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STEPS LEAD TO A CHURCH BASEMENT that’s clean but has a hint of mold and a fishy scent. A framed Jesus with a trimmed beard, nice tan, pleasant half-smile, lamb draped over his shoulders, protects the entryway. The stairwell opens into a large rectangular room crammed full of metal chairs leaning beside long rows of wooden tables adorned with Styrofoam place settings and coffee-can centerpieces, orange mums spilling over their sides. Assorted gourds and buckeyes round out the décor. The table along one wall is heavy with crockpots of creamy oyster soup and a shocking array of brownies, cakes, and pies. I am seven; I have never been to sea; and therefore I will pass on the main dish, devouring instead my share of chocolatey marshmallow goodness. However, I am most excited about the exotic delight of oyster crackers, a delicacy I’ve eaten only in this basement at the annual Hebron Lutheran Church Oyster Supper.

The space is also full of people. Too many years have passed for me to recall all their faces, but, I assure you, there are no strangers here. Counting my parents, sister, aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents, at least twenty of these people are kin. While this supper is a special occasion, there is nothing exceptional about breaking bread with my mother’s side of the family: we worship together every Sunday morning, gather after church for a roast, green beans, mashed potatoes, beets, squash—whatever is in season or was canned the previous year—and we don’t leave my grandparents’ house until after the credits roll on The Wonderful World of Disney.

The nonrelatives are also familiar figures: farmers, bank tellers, merchants. My Sunday school teachers are also my public-school teachers. Every single person in my family’s circle is, I believe at this point in my life, a person of faith. And because we are Lutherans, and Martin Luther was from Germany, I assume (incorrectly) that we are all direct descendants of German Lutherans.

Which doesn’t explain how a community of believers in northern Kentucky developed an affinity for oysters, especially canned oysters, when the vast majority grow their own vegetables, slaughter their own meat, and gather their own eggs—or trade and buy from relatives and neighbors.

For instance:

The extended family has all gathered at my aunt and uncle’s farm for killing time. The dairy cattle are safe, but by days’ end, four hogs and countless chickens will be slaughtered, processed, and packaged, distributed among our families for winter meat. The hogs met their demise shortly before we arrived, an act I am grateful to have missed; their heads, however, are resting in a metal trough near the barn.

The farm in general is like a carnival; my cousins and I play hide-and-seek among hay bales, pelt rats with rocks in the calf barn, and double-dare each other to eat silage. If we wanted, we could run amok through hundreds of acres of fields and forest; it’s not too chilly yet to try our luck with bluegill and sunfish in the cattle ponds. It would be easy to avoid a glimpse of the severed hogs’ heads. Feasible, but ultimately impossible, so strong is the pull of the macabre on young boys. So, we look. The severed side, with its strata of gristle, sinews, and fat neatly layered as a cross section of sediment, is difficult to process. Later in life, I will adopt a tenet of country people: it’s important to know where your food comes from, to see how the sausage is made. But that’s not the sensibility blooming in me as I peer into the trough and a cousin pulls at bristles poking from the rubbery ear. Something more ancient, darker, is stirring in me: this animal I watched suckle in the spring, lounge and grow lazy in the summer sun, is low on the ladder of the living and the dead. I am superior to this creature, therefore safe from this fate.

Our grandparents were the working poor, and our parents are aspiring middle class. They are farmers, housepainters, long-haul truck drivers, mechanics, machine operators, railroad workers, veterans, baggage handlers, stay-at-home moms, part-time church secretaries. They are upwardly mobile, marking progress when black-and-white televisions are replaced by color, vehicles purchased secondhand are traded in for this year’s model, and microwaves and VCRs become standard household items. They save money so their children can leave the farm (literally and metaphorically), so we can have a better life, even though it is never clear what is better than the rural lives we live. We work hard, we attend church, we obey laws, we do well in school, and so have earned our just punishments and just rewards.

People who pass poverty on to their descendants, we assume, do not do these things. Why not, however, is never fully explained. We have also absorbed the idea that most perpetually poor people have black and brown skin, and therefore we conclude (again incorrectly) that most people with black and brown skin are poor. But since we are people of faith, we tithe—give back ten percent to the church—which helps poor people grind through another day of poverty. Even my cousins and I do our part by collecting change in church-shaped cardboard banks. All the checks, bills, and change are gathered during the passing of the offering plate on Sunday morning. How the money makes it to poor people after that is one of the great mysteries of my childhood.

A memory:

My mother calls to tell me her mother, my grandmother, is dead. I am thirty-one years old, looking out the kitchen window of my rented house at a stray calf standing in my compost heap, eating last night’s table scraps. He likes to slip between the barbed wire strands that divide my sliver of backyard from acres of barren Texas ranchland. In addition to skinny cows and a few horses, there’s a shallow pond on the other side of the fence where frogs congregate at night to sing so loudly they often keep me awake. On occasion, I slip between the sagging strands myself, trespassing, to walk through the scrawny mesquite trees that pock the land. The scenery as a whole bears no resemblance to northern Kentucky, but individual parts—the livestock, trees, pond creatures, occasional deer, starlight, and absence of the highway hum of traffic—are enough to remind me of home.

