I needed to make a couple cakes for my church fair a few weeks ago. I don’t know why, but for some reason I just knew that it had to be Cousin Joyce’s Strawberry Cake. No other cake recipe would do. It was my Grandma’s favorite cake. Grandma loved all sweets but she loved strawberry the best, so if Joyce was in town visiting you could put money on the fact that at some point a strawberry cake would appear in the kitchen. Joyce was good like that. She knew that food was just love that you could taste. That cake wasn’t just dessert, it was a symbol of the bond between them.
I pulled out Joyce’s recipe and started baking. The smell of that warm cake coming out of the oven took me right back to Grandma’s kitchen. I could almost hear Joyce in her thick South Georgia accent telling stories about all the goin’s on in Cairo. Joyce didn’t just work for the Cairo Messenger, she was the Cairo messenger. She knew current events; she knew about stuff going on with family members that I had neither met nor heard of; but mostly she knew those good old funny stories about real folks and real mishaps that made you laugh till you cried, and when they were over you appreciated life just a little bit more. At least I did. The rest of the world had Cousin Minnie Pearl from Grinders Switch; we had Cousin Joyce from Cairo, Georgia. I think we got the better deal.
Joyce came from a long line of storytellers and she always had a story. I will never forget the story that Joyce loved to tell about Uncle Guyett mixing up his and Aunt Ollie’s false teeth, or the time that Aunt Ollie drove her scooter too close to the catfish pond and dumped herself in. Joyce was the person you always wanted your Yankee friends to sit next to, because you knew that they were only going to pick up about half of what she said, but in the half they understood they would come to know pretty quickly what it means to be a part of this family.
They would learn that we cherish the tales of bygone days and loved ones that have long since gone to glory.
They would learn that we have this uncanny ability to laugh at ourselves and each other, and that our humor often comes out in unexpected ways.
They would learn that we take caring for each other seriously.
They would learn that we are far more sophisticated and wise than people give us credit for being.
They would learn that we get mad, but then eventually get over it.
They would learn that family ties run deep, but friends can be quickly adopted and treated the same as blood.
All this could be learned just by listening to Joyce for a few minutes. If you wanted to give someone a baptism by fire into this family, introduce them to Joyce. She was our ambassador.
I guess it is fitting that in our family cookbook on page one is a picture of Joyce sneaking into my Grandma’s refrigerator right over a story she told about her husband Lewis and his cousins travelling around in the backwoods of North Florida. Feeding people and telling stories with and about family, that is what Joyce was all about; that is how she lived her life, right up until the end. Feeding people, caring for people, looking after people, or telling stories about people. You could be sure that wherever Joyce was, she was doing one of those things.
I know someone else that loved to feed people, care for people and tell stories. Joyce knew him too. He liked to tell a story about a king inviting people who were unworthy to a great banquet. The guests didn’t need to be rich or famous or important, they didn’t even have to be good; they just had to accept the invitation. You didn’t become a part of this king’s family by being born of his blood; you became a part of his family by being washed in the blood of his Son. When the Apostle John had a vision of the heavenly throne in the Book of Revelation he saw that it was surrounded by people who had come through much, but stood robed in white before the throne of God. They had been made clean, not by their own efforts, but by being washed and made new in the blood of the Lamb. They had accepted the invitation to the feast, and there at that throne and at that banquet they hunger no more, they thirst no more and they suffer no more. The Lamb is their shepherd and he guides them to the water of life, and God wipes away every tear from their eyes.
Joyce wasn’t perfect, but she knew the Lord Jesus who was, and is. I know that she tried to model her life after his example, and that even though she was going to stumble and fall, as we all do, she trusted him to pick her back up again. Because that’s what a loving parent does, and that is the God that she worshiped: a loving parent.
Yesterday when I heard that Joyce had unexpectedly died and been taken home to the Lord, I stopped in church to light a candle and say a prayer for her. There on the kneeler in the chapel where I was praying was a prayer book opened to Psalm 84:
How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.
LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.
Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;
No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.
O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!
It was as if Joyce was pointing me to that Psalm herself. Maybe she was. The sparrow has found her a house, and I have no doubt she is happy there.
This cookbook that Joyce was responsible for getting printed is one of my treasured possessions, and not just because it contains the recipe for her strawberry cake. When I look through these pages I see the names and faces of so many people that are waiting at that feast on the other side; including some we never dreamed we would lose so soon and so suddenly. I open this book and all of a sudden standing next to me is Uncle Sandy making his beef stew, Grandma making her cornbread dressing, Aunt Bebe stirring up a squash casserole, Butch throwing a red cockaded woodpecker into his ham hock and lima beans, Ollie frying hushpuppies. There are so many others gathered around the kitchen table like saints around God’s throne: Ralph, Dale, Aunt Ella Ruth, Gene, Jerry, Danielle, Uncle Guyett and now…Joyce. More than anyone else, Joyce is all over this book. Her recipes fill its pages, just like her food and her love filled our lives. I am heartbroken like the rest of the family, but I have a strong faith that I will be at a family reunion with her again, and I’m willing to bet that there’s gonna be cake there too.
One thing I always knew, was that if Joyce was around there was gonna be food and there was gonna be laughing and if that doesn’t sound like heaven I don’t know what does. I love you cousin. Save me some cake.