Tuesday Gratitude: My Extended Family and the Stories that They Fed Me
Each year, days before Thanksgiving, I think of my female relatives across the U.S. South, many of whom have already started cooking the Thanksgiving dinner. Heck, they probably started weeks ago.
My family on my grandfather's side (my mom's father) used to gather on the family land in Lexington, South Carolina for Thanksgiving, and I suspect that some of them still do. The land remains in the family, but the members that I remember most vividly, my grandfather and his siblings, have all passed on. We just lost the first member of my mom's generation of relatives. It doesn't seem possible.
I remember some of my mom's cousins, especially Cousin Barbara, who gave me rides to the airport and rescued us once when my boyfriend's car broke down. Every time we see Cousin Barbara, we laugh about that. My boyfriend then, who is now my husband, is good natured, and my Cousin Barbara always reminds me that she and her sister-in-law saw it as a grand adventure to go rescue us in Augusta, Georgia at 10:00 at night.
Barbara's son, Burt, had a Honda Prelude, and he took us for fast rides on country roads. My mom always looked vaguely nervous, but her cousins reassured her that our family would be the only ones using those back roads that crisscrossed between the family plots. We never saw another vehicle.
Back then, we seemed a million miles away from civilization. Now civilization, in the form of the suburbs of the capital city of South Carolina, has come to meet my family's land.
Burt also had an Atari Space Invaders game. We had great fun playing it.
It was a treat for a suburban girl to get away to a real working farm. We ate food that had recently been in the ground or walking on the ground. How many people get that experience?
In addition to farming, my Cousin Barbara had a greenhouse that seemed massive. She and her sister-in-law grew poinsettias which they shipped across the nation. If your house or church had a poinsettia in the 1980's and you were east of the Mississippi River, there's a good chance that my Cousin Barbara helped grow it.
More than anything else, I loved sitting around tables full of food, hearing stories from the past. The men watched football, while the women ate, told stories, and cleaned up. When I was young, I thought it was unfair, and from the standpoint of division of labor, yes, it was unfair.
But now that I am older, I think that I have had the better portion. Can you tell me who won the football games that aired on Thanksgiving in the 1980's? Probably not. But you'll find the stories I was told woven through my own stories and poems. They continue to nourish me.
I treasure those stories that were told each Thanksgiving, stories of strong men and women, stories that have found their way into my poems and short stories. My favorite story is of a female relative who had a heart attack while picking the beans, but before she'd let them take her to the hospital, she insisted on changing into clean underwear.
Like I said, those stories have sustained me in ways I couldn't have imagined then. No matter what happens to me, so far, I've had relatives who have survived much worse and emerged stronger on the other side.
Tomorrow: a poem that comes from those stories and from the last time that I was at the family homeplace for Thanksgiving.
A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.