My mother is not weeping, but she talks slower and softer than normal as she describes the guilt of not living close enough to her mother to drop in and notice her decline. I listen but don’t listen, reaffirming, reassuring, staving off my own grief at losing this, my last grandparent, the only one I knew well, the one who wore blue jeans after her husband died, who never wore purple, who worked outside the home, who insisted that shit was so common as not to be considered a curse word. But the grief doesn’t register, and a feeling I try to keep at bay settles in: relief. Relief that we moved nine hundred miles away when I was ten, saw my grandmother only at holidays, weddings, and funerals, that the potential sting of death softened years before it reached this point. As my mother talks, though, an even more uncomfortable thought wells up: I will need to move farther away than the three-hour drive that currently separates me from my parents, so that when the news of their passing reaches me, I will feel something akin to what I am feeling in this moment, something akin to the sadness of seeing the mesquites have stopped blooming, signaling that days of sweltering heat are coming and the honeybees will need to travel farther and farther afield in search of nectar.

I wonder, often, if this need for physical, emotional, and psychological distance is something all white people crave, work toward, aspire to, or if it is only my convoluted understanding of the conditions required for a better life. You leave home, returning only for holidays, weddings, and funerals. To be clear, my parents never delivered the command: leave home. For years they lived and worked in the same county where they were born, and where their parents and grandparents were born. We moved from Kentucky to Texas because my father loaded and unloaded bags for an airline that pulled out of Cincinnati, giving him three options: move to New York, Los Angeles, or Dallas. I always assumed he had no other choices, but I never asked if he tried finding other work closer to home. If he’d looked for a way to stay rooted. Regardless, this is what I learned: in order to avoid slipping down the ladder, to maintain the middle or even rise a rung, you moved, were moving, in transition, transit.

We are all gathered graveside, where my male cousins and I are pallbearers. Three of them grew up on the farm, hefting hay bales, lifting ornery calves, swinging hammers, mallets, and axes, so they bear the brunt of the coffin’s weight as we move from the sanctuary into the hearse. The morning’s rain has eased to a drizzle, and I can’t stop thinking about a Tom T. Hall song where he hopes it’s pouring at his funeral because just once he’d like to be the only one safe from the rain. I think that sentiment is common among descendants of the working white poor: life isn’t so bad, but somebody else has always got it better.

My cousins and I walk behind the hearse as it travels the fifty or so yards along the gravel drive from the church to the graveyard. Carrying the coffin to the gravesite over the rain-soaked, uneven ground proves harrowing, but we bear our grandmother to her final resting place without creating a ghoulish scene. Not until our heads are bowed for the long mourning prayer, full of promise of the resurrection of the dead, do I notice rooster-tail splashes of mud, nearly to the knees, on all our dress pants; it’s as though the dust from which we came is trying to reclaim us.

And this: my hands appear to be covered in silver. I nudge the closest cousin and nod toward my glittering fingers. His eyes grow wide as he glances at his own bedazzled hands, and he nudges the next cousin, and so on down the line. Later, we’ll realize the chrome plating on the handles flaked off as we carried the coffin. In the moment, though, I see the silver speckles as a sign, an antidote to the dirt creeping up our legs, a kind of magic that marks us as chosen and grants us a superiority over, if not death, then at least the mundane grind of this world.

After we lay my grandmother to rest, we return one last time to the church basement for the funeral luncheon. I don’t recall the exact menu, but I suspect there was pimento cheese, a spot of ham on white bread, a variety of fruits and vegetables dressed with either mayonnaise or whipped cream, a touch of coconut topping, and enough desserts to make one temporarily forget one’s sorrow. To feel full again, full of the richness of life, with no relation to the working white poor.

I am seven once again, swimming in a sea that is whiter than white, being shaped by the strangeness of faith and food and family, all of which are intertwined in this church building. Each Sunday in the sanctuary upstairs, the pastor signals that the worship service is nearing conclusion when he stands and announces on the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks broke it. It’s the body of Christ, and next there’s wine, the blood of Christ. It’s an adults-only meal, the Lord’s Supper. It’s a mystery, and it’s thrilling, and it makes no sense. And despite the crosses, the stained glass, the altar rails that cordon off a space I understand is sacred because only a robed pastor or old ladies fussing with flowers and candles are allowed to enter, and despite the Bible readings (this is the Word of the Lord), the call and response, the hymns, the booming organ, the choir invisible in their loft, up and behind, despite the pomp and circumstance, the power and the glory, I believe that all of this is above-ground work. Jesus lives in the basement where the oyster crackers are served.



Jeffrey Utzinger’s first collection of creative nonfiction essays will be published by April Gloaming Publishing in 2024. He lives in Lockhart, Texas.




Photo by Wendy Rake on Unsplash

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