Mother and daddy both came from families of 10 and 11 children, so I had lots of cousins to play with growing up. Even though my parents didn’t have a lot, they knew how to enjoy their lives and how to appreciate all the little things that made life worth living. They were honest, hardworking and grateful and taught us to be the same way – and that’s a recipe for a very happy and contended life.
Let me tell you little bit about my childhood. We lived two houses up from my maternal grandparents, Granny and granddaddy and boy did I love them. When I was 2 our house caught on fire and we lost everything. However, it didn’t seem to bother me because as they were fighting the fire, I sat down in a mud puddle and exclaimed, “Oh, goody, I get to stay with granny all the time”.
Ideally, the love of a grandmother is pure and unconditional, spoken uniquely throughout her life with countless gestures – often by what she created with her hands and heart. Some of us have tangible keepsakes handmade by our grandmother – quilts, blankets, dollies, etc. – yet for most of us the real keepsakes are intangible, built on years of rich memories made at the table with loved ones around it. There will always be certain foods, scents, sights and sounds that can transport us right back to our places at our grandmothers’ tables. Our senses can evoke such sweet thoughts of those incredible southern dishes that have become our favorites – it’s no wonder then that this cuisine is best described as comfort food!
Daddy, granddaddy and a couple of my uncles built us another house – 2 bedrooms, living room, kitchen and a room that served as a bathroom. And when I say bathroom, I mean we used it for bathing in a round, aluminum tub filled with water that was heated on the stove. The bedrooms were never heated so we slept under loads of quilts in the winter. Many times, I would sit so close to the heater that I would singe my eyebrows and lashes.
Daddy worked in the coal mines and we didn’t have much in the way of material things but that never mattered. We had the love of family and togetherness and that meant more than anything you could buy. I never once heard my granny or granddaddy say a curse word or an unkind word about anyone. They were devoted Christians and trusted in God and they loved each other and their family.
When I was almost five, my brother was born premature. He was such an ugly little baby, no fingernails, gray hair and wrinkled skin but I loved him just the same. What the doctors didn’t tell mother and daddy was that he had a heart condition because they thought he would outgrow it by the time he was five or six weeks old. Well, he was six weeks old when he had his first episode – he passed out and turned blue. They had to rush him to the hospital and that’s when they found out about his condition. He could not be startled or frightened in any fashion or he would pass out and turn blue. He was such a tiny little boy and I was very protective.
I attended Hopewell Elementary School, which only went through the third grade. It was a two room school with a coat room between the two rooms. Half of the third grade was in with the first grade and the other half was in with the second grade. We ate lunch at our desks because there wasn’t a lunchroom. The meals were prepared in a small area off the second grade classroom and had a cutout where they gave you your lunch. You ate what you got or you went without – most families couldn’t afford to provide a separate lunch so no one brought their lunch to school. When I was born, I had six blood transfusions by the time I was six weeks old. The doctors finally discovered that I was allergic to milk. School lunches came with a pint of milk and nothing else to drink. For the first week, my teacher would make me drink the milk. I tried to tell her that I couldn’t but she just thought I didn’t want it. Needless to say, I would have to leave school shortly after lunch because I was sick. Finally, mother talked with the teacher and told her that I was allergic. Not a very good experience for a six-year-old just starting school.
I walked to and from school almost everyday with my two best friends, Nancy and Gail, and a couple of other kids. There were seldom any fights among the kids at school, we all played together and knew if we misbehaved, we would get a spanking when we got home. We were taught to respect our elders, not to talk back, and to not interrupt adults talking to each other. Too bad kids aren’t taught the same values and principles that we were taught back then.
Family is a very important element of the south. However, we have a tendency not to think about family a lot because they are always there. And then one day ….. they’re not. I also find that spending time with family isn’t as important among the younger generations. Back in the day, we all gathered together at least once a year and spent the day together as one big, big family – all of my cousins, aunts and uncles – with lots of delicious, homemade food, good music, games and wonderful memories. We still do this on my daddy’s side of the family. For more than sixty-five years, on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, we have a family reunion. The tradition started with a huge ice cream supper Saturday night – everyone brought a different flavor of ice cream in old crank ice cream freezers. Granddaddy had killed and dressed a pig and goat earlier in the day and put it on to cook. A pit was dug and an iron grate was placed over the hole. A fire of hickory wood was started and the embers would be spread around the outside edges of the pit all night long. The pig was placed on the grate and a piece of tin was laid over the pig so that it would get a concentration of the smoke and heat from the hickory embers. The result was always succulent, juicy and tender meat. Granddaddy’s special mopping sauce was put on the meat during the last couple hours of cooking. Extra sauce was served along side the meat. On Sunday, everyone would come, bringing their family favorites and spread the food on homemade tables connected to trees. This tradition has continued with the exception of cooking the whole pig – about 7 years ago, my father bought a huge smoker and began cooking Boston butts. The meat is still delicious but I do miss that whole pig.
Oftentimes we like what we like because it’s what we know. And what we know is based on the experiences and traditions that we learned growing up. So many of our best memories and time-honored traditions are wrapped up in food and time spent with loved ones around the table.
Whether you’re lucky enough to still be invited by your grandmother or if you’re now part of the next generation doing the inviting, it’s important that we continue to come together and celebrate when we can – both to showcase our time-honored rituals and traditions for younger generations and to create new experiences for stories yet to unfold.