Skip to content

TALKING WITH THE ANGELS

September 18, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to The Charles Lea Center, a nonprofit agency serving over 1,400 Spartanburg County residents with disabilities and special needs. 1905 Burdette Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29307, (864) 585-0322, http://www.charleslea.org/

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a remarkable read. The book, best described as historical fiction, is set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century. It is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, early leaders in women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement. The book relates the coming-of-age story of two characters. Sarah is the daughter of a prominent lawyer. Hetty is a slave assigned to Sarah. Neither is a wilting magnolia. Both are determined women, each with a strong, defiant streak. I am not surprised that questions of God and Christian ethics arise throughout the novel.

Years ago, even while I was a seminary student, I realized that some of the best theology is not written by theologians. Works of fiction often require the reader to struggle with religious as well as moral issues. Theology and ethics are best learned through enrolling in the proverbial college of hard knocks. Fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth about life.  

Among the more memorable novels with theological themes are Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851), Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1876), Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1955), Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev (1972), Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987), and Marilynne Robinson, the trilogy, Gilead (2004), home (2008), and Lilia (2014). This is a partial list, to be sure, but it is a respectable sampling.

Several years ago, I came across a book title I had never before seen. Talking with the Angels is the true story of four young Hungarians during the Holocaust. Over a seventeen-month period the four encountered luminous forces that helped them find courage and hope in a time of terrible uncertainty. These angels, as they were described, accompanied the group until three of the four young women met their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Gitta Mallasz had recorded the instructions given to her in eighty-eight experiences of angelic revelation. Gitta was the only survivor among the friends. Her journals were preserved. After the war Gitta shared with the world these remarkable dialogues through her book. Gitta always rejected any notion that she was the author of the book, saying, “I am merely the scribe of the angels.”

Gitta’s story reminded me of one from my own family.


My nephew David Kreswell Suits came into the world in October 1981, the fourth of eight children born to my sister Mamie and her husband, Dr. Steve Suits.  Kres was a twin. His twin brother, William Haynsworth Suits, was stillborn. 

Mamie knew immediately that something was wrong with Kres.  He screamed and shook uncontrollably.  Mamie could do little to console her baby boy. Several pediatricians examined Kres.

An older physician suggested that Mamie and Steve take their infant son to a pediatric neurologist for an ultrasound of his brain. 

When the results of the scan were revealed, the doctor asked several questions: “Do you have other children?” 

“Yes, answered Mamie, “three.” 

“Are they all normal?” 

“As normal as they can be,” replied Steve.

After a long pause, the physician advised, “Take this child to a local facility for mentally impaired children.  Leave him there and try to forget that you ever had him.  Go home and take care of your three other children.”

Reluctant to hear more of his advice, Mamie escaped to the restroom.  She stared into the mirror and prayed. 

When she returned moments later, she asserted, “Steve, it’s time to take our baby home.”

Mamie and Steve presented Kres to their three older children – Steven, age four; Burk, age three; and Neely, one-and-a-half.  The children greeted their new little brother with love and joy. Mamie knew from that moment that Kres would be a part of their family forever 

Kres was diagnosed with hydranencephaly.  Quite simply, he had no brain, only a brain stem.  He had no vision. His hearing was extremely limited. He had no motor abilities.  Though Kres lived for twelve years, he was profoundly retarded. His tiny body could not develop.  Caring for him was a constant challenge. 

Mamie and Steve welcomed four more children to their family. Mamie commented, “Each time I had another child, it was like having two newborn babies to care for.”

Many times people advised Steve and Mamie to find a place for Kres so that they could provide their other children with the attention they needed.  Mamie simply noted, “Kres was a part of our family.  He was God’s gift to all of us, and he made a profound impact on every one of us.”

I asked Mamie about any high points in the twelve years that she cared for Kres.  She explained that Kres could make no positive response and that every reaction was a cry or a scream except on very rare occasions. 

In Mamie’s words, “Once in a while, Kres had a peaceful angelic expression on his face and a very faint smile.  When that happened, I would tell my other children, ‘Kres is talking with the angels.’” 

Mamie added, “Just before his twelfth birthday, I went in to check on him.  He had the biggest grin on his face.  It was as if the angels had told him a wonderful secret.”

My parents had the custom of giving each of their forty-six grandchildren a very special present on their twelfth birthday.  When asked what they could give Kres, Mamie and Steve told them that Kres had been accustomed to sleeping on a waterbed.  His brothers loved to bounce on the bed.  It had finally burst.  And so for Kres’ birthday, Mamie suggested that Mom and Dad buy a new waterbed, Kres-size in length.

