The air conditioning unit was broken on that blistering, sweltering July morning inside the small country church where I sat melting in my pew.
Tucked away in the piney hills of Lawrence County, my grandparents insisted on going to church that Sunday morning. It was dinner on the grounds, and Maw Maw was ready to show off her fried chicken.
She could tell you it was to “fellowship in faith” all day, and of course there was some truth to that. But what my grandmother was most interested in was seeing Mrs. Agnes Belle squirm when she realized her batter wasn’t quite as good as Maw Maw’s.
The preacher had called the entire congregation the evening before and warned them that the AC unit shut down.
The next morning, the smell of hot fried chicken filled the house as Paw Paw and I got ready for church.
Maw Maw had been up since the crack of dawn to prepare her chicken so she was all ready to go before Paw Paw could even lather up his shaving cream good.
I sat in the floor, playing with a one-legged cricket, when Paw Paw came into the kitchen in his starchly-pressed, short sleeve dress shirt and tie.
“Go on and get your suit coat on,” Maw Maw yelled, putting her chicken in the platter normally reserved only for company. “You ain’t going to dinner on the grounds looking like a hobo.”
Paw Paw turned around just to make sure there wasn’t anybody behind him. There was no possibly way Maw Maw would suggest a hot, smothering coat on that day when the unit was out at church.
“Woman, don’t you remember the preacher calling and saying the unit is dead,” he said. “It’s gonna be hot as...”
“Watch your mouth,” Maw Maw interrupted. “Don’t curse on Sunday.”
Paw Paw said he refused to wear his hot coat and sweat all his weight off in the hot church. After a crack about how it wouldn’t hurt him to lose a few inches from his waist, Maw Maw put his coat on the chair.
It was the test of their 50-something years of marriage. Maw Maw barked orders while Paw Paw protested. It looked like it might be a battle to the death to determine who would be victorious.
“Well, we might as well sit here and look at each other,” Paw Paw said, filling his pipe. “Cause I ain’t wearing a coat today.”
About 20 minutes later....
“Baby, fix my coat collar down so it ain’t bent,” Paw Paw asked me, as we barrelled our way down the highway to the church.
Sweat was already beginning to pour down Paw Paw’s face, and Maw’s Maw’s face powder was starting to cake up as the Mississippi sun beat down upon that Ford station wagon.
The station wagon didn’t have an air conditioner either. It went out in the summer of 1986, and Maw Maw refused to spend all of $75 to fix it.
When we arrived at the church, we looked like something out of 1950s science fiction movie. Our clothes were literally wet. Our faces were red and beaded with sweat. Our hair was flat, and our clothes were stained.
Maw Maw’s red lipstick was fading. Paw Paw’s coat weighed 20 more pounds from sweat. And my giant bow had wrinkled upon my head, stuck up against my forehead.
After carrying that platter of chicken to the fellowship hall, Maw Maw made her way over to her “pew friends.”
“Look at them,” Paw Paw said, pointing to the ladies. “They are already talking about who brought what dish. They live for this day.”
The services continued, but I noticed the elder ladies of the church kept squirming in their pews. I wasn’t sure if it was the Holy Spirit or what, but those pews were shaking that day.
After the final prayer and handshakes and backslaps, we all made our way into the fellowship hall to grab a plate.
But as soon as we entered...
Mrs. Frances Lambert let out a shriek that shook the entire building. Pretty soon, a few other ladies started slapping their cheeks and gasping for air. One lady even grabbed the wall to keep herself from falling over.
“Now, now ladies, I know it’s hot in here,” the preacher said. “Let’s all take our plates out in the cool breeze and...”
And then he saw what the commotion was about. The dessert table looked like a bomb had landed in the middle of it.
Half the desserts had melted into oozing, gobs of mystery. The heat from the building had transformed perfection into pandemonium.
“That’s it,” Paw Paw said, removing his coat. “Might as well get comfortable.”
As Mrs. Lambert continued to let out cries of disappointment under the massive oak trees, the ladies assured her that her dessert dish was still wonderful.
“It ain’t a dessert no more,” Paw Paw snickered. “It’s a soup.”
It may have been the abundance of fried chicken or the possibility of a heat stroke, but I looked around that small yard and smiled.
There we all were at church. Sweating and moaning over the loss of dessert, but it was still a good day.
You can always get beat down, lose the battle and sweat a little. But it’s having those who matter beside you to make it all a breeze.
“Baby, wipe the sweat off my face,” Paw Paw said, squinting his eyes. “I got chicken grease all on my hands.”
I giggled as I cleaned him up. And then took a big sip of Mrs. Frances’ cream soup.