And about five thousand were fed. ~ Matthew 14:21
Difficult people can get lost.
My uncle Mike was a very difficult person. This fact wasn’t too hard for me to bear because I didn’t see him very much, but it was really hard for my mother. These two grew up together in a spectacularly abusive home and that’s never easy. Always. Hard.
Alcohol and rage are fierce bedfellows. Add poverty to the mix and you’ve got yourself a triple threat. A messy recipe for disaster.
On my mother’s wedding day (she was just barely eighteen and had to get out of there), Mike came to her bedside (he was eleven and too young yet to escape) and woke her up. On his knees he was. Praying? Pleading? Begging. “Please don’t get married today, sissy (tears). If you get married and leave me here, I’ll be the saddest boy in Mississippi” (more tears). “Who will make my breakfast toast and pack my lunch for school?”
One doesn’t forget things like that.
Little Boy Mike grew up and became Grown-Up Mike. The child of two profound alcoholics, so it is no real surprise that he grew up to be one, too. We all know what the studies say about these things – 25 percent of children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves ….
God, help us.
When I was a kid, I thought Mike was really cool. It was the ‘70’s and he lived in a Colorado hippie commune and drank Red Zinger Tea with his very groovy girlfriend. We visited him once when I was about fifteen and my brother was about twelve ~ we sat on a mountaintop with snow peaks in the background and were quite impressed that Mike and his girlfriend had equally long hair. She wore cool long skirts and brought a picnic basket with hippie food in it ~ granola, hummus, sprouts ~ so different from the Southern Baptist food we ate in Tennessee ~ fried pickles, fried potatoes, fried pies.
My brother and I talked about Red Zinger Tea for a very long time after that – we still do sometimes. When Mike finally left the commune, he became a chef ~ self-taught from his mother’s Delta/Cajun handwritten recipes ~ and actually did all the cooking for my wedding after-party. Mike was not drinking that night; he was trying to be a good uncle for the wedding. He made swans out of squashes and the elegant sandwiches with cucumbers and fancy aioli and no crusts. He was the chef-in-charge of my big, fat, fun, wedding party where people said things like, “Are you a chef?” and “I didn’t know your uncle was such a great cook” and “You should consider opening a catering business!”
He once cheffed at a country club in Memphis where wealthy people gave him great tips and encouraged him to open his own business some day. “You really could do this!” they would say. Pleased brides and their mothers cooed and his nieces and nephews renamed him “Good-Food-Mike!”
What hope there is in a new name.
Clean starched white coats and stiff tall chef hats that smelled of lemon and garlic and the beginnings of respect.
There were good nights.
But there were just too many bad nights. Demons from his haunted Mississippi past wouldn’t stop chasing him down lonely, dark roads like his own father had done that hot, drunken night, butcher knife in hand. Scary fathers and demons-in-dreams tipped the scales and the bad just became heavier than the good and the terrified little boy had to go somewhere so he just kept choosing to hide in a bottle.
Hiding and no seeking. The substance of shadows.
Uncle Mike lived with my parents off and on for many years. They gave him a car one time, and he wrecked it, floorboards laden with vodka bottles. It was a few days before they found him, wrecked car and bottles, all in a drainage ditch.
They gave him a poodle named Inky as a companion, and he let Inky get so fat that he died. Death by excess. An American commentary?
My father once said, “Mike, if you are going to live with us, please don’t smoke in the house,” and Mike said, “Of course ~ I would never smoke in your house” but he did it anyway and fell asleep in bed with a lit cigarette and nearly set the house on fire.
Sometimes there are last straws. Things finally break camels’ backs.
If rescue missions had point systems, then my Uncle Mike would have had platinum card status. A frequent flyer he was, in and out of the best of the best missions throughout the South. One good thing about Mike was he always left his mark – he painted murals on the mission walls at Calvary and verses on the mission canvases at Union, and he sang a pure and strong tenor line to all the hymns played by volunteer hands on tinny pianos. Surely Good-Food-Mike holds the world record for number of burgers flipped on mission grills. But Mike’s sojourns always ended the same unfortunate way, with him flying all too frequently out the door, onto the street, and back into the bottle.
He always found his message in a bottle. Finding what he should be losing.
Grown-Up-Homeless-Bottled Uncle Mike finally went to live in a mission in Jackson, Mississippi. This ended up being easier for everybody, though it always made my mother weepy and quiet when he called.
She cried years of tears over Mike.
“All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said. Jesus said, “Bring them here.” He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples.
Blessed. Broke. Gave. Fed.
The Son of God came to feed the hungry. He came to find and restore the broken. Evidently so did Brother Rosco at the men’s rescue mission in Jackson. Thank God.
A small miracle ~ is there such a thing? ~ occurred at Brother Rosco’s mission that had not happened at any of the other missions or on any of the park benches or bus stations or homeless shelters of Mike’s checkered history. Mike’s miracle didn’t include walking on any Gulf Coast water nor turning loaves and fishes into fried chicken and catfish.