Dad purchased some fine walnut lumber and asked Ray Harris to build a waterbed frame, countertop height so that Mamie would not have to bend down when tending to Kres.  Ray Harris has been a family friend for many years.  He is a carpenter and a master cabinet maker. The gift was to be ready sometime before Christmas 1993.

Two weeks after his twelfth birthday, November 8, 1993, David Kreswell Suits died.  Dad and I went to the home to be with the family.  Dad stayed with Mamie while I drove Steve to the hospital.  He wanted a physician friend to sign the death certificate.  I will never forget turning in the darkness toward Steve, who was in the passenger’s seat.  As he cradled his tiny twelve-year-old son in his arms, I saw that rare smile on Kres’ face that Mamie had mentioned. I thought He’s talking with the angels. Steve and I both wept tears of grief and tears of joy.

When Mamie found out that the bed frame had not yet been built, she asked Dad, “Could the lumber be used to make a coffin for Kres instead?” 

The night before the funeral, Ray Harris stayed up all night long, fashioning a fine walnut casket.  Mama lined the coffin with a quilt, one that she had made by hand.

Gathered around Kres’ grave, our thoughts turned to a twelve-year-old boy, so limited in this life but now made whole.

We were all sure that Kres was talking and singing with the angels. 

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com       

GOOBER PEAS

September 11, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Mobile Meals of Spartanburg, 419 E Main Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 573-7684

When I was in the fourth grade, Mrs. Pearl Fairbetter, my teacher,  assigned each of her students to do a report on a scientist. That day when I went by the lumberyard on my way home from school, I saw a paper bag of boiled peanuts that had been placed on the counter. While my grandfather and I ate goobers, I told him about Mrs. Fairbetter’s assignment.

Pappy suggested, “Kirk, you ought to do a report on George Washington Carver. He’s a fellow who did more with peanuts than anybody.”

I learned from a biography of George Washington Carver that this former slave became a scientist and discovered three hundred uses for peanuts. A teacher with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, Caver devoted his life to conducting research projects connected with Southern agriculture. His work revolutionized the economy of the South by liberating it from dependence on cotton. Carver suggested that peanut derivatives could be used as adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, and wood stain, just to name a few.

So many uses, but the best use is to eat them, boiled, roasted, parched, dried, fried, salted, or unsalted!

I am the eldest of eight children. Dad and Mama were the proud grandparents of forty-five grandchildren. When we had a family gathering, it was a big event. Even when some could not be with us, we still had a crowd.

Clare and I attended a bridal shower and potluck supper for a niece and her fiancé.  The buffet table was laden with an abundance of many of our favorites. My brother Bill, who drove from Eastern North Carolina, brought ten pounds of boiled peanuts.

My family gathered around to shuck and suck boiled peanuts. Inevitably, somebody’s eyes are bigger than their stomach. They gobble enough goobers to make themselves ill.

Soon my sister Mamie was moaning and groaning after eating a double ration. “Sorry you’re feeling bad,” someone sympathized.

“It’s okay. It’s kinda’ like having a baby. The joy of the experience more than makes the pain worth it.”

She should know. Like her mother before her, she’s given birth to eight. Mamie really likes boiled peanuts!

Several years ago, Clare and I hosted a passel of guests over the Labor Day weekend. Most of our visitors came from places north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Other than a family member from Nashville, Tennessee, and Clare’s brother, Ben, who lives in Cincinnati, we had a house full of Yankees.

Ben has deep roots in South Carolina. When he returns to this part of the world, he starts drooling for Southern cuisine. By the time he arrives in the Palmetto State, he is ready for delicious, salty boiled peanuts.

We placed a bowl overflowing with the delicacy on the coffee table in our den. Ben helped himself. So, too, did several of the others who were completely unfamiliar with boiled peanuts. Bless their hearts! Ben gave a demonstration to the uninitiated, showing them the fine art of sucking goober peas, which is a little like eating raw oysters on the half shell. You just let them slide around in your mouth a second before gulping them down.

Some of our guests enjoyed them; others turned away in disgust, saying, “Those things are so gross!”  By bedtime the bowl was empty.

Peanuts have long been a Southern staple. A handful of salted peanuts funneled into a glass bottle of Royal Crown Cola, Pepsi, or Coca-Cola makes a concoction my Uncle Will called Dixie Drizzle. A paper bag of parched or roasted peanuts is perfect at a baseball or football game. But hot peanuts, boiled to perfection, are the crème de la crème of Southern snacks.

