Monday, September 24, 2007

Family Reunion Cancelled

Back in April I wrote about my mother's family and its tradition - stretching back to the 1920s - of having a reunion each year in south-central Virginia. I just learned this past weekend that for only the third time since the 20s they will not have a reunion. Illness has prompted the main organizer to bow out and it's too late for someone else to step up and organize the event. My grandmother, at 93, is understandably disappointed because it represents a lost opportunity to see people she may not see again. My mother, likewise saddened by the cancellation, has offered to step up next year and organize the thing if the same situation presents itself. With that reunion and what it has meant to my family fresh in my mind, I'm reposting the entry from April. Enjoy!

For southerners, a large-scale family reunion is an event - the Jerry Springer Show and Jeff Foxworthy's redneck family jokes notwithstanding - that can rival a county fair for groaning tables of food and animal exhibits. And whether "Baptist dry" or punctuated by worries over alcohol poisoning, these affairs, particularly when measured out over decades, take on an organic life that echoes the births, deaths, and divorces of the actual participants.

That's certainly true of my mother's family, which has held a yearly late-summer/early fall reunion since the 1920s. (My mother hasn't missed one since 1941.) Started by my great-grandparents' generation but nurtured carefully by my grandparents and a gaggle of nearly two dozen siblings, these day-long spectacles draw family members from the isolated corners of Virginia to Halifax County, an area south of Lynchburg in the heart of one of the oldest tobacco producing regions in the country. (The maternal side of my family has been farming the land there since the 1730s.) We would converge on a local community center or, most often, on the spacious grounds of the home of the lone, openly gay member of the family. His hospitality knew no bounds, nor did his sense of humor, although I think he began to worry some of the family when, in his dotage, he began to take great pleasure in announcing loudly that he wasn't sporting underwear.

I remember all of this because naturally I was dragged to the reunion each year from birth until I left home for college . . . and for most of my childhood the event was a very ritualized affair, as if my grandfather had drafted a liturgy, interspersed with hymns of "when will we get there" and "I need to go to the bathroom." For example, each year he and my grandmother would arrive at our home on the appointed Sunday at 5:00 a.m. sharp, his Ford Galaxy 500 packed like one of those brain-teaser puzzles with coolers and tupperware and plates and everything but the kitchen sink. My parents would pack their car quickly while my brother and I would fight over the best spot to sleep in the Gran Torino station wagon. And off we'd go, a few car lengths apart, in a family caravan of four hours, driving across Route 58 through little towns like Disputanta and Appomattox.

Although far from summer and those cicada Sunday afternoons, I'm reminded of these reunions and their characters because the ancient wife of a long-deceased great-uncle passed away recently, leaving this world in the child-like stupor of Alzheimer's. Aunt IdaMae was famous in family circles for her biscuits and the perpetual uncleanliness of her home. We loved the biscuits but preferred not to contemplate their provenance. IdaMae was also what the elderly ladies of the clan called "pixillated," a term which refers to someone who is overly eccentric or whimsical . . . "inhabited by pixies."

IdaMae's passing reminded me of the more colorful characters who would show up each August to eat and reminisce. No doubt every family has its personalities: the law of averages dictates that all families need to have at least one convicted felon, one "drunk," one "dirty old man," one prankster, one religious zealot, and one suspiciously effeminate uncle. My family, to the great delight of those of us who take note of such things, has managed to cover all of these bases, including the convicted felon, who now arrives in a BMW roadster.

There was Uncle Clyde, for example, who was in charge of lemonade each year. He would arrive with two massive 10-gallon stoneware crocks - one for super sweet and one for pucker-inducing sour - and set about making batch after batch for those who eschewed iced tea for a mason jar full of icy lemonade. He was also renowned for policing the lemonade against dirty hands trying to reach over the lip of the crock to steal ice or lemons. As if swatting insects with a flyswatter, he'd smack the fingers of transgressors with the long aluminum ladles used to fill the glasses. (His son, Clyde, Jr., would delight the boys by removing his glass eye, the product of a July 4th fireworks accident in the 1940s.)

