The Folklore Project
Road Improvement Has Closed Henderson’s Restaurant
By Andy Offutt Irwin
When I am opening a new internet account or phone app or whatever, and it asks me to come up with answers to those security questions – favorite teacher, first pet, favorite restaurant – the answer to my favorite restaurant is and ever shall be Henderson’s.
Henderson’s staff has included, an attorney, schoolteachers, a building contractor, and a policeman. It was the default state of the Henderson family that every member — no matter what other job they may have held – worked at the restaurant. On any given day, four generations of Hendersons were waiting on tables, bussing, or cooking.
* * *
I'm 7 years old. It's Sunday morning. I'm wearing a white shirt, a clip-on tie with blue and green stripes, khaki pants, Red Goose loafers ("half the fun of having feet..."), and a navy blue jacket emblazoned with a meaningless crest. My sisters, Sally and Amanda, chide me as I walk through the dewy, freshly mown grass down the hill from our house to the home of our grandparents, Will and Sallie Mae Cook. We enter this dwelling that is as much our home as our own house. My granddaddy is standing up on the Windsor chair; he has inserted the key into the "eight-day" wall clock and is winding it as he does every Sunday morning.
Amanda runs over to the old DuMont television and turns it on so she can watch a few minutes of "The Gospel Singing Jubilee." The bouncy music of this show – with guitars and everything – is quite different than the anthem that will be sung by our robed choir, accompanied by Mrs. Josie Goode on the pipe organ, at the First Methodist Church.
When we arrive at the church, Sally walks me to Sunday School. I dutifully toss the offering of my dime into the wooden bowl. I try not to wiggle too much in the cane-bottomed chair. I look at the brightly-colored pictures of my Sunday School literature that awaits me like a placemat.
- Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree.
- Jesus holding a lamb with the children gathered all around him. ("Red and yellow, black and white…")
- Baby Moses in a basket, floating down the Nile.
At worship, I sit between my grandparents on the seventh pew from the front. On the soft pine floor, I can see the heel marks of my foremothers. We stand and sing. We bow for the prayer. We recite the Apostles' Creed. We pass along the offering plate. ("Big Church" costs a quarter.) We Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow. Then we sit, and the minister, Mr. Lively, talks, and talks. My grandfather dozes.
After church, Granddaddy drives us all to Henderson's for Sunday dinner. There is no discussion. This is automatic.
These rituals of Sunday blend together in my forever-memory. And judge me if you will, but the institution of Henderson's feels as strong to me as church.
* * *
I'm 8 years old. My granddaddy has died on Friday. His funeral was on Saturday. The local newspaper won't arrive until Thursday, so information has not reached the southern part of the county. On Sunday, we go to church and on to Henderson's for dinner. As we are eating, gregarious Mr. Henderson, in his white T-shirt and apron, is moving from table to table, greeting his patrons and delivering refills of tea. (When I was very small I was convinced that Mr. Henderson and Mr. Clean were one and the same.)
When Mr. Henderson makes it to our table, he greets my mother and grandmother, “Hey, Miz Tootsie. Hey, Miz Cook. What did you do with Mr. Will?"
My grandmother responds in her stoic manner, which she would call "dignified."
"I buried my husband yesterday, Clarence."
Mr. Henderson weeps.
* * *
I'm 12 years old. It's summer. I'm knee-deep in Town Branch. I'm damming up this creek that flows down the hill from my house because it's summer. And I can. And the temperature has been in the high 90s. If the clay and the rocks hold, I will create a pool. The challenge: to submerge my whole self. I am keenly aware of my waning childhood. The shadows are growing long.
My mom and my sisters come barreling down our winding, gravel driveway in my mother's 1963 Plymouth Valiant convertible. The top is down. Mom yells, "We're going to Henderson's." She flings a beach towel at me. In the car, I find a T-shirt. She has not provided me with fresh shorts or shoes. On the way there, I realize I am famished. Half a mile from the restaurant, we can smell the fried manna. When we enter, Mrs. Frances Henderson is holding court from behind her cash register, as she has since 1948. For the first time, I get to order the All-You-Can-Eat Catfish. (No sharing. No doggie bags.) The restaurant is refrigerated with high-decibel window-unit air conditioners in spaces provided for them in the white, cinder block walls. I am barefoot, shivering, and immensely happy.
* * *
I'm 14 years old. To mess with Mary Ann Henderson, who is my age and will most likely bus our table, I have tied my chair to the table with a rope fashioned from our cloth napkins. My family and I are already in the car and halfway to Covington when Mary Ann pulls out the chair, which pulls down the table. She runs out the door after me yelling, “ANDY IRWIN!..." This is witnessed by a busboy, Charles "Chaz" Waldrip, a rising senior at Newton County High School and the Blue Rambler Band’s drum major. My first day in the band, Chaz walks over to me in the percussion section and cryptically says, "So, you're Andy Irwin. Yes, I've heard your name before. I'll be watching you."
Together, Chaz Waldrip and I have committed many life-altering practical jokes. We remain lifelong friends.
* * *
The marquee sign in the gravel parking lot of Henderson's served two purposes:
- It announced the date of the next CHITTERLING SUPPER, so patrons who would enjoy chitterlings would know when to come.
- It announced the date of the next CHITTERLING SUPPER, so patrons who did not want to be around chitterlings knew when not to come.
* * *
Georgia State Highway 36 is being widened. The new lanes will come all the way to the restaurant door. We have known this was to come for quite a while now, but as it is with any anticipated ending, there is still a small, sad surprise.
Henderson’s has closed.
I can’t help but think of a quote from William Blake. (I have borrowed this before.) I think what Blake wrote sometime between 1790 and 1793, in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," is calling us to choose the "better portion,” much as Jesus entreated Martha to follow the example of her sister, Mary. To slow down. Savor. Converse. To tarry over food and life and joy.
Alas, you and I know that the mindless momentum of engineering and progress has won out.
Quoth Blake: "Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius."
I sigh and raise my plastic tumbler of iced tea. Here’s to you, Henderson’s.