My father-in-law, Mr. Jack, had great success raising peanuts in his spacious garden in Leesville, South Carolina. My mother-in-law, Miz Lib, parched a good many to serve as snacks. She also kept a good supply of boiled peanuts in her freezer for those times when Ben returned home from places too far north and too far away.

Peanuts require a long, hot growing season. They need a well-drained, light, sandy soil with plenty of organic matter. The soil should be loose, not clayish and hard. Soils in the Sandhills and Lowcountry area are excellent.

The peanut is a legume. The flowering plant produces underground pods that contain the delicious seeds. Peanut plants have been in continuous cultivation for over 3500 years. They originated in South America and were carried to Africa by early explorers. Traders took them to Spain and North America. In the American Colonial period peanuts were used as food aboard ships because they were cheap and of high nutritional value.

The peanut comes in four varieties.

Virginia peanuts have been grown in the eastern region of the United States since the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Virginias, also called big whites, have the largest kernels and are the most commonly sold snack peanut.  

Spanish peanuts have a smaller kernel with red skin. My grandfather had a peanut machine at the lumberyard. Deposit one penny in the slot, turn the knob, and a handful of red Spanish peanuts magically dropped from the glass globe into your waiting hand. A nickel would buy an ice-cold Coca-Cola, the perfect companion for the salty redskins.

Because of their high yields, Runners are the most dominant variety in the United States. Grown commercially throughout the Deep South, most runners are used for peanut butter and peanut oil.

The Valencia variety features a bright red skin and small kernels. Valencias are sweet. Though excellent when roasted in the shell, they are even better when boiled.

No one knows just why Southerners started boiling peanuts, a folk practice in the South since the nineteenth century. In late August, when the peanut crop came in, surplus peanuts were boiled. Extended family and neighbors gathered round to share the feast of goober peas, a name derived from the African word for peanut, nguba.

At one point, they became a necessity. After Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia, the Confederacy was split in two. Rebel soldiers were deprived of much needed supplies. In order to feed the Army, the Confederate government provided peanuts, which the soldiers boiled over their campfires. A well-known folk song tells the story.

Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day

Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away

Lying in the shadows underneath the trees

Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas.

Just before the battle, the General hears a row

He says, “The Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now.”

He looks down the roadway, and what d’ya think he sees?

The Georgia Militia cracking goober peas.

I think my song has lasted just about enough.

The subject is interesting, but the rhymes are mighty rough.

I wish the war was over, so free from rags and fleas

We’d kiss our wives and sweethearts, and gobble goober peas.

Late summer into early fall is prime time for boiled peanuts. In the Southern clime, roadside stands or pickup truck peddlers offer bags of the tasty treat. For the last twenty-seven years, the town of Pelion has thrown a Peanut Party every August. The local Ruritan Club boils nearly 130 bushels of peanuts.

Like okra, black-eyed peas, collard greens, grits, and pork barbecue, boiled peanuts are indigenous to our Southern culture. Much like a fish fry, a pig picking, or a Low-country shrimp boil, a peanut boil became a social occasion.

Over Labor Day weekend two years ago, our family celebrated a birthday for our grandson at a neighborhood pool. Carl Bostick is our son Kris’ father-in-law. Not only do Carl and I share three grandchildren, we both enjoy good food. Carl brought a big bag of boiled peanuts to the party. While other adults and children enjoyed a cool dip in the swimming pool, the two grandfathers – Carl and I – like our Confederate ancestors, sat in the shade and feasted on good old goober peas.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

WISDOM FROM A KENTUCKY FARMER

September 4, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Interfaith Hospitality Network, 899 S Pine St, Spartanburg, SC 29302, (864) 597-0699.

For most of human existence, people were hunter-gatherers. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving with the seasons to follow the food supply. As the glaciers retreated at the end of the ice age, plant life changed. The need to move so often became less essential. Hunter-gatherer societies would have known which crops were best to harvest in each season.

In his The Ascent of Man, a book and a thirteen-part television documentary, scholar Jacob Bronowski contends that an important factor in the transition to an agricultural lifestyle was the mutation of wheat. When the chaff separated from the grain, wheat could be planted in tilled fields rather than be blown about by the wind. This simple change allowed civilization to settle down. It promoted the development of art, literature, and other cultural expressions.

