Summer in the South usually means at least one family reunion with first, second and third cousins, and sometimes double first cousins. Double first cousins are not cousins marrying cousins, but the offspring of sisters marrying brothers. You cannot be raised in the South and not know who your people are. You will be asked more than once, when meeting new folks, if you are related to the Judge with your last name, but you say no, because his people didn’t come from middle Tennessee in the 1870s. Even my Yankee (anyone whose sun sets north of the Mason-Dixon Line) friends admit we tend to keep up better with family.
Grandma’s birthday becomes a holiday with a grown passel of kids wanting to party at the old home place in the country. My two family reunions are the result of Grandmas’ birthdays in July and August. They started over seventy years ago with big kisses from Grannie and “The Aunts” wearing cool cotton dresses, sturdy black shoes and sensible summer hats. Today, the great aunts sit comfortably in the air-conditioning in their polyester pants and tennis shoes.
The July reunion is on my father’s side. There is a four-generation picture with me, as a baby, sitting on my great-grandma’s lap. She was very old. Eleven years ago, the last of her twelve surviving children died. This reunion has evolved from the old home place, a city park, the air-conditioned community center, another outdoor venue due to unforeseen circumstances and a weekend reunion at a nice-sized country hotel with a pool and a big dining room complete with a kitchen for all the cooks to gather around. For two years, we are now meeting about an hour south in another state, where most of the cousins now live. We get together Friday night and have lunch at noon. Everyone wears a nametag, which is very helpful, as you only see these people once a year unless someone dies or has a long hospitalization. I’ll never forget driving down to the family cemetery on a cold, foggy January day (a 3-4 hour drive for most of these folks) and a huge hosts of my Daddy’s cousins were there to pay their last respects. That is family.
Our fun would begin when we got to M and P’s house on Friday night. My sister and I would run to the kitchen to see what sweets M had fixed for her baby, our Daddy. On a sugar high, we would jump into the rollaway bed on the sleeping porch, lying right under the window unit. The casement windows around the whole room were adequate for ventilation only on cool, non-humid summer nights in South Arkansas in a time before Freon. Being a city girl, I loved the artificially chilled air. On Saturday morning, the smell of bacon would wake us up. Bacon, eggs, toast, oatmeal, juice, milk, coffee, peach preserves and sorghum. P set the breakfast table every night before retiring.
Sunday came early as all the cooks crowded their hips into M’s kitchen to pack up all the food and head for the community center. The old home place is now a grazing field and not family-owned but we did have a “singing” on the property a few years back. Spread out on tables in the air-conditioned, fly-free room are, at the very least, garden fresh tomatoes, fried okra, buttered corn, purple hull peas, squash casserole, sliced purple onions, bacon seasoned green beans, dressing, macaroni, cucumber salad and a couple of jello salads.
Stuffed bell peppers are lined up next to pot roasts and briskets. Homemade fried chicken and store bought fried catfish. A dessert table laden with caramel pie, banana pudding with meringue, jam cake, chocolate cake, peach cobbler. Milk jugs labeled sweet and unsweet. More than enough to feed one hundred people. A look around the room reveals we eat what we cook because it is truly Southern comfort. After seconds and thirds, family matters. Births, weddings, graduations, and a moment of silence for those not with us this year. This side of my family is more weepy but there is a lump in your throat when they say your loved one’s name. Then we pass the hat, or plate, nowadays. By the time you drive off, your first button is undone and you fight the tide of sugar calling you to slumber.
The Labor Day Sunday reunion is on my mother’s side. For almost every Labor Day weekend of my life, I headed to G and P’s. We would have a little family reunion on Saturday and depart on Sunday morning for the drive to see our extended family. Ten people would fill up two cars. I always wanted the car without my parents. My sister and I would be dressed in our new back-to-school dresses and shoes, whatever the temperature. If you rode with my queasy cousin, you might get a bottle coke when we stopped to get her one. Coca-Cola is good for what ails you.
Family still owned the farm, complete with a red barn, whispering to city children to come see the charms of the country, and the smells. In our brand new finery, we would climb halfway up the hayloft ladder and jump into a huge pile of hay on the hard dirt floor. Miraculously, no one was ever hurt. When we were sticky, dusty and hot, the bottomless ice drink coolers offered every kind of cold coke. In the South, Coke, not Pop, is universal for any sweet carbonated drink like Dr. Pepper, 7-Up, NuGrape, IBC Root Beer, and certainly, Coca-Cola. Every reunion we counted up how many drinks we guzzled. These were the days when children drank milk and water all week long.
This reunion was still held outdoors. The only respite was when you were standing inside, in line to use the bathroom which had been added to the back bedroom of the original home place. The bed would be piled with purses while ladies checked their lipstick in the bureau mirror. The men used the hall bath. Drinking eight cokes sent me in and out of the house. At noon, everyone gathered around another food-laden table made of sawhorses and planks. This dinner had the addition of exotic meats. During the prayer, everyone closed their eyes so they wouldn’t see the flies having a field day on the disrobed food. Several ladies could not fan every square inch of food.
My P was always in charge of this reunion. He spent many, many hours in genealogy studies, long before online services. He would’ve loved having a computer and the information highway at his fingertips. Now my sister has moved hundreds of miles away, living in the same town our people started out from over a hundred years ago, looking for dreams and fresh land. In a way, she has found a new dream in this faraway land, completing the circle.
A lady holding a plate of southern comfort and another plate piled with just desserts
p.s. Grab the dessert plate first and be sure and get a taste of my Pina Colada Cheesecake, it’s a special request