Had I known it was our last supper, I would have paid more attention. But when you’re sixteen years old there is no time for details. Memory of the meal itself is at best vague and general, except for a couple of things I can’t forget. What is important is that we were all there. For the first time in several years my entire immediate family sat at the supper table together, no in-laws, just us: sisters, brothers, mother, and daddy. I was the youngest. My brother was nineteen, going to college and practically never at home anymore on a Saturday night. My sisters, older, had been married for several years, one just long enough to have had her first falling out with her husband that was serious enough to come home to mother for the weekend. I’m not sure about the other brothers-in-law; gone fishing, or hunting, or something like that. Anyway, we were all together, just like old times.
What I do remember about the conversation at the table that night is probably not even my memory, but rather the memory of what I have been told. Somewhere in the conversation Daddy must have lamented longingly about a reunion of his old World War II army unit taking place that very weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. He would have never gone on his own, or even suggested in an overt way that he wanted to go. It must have been the way he talked about it, the tone of voice or a shrugging sigh that began what had to be one of the most spontaneous, serendipitous events to ever have occurred in his normally reserve, routine life.
When all was said and done, phone calls had been made, airline reservation confirmed, money gathered, suitcase pulled from the closet, and substitute Sunday school teacher arranged. He was to fly out of Atlanta early the next morning to be with Charlie “The Trader” Moorefield, Sam McNair, Parham, Nichols, Martin, and others in Charlotte. Since Monday was Labor Day, he could spend Sunday night with his buddies and not have to miss any work. It was settled.
What a treat it must have been for Mother and Daddy, all their children there at the supper table like so many Saturday nights gone by. There would have been a time years before when right after supper we would have taken our baths, polished our shoes, read our Sunday school lessons, laid out Sunday clothes to finally settle in front of the old black and white television to watch The Jackie Gleason Show with The Honeymooners, Joe the Bartender, Crazy Guggenheim, and The June Taylor Dancers. If we were lucky Daddy had bought a bag of Brac’s chocolate covered peanuts that day. He would dole them out to us one at a time as if they were gold nuggets.
But those days were gone. Now there were places to go and things to do, Dairy Queens to cruise, dates to pick up, friends’ homes to visit. I was the first to leave. Why else would he have said what he did, except to get a good laugh out of everybody else? The only part of that night I remember with certainty, are the words he spoke to me as I walked out the door. Frozen in time is a brief moment on a threshold, my Daddy’s face and voice, then laughter.
It was an insider’s joke. When I was in junior high, me and about a dozen of my buddies; all sons of city councilmen, doctors, lawyers, school principals, church deacons, and ministers; had been caught by the local police in the wee hours of the morning “rolling” toilet paper on a friend’s yard and house. The fathers of this notorious gang were called to the police station of our small town to retrieve their delinquent sons. My Daddy, being the creature of routine and propriety he was, took time to put on a tie before coming to get me. It was agreed that the entire group would gather early the next morning at the scene of the crime to clean up.
The ride home was silent. As we came to a stop in the carport, he finally spoke. “I guess you know what you did tonight was wrong. I hope the embarrassment of getting caught and having to clean up is enough punishment. Besides, I can’t punish you any more than that because I did the same thing just last week.” Then he went on to explain how he had driven the car for my mother’s junior high girl’s Sunday school class slumber party to “roll” someone else’s yard. He smiled sheepishly and we went into the house. I didn’t have the word for it then, but now I know what it was – grace.
To my memory he had never mentioned that incident directly to me again, until that night, until he spoke the last words I would ever hear him say. As I walked out the door, he called me, “Son.” There was a pause as I leaned back into the room for what I thought would be last minute instructions on what time to be home. Instead there was a twinkle in his eye. “Don’t let me have to come get you out of jail.” I walked away as laughter, his most of all, faded in the air.
This moment, standing in the doorway one foot in one foot out, is branded forever in my memory, the last time I saw him, the last time I heard his voice, his laughter. “Don’t let me have to come get you out of jail.” To everyone else it was a joke, to some maybe even a warning, but to me it was a reminder of the first time I had experienced the touch of grace.
The next morning he died. We all have our own memories of that morning. My memory of that Sunday morning when he left us before dawn to fly away was like so many other remembered mornings. My bedroom shared a bath with my parents’ bedroom. Daddy was always up early to go to work. His morning routine of relief, shower, and electric shaving became a regular presence in my pre-waking dreams. That morning would have been the same. My sister remembers the beams of his car’s headlights sweeping across her bedroom as he backed down the driveway. Mother, always claimed a near mystical experience during Sunday School of feeling his presence for a flashing moment. Fourteen years later Charlie Moorefield told me what really happened.
By then I was thirty years old, living in the city where he had died: Charlotte. I found Charlie Moorefield in Greensboro, North Carolina. Charlie was Daddy’s best war buddy. They had gone through their training together in Alabama and California, then real duty in the South Pacific. Both were older than the others in their unit, a medical unit, not doctors, but medics, first aid givers, bandage wrappers, medicine dispensers. Because they were the old men of the unit there was immediate and forever rapport.