Archaeologists and paleontologists have traced the origins of farming to around 10,000 years ago, to somewhere in the Indus River Valley in northern India and in China along the Yangtze River.

According to the Hebrew scripture creation account, “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food…. Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” (Genesis 2:8-9,15) So farming is identified as the oldest profession, even before sin stained the world. It only stands to reason that our agricultural endeavors should produce a good measure of wisdom.

An example in my experience is Stud Goings. Stud was a tobacco farmer in Monticello, Kentucky, in the mountains near Lake Cumberland. He had a small tobacco allotment and raised Kentucky Burley.  His beagle dog, Luther, was constantly by his side. Stud’s backyard featured an old Ford pickup truck propped up on concrete blocks. A bare dirt path meandered to his dilapidated barn. Along the way, a small vegetable garden flourished in the sunshine. Two dozen or so free-range chickens and a covey of Guinea hens skittered to and fro.  Under a white pine tree oozing sap were two oak nail kegs, turned upside down, intended for sitting. 

“When things become too burdensome,” he explained, “I just sit here in the shade.  I call this white pine the tree of life.” 

It was in that shady spot that Stud rested after he had worked his garden or stripped tobacco. There he swapped stories with his neighbors. 

 The only time I ever worked with a tobacco crop was when Stud was short of help. I happened by his place one Saturday afternoon. A thunderstorm threatened. He was in a big hurry to strip burley leaves and get them on racks in his tobacco barn. I rolled up my sleeves and gave him a hand.

When we finished the work, and the storm passed, we sat on the nail kegs beneath the tree of life. We drank refreshment from Mason jars. My jar was filled with cool well water. I suspect Stud’s jar contained something stiffer. Stud smoked a cigar. “This is where my tired body and my weary soul catch up with each other,” he said.

Stud consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac every day.  His single-occupant privy had a copy of the yellow magazine hanging by a string from a well-placed nail. Not only was the Almanac good reading material, but the pages provided an emergency supply of toilet paper.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a popular reference guide for country folks. It is the oldest continuously published periodical in America, initially printed in 1792 during George Washington’s first term as President of the United States.

The magazine is best known for its weather predictions. The first editor, Robert B. Thomas, closely observed nature. He used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a climate forecasting formula. It produced uncannily accurate results, said to be 80 percent correct. His secret formula is still kept safely tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.

In 1942, a German spy was arrested in New York City by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Landing in a U-boat, the spy had come ashore on Long Island the night before his capture. A current copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac was found in his coat pocket when he was apprehended. The United States government speculated that the Germans were using the Almanac for weather forecasts, which meant that the magazine was supplying information to the enemy. The editor of the Almanac decided that the publication would feature climate indications rather than predictions from then on.

Stud relied on the weather indications. He also used the astronomical calendar as a guide for planting his crops and for other farm chores.

Not long ago, I received from a friend a clipping from The Old Farmer’s Almanac. As I read it, I immediately thought of Stud Goings. These were things he might have said.

            · Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight, and bull-strong.

            · Keep skunks and bankers at a distance.

            · Life is simpler when you plow around the stumps.

            · A swarm of hornets is considerably faster than any farm tractor.

            · Words that soak into your ears are whispered, not yelled.

            · Meanness doesn’t just happen overnight.

            · Don’t corner something that you know is meaner than you.

            · It doesn’t take a very strong person to carry a grudge.

            · You can’t unsay a cruel word.

            · Every path has a few puddles.

            · When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.

            · Most of the things people worry about aren’t ever going to happen.

            · Silence is sometimes the best answer.

            · Don’t interfere with something that isn’t bothering you.

            · Timing has got a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.

            · If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

            · The biggest troublemaker you’ll ever have to deal with watches you from the mirror.

            · Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.

            · Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.

            · If you think you’re a person of influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around.

            · Live simply. Speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.

            · When you quit laughing, you quit living.

As far as I know, Stud Goings didn’t attend church with any regularity. He did know the Bible, and he did pray on occasion. For the most part, he kept his faith to himself. I realized early on that he didn’t want a preacher prying into his private religion.

Stud and I were fishing for white bass back in a cove on Lake Cumberland late one afternoon.  Out of the silence between us, he spoke, “I need some time like this every now and then, some time when my soul can be restored.”

He reeled in his line and lit a new cigar. After a couple of puffs, he put a fresh minnow on his hook, spit on the wriggling bait, and cast into deeper water.

“Yep,” he repeated. “This restores my soul.”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com