I was winding my way through the backwoods of Mississippi on the fifth day of what I hope will be a three week trip to photograph the rural South. I was thirty or more miles southeast of Meridian and I was getting hungry for lunch, but a town big enough to support a café was some ways off. I passed a small building with an RC Cola machine out front and a hand lettered sign that said “fresh catfish”. I thought it looked promising, so I pulled in.
I walked in the door and realized it wasn’t a café at all, but a small retail food store, albeit an improvised one. There were no windows and the food was laid out on folding tables and makeshift shelves. Oh, well, I thought. I’ll just have to wait to eat.
As I started to back into my car I noticed a young woman sitting on the front porch of the small ranch house next to the store. I waved and she stood up and hurried into the house. I was close enough to see that she had Down syndrome and I guess I had startled her. I didn’t want to make anyone nervous, so I stood by my open car and waited to see if someone would come out. Within moments an older woman stuck her head out of the screen door.
“Can I help you?” she called.
She didn’t seem suspicious, only curious. I explained I was looking for lunch and was sorry to have bothered her.
“There’s a diner in Quitman. And a Hardee’s, I think. They’re about a half hour from here.” She paused, then, “Where’re you from?”
I explained I was from Atlanta and was passing through on a trip through rural areas taking photographs along the way.
“Well,” she said, “you’ve got to see our church. It was built in 1873. It’s one of the oldest in Mississippi. It’s just back that way,” she pointed the way I had come.
I told her I was really doing mostly portraits and would she have a few minutes to come with me to the church to sit for one.
“Oh, no! I haven’t had time to even brush my hair today and I’m in the middle of cooking for a church supper tonight. But I know someone who’d be happy to. Let me call her,” she said as she went back inside. The younger woman peeked out the door for a minute until the older one came back out.
“Sue’d be happy to, but she can’t for twenty minutes. If you want, you can come on in and wait and I’ll feed you lunch.”
“Well, that’d be great,” I said and went up the stairs into the house.
It was cluttered, but seemed clean. She cleared a small space at the kitchen table for me and as I walked over, she held out her hand.
“I’m Pat. This is Dixie. She’s twenty-nine.” I shook Pat’s hand and Dixie offered her’s, as well. I noticed she was wearing a fairly gaudy Christmas sweater.
“Nice sweater, Dixie,” I said. She giggled.
“I have some leftover pulled pork with beef liver chopped up in it I can put over some rice, if that’s OK,” Pat said.
“Sounds good,” I said, hoping it would be tolerable.
She put a large plastic dish in a microwave and turned it on. She bustled around, made me some toast, and continued working in the kitchen. I’m not entirely clear what she was making, but it involved what appeared to be dehydrated potatoes that came out of a large red box. We talked as she worked. She wanted to know about my family and what my wife’s name was. She told me she had buried two husbands, the first from “the cancer” and the second after a tractor had turned over on him. She was on her third now, a preacher and retired maintenance worker. That’s why she was cooking. It’s the wife’s job to do most of the cooking for church dinners apparently.
As we talked, Dixie would come and go from the kitchen. I soon realized she was wearing a different outfit every time she came back, each with a Christmas theme. By the third time, she had reached her pinnacle. Her sweater was decorated with ornaments and little wrapped packages and bows and on her head was “deely bobbers” in the shape of Santa Claus.
At some point, Pat turned the conversation to politics. Dangerous ground, I thought, but let’s see where this goes.
I told her that I thought both candidates had had serious flaws and she agreed with me. Without specifically asking, it was clear she wanted to know who I voted for. I admitted voting for Hillary and she said she had voted for Trump.
“I used to like Bill Clinton,” she said. “That is, until he passed that law saying that anyone pregnant with a Down syndrome baby had to have an abortion. That definitely soured me on him. I mean, my Dixie has been such a blessing, you know?”
“I can imagine,” I said. I considered saying, Wow, I don’t remember that. Or maybe, What? Are you serious? But I thought better of it and just let it go. I was pleased when the phone rang and Pat answered it and said, “I’ll send him right over.”
“Why don’t you take Dixie with you,” she said. “You can drop her back here when you’re done.”
“Well, sure,” I said. We went out to the car and I cleared the front seat of my various supplies and crap to make room for my passenger. I briefly wondered whether Pat often sent her disabled daughter off in cars with total strangers.
Immediately after we pulled into the gravel drive of the church, a large SUV pulled in, too. Sue Pearson got out and introduced herself after getting a big hug from Dixie.
We went inside the beautiful little chapel and Sue told me about its history. After some reorganization in the Methodist Church in the 1940s, most of its parishioners went to other churches leaving this one more or less abandoned. Eventually some local people banded together to preserve the building and now it has services only once a year, but they have an endowment big enough to ensure the upkeep for the foreseeable future. Sue is the secretary of the board that oversees that process.
I shot her portrait sitting in the pews and then, as I started to pack my gear I saw Dixie standing there, so I asked her if she wanted her picture taken, too.
Afterwards, I drove Dixie back home and Pat came out to greet us. I got out to thank her again for her generosity, feeding me and setting up my portrait with Sue.
“Well,” she said, “sometimes you meet someone and you just know they’re good people. I felt that way about you.”
Thank you, Pat. You clearly have a big heart and I appreciate that.