It was a Monday and I had a meeting out of town…all the way in Greenville, NC. I was supposed to carpool but my partner cancelled so I was on my own. Riding solo on a cloudy day, I took the direct route on my favorite steed to Covenant Church and sat through my meeting. I enjoyed lunch with colleagues and then I was on my own. I needed to get back to Raleigh but being in a once familiar town, I felt the call of a peculiar dog. Bill’s Hot Dogs is not all that far in the next big town east…Washington. The sky was clearing as my mind was fogging over so I didn’t fight my Kawasaki’s urge to go further east before heading back west. I took roads less travelled and saw the once familiar as the voice of nostalgia filled my soul.
I pulled in and parked quickly, eager to shed layers meant to protect but were beginning to get cumbersome in the warming air. I saw her at the table, you know, the only one in the shade. I didn’t have time to waste and I didn’t need the calories of a hot dog but this was about something more primal than need. A man never needs to ride a motorcycle or sit by the waterfront in Washington in late September and he certainly never needs a spicy Bill’s Hot Dog…but it is sometimes what he gets…and I did that day. I hoped she’d leave. I wanted the table to myself in mid-afternoon. I wanted quiet reflection. I wanted to talk to my maker about the messes I’ve made and about what I still hoped to make of myself. I grabbed the too tall bottle of Diet Dew and my hot dog and his friend because I wouldn’t want just one to get lonely. I headed out to the table in the shade. She was still there…
She was well dressed and wearing a hat like a proper lady would. Her dark skin glistened like chocolate, delicate and delicious but well worn with at least 70 or 80 years in the sun. She was classy but I wouldn’t exactly call her fashionable…at least not in the last decade. She was wearing a mostly blue dress, denim I think…and there was a floral pattern on the top that matched the sunflower in the straw hat she wore. I was wearing slacks and didn’t want to sit on the wall and fight the fire ants. I didn’t want to be antisocial either, but deep down I was. I didn’t want her to think it was her age or her skin that sent me another way, because it certainly wasn’t. I just didn’t want to talk to another soul…at least not one that was wearing any skin of any kind or color that afternoon.
Maybe I was wearing my conversation on my face. I’ve been told that I talk to myself and that people can tell when I am. It seems there is always a conversation going on behind my eyes and that sometimes other people can see in through my furrowed brow. In any case, she called to me in a voice gentle and soothing yet cracked with an aged beauty that drew me in. “Come on over son,” she said. “I’ve been expecting you.” There was a richness beyond description to the slow Southern drawl that can never be mimicked. A few friendly faces beckoned to me from childhood memories all at once in her call. I must’ve stopped dead in my tracks and looked peculiar, as if I ever look anything else. “I saved you a seat,” she said with a smile in her words and on her face. She rubbed the rough and worn picnic table bench. I sat on the far end on the same side as she. How could I say no?
“A hot dog is good for the soul some days” she continued the conversation all on her own. How did she know? I like the taste of a Bill’s Hot Dog more than most dogs and probably more than most people…but that’s not why I came. My soul was weary and I came to the water to be watered and the hot dog was just the excuse to get me there. “It’s a big job you’ve got there” and she paused as I looked at her. Who was this woman? I had started out irritated that she was there but now I sat in awe and confused wonder. She bid me come and I couldn’t say no and now I was under her spell…maybe it was under her shadow that I was sitting as her student that came to learn that day. “You a pastor aren’t you son?” she said. “God’s people always be a need’n somethin’.” How true! I had unwrapped my hot dog and his friend, opened the Diet Dew and sat. I usually offer a grace before I eat but today, I took a bite instead of speaking to her or to the Lord. I chewed. It was good. She watched. And waited. Who was she?
