Friday, December 16

Advent 2011

When God's Love Was Brown


             His place was one of the favorite haunts of my carefree growing-up days, running neck to neck with the swampy woods not far from our house.

             Brown was a farmer, black and poor. I was Jimmy, a skinny little white boy, the next dirt road over, Miss Evelyn's son. The belt for his very worn pants was a rope and twine served as laces for his ragged shoes, cut in the sides to ease the pain of his arthritic feet. His house had no running water, a kerosene lantern was his light, and he cooked his food on a wood-burning iron stove in the cook shed at the back of his yard. His tractor was a mule and his delivery truck was a hand- pulled wooden cart from which he sold his very nice vegetables for our plates.

Whether he realized it or not, he was a great teacher of the really important things of life. He taught me reverence for others, humility, courage, perseverance, and, along with many useful and practical things, thankfulness. I can't remember now a single word he said, though, because how and what he taught me was in the way he showed me that I mattered.

Brown was always an old man to me. His body and clothes had the fragrance of aged spices and wood smoke. Life and many years of hard tilling of the earth had left him stooped, with callused hands, and a limp. It's funny how the passage of these many years since his death has not dulled but rather clarified what is certainly my love and appreciation of the old man. In my mind's eye, I am still following behind him and the mule, relishing the smell of freshly turned rows of rich soil and looking forward not only to the next day but to the next few weeks when the fields would be covered with vibrant new growth. I think that's when he taught me to be an optimist.

He taught me how to prime the hand pump out back, and I was always amazed at how cold the water was that gushed out from far below. In that water, we washed the vegetables before bunching them for sale. That's when he taught me to be generous.

At midday, I would eat with him sitting on the steps of his cook shed - he had to cut down a bit on the hot pepper sauce for me. That shed with the dried spices hanging from the rafters and his ability to create such culinary alchemy was magical to me. I think that surely influenced my eventual interests in pharmacy and cooking.

Maybe it was because he had no remaining family of his own, but I think he felt protective toward me. One time he even threw himself between me and another white boy threateningly aiming a BB gun at my face.

It is during the season of fall when I reminiscence the most about Brown - I never knew his first name. It is the time of year when the chill of evening was settling on his fields, when smoke from cook stoves and burning leaves hovered close to the ground, when flitting birds and hopping rabbits were heading home for the night. There was a stillness, a sacred presence there. For me and Brown, if for no one else, it was holy ground.

It has been around sixty years since Brown died.  I was puzzled the morning I went over to his house to find several black men all dressed in dark suits sitting with Brown who was lying on his couch.  I didn't realize that they had come to be with him as he passed, and I didn't know that his feeble wave was not one of "hello" but of "goodbye."  You see, those were the deacons of the church of which Brown was pastor and I was Jimmy, the little boy God had been speaking to through my old friend.

from Pecan Road (memoirs)

- Jim Flanagan



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