Overcooked peas, macaroni drowning in Velveeta colored cheese, jello, applesauce in little plastic bowls, burnt coffee and a big basket of Sweet-n-Low. I looked around, desperately trying to find something I actually wanted to eat.
“I know what you mean,” said Teresa, noticing my hesitation and gently touching my shoulder. “Hard to choose, huh?”
I did a double take to make sure she was serious. She was. So I mustered up a smile. It was then I saw the chicken. Ok, so maybe there was more skin than meat but it still seemed like my best bet. I decided on white rice and iced tea, too. Everyone knows that no one does iced tea like the Southerners.
I was invited to the cafeteria on South Estes Drive by the Board. My Board. A group of seven public housing residents, all women, who oversaw the non-profit that my boss and I ran in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was unusual to hold a board meeting at a restaurant but then everything about living in the South and working in public housing communities was unusual (and stimulating!) to me so I thought nothing of it.
“I think I better tell them I’m leaving. Do you think this is a good time?” I looked over at Teresa, one of the most beautiful women, inside and out, that I had ever met.
“Why don’t you just wait and see how things feel. You’ll know.”
She was wise, too.
Intermittently, like ants across town who heard about a new and especially delicious picnic, the board members trickled in. They got their food, pulled their wood chairs out from beneath the big round table, and joined me.
“You’re probably wondering why we invited you here, Brynne.”
I looked up from my chicken, wiped my fingers on a napkin so small and thin it could have been a toilet paper square, and gulped. I hadn’t.
“Well, this lunch is for you.”
“For me?” I didn’t understand.
“Teresa said you’re leaving us.”
I looked around at the beaten-down, courageous, soul-driven women as they stopped eating to look toward me, their eyes filled with kindness and care.
“Its not gonna be the same without you, Miss Brynne. You cared, you really cared. About us, about our children, about our communities. We saw it and felt it and appreciate it. Still now. We’re sad to see you go.” They were smiling now. Not a one eating, their hands folded in their laps.
“I’m gonna miss you, too. More than you know.” I said. I really didn’t want to cry. But moments like this, when I could practically taste my heart and the hearts of those around me, it was hard not to. These women had changed my life, given me insights into myself and others that would alter my whole life trajectory.
“And while we don’t have a lot to give you,” someone cleared their throat.
I shook my head no, please….
“we do have something special for you that we hope you’ll like. It’s a thank you of sorts. And a 'please don’t forget us'.”
Her smile lit up the room.
Before I knew what was happening, the eight women at my table began to sing. And not just sing, but sing. The rest of the cafeteria fell silent. Not a chair, not a dish, not even a fork moved. We were all frozen. Harmony, voices like sweet molasses, soul and spirit and love all mixed into one as Amazing Grace echoed through each of us, its sweet sound softening me into a puddle so deep I could have covered the whole town with my love. I sat, mesmerized, my hands clasped to my heart, my eyes wet with disbelief. Was it true that the cadence found it way out the door, lifting wilted flowers and sending birds still higher? Was it true that shoppers next door stopped for a moment to hear the gentle rustling inside their hearts? Was it true that life got just a little lighter that day not just for me but for everyone who could hear the beauty belting from their ever-resilient souls?
That’s how I’d like to remember it. So that’s how it shall always be.