Creating family memories
When considering heirlooms, I believe it is easy for us to immediately connect the word to physical objects, such as custom jewelry, cast-iron skillets, delicate china, or shotguns. For me, with summer approaching, I cannot help but indulge my thoughts with the taste of fresh, thick-cut slices of red and purple heirloom tomatoes between toasted, bunny-white bread with mayonnaise.
It is customary to have such pieces passed down from generation to generation, so that the heritage of the ones with whom you were close can always be remembered. My maternal great-grandfather gave me an heirloom when I was about nine years old. It is nothing of precious value to most—but to me, the wind-up, crouching Bengal tiger toy is something I still hold in the highest regard. Every time I make my way back home to South Alabama, I look at this particular piece of my childhood and ask myself, “Why is this so special to me?”
From what my dad tells me about Grandpa Sawyer (whom I never had the chance to meet), he sounds like the epitome of a man’s man. A boilermaker at the Mobile State Docks, a crack shot, second to none on a dog-driven dear hunt, and to boot…he even had his own sweet whiskey-making moonshine stills down in the Silver Creek swamp of Robertsdale, Alabama. Every time the sun rose, Grandpa Sawyer would drive to work in the shipyards to earn a hefty 50 cents daily wages. It was twelve hours non-stop with an apparatus in his hand—one which had the sole purpose of melding two pieces of metal together by creating additional intense heat, as if the humidity of South Alabama was not enough. Dad remembers seeing Grandpa Sawyer taking his boots off outside of their front door after a long day’s work, and turning them upside down so that the sweat that had built up since sunrise could drain right on out. As I grew up, and still to this day, this same work ethic is active and vibrant in my dad, Bill Sawyer. You would not believe how this man operates on a regular basis. During my younger years, it was always baseball practice, disking dove fields, farming, 12 hour swing shift work, helping my mom with her latest business ideas, and still being a great father to me and my sister and husband to Mom. There were many times when he would sacrifice sleep for 72 hours straight just to be sure that all things mentioned above were done—and done well. Countless times, he would be moving round tables, rectangle tables, tablecloths, chairs, chair covers, and any other piece of event-ware imaginable for Mom to prepare for the latest wedding or upcoming family fish fry.
Now my mom, Sandra Sawyer (also known to many as Momma Sawyer), is known for her hospitality. In other words, she can throw one heck of a shindig! She attributes her gift of hospitality to my great-grandmother, Miriam Blackburn (Mimi). Mimi was wife to a man of many trades: Southern Baptist Director of Missions, political promoter, preacher, and taxidermist. She was also a grandmother to seven and great-grandmother to nineteen. It is easy to see the picture that is painted here: There were a lot of folks at the Blackburn residence at all times. In her kitchen hung a sign that read, “Mimi’s Kitchen, Open 24/7,” and she meant it too! You could just stroll on in at any given time, day or night, and get some good Southern cooking—you know, that kind of cooking that will “put some meat on your bones,” as she used to say. The same trait carried over into my momma in the way that woman serves people. Not a minute passes that she doesn’t have a pot of something simmering on the stove. And a fair warning to any of you planning a visit: You are not leaving the Sawyer house without being offered some fresh pound cake or strawberry pie. My friends and I would casually roll in from a fishing trip at 2:00 a.m. and you could bet there would be a hot-breakfast spread laid out that puts any breakfast joint to shame. I’ll never forget the time that we unexpectedly brought thirteen people down from Birmingham to go to Mardi Gras. She didn’t miss a beat.
What I hope to communicate through these words is this humble opinion: Maybe what we hold so dear about heirlooms is more than the items themselves. I would propose that the reason we care so much about these precious gifts is the people they represent. How they lived their life and how we remember them. I hope and pray that I can live—that we all can live—a life that represents the attributes of those who have developed me into the person I am today and aspire to be as time goes on. May the work ethic of my father and the love of serving others that my mother embodies so well be known of me to my future children, current family, and peers—and may summer come quickly so I can indulge in a fresh bite of those juicy tomatoes.
Words by Tom Sawyer
Photos by Caleb Chancey