This is a small restaurant. A meat-and-three, where waitresses wear T-shirts. Where your iced tea never falls below the rim of your glass. Where catfish is fried whole on the bone.
I have two dates accompanying me tonight.
My mother-in-law—who holds my arm for balance. I’m carrying her purse. And my wife—who walks ten steps ahead of us at all times.
The dress code is summer weekend casual. I’m wearing jeans. My dates are wearing pearls, pumps, and ruby lipstick.
They always do. In fact, I’ve never seen them exit the house in anything they wouldn’t want to be buried in.
We order a round of teas. My dates scan the menus without conversation. When our server arrives, my dates have questions.
“Is your tartar sauce made with DUKE’S?” asks my wife.
“Are there REAL ham hocks in your collards?” asks my mother-in-law. “I don’t like those ham-flavored packets.”
“What’s in the potato salad?” asks my wife. “If I even LOOK at a stick of celery I start gagging…”
“Are your French fries STEAK fries, or shoestring?”
“What kind of cake do you have tonight?”
“Where’d you graduate high school?”
“What’s your social security number?”
The server looks to me.
“I’ll have a barbecue sandwich, ma’am,” I say.
Two more women enter the restaurant. They have white hair, and they are also sporting pearls. They sit behind us. They speak with accents that are soft and sophisticated.
As fate would have it, my two dates know them—sort of.
Miss Marjorie and Miss Sarah are from Hartford, Alabama. My mother-in-law is from Brewton.
And since South Alabama is one large family tree with lots of strings of pearls hanging from its branches, they know some of the same people.
“Do you know Bucky Mc-So-And-So?” asks Miss Marjorie. “His daddy ran the Western Auto.”
“Did you know Sister What’s-Her-Name?” says my mother-in-law. “She always made Coca-Cola cakes in Civic League.”
“I graduated school with her BROTHER.”
“Get out! Her brother’s niece’s Sunday school teacher is my COUSIN!”
“Are you serious?”
“Sister, if I’m lying I’m dying.”
“I heard her son landed in jail.”
“He’s out on parole now, living for Jesus.”
Our food arrives. My mother-in-law puts a hurting on two slabs of catfish which are roughly the size of men’s workboots. My wife’s plate is so big she has to remove her earrings to eat.
Mid-meal, my mother-in-law remarks, “I Suwannee, we forgot to say the blessing.”
She asks if I’ll do the honors. I tell the ladies to join hands and bow heads.
Thank you for catfish, fried whole on the bone. Thank for tea, sweet enough to cause temporary blindness.
Thank you for mothers-in-law who hold my arm for balance. Thank you for friends from Hartford, Alabama. For High Bluff, Bellwood, Eunola, Geneva, Chancellor, and Coffee Springs. God bless Brewton.
Thank you for hugs from small-town women who talk with soft drawls, and aren’t afraid to tell me they love me. Watch over my mother-in-law when she has surgery next week.
Thank you for my mama. For my sister. My niece. Thank you for my wife. Without these women I’d be nothing.