A homily preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, November 19, 2017
When my parents divorced they decided it best to send me to live with my grandmother, on her farm. The reasons why they sent me to live with grandma doesn’t really matter to me anymore. Times were different then. I don’t ever remember having homework, and I was allowed to run free and unsupervised until my grandmother used her supersonic voice to call me in for supper, which usually consisted of a chicken or a pig or a cow I killed earlier in the week.
On weekends, when I wasn’t cleaning the barn or wrecking my grandfather’s three-wheeler, I’d listen to my grandmother’s stories. She never made it to college because circumstances in her family prevented her from finishing high school. She worked most of her life as a seamstress, at Sears, sowing pants. Her third husband, the only grandfather I’d ever know, was a retired electrician and full-time fisherman. The only time I saw him not on a boat was in his filthy recliner asleep after putting in a hard day’s work on his bass boat. He had this magical ability to balance a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of beer on his belly, at the same time; believe it or not, he could even sleep like this. (He was the grumpiest man I’ve ever known; I pretty sure he hated the sound of children’s laughter. I didn’t care though, so I’d run through the house and laugh at the top of my lungs just to spite him and get the dogs are riled up.)
My grandmother’s stories are now the stuff of legend. She’d secretly tell me about all the boys she’d kissed when she was in school, making me promise not to tell grandpa, only to tell him every morning when he’d leave to fish all day that he was the worst kisser she’d ever known.
She’d tell me even when you get all old and gray that you’ll still like it when people tell you you’re handsome or pretty; she also told me that if you have to pass gas in a crowded room you always blame it on someone else; she’d tell me that I needed to try hard in school because sowing pants is more boring that watching my grandpa snore in his recliner.
My grandmother had a secret power though. When all of her four daughters and grandchildren came to her house to celebrate Thanksgiving she transformed into best story and joke teller I have ever known.
I don’t remember too many of those stories anymore. And the one’s I do I probably shouldn’t tell in church. But what I remember is how good my grandma’s food tasted, how smoky and crowded her kitchen would get with us all in there. I remember how much I loved listening to her laugh and yell and joke. My aunts and us grandkids fought to stay in the kitchen with her. Meanwhile, her sons-in-law and husband sat out in the living room watching boring old football, which we couldn’t have cared less about.
If you hung out long enough in the kitchen grandma would let you lick cake batter off the mixing forks. She’d let you pick big chunks off the turkey and eat the skin. And when she got really crazy, she’d drink her sherry out of a baby bottle. She’d let me and my cousins eat the sweet potatoes right out of the oven pan. So, by the time my uncles and grandpa came into the kitchen for supper it was like they were eating leftovers. They never said anything about it either. They knew that when grandma had company over she was in charge.
The years I lived with my grandma she’d tell me I was part American Indian. She told me I was wild and free. She told me I was smarter than all my cousins, and could be anything in the world I wanted to be. She told me that birds can sleep when they fly. She told me that somewhere in the world there was someone exactly like me who lived in a faraway land, and spoke another language, and was rich beyond my wildest dreams; and that if I found them and answered their riddle correctly they’d have to give me everything I asked for. She told me that I breathe tree burps. She told me that’d she’d live forever if she could, but that she wants a better house and a cuter husband if life gets to lasting too long.
I tell you all this because my dad recently called me to share the results of my genetic testing. It turns out I’m not an American Indian at all. I’m 40% Welsh-Irish, 40% Scottish-English, 10% Scandinavian, and 10% god knows what else. As I grew older I learned that birds actually do sleep when they fly, but only one part of their brain is sleeping; and there’s not another me in the world at all. But I do actually breathe tree burps. I also learned that my grandma told my cousin Jonathan that he was the smartest one. He became a surgeon; I became a minister. I’ll let you decide who’s smarter. Unfortunately for me, my grandma didn’t live forever at all. But she did manage find a new husband who told her how beautiful she was, and how cute her outfits were before she died.
Most of my memories of her are in the kitchen, baking cookies and brownies and cakes. I realize that seems pretty domestic, but that’s where her magic happened. It’s where I heard the stories that, to this very day, keep my family tied together. Over the years, through illness and difficulty, what holds us together is the meals we share, and the stories we tell.
We tell these stories over meals because there’s a part of our lives that depend on it. I didn’t choose the family I was given, and neither did many of you. To be a family, to make life special, to use your super powers to transform a bunch of food into a meal is magical. It can heal broken hearts. There’s a reason why food is at the heart of so many religions. Magic happens when bread is broken with others.
So, this morning, I offer to this congregation chocolate zucchini muffins my wife, daughter, and I made last night. They were made in my kitchen, the place where the fire keeps burning, and our hearts get warmed.
Please, dear friends, come forward and share with us your story, and the food that feeds your souls.