The Pounding

Recently, neighbors and colleagues in our ChapelHill  community were facing both cancer treatment for one of its members and an unfathomable family loss. A mutual friend organized meals to be brought several times a week, dropping off at the bench at their front door. I brought some lemon ginger rice, a mixed grilled of chicken, lamb and shrimp and my all-purpose Asian Red Cabbage slaw (see recipe) It is a tradition in many communities for folks to bring meals at such a time, but it was here in the South that I first experienced it first hand. This is my story.

There are times of deep sorrow and dark uncertainty in the course of nearly every family’s life when the simple act of a neighbor or friend can provide their souls with a respite of hope and clarity. When that act is one of sharing homegrown and handmade food, the heart and body are nourished as well. My mother and brothers and I were once recipients of such gifts.

We had returned to North Carolina in 1964. Thirteen years had passed since my mother had packed up my infant brother, Jon and brother Mark and I as toddlers there, to escape an abusive and alcoholic husband, my father. Ostensibly, we were escaping again when we left the brutal winters of Buffalo, New York to seek a simpler, slower life in a rural Piedmont community, not far from Lexington, North Carolina where my brothers and I and our father had been born. Our grandfather, came with us and we found a lakeside house surrounded by corn and cow pastures and stands of pine.

Rural North Carolina was a bit of a culture shock to the three of us, now teenagers who had grown up in a richly diverse ethnic neighborhood near the steel plants of South Buffalo. For children who had not had much opportunity to travel, this adventure was more like visiting a foreign country. We learned to ride school buses, catch catfish, eat hushpuppies, and drawl our syllables just enough to avoid the stares of classmates those first months of school.

But the largest surprise came on the hot summer morning when my father, whom none of us had laid eyes on for seven years, appeared at our door. In that moment of recognition, we gave up all pretense of what we had come so far for, and our ever present and fragile hope for family took shape and soared.

Our family reunion was to last a brief year and a half, doomed from the beginning by our own extravagant hopes and my father’s lifelong struggles with depression and substance abuse. My father, Jake Gurley, was a strikingly handsome and charismatic man who could tell a good story, fix a car, fly a plane, and rely on a keen intelligence to figure out almost anything but how to keep his life together. During his years away from us, he had finished college and seminary and returned as an ordained Baptist minister. Our life with him introduced us to the world of country churches, Sunday dinners on the lawn, Bible study, heartfelt hymn-singing, and the people of Lick Creek Baptist Church where he became a pastor.

The small congregation was made up of farmers, some of whom had worked the land for decades as did their forebears. There couldn’t have been more than 30 families who dotted the pews of the old white clapboard building. The graveyard, with stones dating back to the 18th century, traced their long history in the area not far from the wilderness of the Uwharrie National Forest. It wasn’t unusual for us to see deer along the roadside or an occasional hawk circling the sky above our heads as we drove there each Sunday morning. As the preacher’s family, we were given a special welcome and an occasional invitation to lunch with one of the congregant families.

I think my earliest appreciation of Southern home-style food came from my visits with the people of Lick Creek. I particularly loved the Coles, Columbus and Bessie, who were well into their seventies when we met. Mrs. Cole, especially, was the proverbial merry one with her generous laugh and honest-to-God rosy cheeks. I loved listening to her talk about how she baked this or sewed that and about which of her ancestors made each piece of the handmade furniture lovingly polished in her parlor. It seemed that everything they ate or used or bought came from their land or a neighbor’s orchard, a cousin’s smokehouse or a great grandfather’s skilled hand. I relish the memory of her fried chicken, biscuits and cornbread, bread and butter pickles, apple pie, and an occasional slab of home-cured country ham swapped at her table like family stories.

It was early in a chilly new year when one evening my father simply failed to return home after work. It was to be months before we knew his whereabouts and years before we saw him again. Word travelled quickly, the whisperings of my father’s failings no longer hidden to the community or to us.

So it was the Coles and their fellow churchgoers who brought to us, in the week following my father's disappearance, their gifts of food and love one cold January afternoon. They had organized a “pounding,” a quintessential Southern custom of gathering food, a “pound” donated by each family, for those in need of nurture and support. I returned from school that day to find my mother unloading laden baskets of canned sweet corn, chow chow, Brunswick stew, green beans, home-ground sausage meats, dried peas and beans, applesauce, and dozens of other packages. None of it came from grocery stores—the labels were handwritten on mason jars and freezer paper, some decorated with ribbons or a crocheted doily top. Everything was grown in the heart of Lick Creek.

We went about the task of silently putting away the food. And in the uncertain and grieving times that followed, there was the draw to the pantry that consoled me, the security of a freezer stocked full, the smoky sizzle of bacon one chilly morning that made getting out of bed worthwhile, the slow simmering of shelled beans on the stove after school, the smell of home, the feel of nurture, and knowing in my heart the full measure of those gifts.

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