Bites. Fights. Lights…Blights. Rights..or writes. Some of those may be true, but there’s no poem in this for me.
Mom and Dad didn’t go to church on Sunday. Neither had slept very well Saturday night. They both ached. No, they weren’t exactly “sick,” but they didn’t feel well. Sunday night proved not much better, so they were both dragging on Monday. It took them two days to recover from the family reunion.
Mom took her Rollator walker, Dolly, to the reunion for the first time this year. I guided the two of them over tree roots and loose rocks on the path to the picnic pavilion. “I just know they’re going to say, ‘What on earth are you doing with that thing?’ but I don’t care. There’s never a good place for me to sit anymore and I can’t get my legs under that picnic table. I’m going to sit on Dolly.” Mom had it all worked out and rehearsed by the time we got to the concrete.
Dad followed slowly, stabilizing himself with his cane on the rough ground. “Well, hello there, Sis, you did make it,” I heard him say to Aunt Elois. She’s the elder of the family now at 84. She was barely getting around, her voice weak. She won’t be at next year’s reunion. That’s the kind of thing you think, but you don’t say.
There are five remaining siblings remaining in Dad’s family, three brothers and two sisters. Each year, we believe there’ll be fewer the next. Every year, the “cousins”—that would be me and the rest of the children of these brothers and sisters—look older and older.
The Blair Reunion calls one and all, every year, the second Saturday in September at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Shelter No. 8—Don’t be late. Actually, my cousin Jerry Wayne is always late but we wait for him every year. This year he was on time. Being a Baptist preacher, you might think he’s a slam-dunk for the task of talking to the Good Lord on behalf of the Blairs, except that Daddy (“Toby” to the family) and Uncle Frank are also preachers. Frank Eddie is a Methodist. Toby was a Baptist and vows he’s still a Baptist even though he retired from the Methodists. Frankly (the “frank” has nothing to do with Uncle Frank previously mentioned), I’m not sure Dad’s a Baptist or a Methodist. You’d just have to talk to him to understand, and then you might not.
The other remaining brother, Francis Wilburn (“Bill”), has had a rough year. He had a stroke followed by the discovery of colon cancer. One of his sons brought him to the reunion. I heard somebody say, “Bill, nobody asked you to say the blessing.” He replied, in such a quiet and weak voice, that, being retired from the insurance business, it’s not his job to ask the blessing. He did say that he was glad to be there.
Jerry Wayne’s daddy, my Uncle Wesley, was a Baptist preacher, too. He was one of the first people to have open heart surgery at Vanderbilt—a valve replacement, I think. He was the first one of Shafter and Effie’s children to die.
Aunt Bessie, my dad’s youngest sister at age 69, is now in charge of the family reunion. It’s always been understood that the “girls” of the family will run the family reunion and nobody crosses them about it. I think Mammy Blair issued the command and the rest of the family hopped to. After Mammy died, Aunt Virginia, the oldest sister headed it up; she’s been gone for several years now along with Aunt Margaret, the next-to-youngest girl. Aunt Margaret never got a turn at being “boss” of the reunion. Aunt Elois was in charge for several years, but now she’s feeble—feisty, but feeble.
Aunt Bessie asked Jerry Wayne to pray, and “don’t take all day because we’re hungry.”
Jerry Wayne said, “How about Uncle Toby or Frank Eddie?”
“They don’t care,” Bessie said in a low voice to spur him on.
“What did he say?” Dad asked. He was standing right beside Jerry Wayne.
“I said, ‘Did you want to pray?’” Jerry Wayne answered, a bit louder than he normally talks.
“No, we’re too told,” Dad answered for both Frank and himself.
“Gracious Heavenly Father,” the prayer started. It ended with “I love you, Jesus. Amen.”
Some of us repeated, “Amen”—the men who are believers and the women who consider themselves liberated.
