas, that is.  The story goes that one day, the family realized that their gas was disappearing.  As they sat listening one dark night, they heard stealthy noises in the vicinity of the car.  Mema Carrie picked up her rifle, cracked the back door and opened fire.  The gas thefts ceased - and some days later, a man showed up in the nearby village with buckshot in his leg.

Her life was so full of losses and hard times that she must have stirred up many pots of grits.  But the memories I have of her, as her oldest grandchild, are of a pleasant lady.  I remember a self-controlled woman who sang the old hymns of the church as she went about her daily chores.  From the songs she sang, I know she was a woman of faith who appreciated the natural world around her.  She could grow anything and especially enjoyed working with her rosebushes.  When I was four and five years old and my parents were starting the family grove business, I often spent whole days with her.  I would stand beside her and watch as she carefully made the cuts in the rose stems, placed the bud inside and wrapped it with cloth.  I could walk with her and pick up the avocadoes that had fallen from the tree in the back yard.  I could listen to her speak lovingly of that faraway place of her birth called the Eastern Shore.

Only later did I realize what a gift that time was to my life!  The atmosphere she created in her home was one of sweet peace and laughter.  The Lord lifted her head and she faced each new day armed with resolve.  Her attitude was simple: she would do what she had to do.  Sick or well, she would deal with it, with God's help and a pot of grits.

How has your family coped with the challenges of life?  What stories or memories sustain and inspire you?  Think of times when the Lord has lifted your head. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A Time Remembered...the Bridge to the Beach

"Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving.
What you have caught on film is captured forever...It remembers
little things, long after you have forgotten everything."
                - Aaron Siskind

I love this picture.  Let me tell you about it.

This is the road that took us to the beach when I was a little girl.  We lived on the mainland and the beach was on the other side of the barrier island that skirts our section of the Florida coast.  My mother loved the beach so we crossed this bridge often.  Mama made it a point to listen to the radio in the morning so we could make it to the beach at low tide.  She often told me about how she and her friends would ride their bicycles across the bridge to the beach when they were teenagers.  It was truly her happy place.

Others may look at this picture and see simply a wooden bridge with a curve in the middle.  Maybe you see the boards.  I hear the boards.  I hear the clatter of the car tires rolling over each one with a deep rumbling sound.  I feel the bumpety bump of the slats that may look smooth but they weren't.

The air was always salty and the breeze ruffled our hair as we drove along.  Since our cars had no air conditioning, in summer our windows were always open to catch whatever outside air was available.  When it was hot, the sun beat down on those planks and the bridge was really hot.  When it was cold, it was frigid.  It tells me a lot about my mom and her friends that they challenged this rickety bridge and its weather and winds on a bicycle!

 Making the curve, we came to the bridge tender's house.  A family lived there, right in the middle of that bridge.  That idea fascinates me to this day.  Imagine living out there, always on the water with the rumbling of the cars going by! The house was next to the draw span, so that - at any hour of the day or night - the bridge tender could hear when a boat blew its horn.  The man would hustle out to the wheel that turned the draw bridge.  While the cars waited, the middle of the bridge turned to make an opening for the boat to pass.  Once the draw was back in place, we could proceed on our way.  Another short distance of bridge, and we were on the other side headed for the beach.

I'm thankful for pictures.  Certainly there are enough of them in the albums and boxes at my house!  But the pictures are simply the catalyst for memories of times gone by...of bridges to the beach and places beyond.  And I'm thankful for the times of my life that has produced so many pictures.

I am truly blessed to live where I do.  It's a joy to remember the little things.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Road Taken...Uh-Oh

Lost as a goose in a snowstorm...

It was not exactly our finest hour.

Friend Judy and I were returning from our pre-Christmas day at The Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.  We make it a point to go there sometime during the holiday season to enjoy the exquisite decorations and soak up the yuletide atmosphere.  Since it's just over an hour away from home, it's a most enjoyable day trip.


Until our return trip when we were hung up on I-95 by an accident that blocked all northbound lanes of traffic.  As we approached the dead stop, we lost our brains.  Suddenly, we were discussing in quick sentence bursts whether to endure the no-telling-how-long delay or opt for another route.  We were right at an exit.  Judy was driving.

"Do we get off?" 

"Yes!" I said with great authority.  It was my next sentence that did us in.  "All these roads going east will take us to US 1 and we will be home soon."  I just want to say in my defense that she has to share the blame for our ensuing misery.  She knows darn well that my credibility for knowing where I'm going is suspect.  "Right over there..." is not a valid direction.  

