My mother, who grew up on a Depression-era tobacco farm with few fineries, was an early subscriber to Southern Living magazine in 1966. It was a lifestyle journal for Dixie chicks long before the band came out. At least three days a week my dad's lunch was a new recipe, and at times his plea was, "Can I just have a tomato sandwich?" No paper plates or ketchup bottles allowed on the table. Fresh flowers if possible. I'm embarrassed to admit how many meals I've eaten that look like the photos in Southern Living. It was enough to intimidate a young daughter-in-law who uses store-bought mac and cheese instead of homemade everything.
How shall I describe the Thanksgiving table of 1977? Chandelier glowing overhead, candelabras aflame, linen tablecloth and napkins, Wedgewood china from England, sterling flatware, Waterford stems for toasts, and on the sideboard oyster pie, sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallow crust, succulent turkey with home made cranberry relish, the secret heavenly dressing, brown rice, sweet butterbeans and an antique biscuit box full of perfections. Then a prayer. We hold hands as everyone in the circle says something grateful. Then the minister son -- yours truly -- offers a prayer for the nation, the church, the dear departed, honored guests, and sometimes we sing the Doxology. We then feast and narrate. Near the end, one of my uncouth brothers will rare back and say something like, "I'm so full, I feel like a tick" or tell an off-color ethnic joke to shatter the spirit of elegance and harmony. All the ladies are offended; the men all laugh. It's a drama, and we all know our parts.
In the days before the hospital came to Cheraw in 1958, and for several decades afterwards, our back door was an emergency room. In the midst of our ceremonial gluttony a loud knock and cry was heard, "Is the doc home? Is the doc home?"
A country boy barged in, "John Henry's in the truck a bleedin' bad. He got drunk, fell in the pig pen, and the sow bit his ear off!"
"Well," the doc replied as he calmly reached for biscuit, "Where's the ear?"
It was then that it happened, to the fascination and horror of all. As John Henry's brother reached into his right pocket, we feared what was coming. He pulled out a dirty handkerchief and unfolded the corners one by one. Our corporate adrenaline surge reduced everything to slow motion. There it lay. The upper half of J.H.'s right ear: pale, bloody, still bearing the gunk of the sty.
I cannot describe what the sight did to our appetite. Pork loin lost it's appeal. One of my uncouth brothers quipped, "An ear in the hand is worth two in the pen."
"Well," the doc replied, "let's have a look at John Henry and see what can be salvaged. A man with one ear will be made fun of, and if I can rescue a friend from such a fate, so be it."
In several hours the patriarch returned, quite proud of the ear he so carefully disinfected and reattached with stitches front and back. We all learned an anatomy lesson that day. Ear cartilage has a minimal blood supply, so gangrene was not a likely outcome. "It will grow back," he said, and the rest of the day was full of crass humor about beers and ears.
Several months later J.H. came to the clinic. As the nurse ushered him to an exam room, the doc said to his wife, "That's the ear. Take a look." And she did. The seams were nearly perfect, and though the right ear was now just a bit smaller than the left, symmetry remained. "Mrs. Betty," he smiled with a blush, "When I drink now, I stay away from the pig pen, and the doc is sho' good with ears."
Elegance was interrupted, and we now have a great story to retell around the table. And, as Jesus once said, "He who has an ear to hear, let him hear!" We are a pilgrim people, and a Southern Living table is fine preview of God's coming kingdom.
Phil Thrailkill is pastor at Main Street United Methodist Church in Greenwood. His weekly sermons are found at msumc1.org. He can be reached at Pthrailkil@aol.com or 864-229-7551.