I ran across the patches of sand and grass that stood between me and Aunt Sadie when she got out of the car. With a cigarette hanging out of one side of her mouth, her pocketbook slung over her shoulder and a pie in her hands, she sashayed towards me with a grin.
With her cigarette bobbing up and down like a cork floating in the river, she said, “Maaaaaah-geeeeee! Ya growin’ like a weed, dah-lin’!”
“Take this strawberry pie, baby. I forgot to put the jello in it so it’s as runny as Niagara Falls!”
I grabbed her around her hips with a hug, feeling the crinkled fabric of her 1965 whipped cream dress. It had been a year. Too long between visits. I was glad to see her. Aunt Sadie had arrived! For me, the family reunion had officially begun.
“Get that pie to the table and then run help Juddy, dah-lin’! He’s getting the sweet tea and LeSeur peas out of the trunk. He’ll need ya’ help. Where’s ya mama, dah-lin’?”
When Mama died in 1995, I had been to 35 annual family reunions with her “side of the family.” In the South, there is a division of sorts. It was the same way at our house. There was Daddy’s side of the family and Mama’s side of the family. Two families, two worlds apart. One large and close. One fractured, scattered and mysterious with hints of family name changes and disappearing bodies in their past.
Because of Daddy’s upbringing, I always attributed his love and devotion to Mama and us kids on his longing for the closeness of a real family. He loved to pick on Mama to make her eyes twinkle with tears from laughing too much. And like us, he called her Mama, too.
Over and over, through the years, Daddy told the story of how he was on a rescue mission when he drove to Eastman, Georgia one winter morning in 1938. He had met Mama earlier that summer at a candy pull party in Mineola, just south of his home in Hahira and he was immediately smitten with the girl who was visiting from out of town. Over the next few months he mailed love letters to her with the promise of coming to Eastman to marry her before the end of the year.
And on that cold December morning, before daylight hit the frost on the ground, Daddy headed North with his best friend tagging along for encouragement and support.
When they turned off the hard road and started down the two-path lane to her parent’s house, Daddy’s friend said, “J.B., you’d better stop and get that one,” pointing out the window at my Aunt Thelma who had walked to the end of the lane with a wool hat pulled down over her ears.
“No sirree! That’s not the one!” Daddy said as he kept driving. “She’ll be the prettiest one of the bunch!”
One thing he promised Mama’s daddy that day, when he drove away with his new bride, was that he’d always bring her back home to visit. And that promise was the beginning of the annual family reunions with Mama’s side of the family.
Those gatherings of sisters, brother-in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews were held at Little Ocmulgee State Park near McRae, Georgia, a two hour drive away from our Hahira home. Always on Memorial Day weekend and always on Sunday. It was the only Sunday in the entire year that Mama allowed us to miss church.
As I got older and as we drove down the Sunday morning highway, I started to pay more attention from the back seat as Daddy seemed to say the same thing, year after year.
“Not sure why we’ve got to ride two hours just to eat your food.”
“Looks like they’d come to our house sometime instead of us having to drive to two hours.”
“Reckon Bessie has shaved that chin hair of hers?”
“I don’t want Jewel spitting her snuff out the back window and streaking down the side of the car. I just washed it yesterday.”
“Did you bring your chicken and dressing? You know I don’t like nobodies chicken and dressing but yours.”
“Do you have a Rolaid in your pocketbook? Just thinking about having to eat somebody else’s food is giving me the burps.”
Mama just grinned at Daddy’s comments and reached over and squeezed the hand that wasn’t on the steering wheel. She was happy to be going home. Happy to be going to see her family. After all, he was making sure she saw her family as often as she wanted, but always on Memorial Day weekend. Always on Sunday.
I looked forward to these family gatherings every year and couldn’t wait to ride through the state park entrance, through the golf course and to the covered shelter that housed all of Mama’s family. Aunt Bessie with her chin hair, Aunt Webie with a big smile and her hand on her hip, Big Ma and her fried chicken, Aunt Jewel with her suitcase packed and ready to ride back with us for the entire summer. And that wasn’t all. There was Aunt Sadie, Aunt Annie Maude, and Aunt Thelma. I loved them all and Mama loved her sisters even more.
The task of unloading the car always fell on Daddy so that Mama could spend as much time hugging and catching up with all her sister’s news about their children and grandchildren. With a big smile and no more reunion-ribbing, he’d tote Tupperware containers of cold fruit ambrosia and pound cake, saran wrapped fried apple tarts and tin-foil covered casserole dishes full of chicken and dressing, acre peas, baked ham and homemade biscuits to the picnic tables.
But never, ever, never could he put it all down until Mama’s white linen table cloth, bordered with turquoise-colored fruit, was spread across the rustic boards that formed the table. It was Mama’s favorite cloth and it let us know where her food was situated and served among the rows and rows of her sisters’ home-made dishes. While Big Ma’s fried chicken was something to make Colonel Sanders blush, I was scared to venture far from the edges of the white and turquoise-colored cloth. Plus, Daddy made a big game out of it and made me think I’d get food poisoning or some intestinal bug if I ate someone else’s cooking.
“Slip over there and try that strawberry pie your Aunt Sadie brought. Let me know if it’s any good.”
I’d walk over to Aunt Sadie’s pie and run back to Daddy.
“It doesn’t look like Mama’s but I’m just not sure. It’s sort of runny. Do you think it tastes like Mama’s?”
“Only way to know for sure is try it! Hey! If you like it, you can bring me a piece,” Daddy said with his belly bouncing up and down. It was the only place we were allowed to eat our dessert first if we wanted.
“And hey, Sugar,” Daddy hollered out as I started back to the pie, “Big Ma’s fried chicken looks a little burnt to me but if it tastes okay, bring me a leg! And tell Big Ma I said it looked like she caught it on fire.”
I took a second look at the beautiful platter of golden fried chicken and didn’t see anything that resembled a fire in Big Ma’s kitchen.
Daddy was at it again! Always picking and teasing.
I ran to Big Ma and delivered the message like a homing pigeon, “Daddy says your chicken looks burned up but he told me to bring him a leg if it was any good.”
“Ain’t no burnt chicken on my platter and you go tell your daddy to come get his own chicken if he wants it.”
Daddy knew exactly how to get a rise out of Big Ma and she’d give it right back to him with a hearty laugh. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, there was always a lot of laughter, hugging and storytelling on reunion day with Mama’s family.
I was old enough to fix my own plate so I stayed close to Mama’s white linen table cloth with the turquoise fruit border. Venturing off that cloth was like walking into a room with the lights off. You just didn’t know what you might get into.
At the end of the afternoon, with all the empty dishes loaded in the car, and the white and turquoise table cloth carefully folded and placed in the front seat beside Mama, we waved our goodbyes with promises to see each other soon.
With Aunt Jewel sitting in the back seat, her hands folded neatly over her pocketbook, the two hour ride back home began. She was headed home with us to spend the summer.
And Daddy started up again. All the way home.
“Not sure why we had to ride two hours just eat your food.”
“Looks like they could come to our house sometime instead of us having to drive two hours.”
“I noticed Bessie shaved her chin hair.”
“Hey, in the back seat! Jewel, don’t spit that snuff out the window and streak up the side of this car. I just washed it yesterday!”
“Mama, your chicken and dressing sure was good. You know I don’t like nobody’s chicken and dressing but yours.”
“Do you have a Rolaid? I ate too much of your cooking and I’ve got the burps.”
And just like every year before, Mama reached over and took his hand and squeezed it.
And Mama smiled.