‘Southern Voices’ is a reader-submitted platform for stories from the heart. Today’s submission comes from Elizabeth Apple of Nashville, TN. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines for submission here.
I was in the parking lot of Idlewild Presbyterian Church before 7 a.m. There were 20 of us — wearing masks and gloves and waiting on a delivery from the Mid-South Food Bank. It was perfect and humid. When the food came, we shouted questions and directions at each other from six feet apart. We broke off, and each volunteer prepped an item for drive-through food distribution — milk, apples, lentils, tomato soup.
I got oranges. At first, I stuffed 10 enormous, round oranges into each plastic grocery bag. I double-knotted the bags, noting each THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU in red letters. When I realized the cars were wrapped all the way down Union Avenue to Idlewild Street, and then back up Madison in the other direction, I started bagging the oranges six at a time.
When the oranges were finished, I discovered 10 crates packed full of juicy jalapeños. I bagged them by the handful, so many my gloves turned green. That night I dreamed about jalapeños.
Around 11 a.m., I switched to traffic duty. I zipped up a neon vest, grabbed a red flag, and marched to the corner of Evergreen and Madison. There was a weird pleasure in directing the traffic – wearing the vest, waving the flag. There’s always a weird pleasure in having something to do with your hands when things feel like they’re falling apart.
At one point, a jogger stopped flat-out in the middle of crossing Evergreen and asked me what I was doing.
“We’re handing out food with the Mid-South Food Bank. Cars are lined up from here to Union,” I shrugged.
“Can I help – with anything?”
Just then another volunteer came running down the street with a makeshift sign.
FOOD GONE. COME BACK NEXT WEDS. 9:00AM
“Thank you,” I said to the jogger. “But I guess we’re good for today. We could always use help next week, though!”
I took the sign from my teammate and started walking with it down the line of cars. People rolled down their windows and shook their heads and thanked me anyway.
“Get here early next week,” I told everyone I could. “Like 7 a.m. even. Remember to bring a photo ID. I’m sorry we didn’t have enough.”
I didn’t want to be in Memphis this spring. When the pandemic came, I was in the middle of my semester at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I loved the rhythms of my life in Nashville: I was working part-time at the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition and teaching a creative writing workshop series.
But all of this ended with the pandemic. I came home to Memphis and turned my bedroom into a classroom. The world I had built with my friends, classmates, and coworkers in Nashville felt shattered. I felt like a kid again, coming back here … I had to surrender to uncertainty, fragility, and fear. But I am lucky to have a family I can come home to when things are hard. I am lucky to be from Memphis, from a city where people fight and struggle and show up for each other.
I’ve read that the reality of this pandemic has been far from what the horror movies projected: we are not at war with each other. If we are at war, it’s with the virus itself. We are standing together – okay, six feet apart – in the shattering.
When I look around Memphis now I see a city of collective sacrifice. From the Mid-South Food Bank, to the volunteers at Idlewild, to the jogger who stopped and asked how he could help – I see an ethic of caring growing up out of this pandemic.
That morning I saw people behaving like they belonged to Memphis – like it was their meaning to keep Memphis going.
Whatever this week brings, we’ll be back to work on Wednesday.
Elizabeth Apple is a writer and graduate student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She earned her undergraduate degree from Middlebury College where she won the Henry B. Prickett prize for outstanding work in the English department. She also loved serving as an intern for StyleBlueprint Memphis in the summer of 2016. She lives in Nashville with her dog, Winnie.
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