Vox Populi

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Charles Davidson: Foster’s Pie Pan

HIGH ATOP A BOOKSHELF IN MY STUDY sits a tarnished, weather-beaten tin pie pan that many a blue moon ago belonged to a man named Foster. He was a kind and gentle old fellow with a smudged face and scruffy beard. On his best days he appeared as tarnished and weather-beaten as his tin pie pan still does even now.

Bless her dear sweet heart, and despite the lovely and gracious person she was, my beloved and devoted maternal grandmother could never bring herself to let Foster cross the threshold into her home. His filthy and ragged attire was simply more than her cultured eyes could abide. The only realm in which she could “see to him,” as she said, was that divinely appointed one where she believed as an article of faith that the shaggiest of poor whites were destined to dwell, which was beneath the scorching sun in communion with the hoe and in observance of the soil to which she summoned Foster for a hard day’s work.

Foster wore a tattered dark brown felt hat with wide brim, holey at the edges, that stood above his meager world as a grand complement to the fact that only a few drops below the perspiration that hung from his furrowed brow he was missing most of his teeth. Without either knowing or in the least bit caring, Foster managed quite well to corrupt the King’s English with every clause that whooshed and hissed from his tongue.

Foster’s crusty countenance remains etched in my mind like a saint in a stained-glass window, for at the center of his universe he possessed the broadest, most glorious grin you ever saw on the face of a Cheshire cat.

Foster loved life. His enthusiasm for each day’s splendor was his cardinal gift to the world. He also loved his Muriel cigars which were a coveted present from my grandfather.

Believe it or not—and I, for the life of me, would not believe it if I could—before Foster ever struck a match to light his newly acquired cigars, my southern born, southern bred, sexagenarian grandfather smoked those very same cigars first and foremost for himself. He did so down to an inch and a half of their life. Then, for what seemed an endless mile that fell far short of reaching an act of charity, he tossed the soggy cigar butts into a five-gallon drum. When the drum was full, he handed it to Foster. I know for certain because I saw with my very own eyes the unsightly exchange take place between the two of them. What my grandfather got in return for his favor was ceaseless gratitude while Foster gummed the bitter remains. 

As always, through his toothless grin, great laughter broke forth into the sunlight from the depths of Foster’s soul. This was true in spite of the fact that, being as humble a man as I had ever seen, Foster spent his nights dwelling, literally and quite dismally, it seemed to me, within the confines of a chicken hut. There among the hens and roosters Foster made his feathered bed.

I remember my conversations with Foster and how glad he always was to see me, as on the occasion when I sat close beside him on the stone bench beneath the giant elm tree in my grandparents’ back yard. 

Truly, of all the cosmic sights I had taken in by the age of ten, few left a greater impact upon me than seeing Foster break his bread from that tarnished, weather-beaten tin pie pan. It is a memory that still clings to the pit of my stomach. The spectacle of his lifting to his lips the luscious food prepared by my grandmother was more than my tender years could comprehend. With my incredulous gaze glued to Foster’s feeble frame, I wondered why on earth it was that he and I both partook of the same sumptuous delicacy yet never from the same dish. Mine was made of china, his of tin.

It was the intersection of those two discordant worlds, so near to one another and yet so far away, situated as they were side by side for a finite moment under an infinite sky, that gave me my first glance of a third world coming to birth within myself. The potential for moral discernment took roots in my consciousness, as so often it does, in relation to another person whose worldly circumstance was so diametrically unlike my own. 

With eager delight and a thoroughly grateful look upon his face, Foster lifted his loaded fork to his mouth. And in that split second, at once intrigued and dumbfounded, I was transported into a realm beyond my imagining. For my wonder-struck eyes were suddenly transfixed by the portrait of a man, so ancient and craggy and visibly thankful, holding as he was the food-laden pie pan in the palm of one hand as the juice of life ran down from the crevices of his mouth onto his whiskered chin, while with the other hand he sipped warmed-over coffee from a discarded Maxwell House coffee can. 

It was Foster who with glee in his eyes taught me how to prepare a hill of dirt for planting potatoes, and, when their due season came, showed me how to dig them up full-grown with great care lest I mangle their delicate skin. I was to dredge the hoe, not hack with it. It became clear to me only considerably later in life that here was an early object lesson about how to bear oneself compassionately in the face of those tender situations in which people, like vulnerable potatoes waiting to be loosened from their sightless captivity, require acts of grace, not deeds of cruel and heartless rapacity.  

Lo and behold, these many years later, too many to be counted and too precious few to be forgotten, I bear witness to what I believe was so uncommonly special about Foster, for all his earthly wretchedness and despite his every trouble and distress, surrounded as he was with pick hoes and chicken feathers, that permitted his spirit to be undaunted and his soul content. It was simply this: Did Jesus not say that as God’s incarnation in the world he would come again and make his dwelling place among “the least of these” – “even as thou, Father, art in me…and I in them” (John 17:21-26)?

I can tell you for certain that in Foster’s crusty, crumpled, and exuberant countenance I got my own unmistakable, first-hand glimpse of the face of Jesus. I am as sure of it as I am sure of anything. And ever since, this fact alone has made me a student of countless faces belonging to all sorts of unlikely people in all sorts of unlikely places and conditions.

When Foster departed his earthly abode, his world-weary flesh and bones lay on the floor of the chicken house with the roosters and hens cackling about him. Across his face, as wide and bright as the crescent moon against a solemn summer sky, shone that toothless Cheshire cat grin. It was the signature of a man who could neither read nor write, but who clothed in humility had obtained a glimpse into the very heart of God.

To ply beneath the surface, to catch a trace of the hidden riches that lie in the depths of the soul, is to see not only below the tarnished and weather-beaten image of every human creature. It is to meet living proof of the Creator God who resides deep down within each one of us. The measure of our true humanity consists not of the warts, blemishes, deficiencies, and craters of pain and misery that doggedly beset us. What defines our essence beneath this dense layer of smudge and stain is what dwells within us as the mysterious and everlasting Abundance, for which more than anything else we are thankful. For this grace is of far greater value than we ever dreamed, and of no less worth than the incomparable treasure revealed to us on any given day in the presence of angels like Foster.

“Even as thou, Father, art in me…and I in them.”

Bless you and thank you, dear Foster. For, until I reach my own last horizon, I shall be unable to forget either the gleam in your stars or the crescent moon in your sky.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

© 2022, Charles Davidson — All Rights Reserved

Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God.

8 comments on “Charles Davidson: Foster’s Pie Pan

  1. Barbara Huntington
    November 24, 2022

    If anyone ever again tells me a piece of writing can be spoiled by an overused expression, a hackneyed saying, a “bless your heart,” I will tell them to blow it out their ear. This, in all its effusive language commonality is a delight I hope to keep as proof of their limitations. Lately Facebook has been plagued with holier than thou poets eager to destroy the confidence of those rising from the younger generation. Take that, you stuffy SOBs. I love this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      November 24, 2022

      Thanks, Barb. Charles has a good heart, and his writing shows this.

      >

      Liked by 1 person

      • Barbara Huntington
        November 24, 2022

        And isn’t that what writing, communication between humans ( and perhaps when I read to her, my pup) is all about?

        Like

  2. Rose Mary Boehm
    November 24, 2022

    How very beautiful and moving. Thank you. The perfect day for publishing it too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sean Sexton
    November 24, 2022

    Such a wonderful thing this morning of our Thanksgiving!
    Thankyou,
    Sean

    Liked by 1 person

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