You pull up to the little grocery store in a distinguished area of a small west-Georgia river city, near the country club and a ladies dress shop named after a Confederate novel. There are beautiful old homes here, and old white people of the genteel and eccentric kind that live on mostly in Southern caricature now. They’re endangered, often literally: a mass murderer stalked this area a couple decades back, and they were his primary targets.
This little grocery store has always been named after a real person, Lewis Jones. Despite its spiffy facade and a turn towards the gourmet and organic in recent years, it’s spiritual kin to the quirky little stores you grew up with on the Alabama side of the river: the Piggly Wiggly at Ladonia, the Big Town in Hurtsboro, Bush’s in Crawford, with their bunches of grapes on styrofoam trays and faint, pleasant smell of raw meat from the counter at the back and pantyhose with pictures of smiling black ladies on the labels and endless varieties of rat poison and snuff. Cashiers smiled and chatted and pushed your purchases unhurriedly down a steel slide toward the bagging area; no rolling conveyor belts in those days. “‘Kind ‘a’ sack you want these in, honey?” they’d ask your mama. “Paper,” she’d say. “Got more uses for a paper sack.” You know going in that this is the place to find that ingredient for the recipe your grandmother wrote in shorthand on an index card, and if you can’t find it here, you probably won’t find it anywhere. There is at once something threatened and stubborn about the atmosphere in these stores, something that holds on.
But today as you pull up to this store, men are taking down the familiar swooping script of Lewis Jones’ name and replacing it with a Piggly Wiggly logo. That’s ok – you’re down with the Pig. And this store will likely still have what you need – among other things, a jar or two of sorghum syrup. Your mama’s Southern Living had an article about sorghum, with some recipes. Much as you disapprove of Southern Living’s turn in the ’90s toward recipes beginning with “Open a bag of frozen….,” they’ve been working toward self-redemption with articles about actual Southern food (a little healthy competition from Garden & Gun is good for everyone.)
The syrup aisle, of course, is copious, with colorful 1950s-style labels and profoundly regional brands– Alaga, Plow Boy, Diamond — below the stuff you’d find anywhere, Karo and Log Cabin. There are smiling Aunt Jemimas. There are bold reds and blues and yellows. There is dust on the jars on the bottom row. So many of the old people who grew up eating those syrups and served them up every morning in their own kitchens are dead. You remember the best poem anyone ever wrote about syrup nostalgia, which is also about mourning the elderly, and the worlds they take with them when they go. You think of Hal Crowther’s great observation that “Americans never turn sentimental about something of real value — wilderness, wild animals, small towns, baseball, mountain music, our privacy — until the way we live and do business has pressed it to the edge of extinction. Then we administer affectionate last rites to everything we failed to love enough.” People still make syrup with mules, but more often those giant kettles at the center of those circles are forgotten under old farm sheds, or at best preserved as fetish objects in antique shops, which you scorn although you have been scheming (unsuccessfully) to get just such an old syrup kettle away from your father. With a stab of loss, and longing, you think of the gentle voices of the old men and women, black and white, whom you have known, their peculiarly innate generational grace and dignity, the way that grace is braided into the history of their tumultous South like cancer twines through a living, supple spine. You hope they can feel how you love them now, and how you always did. You know it should have been more. You fear it was never quite enough.
There’s no sorghum syrup here. Two store clerks, both under 30, come to help you; neither one has any idea what you’re talking about. “Sorghum?” they ask. “How do you spell that?” They fetch from the deli a lady of your mama’s age, who knows immediately what you’re looking for; in her eyes is the same ruefulness you feel in your own. “When we got bought out, the food distribution company changed too,” she says. “We had the sorghum and fewer people were buying it, so…” Hunkered next to the dusty jars on the lower shelf, for a moment she looks sad. “We used to have it,” she says. “I’m really sorry.”
But there is one more place to try: Mr. Lonnie’s fruit and vegetable stand, back on the Alabama side of the river. Mr. Lonnie has had a stand in that place beside Highway 431 since before the new 431 went in. Lonnie’s Market, says the sign, over neat ranks of green tomatoes and peppers and corn and — today — jars of sorghum syrup with red-lettered labels. “Last three jars,” Mr. Lonnie says, putting them into a paper sack for you. Under his cap he looks a little frailer than the last time you ran up here — five years ago? six? — to pick up some fruit for your mama on one of your rare trips home — he must be in his eighties now — but otherwise more or less the same. Thanking him and getting back into your car, you’re flooded with complex emotion: happiness at finding your recipe goal, fondness for those beautiful vegetables in their baskets, and shame that you have only now realized that you still don’t know Mr. Lonnie’s last name. He is an elderly black man. As a little girl you never heard his name. Some part of you, back home, is still a little girl.
You’ve noticed as an adult, though, some things. History still shimmers here between people of different races or classes or both, heavy yet elusive and guilty. Yet you also have felt it blow aside, light as a spiderweb in a barn door, still present but able to respond to goodwill from one side or the other. You fear the extremes of both over-analysis and blindness, both of which paralyze relationship, and hope, still, that in spite of everything we can feel at least some connection over that common past. Whatever that looks like in this moment, here.
I’m lucky you still had this, you tell Mr. Lonnie, hefting your sack, feeling the jars of syrup clink inside. I’m really, really lucky.