“Cheese and Crackers!”

“Cheese and Crackers!”

That was one of my Grandma’s favorite expressions. It was, for her and her community, a socially acceptable way to express surprise, exasperation, and sometimes joy. She was a gently religious person from a Baptist tradition who did not believe in taking the “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

When I was old enough to catch and hold onto memories of her, she and my Grandpa had retired to Ben Wheeler, a small country town in East Texas that is about 90 miles east of Dallas. They lived in a tiny two-bedroom farmhouse where they raised chickens, rabbits, a few cattle, a little bit of crops, and grandchildren.

The house was a place where the floors creaked, the beds squeaked, and the only cool air came from a swamp cooler attached to the window of the 2nd bedroom. Grandma and Grandpa shared a party-line telephone with the houses of cousins stretched down the road, each at least a ¼ mile apart. The yard was sand filled with burrs, red ants, and pine needles.

Ben Wheeler then was a town of about 500 people. There were no stoplights or sidewalks, indeed many “roads” were little more than dirt paths. Downtown was a collection of three buildings that included a general store on one side of the street, a bank and diner opposite, and a tin barn that housed the single truck that served the volunteer fire department. There was not a building over two stories within 50 miles. The nearest grocery store was 30 minutes away and the hospital was further than that. Trash service was throwing bags into the back of Grandpa’s pickup and driving to the county dump (usually with me and all my cousins piled in the truck bed as well).

For a middle-class kid from the 1970s suburbs this was a loving, wonderful, and unusual world to be in. Spending much of my formative years there imprinted a wealth of love, support, and adventure onto my heart. My memories of that time are tinted with a hazy gauze of nostalgia for those simpler times.

I’ve been back a couple of times and seen Ben Wheeler thru adult eyes. My extended family remains as strong, big hearted, and loving as always even if they are little wary of my more liberal ways. Much of the pastoral mythology remains even as I see the toll poor healthcare, limited economic and educational opportunities, and indifferent state and federal leadership takes on my family and the community. Yet against this backdrop of adversity (and perhaps because of it), the bonds connecting family are incredibly tight. And any problem that can’t be solved with a truck, tractor, or shovel could be helped by sharing a platter of home-fried chicken and a pitcher of sweet tea.

Cheese and crackers, the world I live and work in seems to be so much more complicated than that. Poverty, ecological destruction, the violence of militarized police, and how these (and more) intersect in a culture of systemic racism are but a few of the difficult injustices that we are called to address. For me, such a calling also includes examining my own place of privilege in these systems that so directly contradict the values of Unitarian Universalism. This systemic and individual work can be complicated, difficult, and messy and sometimes leaves me feeling far away and disconnected from those places of peace and love.

As I finish writing this piece I am entering into the UUA General Assembly and have spent several days with fellow administrative leaders as part of the Association of Unitarian Universalist Administrators (AUUA). My head and heart are filled with hope and joy connecting deeply with this group of earnest leaders honestly engaging with the personal and professional challenges we face and committed to caring, leading, and working to broaden our communities. My home is filled with family as both of my stepsons are here along with my wife’s goddaughter who is staying with us while working as a street medic caring for protesters. The daily moments of connection, support, and love are stamping new memories into my heart which I will cherish and add to a long line of familial bonds.

Cheese and crackers, indeed.


  1. Kathy Parker

    Lovely message. Thank you for sharing this reflection on your family memory and connecting its meaning to what we seek to value in our lives today.

  2. Liz Barrett

    Sean, I envy you your childhood in that beautiful place. I had a little bit of that in my childhood, too — when I was maybe ages 7-11 . In the summer my best friend’s family lived on 50 acres in rural Maine, in somewhat of a commune of three families. One family lived in the big main house with the barn; one in a large family tent; and our place, a simple house with no electric (but we did have a well with a pump.) I usually spent a month with them in the summer. We did the farm chores — milking (at which I was terrible), holding the chickens to be de-headed, washing off the blood in the lake, distributing the chickens to the other families after we’d plucked them, berry picking. I have so many good members of that rural existence. I lived in the Boston area on a very beautiful lake, too. Skinny dipping in both lakes made it permanently impossible for me to ever enjoy putting on a bathing suit. We have a gorgeous pool, but don’t come unannounced! Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Suzanne Henig

    Thanks, Sean, and thanks to Liz too for sharing your wonderful memories. It’s so much fun to hear each other’s stories. Keep em coming!

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