Memoir by Michael Usey
September 13, 2002
When he taught his disciples to pray, Jesus had them pray for bread. “Give us this day our daily bread,” he said, reminding them that all good gifts like food and life come from a gracious God. Jesus also knew that around a table very good things could happen: fellowship, connection, reconciliation, laughter, love. It is not accident that Jesus chose two common events-eating at table and bathing in water-to be the central images of communion and baptism to remind his followers of him. Food, Jesus knew, connected people to each other, and God, and their lives. Good food can nurture both body and soul. Like Jesus, Bennie Hendrickson knew how to nurture both.
Bennie loved to cook. She liked to cook for her husband, Ed, and her three children, Vince, Richard, and Diane. She could cook lots of delicious dishes, but she was famous for her fried chicken, known around these parts as Bennie Pearl Tucker Hendrickson’s famous fried chicken.
Of course, sometimes the whole family had to work to get the chicken ready. When they had an 8 acre farm out Tower road, they raised animals of every sort-rabbits, roosters, chickens, the whole 9 yards. Preparing a chicken for dinner was a family affair: Diane would sing to the chicken, and pet it; Richard would catch it when it was calm and hold it by its feet; Vince would slip a coat hanger fashioned into a noose around the bird’s head, and the brothers would stretch the chicken out, exposing its neck. Ed would cut the chicken’s head off, and dip it into boiling water for few minutes, then Diane would pluck the feathers off. The dead, plucked chicken would then be delivered to Bennie for her to clean and cook and do her magic.
Her middle name, Pearl, was from her mother, whose name was Pearler Outlaw Tucker, a great name if there ever were one. And her father had one to match: Ashley Kosueth Tucker, or Koss for short. Bennie was of Native American stock, one fourth Indian according to blood, but Ed her husband always said she was full blooded, because of her vibrant temperament. She didn’t have anything, but she didn’t know she was economically poor. Her family was close, which is the real riches in life. One time she saw another little girl get a present that cost more than a little money. She asked her dad, “Daddy, why don’t you give me money to buy something nice?” Her father pulled out all the money he had in his pocket-a fist half full of change-and said to her, “Here, honey, take whatever you want.” I think he meant to tell her two things: our family doesn’t have much, but what we have is yours. The young Bennie took only a nickel and went to the store, and had a big time on small change. It’s a metaphor for the rest of her life: she was happy in life, in good times and bad, and she was loved and did love those around her.
Bennie loved her family. Born and raised in Dothan, Alabama, Bennie enjoy growing up under a large and watchful family. She meet Ed when he was a Marine recruiter. He was nine years older than Bennie, and a veteran of WWII and Korean. He was orphaned as a boy, went to live with a farm family that never adopted him, and left them when he was 15 to be a Marine. He was a sharpshooter-the Marines are famous for their snipers-and he once shot his bantam rooster off the fence post on the farm when the bird would crow at all hours. He had to be pretty tough to take her away from her family-remember they were Outlaws-and move all around the country with the military. All of her children were born on Marine bases around the nation. She loved Ed, and he loved her.
Both Bennie and Ed loved to dance. They had danced so long together they had that fluid grace that comes from being long time dance partners. Ed was not a small man, at 6 feet 3 inches, 250 pounds, but together they could really dance. Big band music was their favorite, and they could jitterbug with the best of them. Richard learned to play well, and for years he had a band in their sizeable basement. Lately this has come full circle: a couple of years ago, when Richard’s southern jazzy rock group was looking for new place to practice, Bennie suggested that he take them up playing in the basement. Since Bennie’s house is on over 6 acres, and the basement is dug into the ground and set in concrete, the setting and acoustics are almost perfect. Bennie would listen to them play their Charlie Daniel’s like sound, and tell Richard during their break, “That one piece needed more pitch,” or “Wow, you guys sounds perfect tonight.”
Bennie and her husband and kids loved the beach too. She and Ed had a place at the beach, on Long Beach on Oak Island. Bennie absolutely loved the beach. She would get up in the morning really early, 4 or 5 in the morning, and sit out on the porch and watch the sun rise with a fresh cup of coffee and smell the clean ocean air. She would walk on the beach and whistle, and do the same while she was cooking and cleaning there. She hadn’t been able to go the last 3 years, and she dearly missed it. Before she was disabled by the arthritis, Richard took her to the beach for her 50th wedding anniversary. He treated her to really nice seafood dinner-he had to sneak the money to the waiter, and that night she called one of her bridesmaids, her aunt and said, “Do you remember where you were 50 years ago?” Sometimes the family even had thanksgiving at the beach, and these times were among her happiest.
