A sermon preached by Brian Mason
At the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
On Sunday, November 18, 2018
In the summers following my parent’s divorce my dad would take me with him down to Florida where his parents lived. Before I realized everyone in the Midwest vacationed along the Gulf of Mexico, I thought I was pretty special for getting to spend every other summer in The Sunshine State.
When teachers would ask the class what we were doing for the summer I’d always raise my voice right up to the point of a yell and say, “I’m going to live in Florida this summer.” I did this hoping to impress Jamie or Katie or Rachel or Pam or Hillary or any other human being with a heartbeat and a ponytail. But it never worked. All of them had the hots for my friend Greg.
My dad’s parents had a wonderful house right on the Gulf coast. You could hear and smell the ocean all day and fiddler crabs would walk across the trails my grandma and I strolled along at dusk after supper. I loved my grandparent’s house, that is the parts I was allowed to actually step foot in.
I had heard rumors that somewhere in the house was a parlor and library filled with beautiful artwork and furniture, but my grandmother, who was a very proper English woman, prohibited me from going anywhere other than the kitchen, the bedroom, and outside.
Unlike my mother’s mother who loved to cook, my dad’s refused to. She told me she’d rather starve than have to cook a meal herself. So, every evening we’d go out for dinner at America’s favorite diner, the Sizzler. As my grandfather drove around the parking lot waiting on a spot closer to the front my grandmother would turn around in her seat and instruct me on how I’m to tell the waitress I’m six-years-old. My grandparents would repeat this same set of instructions every time we went out to eat.
I didn’t mind telling the waitress I was six, but they made me do this when I was thirteen-years-old; and even when they allowed me to order off the regular menu, I was prohibited from ordering anything other than soup or salad.
My dad’s parents hid from each other that they both smoked cigarettes. So, midway into the meal my grandfather would slowly fold up his napkin and announce to the table that he was going to show me where the bathroom was. I’d try to tell him I knew where it was, but he insisted, driving the toe of his shoe into my shin until I stood up to go to the bathroom with him.
Once in the bathroom my granddad would go into a stall, shut the door, and sit down. Slowly from behind the door I’d see a pillar of smoke rise above. People would walk in and shake their heads in the general direction of my grandfather’s stall. But it never mattered. He’d slowly enjoy his smoke until the very end. On the way out of the bathroom he’d say, “Don’t you dare tell your grandmother.”
Finally, back at the table with my grandfather reeking of smoke my grandmother would announce that she needed to grab a quick breath of fresh air, and that she wanted me to go with her for company. My grandfather would mutter “okay love” from behind his newspaper as my grandma and I left the table.
We’d walk a half a mile away to the backside of a Winn Dixie where she’d smoke in between the dumpsters. I watched as people drove and stared, I’m sure wondering why a thirteen-year-old boy was behind a grocery store with a 76-year-old woman smoking cigarettes.
Walking back into the Sizzler my grandmother would pinch the skin on my neck and say, “Don’t you dare tell your grandfather.”
Every morning for breakfast my grandmother used to send me down to the farmers market with $5.00. She’d have me buy a honeydew melon and a pint of vanilla ice from a man she referred to as the melon man. When I got back, she’d cut the melon in half, scoop ice cream into the center and tell me breakfast was served.
We’d eat on the back porch and count all the lizards that ran up and down the backside of their house. In the middle of the day when it was too hot to do anything my grandfather would turn their sprinkler system on and I strip down to my underwear and run through it until I wore myself out, when I’d lay down in the zoysia grass to catch my breath and watch rainbows form in the spouts of water.
If I didn’t feel like running the sprinkler my grandmother and I would walk down to the local Walmart where we’d sit on a bench by the checkout lanes and people watch; and every evening we’d walk down to the beach to swim and feed the seagulls.
Summers in Florida were mostly boring, really. But I loved them still. My grandparents were oddballs, but I liked watching them move about the world. They weren’t like my other grandparents. A part of me always wondered if they were aliens from outer space. After all, I never saw them cook or clean or do laundry, and yet they lived until they were in their 90’s, had the cleanest house I’ve ever seen, and their clothes were immaculate, and iron pressed.
They were the kind of people who ate mostly to survive, and even then, only if it was less than $10.00 a meal. When I got older, I became curious about them and started asking questions.
My grandfather was a Virginia boy who joined the service and fought in World War II; my grandmother a British girl who trained as a nurse and was sent to France in the war. They’d meet at an airstrip in the French countryside and spend the rest of their lives together, eventually having three boys.
They named their youngest boy Brian. When he was 26-years-old he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the months before his death, he moved in with his parents. My grandma and grandpa would take Brian out for supper at the Sizzler every night.
They said he’d order steak and lobster until he got so sick that all he’d order was a salad and soup. At night they’d walk along the ocean and feed the seagulls. And every morning my uncle Brian and my grandma would walk down to the farmers market to buy a honeydew melon and pint of vanilla ice cream for breakfast.
In the end when he was too weak to do anything my grandfather would lift him in and out of the bathtub and my grandmother would bathe and shave her son’s face. When he finally died, she and my grandpa walked down to the beach and spread Brian’s ashes into the ocean, and then they went out to dinner.
The same man who sold me the melon and the ice cream was the same man who sold it to my grandmother the morning after her youngest son died. The Sizzler where my grandpa smoked in the bathroom was the same one, they took my uncle to every night he lived with them. I always thought they were boring old farts who were set in their ways, and they certainly were. But the food they ate was more than just food. The food they ate told a story about their lives.
We tell these stories about meals and the food we eat because there’s a part of our lives and our families’ lives that depend on it. Families aren’t just given to us by birth or adoption. Like a meal, you have to wake up and make a family every single day.
This isn’t ordinary work; it’s extraordinary work. Eating can be done mindlessly, receiving the same lame attitude we show toward housework and shoveling snow. But there is a difference between eating out of necessity and eating a meal. A meal isn’t so much what you’re eating, but how you’re eating. There’s a reason why food is at the heart of so many religions.
In Hinduism, practitioners place food at the feet of the gods to show their devotion; when the Israelites fled captivity in Egypt they sat down together in the wilderness and ate – that same Passover meal of freedom is celebrated by Jews the world over; on the day of Jesus’ death his friends gathered at a table for one Last Supper – their act symbolizes the sacred power of love and friendship. And what was eaten on the Passover and at the Last Supper? One simple thing: Bread.
Holy things happen when bread is broken. Throughout our lives we’ll notice that bread takes on many forms: the bread can be honey dew and vanilla ice cream; it can be a bowl of popcorn at a movie, or bread and wine at church.
So, this morning, I offer to this congregation bread made in the warmth of my home, the place where I try every day perform a little magic and make a family. Here this offering becomes the bread of a communion we all share: a communion of hope and memory, and communion of grace and love.
Please, dear friends, come forward and share in this communion, let us have a meal together. Tell us your story; tell us the food that feeds your soul.