N.B. I have changed Mrs. Wilson's name to shield her family's identity.
Some of life's smallest events, in circumstances least expected, teach its biggest lessons. A homemade cherry pie, made by an elderly woman, taught me more about honor and respect – the basic human need to contribute and be valued – than any learned teacher ever could.
Let me take you back to a simpler place and time, when I just a young boy living in a tiny town, nestled in the hills of the Arkansas Ozarks. It was an era of un-air-conditioned country churches, where elderly women who smelled faintly of lavender, fanned themselves with funeral home fans, and young boys dangled their legs from wooden church benches, sang "Jesus Loves Me," and daydreamed during the longwinded Sunday sermon.
My mother was a member of our small town church's "food committee," now a fading tradition from a different era. Composed of wives and mothers, the group mobilized each time an aging member of the congregation passed away. As the extended family of the departed loved one gathered to grieve, usually at the family home, the food committee contacted other members of the congregation to prepare food for the family.
I never gave it much thought; it was a deep and unquestioned part of life, as natural as fishing with my grandfather or playing in the woodpile. Then, when I was seven, my beloved grandmother died. (See What Really Matters.) Within hours, the small kitchen table of my grandparent's house was heaped and groaning with food – fried chicken, ham, potato salad, green beans, cakes and homemade pies. As sad as I was that grandma would never kiss me again, it was the first time I ever had the chance to compare fried chicken recipes! It was an extraordinary outpouring of support, made more noteworthy by the poverty of the small town community. (See A Taste of Sherbet.)
A few years later, it was my mother's turn to chair the church's food committee. On a cold winter day, we drove slowly from house to house, picking up food, usually at the back door. At a time when seatbelts were unknown, and would have been ignored anyway, my job was to sit in the back seat and make sure the food did not spill or slide.
I was surprised when mother eased our car to a stop at one old, rundown house. I knew the widow who lived there was almost eighty and nearly blind. She was too infirm to attend church, and I could barely remember the last time I had seen her. Turning to my mama, I asked why we were stopping here.
As she opened the car door, she said, "Because Mrs. Wilson called me and insisted that I come get her cherry pie." She said she'd tried to convince Mrs. Wilson that there were plenty of younger cooks willing and happy to help, but Mrs. Wilson had pleaded, "Please; I'm an old woman, there's not much I can do anymore, but I can do this."
I sat dumbfounded amidst the fried chicken and three bean salad, watching my mother walk toward the backdoor of the old house. As the old woman gently handed my mother the cherry pie, I realized she had unknowingly given me something far more valuable, a life lesson that still echoes across the years.
The undying need for respect, to make a difference and to matter, regardless of circumstance, crosses cultures and generations. It was just a cherry pie, but it was much, much more. I can't do much, but I can do this. I'll always remember.