Whoever she was, I had her all to myself. She looked at me and saw right into me. At one point I glanced around to see if I saw someone I knew…someone who may have given her some information about me. It was clear this wasn’t a joke but she seemed to know too much…or at least more than she should and how was that possible? I didn’t see anyone. She was there. Waiting. Engaged and engaging…at the table we now shared. At first, I had wanted the table to be mine and all to myself but now, I am clearly a guest at her table and it was she who had bid me come.
For a moment, I was about 5 years old and sitting under my grandmother’s elm tree in Haw River. My grandmother was nearing her final days and a special friend came to help her stay in her own home until that day which was yet to be. Katie. That’s all I ever knew…she was Katie…and I loved her…and she loved me. She played my games with interest and held my hand when we walked and I learned things from Katie. Neither she nor we had much. I think the family paid her about $10 a day to cook and clean, but mostly keep company with grandmother. She lived nearby and she was family. She didn’t come for the money although I’m sure it helped. She came because she saw a neighbor in need and it’s what we do in the rural south. We tend to our people and raise our children and she was helping to raise me in ways I wouldn’t know until I had my own children. I wished I could have her or my grandmother back for just a few minutes to ask how. I remember swinging gently and she’d stroke my hair and I marveled at her beautiful dark skin and how different it was from my own. God makes us all beautiful…but in different ways because God can…and does…
“You just been sent haven’t you son?” She was talking still. I was snapped back from 1974 to the present and remembered to chew again. The hot dog was good and spicy and the water was soothing. I took a long pull from the too tall Diet Dew and looked her in the eyes. Those eyes…piercing and penetrating and dark brown or black( I couldn’t tell). They were windows to a soul much older than mine…and wiser too…sometimes you can tell.
“Yes Ma’am,” I answered. It was the first words I spoke to her. More followed. “Bishop sent me to a church in Raleigh. Asbury. It’s wonderful and different, very different from any I’ve served before.” I gave her my card.
“You came here to pray, didn’t you son?” I answered her again with “yes ma’am” and it felt like the only response I could give this woman. It was right. She was right. And I hoped to be right with her and God. At 47 I don’t get called “son” much anymore. From some people I wouldn’t have liked it. But I did from her.
“Why don’t you tell me what you want to pray about and I’ll pray for you son.” I swallowed another bite and told her my prayer requests. I get a lot of requests but it is so very rare for someone to ask a prayer request from the pastor. Our souls get weary and worn as we give and give…like a pitcher that pours and pours but runs out when it doesn’t stop pouring long enough to be filled. I told her about the young man just diagnosed with cancer and the older man trying to live past Christmas. I told her about my children and my hopes and fears for my oldest that lives with me. I shared my brokenness, my hopes and my dashed dreams…not exactly all at once but pretty much. I was finishing my last dog when she took my hands in hers and began to pray. I didn’t close my eyes. I don’t remember what she said. I remember how she held my hand. I remember how her voice sounded. I remember how her hands looked…sweet, clean, dark, worn. I imagined they had held a baby or two. I think she must’ve worked in a garden or two too…just like me. The veins stood up on the back of her hands which meant she’d done work…real work…and kneaded dough and made biscuits that may have tasted just like my grandma’s.
The prayer was over and so was my 2nd lunch of the day. I sat for a while before she told me to go for a walk. “It’s why you came,” she said. I did want to walk for a bit. I carry a pedometer and I get nervous when the steps are low at this time of day. I gathered my things and said my goodbye. Her last words to me were “I’ll be praying for you son.” And I walked off.
I enjoyed my walk. Somewhere out of sight along the boardwalk in Washington I realized I never asked her name. Who was this mystery woman? I’d have to ask her name. I hastened back, not finishing the whole walk. She wasn’t there when I got back. I stopped the harbor keeper and asked if he knew. She had smiled and nodded at everyone who walked by, including him, as if she knew them all well. He didn’t know who I was talking about. I stood there a moment. Wondering…
I got back on my bike and rode away. I had found more than I was looking for that day. My pitcher had stopped pouring long enough to be filled again and this water was alive. I had received a gift that day. I was thankful. I still am…