In this short essay, Alabama writer and musician Karren Pell uses a simple scenario – the neighborhood block party – to show us a few nuances about Southern beliefs. As the group enjoys the mythic Southern food, watermelon, on a summer day, the participants’ behavior depicts varying modern attitudes on entertaining company, church attendance, child rearing, and respect for one’s elders.
The Watermelon Party
by Karren Pell
My neighbor Chase threw a watermelon party for our block this summer. It was an outdoor affair on the front porch of the duplex he shares with 83-year-old Miss Sadie Mae. Since we are all neighbors and friends—well, most of us are friends anyway—he invited everyone who lives on the street. As the belle of the ball, Miss Sadie Mae had had her hair fixed so her silver locks were short and curly. She dressed up in a cotton dress with a large, bright, flower design that went very well with those little red slip-on shoes she likes to wear.
Sitting on her bright yellow, metal porch furniture, she welcomed Chase’s guests and held court. Frank, who lives in the big fancy house on the corner, snagged the old wicker rocking chair in the corner early on. BB, a single, young professional woman, arrived a few minutes late still dressed in heels and a navy business suit. Notable other characters included young female members of the multiple families who live in the cottage on the corner, all three of their babies (whose child was whose was unclear), and two of their dogs (whose dog was whose was also unclear). The young women all wore cotton t-shirts and jeans and had their hair pulled up in ponytails. They sat as a group in folding metal lawn chairs on the wide sidewalk leading up to the porch. One child, a stocky, little, blonde boy climbed up and down the stairs, causing some of us to gasp and grasp in efforts to keep him from having a bad tumble. None of the young mothers seemed worried. Most of us were all enjoying big, dripping, hunks of watermelon, slurping up cold glasses of ice tea, and enjoying the still, hot summer air.
“This is marvelous melon,” exclaimed Frank, helping himself to another slice from the bowl teetering on the porch rail.
“I wish I could eat it,” said Miss Sadie Mae. “My stomach always hurts me so bad, ya know.”
BB stepped up to the challenge. “Would you like some tea?” she asked Miss Sadie Mae.
“Oh,” Miss Sadie Mae said with a sigh, “I am afraid it will keep me up tonight.”
Noting the label, I chimed in with the information that the tea was decaf.
“Well,” she sighed even deeper, “even so, I would have to get up in the night to use the bathroom—my bladder, ya know . . .”
I didn’t know, but I poured her a glass anyway.
The young women sitting in chairs on the sidewalk continued to be oblivious to the toddler’s gymnastics on the porch steps and began bragging about their children’s antics in church. Bits and pieces of their conversation wafted up to us.
“I remember getting ready to go to church when my husband was alive,” Miss Sadie Mae said. “ He never went with me, ya know. I hated to leave him alone at home, but I felt I was supposed to go to church. I’d tell him I didn’t really feel like going to church and he’d say, ‘Well, honey, just stay here with me.’ And I wanted to stay with him, but I felt like I should go to church, ya know . . . ” she trailed off. “Now he’s gone.”
I glanced at BB. Her eyes were soft, and she had her hand over her heart.
Frank continued to rock and eat watermelon in the corner.
“I visited his grave the other day,” Miss Sadie Mae continued.
“Where is he buried?” Frank asked, looking up from his melon, and then in the same breath, “You really should try some of this watermelon.”
But Miss Sadie Mae was in wind-up doll mode. “You know, he’s buried over yonder . . .” Her hands fluttered as if trying to physically grasp the name that evaded her.
“Oakwood?” I quickly asked. The historic cemetery was the only cemetery’s name I knew.
“No, No No,” she said. “That pretty new one. Well, it was new when we bought the plots. You know, behind the new Wal-Mart.”
To myself I thought—now there’s a designation. The new shopping complex had sparked a lot of controversy. Its back faces two graveyards and a funeral home. Although many neighbors complained bitterly about the development, someone, referring to the cemetery, quipped that no one there would mind.
“Yes,” Sadie Mae said. “I like to go over there and visit him—his grave, ya know. And you might not believe me, but I can hear him still saying ‘Honey, just stay here with me.’ I have a place right there beside him and I’ll get to go soon—I’ll get to just stay there with him, ya know.”
BB wiped her eyes and returned her hand to her heart. One of the young women grabbed the airborne toddler as he missed the first step and was nose-diving for the cement sidewalk. A dog climbed up on the porch, sniffing for possibilities and wagging his tail.
Frank said, “You really should try this watermelon.”
A singer-songwriter published and recorded internationally, Karren Pell’s musical compositions include commercial songs, historical ballads, and pieces in theatrical works, most notably the songs of the Alabama Shakespeare’s production of Fair and Tender Ladies. Karren also writes popular history books. Her first book Alabama Troubadour was published by River City Publications. With William Goss, she wrote Tallassee for Arcadia Publishing, and with Carole King, she wrote Montgomery’s Historic Neighborhoods, Montgomery Now and Then, and Images of America: Montgomery, all from Arcadia Publishing. In 2020, History Press released Classic Restaurants of Montgomery. Karren has four CDs: Alabama Troubadour, Fair and Tender Ladies, The Song Challenge, and Songs About Christmas. She lives in a 100-year-old bungalow in Montgomery, Alabama with husband Tim Henderson and a collection of cats and dogs. Learn more about Karren and her work at https://karrenirenepellwordpress.com