When I mention I have family living in the ‘black belt’ of Alabama, it is not unusual for a “pregnant pause,” (as my old English professor would say), to fill the air. The words, “black belt,” are tied to segregation and Selma, to the struggle for voting rights and a vicious assault on the Edmund Pettus bridge when a supposed man of the law attacked the future U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was struck by a club and nearly killed.
The “black belt” brings with it a sense of shame, but, in truth, the words are meant to describe the land, where, underfoot, the rich, loamy soil is perfect for growing cotton.
Driving today on two-lane roads from small town to small town, barren fields, once planted with cotton as far as the eye could see, are more likely rooted in soybeans. Cotton gins are empty reminders of those who picked cotton and have moved on to better lives.
There are still ghostly silhouettes of houses, stately, built to withstand mornings of heat and airless afternoons. River barges carrying cotton are history, but there is the surprise of churches, firm on their foundations, built in the days of King Cotton, their Tiffany stained glass windows framing slave balconies.
Our daughter lives in the town where Nathan Bedford Forrest sent his men home from the Civil War, knowing they would be imprisoned if the Northern army captured them. There is a statue dedicated to him and a yearly remembrance observed during a reenactment weekend when a Civil War battle on horseback is held in a field, shaded by ancient oak trees.
The oldest building in town is a coffin shop, standing before the Civil War began. It looks like an old wooden school house, but it is the place where too many young boys, felled by war, ended their earthly days.
Recently, near the town square, our Alabama daughter had a conversation with a man who is slowly peeling away layers of an old building and the remnants of a store it housed. He waxed poetic about the embossed tin ceiling, well-preserved, anchoring the place, which led our black belt kin to take a look.
She called to say there were a number of footlockers scattered around, all made of wood. When she opened the lid of one, it was overflowing with old turkey decoys.
Several had seen better days, but the big ‘Tom’ turkey sat squarely on his base, his “beard” a broach made of silk thread. His regal self was all of a piece save for his tail feathers, claimed by decades of stagnant air.
The curious local gardener, standing over the foot locker, unearthed half a dozen turkey hen decoys and another crumpled “Tom” turkey, once preening with his fan tail, now wrinkled, needing a patch for a leak.
The man in charge of leveling the building pointed to the decoys. “Take them with you,” he suggested. Our daughter struggled with armloads of dusty pretend turkeys, later driving them to her brother’s house in Birmingham.
We met her there, spending the weekend wiping clean turkey look-alikes, looking for substitute turkey “fans,” ordering stakes to hold the decoys in place should a November wind surprise the man-made birds.
That same Alabama girl will be in the thick of other runners and walkers who will share their Thanksgiving morning in Marietta, giving time and money for the important work of MUST Ministries, an organization of outreach, stocking food pantries, ministering to the homeless, providing summer lunches to schools and committed to the needs of women and children without shelter.
MUST Ministries’ Gobble Jog run and walk on Thanksgiving morning is a local event but has gained national interest. Last year, 45 states were represented in the race. From our front yard, we will be cheering on our Alabama kin. The turkey decoys, standing, (we hope), will serve as a welcoming committee, patched tail fans and all.
Hundreds of runners and walkers will keep our daughter company on a morning offering support for the work of a group pledging better lives for those in need.
All who run and walk on Thanksgiving morning, who set an extra place at the family table, remind us they are part of and in community, reaching out, offering concern for the plight of those whose lives need the steadfastness of caring neighbors.
This is the season when we speak of turkeys as our national “flock,” but aren’t we all in ‘flocks’ of a sort, finding our way together, holding back loneliness and grief, standing because of strength we see in one another?
Blessings to all who have found their way home, and, who, with generous hearts, help those who seek new paths. The great American experiment includes life in a land where second chances are color-blind and bravery includes getting out of bed every single day to begin again.
The “bountiful harvests” in seasons take root in rich soil, nourished by soft rains, but the “bountiful harvests” of friendships and family are the touchstones of our lives. We gather together, bound by gratefulness for all whom we love and who love us.
There’s even a name for the day. Happy Thanksgiving, good people! Happy Thanksgiving!