Aunt Nancy, a member of the Pentecostal Holiness Church was the permanent bearer of responsibility to "say grace" and bless the food at the start of each reunion. Nancy would announce her presence with shouts of "Amen!" and "Who loves the Lord?!" Her blessing, offered over tables of rapidly cooling food, took on the character of sermons and one always wondered if she would spice it up with some "speaking in tongues," which happened on quite a few occasions. (One of the more irreverent and colorful cousins would invariably add after Nancy's loudly prayerful disquisition on the resurrection and "saving grace of god": "Good bread, good meat, good god, let's eat." I always chuckled and was always smacked for it. My father, never a keen participant or observer of the more "charismatic" displays of religious fervor, would predictably remember at the start of Nancy's exhortations some item "forgotten in the car."

Finally, we also enjoyed seeing the jovial Uncle Edgar and Aunt Edna, because they always arrived with their little chihuahua "Ladybug" who delighted the children with tricks. Edna always seemed painfully thin and frail, a condition likely exacerbated by the parade of Benson & Hedges cigarettes that passed her lips nonstop from the instant she stepped from her Buick to the late afternoon moment when, rising from her folding chair, she theatrically announced "I'm goin' to the potty one more time before we leave!" Her husband, Edgar, perpetually carried around an erection the way some 8-year olds carry No. 2 pencils, tucked neatly into his pants but clearly visible. We would try in vain not to stare but usually excused ourselves quickly to join other cousins in a game of softball or a clandestine climb through one of the tobacco curing barns on the edge of the estate. Still, despite his evident priapism, Edgar could be counted on for funny anecdotes and mildly dirty jokes acceptable to a largely Baptist crowd.

(As an aside, I remember once visiting their home in South Boston, Virginia. Unlike IdaMae's home, Edna's was spotless. But every piece of furniture in the house, all of it vintage 1950s, was covered in those clear vinyl slipcovers. Edgar and Edna died, childless, about 15 years ago within just a few months of each other, which was probably a blessing given their devotion to each other. As Aunt Nancy liked to say about deceased family members, "They've gone on to glory!" My mother and grandmother were among the family members invited to pick over the remains of Edna's estate before everything was sold in a public auction on the front lawn. I was given a gleaming chrome 50s-style Sunbeam toaster, which I used for years thereafter, invoking the memory of Edgar and Edna on each occasion.)

The family gathered again last September, my 93-year old grandmother the last of the generation that had built up the reunion during the lean years of the 1930s and 40s when the ethos of "close-knit family" actually meant something. Their numbers no longer legion, around 30 people gathered at a cousin's home for another day of eating and storytelling. Mind you, the family is no less numerous than it was 50 or 75 years ago. But the connection to "place" and "history" isn't as strong, nor is the generations-old bond to the land. The family has dispersed, leaving the red clay soil of the Virginia Piedmont for more prosperous climes. Only a few cousins, in fact, still grow tobacco, holding on to some closely-measured Jeffersonian agrarian ideal in a threatened market they no longer understand.

My grandfather, eldest of 10 and tired of being "land rich and cash poor," departed in 1941. I still remember vividly the stark contrast between his prosperity and the privations of his siblings who remained in Halifax County. I've not returned in about 20 years, but plan a visit this July when visiting my parents in Virginia. I won't get to experience the reunion itself, but it will be reunion enough.

Update: I did travel to Virginia in July but was unable to make it back to the area from which my mother migrated.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

Brian, thanks so much for reposting this. I could read it over and over. Your descriptives and sense of humor are delicious. I love how colorful your family is and was.
You must be sorely disappointed at the cancellation. I look forward to my own family reunions each year and I would be too. Especially when I think that there are a few members up in age that possibly might not be able to attend too many more.
We just lost Aunt Irma a month ago, she was 94, the cutest little old lady I ever saw. Spunky, too. Her husband, Uncle Hobart (Hobe) died years and years ago. We were all surprised how long she's been without him.