The brilliant white cross on the west end of Valleyford Community Church spills light into the evening fog like a crack in a theater curtain, an unlatched door to a radiant room.
The cars parked in its glow cast long shadows, as do the people who disappear one by one through a basement chapel door. Their coat pockets hang heavy with cans of soup.
“We just mix them all together,” said Dorthea Sausele, who inside the church concocts a recipe for friendship consisting of at least a half dozen varieties of store-bought chili guaranteed to warm the heart, if not burn it just a little.
Inevitably, someone also brings a pie and someone else brings rolls. The fare is more Chef Boyardee than Paul Prudhomme.
The motley crew waiting to be served is a mix of recovering urbanites and natives of this pastoral community south of Spokane Valley, who are as rooted to the Palouse as the crops on which they rely. They are the “Souper Seniors,” a group that meets the third Wednesday of every month to chew the fat plus whatever comes out of their cans. Everyone is 55 or older. The only cost of admission is one can of soup.
Souper Seniors is where one meets Dick McBournie, a Boston native whose accent is as thick today as it was when he arrived in Spokane a half century ago.
“I was in the Air Force and wound up here,” McBournie said.
In the 1950s, McBournie was a radar specialist, tracking planes across Washington, Idaho and Montana. He married a Spokane girl with roots in Valleyford, where they decided to live out their lives. Ara McBournie died two years ago. By that time her husband had shed his newcomer status, something that can take 30 years or more.
And enough of Boston has rubbed off on the Souper Seniors that on the third Wednesday of last month, an AM radio in the church basement crackled with the Boston Red Sox Game Seven victory over the New York Yankees, three time zones away from Valleyford. Social chemistry is like that. Each person’s characteristics flavor the lives of others.
Halfway through dinner, Richard Peterson, who has been listening to McBournie talk about radar work in the Air Force, tells of playing pool with a radar crew at a station perched on a mountaintop east of Freeman.
Peterson is a Valleyford native. His mother, Margaret, who is nursing a bowl of chili at the opposite end of the table, was born in the nearby brick factory town of Mica. Quickly, multiple conversations around the table turn to memories of Valleyford, of creeping up the edge of the cliff-like “Big Rock” on Browne Mountain, of moonshine caches along California Creek.
Historically, these tales all seem to come from a time when kids didn’t constantly require looking after. As quickly as the subject boils to the surface, it settles down again. Someone else stirs the pot of conversation and a new subject emerges.
This is the kind of interaction Sausele had in mind when she came up with Souper Seniors a little over a year ago. The community just needed an excuse to get together, and not much of one. She and her husband, Warren, were quickly posting Souper Senior fliers on utility poles throughout the area. The group quickly grew to 20 people. The work behind the gathering wasn’t much, Sausele said, as she scrubbed the lone pot dirtied by her group.
It was just an invitation to come out of the darkness of what can be a lonely life in a rural setting, an invitation to blend individual lives into something sustaining.