Food was everywhere, as usual. Four long picnic tables held courses of meat, salad, and vegetables. Desserts beckoned from the two tables adjoining the beverages and paper products. There are unwritten guidelines regarding the offerings of dishes:
1. Evelyn, my cousin three years younger, fries chicken—a lot of chicken. In addition to the legs, thighs, wings and breasts mounded in a two-foot by eighteen-inch aluminum roasting pan, she brings two cake pans of appetizers for a select group of the women: gizzards and livers. The aunts, mamas, and cousins who like gizzards are not “liver people,” and vice versa, but there are two of us who can, and do, go either way. We strategize to maximize our take. We watch the levels of the gizzards and livers, not an easy chore. The serving method for these delicacies is to leave the aluminum foil covering the pan (a coy encouragement for sneaking a bite) so if more than half the hands are reaching into the gizzards, the two of us know to eat gizzards first in order to get our share before they’re gone. Remember, the gizzard eaters won’t bother the livers, so they’re probably safe. By the time the Chaplain of the Year says “Amen,” the two cake pans are empty. When Aunt Bessie signals us women to “take the lids off,” some cousin fooling with the chicken always says, “I want you to look. There is not even a greasy spot left from those livers—gizzards either.”
2. Some of the rest of us fry chicken, too, but we understand that everybody is going to eat Evelyn’s first. No offense—no offense taken. It tastes just like Aunt Virginia’s.
3. Somebody always brings a pot roast, a ham, and some barbecue or meatloaf. There’s always pot roast and ham left, but not much meatloaf, and no barbecue at all.
4. There will be turnip greens, dressing, butter beans, corn, and green beans. Squash, sauerkraut, baked beans, and coleslaw are likely but not definite. Anything outside of those two lists of sides might be a culinary delight, just not expected.
5. Desserts will include pecan pie, chess pie, and chocolate pie; sometimes banana pudding. If you bring a new recipe of something sweet, don’t get tender when an unofficial vote is taken to determine if that one is worth squirreling away a piece to take home.
6. And, speaking of “taking home,” do not expect to take any of your dish home. There’s a small assembly, equipped with take-out boxes and Glad plastic containers, and they swoop in at the end of the meal, each vowing to “make me a plate to take home for supper.”
7. When all the seconds and thirds and supper-servings are finished, check your dish. If there’s more than a third left, bring something else next year.
I promised Aunt Bessie that I would make grape salad this year if she would bring Japanese fruit pie. She told me to make sure I brought enough for her to take some home. I did. I iced down a double batch. Aunt Bessie planned a little better for me. She brought an extra pie that remained in a Longaberger pie carrier under the table until we could put it in the van.
I think Evelyn will be in charge when all the aunts are gone. She seems so dedicated, something no one accuses me of when it comes to the reunion. Evelyn and I did discover one thing in common, though. When I first saw Evelyn on Saturday, I said, “Hey, you’ve got my shirt!” She was wearing a glitzy orange T-shirt studded with gold and sequins—just like mine!
“Well, did you get it at the Wal-Mart?” she asked, and we both laughed.
“I know, next year let’s both wear them!” I said.
When no one was paying attention, Evelyn and I agreed if we covered up our heads, no one could tell us apart. About the same weight and height, recognizable square bottom, same (ahem…) ample bosom, long skinny feet, freckly arms. We are kin. We hugged each other.
Evelyn ought to fry more chicken next year. I said I’d never bring another peach cobbler because nobody ate it. If I had brought that roast and had to take it home, I would not be cooking a pot roast again. One of the aunts-by-marriage said she’d remember to stop by Kentucky Fried on the way next year.
Aunt Bessie said she didn’t need to take up a collection this year because she had money left over from last year to rent the shelter for 2013. A few of the cousins circled up and vowed to bring some chairs that we could all get in and out of since some of the Blairs had such a hard time with the picnic tables and benches. We weren’t just talking about the aunts and uncles.
Tuesday morning, Mom announced that she was cooking a pork roast, butternut squash, and potato cakes for dinner. Dad cut a path down into the ravine and cleared off a third of the bank. When we sat down to the mid-day big meal, Mom said she thought maybe I ought to cook a pork roast for next year’s reunion. Dad said, “There’s never enough chicken.” Dave said there’s always way too much food.
I just hope somebody brings a guitar next year and we’ll sing—like we used to.