LIVING MEMORY

By John Thomas Tuft

On the first night of the annual FAWG Festival this year Margaret McMeade flirted with Pastor Cletus in an outrageous display of attempting to sway one of the key judges in the Baked Goods contest. But, she explained, “everyone is so tired of that Nellie Goodson winning the blue ribbon in both cakes and pies. For the last ten years, mind you, she’s smiled sweetly and walked off with the acclamation as the Baker Supreme.” Pastor Cletus, who looked like an old gunslinger with the droopy white mustache, swept back silvery pompadour, and black ribbon bow tie, gave a not unkind smile and did his best Yoda impression. “Do or do not. Trying is an option not.” Margaret fluttered her eyelashes one last time and laid one hand on Cletus’ arm. “But she’s not even a member of Creeper Creek Community Church, Pastor!”

For the uninitiated, The First Autumnal Waxing Gibbus Festival is an annual  three day celebration for the entire town of Creeper Creek during the waxing phase of the first full moon after the autumnal equinox. Rows of canned jars of pickled beets, pickled hogs’ feet, okra, homemade sauerkraut, or whatever one’s heart desired to pickle and preserve, including fruit preserves, sat proudly displayed in countless booths, with the ladies of the Creeper Creek Community Church Women’s Auxiliary bustling about organizing, exclaiming and secretly, or not so secretly, coveting each other’s best work. The tent pavilion in the center is the tabernacle of baked goods, the hotly contested battle for Baker Supreme designation for from scratch pies and cakes, and to a lesser extent breads and cookies. Just beyond the tabernacle stood the fine display of the Quilting Guild, a riot of colors and schemes and patterns that brought oohs and ahs–but no boasting. Heavens no, quilters do not boast. The work is the reward.

For two days and two nights, the field behind the small, frame edifice that represents the Creeper Creek Community Church, filled with crowds streaming in past the old sign out front that still uses the metal letters that invariably get lost or jumbled in ways of indeterminate inspiration. “Livers for Jesus” appeared one week when nearsighted Old Ray misread the bulletin notes. His overcorrection to “Liars for Jesus” did not help matters any, either, but the Spirit moves in mysterious ways all agreed. Living for Jesus includes livers and liars of all persuasion. The FAWG Festival was for everyone, and Brother Brown of the African Episcopal Methodist Congregation encouraged his flock to participate.  Matter of fact, it was Brother Brown and Pastor Cletus who put their heads together one year and came up with the Living Memory grand finale for the festival. It is as much a result of common sense as it is an opportunity for radical transformation in a community. Even more so than Livers or Liars for Jesus, but I am getting ahead of myself. I’m Presbyterian. All shall be revealed decently and in order…

With booths lining the perimeter and the baking tabernacle in the center, portable outhouses off to one end of the field, the other end is used for a makeshift stage and benches in a crude semicircle. At the end of the third evening of the FAWG Festival, all gather in this mock-up of a Coliseum. Quilts are auctioned off and the awards and ribbons are duly awarded, the last and crowd favorite always being the Supreme Baker. And yes, much to Margaret’s consternation, Nellie won an eleventh time. Then while the joint choirs of Creeper Creek Community and the African EM sang a medley of gospel and popular music, the banner of Living Memory was hung high overhead and the ushers solemnly carried in the assortment of card tables and set them up on the stage, around the stage, anywhere there is room. When the singing concludes, the fine folks of Creeper Creek get down to the business at hand.

At a signal, all those who wish to, proceed to a small table, place a name placard, and lay upon it the talismans of their memories. Pictures, letters, ticket stubs, locks of hair, drawings, slave ship manifests, autographs, jewelry, photographs, newspaper clippings of violence like lynchings and beatings, and those of marriages. Clippings of birth notices and death notices. Ribbons of fairs and ribbons of war. Mother of pearl cameos and mother’s pearl earrings. Union cards, draft cards, birthday cards. Memories are carefully placed and noted. Then the Quilting Guild distributes a homemade dump bag they’ve created for this very purpose to all those entrusted with the sacrament of Living Memory. When everyone has a bag, Pastor Cletus says a prayer and Brother Brown starts a clapping beat.

At this signal, the people approach and examine the memories. When they make a choice, they sign a pledge card with the owner of those talismans. Then it all goes into the dump bag. For the next year they have agreed to live with that other person’s memories. For a year, they are entrusted to keep the other’s memories alive. Examine them, touch them, and if they don’t know the story of a particular memory, it is their responsibility to ask the owner to tell them. That is why, on any given night in Creeper Creek, porches are abuzz. Barber shops kept open late. The local diner brought in extra folding chores. Worship services delayed by extended coffee hours. It is all because of the Living Memory project. Living with someone else’s memories until the next FAWG Festival.

I hope to see you there next time…do or do not…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.