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 who married 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.
The origins of these reunions are often found in birthday celebrations. Grandpa may still be rocking on the front porch but Grandma seems to get the parties. In family pictures, Grandma is usually a severe-looking, bun wearing, snuff-toting, Bible thumping woman who has spent her better days looking out for everyone but herself. After tending fields, making clothes, plucking chickens, nursing babies, and stirring pots; without any modern conveniences like warmed baby wipes, satellite TV, fast food fries, e-mail, or hormones in a bottle; well, you get the picture, the old lady finally gets well deserved recognition.
Grandma’s birthday becomes a holiday when the oldest passel of kids wants to sing her praises for raising twelve surviving children. And a good reason to party at the old home place in the country. My two family reunions are the result of Grandmas’ birthdays in July and August. The reunions started over seventy years ago. My reunion memories started with big kisses from Grannie and “The Aunts”, sitting in the shade, wearing cool cotton dresses, hosiery and 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. Fifteen 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 the past few 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 Saturday 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. Facebook has been great to help keep cousins connected. I’ll never forget driving three hours down to the family cemetery on a cold, foggy January day and turning up on the gravel road at the church to see a huge hosts of my Daddy’s cousins already standing on the road beside his grave. Most of them had travelled over three hours. That is family.
Our fun would begin when we got to Mamaw's and Papaw’s house on Friday night. My sister and I would run to the kitchen to see what sweets Mamaw 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 tiny room were adequate for a breeze but no match for a humid, summer night in South Arkansas. 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. Papaw set the breakfast table every night before retiring.
Sunday came early as all the cooks crowded their hips into Mamaw’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 Grandmama and Pa’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. 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 and a Coke was something special.
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 Pa 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. His mother was born just weeks after the family jostled all of their earthly goods over hill and dale, arriving in the new state to settle on fresh land. My sister now lives hundreds of miles away, in the same town our people started out from. 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