To cut to the chase, we wandered for almost an hour on roads we had never seen before and will likely never see again.  None of those roads was US 1.   After great frustration and cross words spoken as we both stared clueless at our I-Phones, we eventually did find I-95 again and realized to our chagrin we were a mile south of where we exited originally.  We had to laugh...eventually.  You can't make this stuff up.  Well you could, but why would you? 

In retrospect, I have some takeaways from the experience that I should already know by this stage of life but I hope I remember them for future use.
1 - There is a reason why we need maps.  
2 - If you're going to use that phone, take the time to learn the GPS app.
3 - Roads don't go where you think they should.
4 - (And here is the biggie!)  As soon as you leave the main road (I-95), stop the car, consult the app or the map, and determine where you are in relation to your destination.  By the time we started looking at the app on the phone, we were so off in the weeds it was irrelevant.  It's amazing we stumbled back to 95.

As I see so often, this is another life lesson.  We have so many chances to get off our path.  Sometimes we realize it quickly, sometimes we have to wander a bit before it sinks in that we are lost.  Just plain lost.  My pastor Rev. Jeremy Rebman spoke to this just yesterday.  If I am following the Lord, He has a path and a purpose for me.   The only one who can take me off the path away from my purpose is me.  As soon as I realize I'm off the path, that's the time to stop and check the Bible, my Christian mentor, my Christian friend.  Get back on track as quickly as possible.  

Even if I'm a mile behind where I made the wrong turn.  

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord.  "Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  Plans to give you hope and a future."   
                                                                           - Jeremiah 29:11

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Things From Old Things

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up;
do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.  
-Isaiah 43:19 (NIV)

January 1 always puts me in a reflective mood.  How about you?  

2018 in many ways was no different from any other year for us.  We rode the ups and downs of life.  We dealt with hard things and we were uplifted by joyous things.  Those pesky things called "health issues" just kept popping up their irritating heads...some bigger than others but we're still standing!  In the Spring, we said goodbye to Ed's mother and just a few weeks ago we welcomed my niece's new son.  We capped off the year by spending Christmas week with our children in Tennessee and I don't mind telling you it was a whole lot colder than we like!  But it was one of our best family gatherings ever.

Sometimes events are defined by the smallest things.  That explains the pictures of the orchid.  Some years ago, a friend gave me this orchid plant for my birthday.  It was in full bloom and was simply stunning.  "Just hang it in your oak tree," she said, "and leave it alone and it will take care of itself."  

Well, that's certainly the kind of plant for me.  I did not inherit the green thumb that both my parents had. So we hung it in the tree and it bloomed and rested and bloomed and rested for a long time.  And then...we realized it had stopped blooming.  In fact, the poor thing looked simply pitiful.  And then it looked dead.  No more blooms.  My pragmatic husband took it down from the tree.

"Looks like your orchid has lived its life," he said.  "Time to throw it away."  Honestly, it was dead sticks.  But I have a friend who knows her way around an orchid plant.  She has dozens - all varieties, shapes and colors.  "No, I think I'll see if Thea can do something with it."  It was like putting a comatose person into ICU.  Thea looked at that mess of black nothing and saw possibilities.  I heard nothing more about it and our conversations over the next few months were about anything but orchids.

Until one day in November.  The familiar voice on the other end of the phone said "You need to come see your orchid."  Really?  I couldn't wait to see it and I honestly wasn't expecting much.  You see from the pictures how wrong I was.  Thea proudly pointed out all the other buds in addition to the blooms.  After our photo session, I decided to leave that orchid plant right there in her care.  It was obviously happy.

And to me, it is a symbol of hope.  What looked so bleak when I took it to Thea is now a blooming, vibrant, viable plant.  Who knows how long it will live.  

This 43rd chapter of Isaiah is a favorite of mine.  It begins with that wonderful promise from the Lord that we are not to fear for he has redeemed us: when we pass through the waters or walk through the fire he will be with us.  And then he leads into the above verse by saying "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past."  

As we turn the calendar to a new year, we seem to think we can hit some great re-set button and all will be new and different.  But it won't.  Whatever situations we were dealing with on December 31 are still there on January 1.  But here is the promise: God continues to go before, doing new things constantly in our lives...standing by our side as we press on through the deep waters...holding onto us as we walk through the fire.  Simply put, we can look forward with hope.

I hope you know this assurance today.  I can't imagine stepping into a new year without it.  If I can help you, leave me a comment.  This could be the best year of your life! 

See, he is doing a new thing...making a way in your wilderness and streams in your wasteland.