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.