On the morning of my wedding, I woke up in the guest bed at a friend’s house. It was early and I noticed I was the only one there, so I got dressed and stepped out and saw that they were outside, burning some scraps left over from the construction of their new house. He was piling the wood on to the fire and she was armed with a hose to keep the grass from burning and generally to keep the fire under control. I said, “Can I help?”
Twelve seconds later, and four hours before the wedding, I was armed with a hose to keep the grass from burning and generally to keep the fire under control. My friends, the couple I was staying with, had some other things to do in town, and took off. For the next two hours, I manned this post. This is how I spent the morning of my wedding.
Fifteen years later, and this makes for a nice story. Some of you might feel that this wedding-morning scenario is a perfect encapsulation of the marriage that was to come, and I know, because you’ve told me after I’ve related this story to you. Not true. Laura has never planned out a project like this and abandoned me, and if this keeps happening to you, I’m sorry. But what I take from that morning is this: keeping a fire is hard. It needs constant attention, it can go out, and it can get out of control, so someone is always needed to tend to it.
This past Saturday, Laura and I drove up to the ancestral birthplace to be with my parents. They live on farmland that my grandfather bought in the sixties that he intended to be a golf course someday. When they were clearing the land, my Grandmother put all the wood out on the hill and set fire to it. It got out of control, so they called the fire department. Then they cleared some more land. My Grandmother put the wood out on the hill and set fire to it. They called the fire department again. This happened three times in all, and only stopped when the fire department threatened my Grandmother with arrest and seizure. Fortunately, the rest of my family, perhaps because of this very story, has a healthy and cautious attitude toward fire.
When we arrived in Binghamton, we found my Mom putting some wood on the fire pit in the back yard. It’s become a tradition to toast marshmallows on the Fourth of July weekend. So we did. Some of the wood was still wet, so the fire needed attention. I pushed the wood around with a rake to keep it going.
Fire is one of the four classical elements, along with air, water and earth. In the city, we get so little of each, and not always the right kind. Fire is almost always destructive outside the country, but here, it can be controlled, harnessed, and be used for positive purposes.
We sat out and looked at the stars, and hills beyond, and thought about how much we want to share this view, this place, with others. Almost always, my Mom says on these occasions of quiet reflection, “This is so special. Why don’t more people see it?”
I think about all of those people who grew up there, who have moved away as I have, who do see it. I see how great it is, and all I want to do is share it with others.
The next morning, the fire had yet to go out. There were still portions of wet old boxes that had finally caught and were sending up smoky flames. My Mom took a look at the fire and thought we might as well take advantage of it. She had plenty of boxes in the basement that we needed to get rid of, so why not burn them off?
Two hours later and I was standing there with a rake and a hose, making sure the fire didn’t get out of control.
The weather on Saturday was supposed to be wet, so the traditional grilling looked like a bad idea. We went over our dining-out options in Binghamton, and my Mom came up with the idea of going to this place called Jrama’s Soul Food Grille & Barbecue Pit on Upper Front Street. It went in a few years ago, and we’ve passed it a few times since it opened in 2015.
To be honest, soul food on Upper Front Street in Binghamton is a study in contrast. Although I’ve been blessed enough to step into the soul food realm, both in Chattanooga and up north in Easton, soul food is foreign here. So much so that Jrama’s provides a sampler of sides to customers to give them an idea of what they can expect. There were two slices of cornbread, and little cups of corn, mac and cheese, slaw, beans, greens…
I’m a greens fanatic. I never expected to find them in my home town, ever. This was something you could only find in the South, or in the major cities. And these greens, these…
Jamar Johnson, the owner of Jrama’s, was behind the counter. It was impossible for me to refrain from commenting on the greens. “I’ve had greens everywhere, and these are so good…”
He was at the grill. He said, “I’ve got a love-hate relationship with greens. Sometimes they come out right, and sometimes…”
Greens are difficult. They need care and attention, just like a fire. If done right, they can be better than anything. All of this food, everything we ate there, came out of family, out of tradition, out of everything so special that you have to share it.
When something is great, it’s a natural impulse to want to share it. This is what I feel this Independence Day: a place, whether it is a city or a whole country, that can produce so many good things, such good food of various kinds, such natural beauty, such fire, is worthy to be called special and great. God bless America on this day. I feel so honored to share all of these things with you.