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Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Fantastic Love Story About a Lady, a Castle, and a Preacher

If you ever happen to wind down the mighty Mississippi to an antique, quaint little town called Vicksburg, where the river water still laps itself against the Mississippi mud like its trying desperately to erase the unforgotten blood of thousands of southerners and northerners, who fell there locked in brotherly fatality, you will if lucky, glimpse past the ancient atrocities here and witness a few interesting, very hopeful things of note.

I was only there for maybe half a day. The day before yesterday, in fact. My car tearing through the Magnolia state, seeming to waft magnolia leaves, or what was left of them, in my wake. No, I was not speeding too seriously. Just blowing into towns, seeing the stores there and then blowing out of them. I made it to Vicksburg my 3rd day out into Mississippi landscape. Not much of a winter in these parts. I still had my window down. After an advantageous landing for my company, I was curious to find a supposed castle northwards of Vicksburg. Now, not your ordinary moated medieval castle with princess in the tower and knights in the field. I was still in the South. I was still in America. But at least there was some remnant of that chivalric ideal gleaming from behind the magnolias and the southern pines. This is no interweaving story of King Arthur and his Table, nor is it something from Ivanhoe, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s up there in these dashing feats for it is a sweet story about a man loving his wife. The story goes that a man, a Gospel-preaching Reverend proposed to a nice lady in town and that if she said yes, then he would literally build a castle for her. He told her that and she said “yes”. So the man built his lady a castle. Simple as that. I went in search of it, hearing about it being open to visitors and also about other eccentricities as well.

The further west you get into Mississippi, it seems that the people are friendlier. It must be the Delta gospel swamping the land as it’s done for years. So I was fortunate to have a really nice black lady guide me in the right direction. I was almost parallel with the Mississippi river when I drove way out into the sticks, thinking that there must be some mistake and I was almost about to turn around and give up on my whimsical search, when I saw the strangest constructions up ahead. It looked nothing like a castle. It wasn’t even big. From a long distance, you could look at it and think that it was a sprawling shack made of matchboxes. I got closer and parked. Not a soul was nearby. I thought that the place must be closed. But no, there was a light inside.

As I approached, I took eye at all the constructions sprawling about. It was a castle indeed, just not the Neuschwanstein or anything. Everything was made of house brick. But painted an assortment of odd colors like pink, red, white, and yellow. And then the construction looked like some sort of masonry experiment. There were signs posted about expressing the Word of God. Scriptures were here and there being displayed, so were signs talking about the Church of Christ. There was a brick tower off to the side and behind that a decorated school bus.

I knocked on the door. My expectation was pretty nil. Cynically, I thought that the person behind this door was some peddling tourist-rip off. That the original intention of the place had lost its dream, the builder had died off and that they would try to extract some hefty fee from my wallet from just looking at a bunch of painted bricks. So I really expected only a few words and then I would be leaving.
But when the door was opened to me, this little old black lady smiled innocently at me, with the eyes of a fairy tale doe, and invited me to come in. Little did I know in this first encounter that this was the very princess of the castle for whom it was built. She had very light brown skin and she was dressed in some sort of gown or long-dress, I can’t remember which one. I just remember looking at her soft, large, spade-like hands. Except for the fact that she was a black woman, she reminded me of my great-grandmother who passed away years ago. Same height, same wide head with wide cheekbones. Though this lady’s mind was more there. She was sharp as she was innocent.

There was another old black woman sitting right beside the door. She was darker and not quite as aged. The first object that caught me eye as I entered was a Bible lying on a front desk near the door. Object upon object assailed my mind as the inside enclosures vied for my curious onlookers eye. Beads dangled from the ceiling. A wooden fringe like border garnered all the posts and walls. Everything was of different colors. Different posters hung up here and there. The main one that caught my attention was a poster of Gen. Robert E. Lee kneeling in prayer in a snowy field.

In the back stood inattentively this small, old black man with huge red suspenders and a flannel shirt. He was busy at a desk from which he stood behind working. That was him…that was the Rev. Dennis, the architect and king. I don’t even think he noticed me come in, he was so engrossed in his work.

I began talking with the lady of the eclectic house, Margaret Dennis. She told me a little about the romance story. Her and her husband are aged 93 or so. It was only about 20 years ago that they tied the knot and he began his ambitious task of palace constucting at the ripened age around 70. When most people are only thinking of the marriages of their grandkids, this couple wed each other. And he began turning her grocery store into a castle. That is what the place is called, “Margaret’s Grocery” and though she no longer sells any food there, the name has stuck and is now the title of this kitschy castle. She had a delicate way of weaving full sermons in her dialogue, not in an annoying way, more in a very pure and heart-felt manner. She affirmed that she always looked at the heart of everyone. Color didn’t matter. And that everyday she prayed for everyone in the entire world. I told her to pray for me as I signed the guestbook and pointed to my signature.

I asked her if she would have still married the Rev. if he hadn’t have promised to build her a castle. She said that she was going to marry him anyway and that he just wanted to build her one anyway. She talked about the Love of Christ that was one of the main reasons this castle was built that it would attract random tourists from all over the world and God’ message could be conveyed. That school bus, outside is the property’s chapel. If enough people assemble and are interested, the Rev will deliver a full sermon inside. I, again, kept expecting some price to be levied for the preaching. But no, they only take donations and they don’t pressure you into them at all.

The lady began talking about how she ran her grocery store for 15 years or so, and then when she came out of it, she had the same exact money that she went into it with. All that toil and it evened out. Now, she doesn’t worry about money and they are provided for. Nope, she murmured, “I don’t worry 'bout money one bit. All is taken care of. And I would've nevuh thought that I'd lived to this age.”
"Yes, you see,the Lord is taking care of you" I sort of eased those words out as the peace of the whole place pervaded my anxious mind. I stretched out in a chair looking off at all the multiple trinkets and decorations. "These people are beautiful....just simply gorgeous!" I thought to myself, as her statement resounded about how she loved everbody in the world. And that we must forgive everyone for then, only then does the Lord forgive us. I felt the pinprick on my tearducts, signifying that there was something incredibly awesome in these folks. But somehow I was antsy about it all; maybe deep down I wanted to change the subject.

I asked her where did they get all the beads. She said from all the people coming back from New Orleans. “Ironic”, I thought. She turned to the old man in the back, “Preacher,” (for that is what she called him.) “Preacher, you've been standin' up a long time.”
The Rev was hard of hearing. “Eh!!?” he yelled.
“Preacher, you need to sit down and rest.”
“Eh!!?”
Her voice was too soft and gentle for him to hear.
This exchange went on several times until he finally understood what she was saying. And he looked up at me, holding the papers he was folding and yelled with this huge grin, “Paperwork! I’m busy with paperwork!” And then he invited me to come look at his work. I walked behind this counter and saw the type of promotional work he was stuffing into envelopes. He told me that he built the entire castle from the masonry skill that he was taught after he fought in WWII. He went to the South Pacific and Japan. He gave me advise. Always learn something useful and then use it and you will accomplish many things. He told me about baseball, how he was so good that he could’ve played professionally, but back then in those long ago days they didn’t let black people play in the majors. So he just learned masonry and mostly preached. He showed me his certificate of ordination as a reverend. It was dated 1934. Margaret finally spoke up and told me that they were getting ready to close, that I should come back and visit. I told them that I would if I was ever around Vicksburg again. I drove off feeling rejuvenated with something.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Greg Newton said...

Of such is true sainthood.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous the author said...

yeah, I believe it.

10:27 AM  

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