Bennie loved to watch golf. She always tried to catch the GGO, both when it was held at Starmount and at Forest Oaks. She always managed to position herself so she could see and chat with Fuzzy Zoeller, and she talked with him most every year. One time when Richard and Vince were young, Bennie and Ed had taken them to the GGO at Starmount. The boys were watching the golfers drive, so they found sticks and started slicing acorns down the fairway. They kept this up until one of them let go of his stick which flew into the crowd right at the moment Arnold Palmer was getting ready to drive. This was the last GGO the boys saw for quite a while.
She loved art. She had a collage of 15 canvases on the wall of her living room, some of which she had bought on trips. She told me once as I admired her choices, “Well, we couldn’t really afford it, but each was so beautiful, I couldn’t not buy it.” Her favorites are wistful, impressionistic landscapes, powerfully emotional-they seem to take the viewer to another place entirely with a whole new set of eyes.
Bennie also loved her work. In 1960, she started working as a long distance operator with a woman that would become her best friend, Darcie Thompson. They were operators together. Bennie worked hard and rose in the ranks until, by the time of her retirement in 1989, she was head operator and office manager at TSPS, which became AT&T. Darcie went in a different clerical direction, where she rose too to be an administrative assistant. Bennie and Darcie were active in the telephone Pioneers, a service and social club that, when the two women first started, a person had to have 21 years of service to join. As you can imagine, she remembers that she and Darcie, partners in crime also did lots of crazy stuff together, like the time they organized a Hee-Haw skit involving lots of people for the benefit of their whole section.
She also loved being a mother. Through her example, she showed Diane how to be a thoughtful and caring young woman. Bennie bought them turtles and goldfish from the Woolworth’s in Friendly Center. She let them grow up without trying to control them: the boys remember sliding down a bank of red clay and getting covered in it. Ed took pictures of them, while Bennie hosed them off. And Diane too when her brothers talked her into going down the coal shoot when all three were locked out of the house. On one of Diane’s birthdays when she was young, Bennie gave her a birthday party. Her daughter wanted to invite a black girl to the party-something that was not near as common then as now. Several people told Diane not to do so, and told Bennie not to let her. But Bennie said, “No, she’s going to come. She and Diane are friends.” In moments like this, a daughter learns character from her mother.
Bennie loved the people of this church. Most every Sunday a tall classy and beautiful older woman would leave by my door in the back, where we chatted about the service and the music. She had a smile that was not forced but flowed naturally out of a secure sense of who she was and who God was. She was an active member of the Lydia class, which Darcie now teaches, and served on the bereavement committee with her too. Her children were raised and baptized in this church, in this very room.. She and Ed used to live on Walker Avenue before UNCG cut the street in half. They would walk to church, and if the kids had been good, they would walk to Yum-Yums for lunch. “She always seemed to be thinking of other people, always,” one of her friends said to me-that is a good one sentence description of a true Christian: always thinking of other people.
She could love life even at its worst. Her health went downhill so very quickly. I said good-bye to her with hug the Sunday before we left for Denmark. When we returned less than six months later, she was bed-ridden, not to return to church again. She was in great pain as her joints exploded with rheumatoid arthritis. I saw her often during numerous hospitalizations and illnesses, and she always was as upbeat and happy as she could possibly be. The last time I saw her was three weeks ago in her home. I was with the glitter twins, Darcie and Penny, and Darcie had brought Bennie several pieces of cake, but not a whole cake. Bennie played hurt that she hadn’t gotten a whole cake, and winked at me and Penny while we tried not to laugh at Darcie explaining where the rest of the cake went. Richard said one of the last times he was with she was singing the Lord’s Prayer, and said she was seeing her father.
But the memory of her I like the best is one of Richard’s earliest. When he was 4 or 5 years old, he remembers his mother cooking in the kitchen in Alabama on a late afternoon. He remembers watching her as she fussed in the kitchen, the ceiling fan swinging while it whirled. And Bennie sang, as she worked, as she played with him and cleaned, she sang. Can you picture it: a young and beautiful Bennie in love with life, God, and her family, and the joy spills out of her in song, as it often did. There are many ways to feed a person’s soul, and surely joy and love are the best fare another one could serve another, the best “daily bread” there is.