He simply settled in. Maybe he just got tired of running, but Mike unpacked and allowed himself to begin to be loved and fed and restored by one who came to seek and save the lost, a simple savior with dirty fingernails and seemingly endless patience with men in bottles.
At Brother Rosco’s urging, Good-Food-Mike began to cook meals for the mission men, not just burgers and dogs but complicated country club menus of sandwiches with fancy mayonnaise and swans made out of squashes and roasted red pepper hummus and steak on the grill. Lunches and dinners peppered with grace and care and attention. Food fit for. Kings? The men started calling him “Chef” ~ oh, the importance of a name! The Newly-Named-Mike felt an unexpected breath of self-respect in the warm and humid Mississippi breezes. It came slowly, as most things do in the Mississippi heat, but it did come.
Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.”
Several redemptive, peaceful years passed. Cooking and eating and living beside Roscoe-the-Restorer. Chef Mike made seafood gumbo from a New Orleans recipe he had found in his mother’s dilapidated cookbook. Bits of crab and crawfish occasionally made their way to the mission. As did meringues and shrimp dip and chicken-fried chicken. Bottles replaced with manna from a Mississippi heaven. And with manna always comes hope.
The steady return of faith sprinkled with a touch of respect, slow-cooked on a flame.
And about five thousand were fed. Loaves and fishes broken for the broken.
There were still plenty of hard times – month after month – when Brother-Mike would call his sister and say, “I’m leaving this mission. I’m better now – I’m not drinking anymore. I’m getting out of here. I’m better than this.” His Sister-Pat would beg him to stay, “You’re doing so well there, Mike. Who will cook for them if you go? What about the gumbo and the chocolate-chip cookies and the homemade sour dough bread? Don’t give up now. Please stay.”
He stayed. A miracle.
One day my mother got a phone call from Brother Rosco, who said in a small, still voice, “I have sad news for you. Chef died today.” Everyone cried.
I spoke at Mike’s funeral, as did my brother. We reminisced about Red Zinger Tea and hippie food as we sat in the stiff wooden pews of the funeral home chapel in the sweltering early summer heat. The chapel was not full. A few of my parents’ friends made the trip from Memphis and about eight men from the mission came in, straight from the over-heat of the un-air-conditioned mission van. Sweaty mission men who were very serious and all wore coats and ties for the occasion.
Men on a mission.
My brother spoke hope from the Bible and reminded us that God’s redemption is for everyone, and we all said, “That’s right.” I recalled what Lord Tennyson said in a similar circumstance, when his friend had died, “I hold it true, whate’er befall;/I feel it, when I sorrow most;/’Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all,” and we all said, “That’s right, too.”
It was Brother Rosco’s turn to speak ~ that’s when we heard the gentle voice of God. He was a plain-spoken man. “Here are some the men whose lives were touched by Mike. Men, which of you would like to stand today and tell Chef’s sister about the last years of his life?”
The used-to-be-homeless stood to speak, one man straightening his unaccustomed tie, shuffling his newly-shod feet. “Chef made me food like I never tasted before. One time he made us some herb-infused butter for our bread. I didn’t know there was food like that. He treated me like a king.”
Another mission man said, “Chef kept homemade chocolate-chip cookies and candy in his room for all of us men. Ain’t nobody ever done that for me before.”
A tall elegant-looking man, also with newly-shined shoes, said shyly, “Mike was my teacher. He helped me to learn to read. I learned to read the Bible.” He knelt down a bit and looked my mother square in the face and said with unexpected authority, “Your brother changed my life.” Dignity where there had been none.
Love breathes life into the ashes of failure like leaven in a loaf.
The soft quiet was our music.
We drove the dusty red dirt roads to the country cemetery together, just a few cars of us, and the mission van arrived a bit late, stirring the red dust anew after its settle.
My brother said some words ~ Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. My father, who had helped for so many years with so little hope, said some thankful brother-in-law words to God and to Brother Rosco. The service was concluded and we all moved toward hugs and home when Brother Rosco said to the men, “Men, don’t you have something for Chef’s sister?”
The tall, shy, elegant-looking man scooted forward on the muddy green-felt funeral carpet and produced a bouquet of fresh daisies magician-like from behind his back, supermarket price tag was still stuck to one of the white daisy petals, unnoticed by the giver.
He knelt before my mother and presented the daisies to her with that same quiet dignity. “Ma’am,” he began, “Sorry we was a minute late. We put our monies together and got you these at the Snappy Sacker. We wanted to get some flowers for the sister of the man who saved us. He fed us all – stomach and soul.”
“There’s a little boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But that’s a drop in the bucket for a crowd like this.”
A drop in the bucket. It seems it only takes a drop.
With God, little becomes much.