We really are one big family
Years ago, we discovered the best pizza in the area came from a hole in the wall called Pizza Parlour in Alma. They get the crust thin and crispy enough, the sauce sweet-spicy enough, the sausage and other meats high-quality enough, and the cheese piled high enough.
Onions are diced, not sliced. They use green olives. They will substitute pineapple for those of us who hate mushrooms. They don’t skimp on napkins or cheese and peppers. They don’t charge for water. They give kids free suckers. They have tiny pizzas and huge pizzas and good coupons in the phone book; at least they did when we still had phone books.
This revelation must have occurred around 20 years ago, because I can remember feeding Grace—now 21—bites of pizza in her car seat. My kids and I have gone through several vehicles in the time we’ve been getting Pizza Parlour pizza, always trying not to make messes and rarely succeeding.
At some point the owner became my friend, although I doubt to this day he knows my name. When my babies were little—and in the span of those 20 years I’ve always had at least one who was little—I was paranoid about leaving them in the car long enough to run in and get the pizza. The specter of Morgan Nick’s kidnapping looms heavy in Alma.
Pizza Parlour has no drive-through. So I’d call from the parking lot, explain my dilemma, and be afforded the kindness of someone running the pizza to my car window, usually an unassuming man with long red hair and wire glasses.
We’ve celebrated birthdays there, faithfully eaten nowhere else in Alma except for the occasional trip to Catfish Hole, and planned trips to Fort Smith and northwest Arkansas around stops at the Pizza Parlour.
One time some friends and I took a passel of kids to Alma Water Park and went in to eat the Pizza Parlour buffet after swimming. Due to my negligence, Harper had no dry shirt, and we entered in violation of the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” policy displayed clearly on the door but somehow able to escape my notice.
Corey, as I heard workers call the guy with red hair, responded by giving Harper a Pizza Parlour T-shirt and making sure we were served.
The last time I saw Corey was right before the pandemic hit. He had cut his hair. I joked with him about expanding his pizza empire to Ozark so his biggest fans would have easier access. “You never know,” he said. “Anything is possible.”
How right he was. In the next year I would lose an election and be trapped inside with all kinds of builtup political angst and nowhere productive to go with it. A friend would suggest I write about my experience trying to persuade the Legislature to consider rural schools and not pass more access to vouchers—and how I was largely ignored.
He gave me the address of an editor friend named Brenda Looper at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I sent her my story with fear and trembling, and lo and behold, Brenda liked it. This began a relationship by which I would send her several pieces in the coming months. Most of them she published, or sent on to another editor who did.
We writer types tend to get each other. Brenda and I became Facebook friends and began to flit around the edges of each other’s normal lives by seeing each other’s posts. I empathized with her deeply when she shared her sadness, fear, and frustration in trying to communicate with her family about the dangers of covid.
Her brother was anti-vaccination. They fought about it on Facebook. There are undercurrents in their exchanges: playful sibling snarkery, genuine political differences, a stubborn desire (that I recognize in some of my own relationships) to be right and prove the other wrong, sometimes at the cost of being kind. Often the comments would end with a mutual friend telling Corey to back off, that he was taking things too far.
Then Corey got covid and was hospitalized. Brenda seemed awash in a weird guilt that many may not understand, but I think I do. It’s the same regret I feel when I see people vote against their interests, their rural communities, schools, hospitals, and neighbors, because they don’t understand they are being used by politicians who serve big money interests, instead of the needs of their local people.
The guilt comes not because one doesn’t try to help and protect and save the ones they love. It comes from not being able to. From trying everything within your power and still not being believed. Not being trusted. From being human and making mistakes but doing the very best you can and still not somehow finding a way to connect before it comes to this.
And now Corey has died. In a recent column Brenda wrote:
I couldn’t convince him of the need for the vaccine, and I feel guilty about that.
I could list statistics all day, but that’s not what I care about right now. I care about my hard-headed redheaded brother.
Corey Looper is a talented photographer and storyteller. He has many friends thanks to his wit and his talent with pizza at the Alma Pizza Parlour …
When I read this, I emailed Brenda this incredulous note: “Corey is the long red-haired Corey of Pizza Parlour?”
She confirmed that he was. Then she wrote: “He’s one of the most genuine people I know, and I’m in awe of the reactions I’m seeing. We’re a tiny state, but we really are one big family.”
I’d been praying my heart out for Corey for days without realizing he was my buddy from Pizza Parlour. Brenda’s statement sticks with me.
We’re a tiny state, but we really are one big family. How I hope and believe and long for that to be true.
To me, family is everything. Every Sunday the FFF Fam, which is what we call the group text of the inhabitants of the Triple F Ranch, sits around my parents’ big table and breaks bread. Always cornbread. Occasionally in addition to stecca, croissants, or homemade rolls. We always have beans, unless it’s a day my mom goes off the grid and makes something non-Southern.
The rest of the time it is potatoes, salad, sweet corn, okra, squash in season, and a meat. Usually roast or ham. Sometimes deer, crappie, or fried pork chops, which require biscuits. Desserts are many.
It’s a boisterous time. After prayer, plates are passed, silverware clanks, and my dad says things like “pass the breath fresheners,” by which he means onions, or “pass me the butta.” We all talk at once. We critique sermons and music if we’ve been to church, speculate about Hillbillies and Hogs in that order, discuss school and cattle farming, share highs and lows of the previous week, and what we have coming up.
If someone voices a concern we all listen. Help ranges from my brother making a joke about it, which generally lightens the mood, to my overthinking amateur psychoanalysis, which puts people to sleep. And everything else in between.
I am generally a reasonable person unless you cross my family; then all bets are off. The same is true for all of us. I guess it is one of the main things that makes us who we are. My mother has always said, “There are plenty of outside forces that will come against us in this life. We must never let our family be the ones to tear each other down.”
There is this sacred unity. But it wouldn’t work without fussing—the times we honestly contend with each other about what is best, right, true. Sometimes I have to be reminded of who I am, kept accountable when I don’t live up to my ideals. Questioned. And sometimes I’m the one doing the reminding and questioning.
This only works in a family where there is a bedrock of trust. We have this belief on the Triple F that people are generally doing their best. That the hearts in our family are good, and open, even if someone appears way off track. That solutions to problems we may have with one another can be found if we stay in conversation. We aren’t always good at it but we try to see the other person’s point of view. We often surrender our so-called rights to the greater good of the whole.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone what doozies and knock-down dragouts have ensued through the years. The most difficult times are those when we talk everything out ad infinitum and still do not agree. This feels threatening. Anti-tribal. The few times it has happened put me in a fetal position for days. But after unwinding I see that though a crisis sifts us, what matters most remains. We can disagree about something and still move on together. Still be a family.
This is my dream for Arkansas and our country. I’d like to see it happen across the world. Like Brenda said, we really are one big family. And families are messy and boisterous and disagree. But we must recognize there are plenty of outside things that will come against us and try to tear us apart.
Our best chance for a healthy, prosperous state is to trust each other and build one another up. To stick together. It takes us all.