Ms. Earline’s Devilled Eggs
“Ms. Ethel Mae, I didn’t know you’d be here today,” Ethel Me glanced up from her organization of the condiments in time to see an tall elderly woman approach her table. Ms. Earline Campbell was another founding member of the church, her grandfather had been the first pastor. Ms. Earline had buried three husbands, outlived two of her five children, lived through the Depression, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era, the free love sixties, three wars and finally, the election of the country’s first black president. Ethel Mae was convinced that she would outlive them all. She was sharp as a tack and the older woman always had a good story to tell.
Despite the differences in their ages, Ethel Mae was still looking up to the woman. Ms. Earline was a tall woman, though age had rounded her back somewhat. Her movements were slower, she got around without a cane or wheelchair and still drove herself wherever she wanted to go. She had been a beauty in her prime and still carried herself with the confidence of a prima donna. Her oldest daughter had let slip once that Ms. Earline had lived in Paris at the end of the first world war as an artist’s model, which is how she’d met her first husband. Ethel Mae was still trying to get access to the pictures.
As she made her way across the lawn, Ms. Earline was escorted by one of the teen-aged boys who carried a large Tupperware container. Ethel Mae said, “I know these better be your devilled eggs. I’m going to put a few of them aside for later. Last year, I barely had one and had to listen the Louisa brag about them the whole way home.”
“There’s plenty here, chile. You just help yourself. Where is that Louisa anyway, with her fast self. I haven’t seen her in ages. Darren, set that bowl here on the table then bring me a chair.”
Darren complied with her request, but then refused to leave until she had settled herself in the lawn chair. “Go on now baby, I’m fine.” She waved him off and with a final smile at Ethel Mae, he ran back to join his friends.
“Ms Earline, ooh, I’m so glad to see you.” Mama Lou hurried over to the table and gathered the older woman up in a big hug. She pulled back then brushed a kiss against her powdered cheeks. “I was hoping you’d be able to get out today.”
“I’m fine, fine. Stop fussing over me.” Though her tone was stern, Ms. Earline’s face lit up in a smile suggesting that she was enjoying the attention. “Now, what you need me to do?”
“Ms. Earline, if you don’t get somewhere and sit down. We’ve got this covered. All you need to do is sit there and be pretty.”
“Well, if you insist.” Ms. Earline settled back down in her seat. Her expression clouded as she looked up at the two of them. “I’ve been wanting to talk with you anyway. Every since Sister Charlotte told me you were helping her to organize this event, something’s just been worrying me. Just how bad are things?”
Mama Lou and Ethel Mae exchanged a glance. Neither of them wanted to share the details, knowing how it would upset the other woman.
“Don’t sugar coat or hold back. I’ll know and then get mad that you treating me like a frail old woman. Give it to me straight.”
With another quick glance at Ethel Mae, who then nodded her approval, Mama Lou said, “It’s bad.”
Ms. Earline dipped her head, and she knotted the delicate handkerchief in her arthritic hands. “I was afraid of that. Details?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly what the congregation has been told,” she inhaled deeply then spoke on the expelled breath. “Pastor Griffin took out another mortgage on the land. This land. He said he was intending to build a free standing fellowship hall that would include a full-sized gym, a banquet hall and even classrooms so that the church could start a daycare, maybe even a charter school in the future.”
“He been talking about that fool fellowship hall since the moment he stepped in the pulpit. But we’re too far outside the city to make that a viable idea. Most of the congregation still commutes from Memphis.”
“The thing is, Ms. Earline,” Mama Lou continued. “Pastor Griffin proceeded without the approval of the Deacon board. By the time they heard of it, the deal was done.”
“How long ago was that?” Ms. Earline let her hands drop heavily in her lap. “When are they breaking ground?”
“He took out the loan two years ago, Ms. Earline.” Ethel Mae stepped forward and dropped a hand on her shoulder as Mama Lou continued. “There are no plans to break ground, no architect’s blueprints, nothing. He took the money; no one knows what he’s done with it. There have been no payments towards the loan in the last two years. I don’t know how he has forestalled the bank this long but the bank is about to foreclose. They’re going to take the land.”
For several long deafening moments, no one spoke. Silent tears strolled down her paper thin cheeks. Before Mama Lou or Ethel Mae could reach out to comfort her, her eyes hardened and her voice had turned to steel. “This land has belonged to this church since 1878. People have tried to take it from us over the years . . . the klan, greedy land developers, even the City of Collierville tried to absorb us at one point, but we held firm. We paid our bills even when many in our congregation couldn’t afford to eat. We paid outlandish taxes but God always made a way. And now we’ve allowed some slick talking opportunistic snake to come into our midst and take?”
Ms. Earline rose shakily from her chair, pushing aside both Mama Lou and Ethel Mae’s offers of assistance. When she reached her full height, she looked across the land, her land essentially, as far as her eyes could see. When she spoke her tone was flat and deadly. “I’ll see him in hell first.”
UP NEXT: Deacon Frank’s Fish Fry