I had heard of Charlie Moorefield all of my life. He was a mythical character in my Daddy’s stories. One of the highlights of every Christmas was the arrival of “the card” from Charlie. There was another card. It arrived the day of his funeral. It’s probably in a box somewhere in a sibling’s attic. Several of us gathered around to hear it being read. I remember it being surprisingly poetic. How could an old war buddy write such touching words? I have often wished I could read it again, but all I can recall is a fading fragment of the last sentence, “…we did our best, but he slipped away from us.”
Fourteen years after that day I finally met Charlie Moorefield. We sat at his kitchen table as I interrogated him about that morning. He said they had all gathered at a restaurant for breakfast. Everybody was thrilled that “Speedy” had finally made it. That was his nickname, “Speedy’, because, Charlie said, “He was always so slow and deliberate about everything.” They were all surprised to see him, but not surprised that he was the last one to get there. As Charlie described it, in being the last to arrive, he was like the guest of honor.
“He was sitting right across the table from me.” Charlie’s voice was distant. “We were having a great time with everybody laughing and joking. We had all placed our orders and, like I said, just having a great time, when all of a sudden Speedy, I mean your Daddy, threw both hands in the air and looked at me with this surprised expression on his face. At first I thought he was just reacting to something that had been said. But then he fell over backwards, chair and all. We were all over him nearly before he hit the floor. But there was nothing we could do. We tried it all. But there was never a breath, never a heartbeat, never a sound. I’m convinced he was dead before he hit the floor.”
For years, before that conversation with Charlie, I had, had dreams about Daddy. In the dreams he would just show up one day, alive and well. At first I would be shocked, but only briefly, then full of questions. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you let us know you weren’t dead?” But the questions quickly faded because I was just so glad to have him back. From those dreams I have a feeling of how Jesus’ disciples must have felt when he burst into that fearful room on the afternoon of what we call the first Easter. He was dead and now he is alive. In the dreams Daddy and I just picked up where we had left off.
After that kitchen table talk with Charlie Moorefield, I never had those dreams again. I guess hearing Charlie say, “…dead before he hit the floor.” was what it took. Even though the dreams stopped, there would be other encounters, other visits.
There were other suppers too, hundreds besides that last one, most of them forgotten, or better, waiting to be remembered. However, I do remember some of the suppers, especially those on Christmas Eve. That was my daddy’s birthday, December 24, when we always had, and continue to have, our family Christmas gathering. Some of my earliest memories are of the wider Walton family; grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, gathering at the old home place. The air was filled with the smell of oyster stew, country fried steak, turkey and cedar boughs; accompanied by loud conversation and laughter. Presents were piled higher than me under a fresh cut cedar tree that reached the ceiling. I remember being confused because everybody called my daddy by the family nickname that I heard once a year, “Bub.” It surprised me that he responded to it so naturally. Looking back on it now, I think part of the genuine comfort I felt was in seeing him be a brother rather than a daddy or husband. He loved Christmas Eve. I did too.
When my Papa Walton died and my sisters, brother and I grew older, we began to have our Christmas Eve / Birthday celebration at our house with just our immediate family. Some of it was the same. There was still oyster stew, country fried steak, and turkey. The presents weren’t piled quite as high, or else I had grown taller. However, there was nobody there to call him “Bub.” I imagine he missed that.
After that last supper, Christmas Eve suppers were never the same. We even gave up on the oyster stew and country fried steak. It’s turkey and ham now. There are still a lot of presents, loud conversation, and laughter. One thing we can always count on is that somewhere during the evening, someone always manages to ask, “How old would Daddy have been this year?” The profound sadness in the question is that now he would now be so old that he probably would have died by now anyway.
My daddy had an unconscious habit of hissing a tune. It wasn’t whistling, nor was it humming. It was in between. Through closed teeth he hissed whatever tune he couldn’t get out of his head. Most of the time he didn’t even know he was doing it because he was busy doing something else; driving a car, hoeing the garden, sitting under a shade tree. I remember it as a comforting presence, this tune hissing.
One day, years after visiting with Charlie Moorefield, after the dreams were long gone, I was working alone in my study when I felt the undeniable presence of my daddy. I knew if I were to turn around, he would be standing there behind me. It was that real. Then I heard it, that old familiar, comforting hissing sound – coming from my own breath. Resurrection comes in the most surprising ways.
Dreams stop and memory fades, but some memories never go away. These memories live on; last suppers, last words, last laughter, last pre-dawn shadows of sound and light, last expressions of surprise. These memories live on because they are holy, sacred. It is in these memories that mysterious, invisible, and absent become real, visible, and present. It is in these memories where the mute speaks, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the dead live. Some of these memories are as close as our own breath.
Call these memories what you will, I call them sacraments: holy places, the presence of the Divine, places where grace abounds and resurrection is real. We all have them. We all have our Last Suppers to remember. But perhaps more importantly, we all have present places filled with potential holiness, and we never know which supper will be the last one.