A church potluck in the country. I’m a visitor with a bloodhound named Thelma Lou. Thelma is begging for food from anyone on this church lawn by using her hidden super-power.
Very, very big eyes.
People feed her left and right. A ten-year-old girl gives Thelma two cheeseburgers and a drumstick. I ask the girl why she does this.
She answers, “Just look at those eyes.”
She’s got a point.
This is a country church. There’s a carport behind the chapel—a church van parked beneath it. And a cemetery behind that. And a hayfield behind that. And cows behind that.
Tonight this place is buzzing. Boys throwing baseballs to fathers. Grannies chasing toddlers.
There’s music. A makeshift band is serenading a line of people at a buffet table. I’m standing in line with folks who all pronounce “‘nanner puddin’” and “tater salat” the right way.
I’ve met people tonight.
One woman hugged me and said, “Did you know that my Shih Tzu is named Dolly Parton?”
I did not.
I meet a man named Jeremiah, who wears a bowtie and suspenders. Jeremiah is late seventies, an elderly version of Bernard P. Fife.
Jeremiah tells me his first wife passed sixteen years ago. He still misses her. Then, he shows me his left hand.
He wears a brand new gold ring.
“Just got married to a younger woman,” he says. “She’s practically a baby!”
His new wife is two months and four days younger than he is.
A child runs, hollering, laughing. The kid crashes into me so hard I almost spill my plate. His name is Chris, and he’s playing football with his brother.
Chris hands me the football. “Throw it!”
I’ve never been able to throw a spiral. I lob the ball like guy who couldn’t play competitive shuffleboard on an AARP cruise. The ball flops through the air. The kids ridicule me.
I meet a young woman. She has a pronounced limp and she is beautiful. Late twenties, wearing a sundress.
“I was in a car accident when I was thirteen,” she says. “Doctors said I’d never walk again.
Her mother kicked into high-gear. To fend off sadness, she threw parties.
“Parties?” I ask.
“Yep, parties,” she goes on. “Every Friday night for a few years. People came to eat and play games. There were ALWAYS people at our house, and food. I didn’t have time to be sad.”
And today she walks.
Thelma Lou sprints between my legs. And she’s gone. Three little girls are trailing behind Thel—who is making a serious attempt at breaking the sound barrier.
Musicians play a song that isn’t a church song, but it is pretty.
“Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head.”
The young band is singing the lyrics sweetly. My new friend Jeremiah is all ears. He can’t eat his chicken, he’s too busy listening.
“I like this song,” he says.
“Me, too,” says his adolescent bride.
As it happens, my mama loved this song, too. She would sing it to me when I was a kid. She sang it while she taught me to swim. It’s funny what a song can do. It can bring back a lot.
So I’m humming, eating a plate of baked beans and ‘tater salat.
I see Thelma Lou again. She runs toward me. She has flames behind her.
On her tail is a crowd of children, chasing her. Maybe six or seven kids. They are behind the canine demon. Thel dives into my arms. She’s soaking wet. And now, so am I.
And I’m grateful.
I’m grateful, though I don’t know what for. Grateful that I’m here. I’m grateful for songs about raindrops that make me think of my mother. Grateful for men in bowties who manage to find love. And for young women who defy the odds and walk when doctors tell them otherwise.
I’m grateful for little places in the country. Tiny chapels the whole world drives by without even looking at twice. Places with old church vans in the carports. And nice folks. People like you.
People who teach me that life isn’t about what you accomplish, but about who you get to love.
The song is over. Jeremiah kisses his wife. I kiss my dog. And I am making a solemn oath tonight that I will never feed Thelma Lou from the table hereafter.
But then again.
Just look at those eyes.