I was home in Dallas recently, visiting my family to make up for my absence at Christmas. This was a big deal because Christmas is not so much a holiday in our family as a full-contact sport. We take the fun of Christmas very seriously – a capella caroling in four-part harmony seriously. As a result, I made it a point of this mid-March trip home to be fully available to whatever family time and activities were possible. My father let it be known several weeks before my return that a family reunion was to happen on the Saturday night in the middle of my trip and that all of our attendance was requested.
I’ll pause to give a little back story. On my father’s side of the family, my grandfather was one of six children, but they were spread across the country, and apparently my grandmother did not get along with everyone in the family. Thus, reunions on my dad’s side were always just with his immediate family – small and intimate.
A number of years ago, before my dad’s mother died, my two brothers and I were asked to attend a family reunion with a part of the family we had never met before. At the time there was significant grumbling among us, as much to do with being at ages where we preferred the company of our friends over anyone else, but we all went along. We arrived at an outdoor barbecue at a park in Irving, Texas to meet the long lost relatives. Each of us was dressed appropriately nice and wore a pre-printed nametag that said, in my case, “Emerson, son of Larry, grandson of Mildred.” Yes, we’re those kind of people.
A quick glance across the heretofore unknown relatives, and it was not the disheveled appearances that were a problem. No, it was the fact that I had to look at four different men to see enough teeth to make one full set. Lest you think I am quick to judge, this is not about income or intelligence, but we are not in the backwoods of Appalachia here – the tools of oral hygiene are easily available. It took about five minutes for my father to release us from any obligation to stay, and we bolted.
This might help provide a bit of insight as to why, upon the arrival of the departure time for this second attempt at a reunion with a branch of our family tree we were unfamiliar with, neither of my brothers was “available.” One was working, and that’s probably true, the other one was supposed to be teaching or something, though I still suspect an understandable cover-up of some sort in his case.
At the last minute my father told me I was not required to go, but in all honesty, I was in town to spend time with my family, and I could handle an hour drive there and back and make awkward conversation (possibly with the suggestion of the benefits of dentures if need be) with some strangers so my father could introduce part of our family to his extended family. So, not knowing quite what might meet us, but determined to make something of it, I went.
We arrived at a typical suburban house; I don’t know quite where it was, we could have been in Fort Worth or halfway to Oklahoma or Louisiana for all I knew. We took a deep breath, well, my mother and I did, and walked through the door.
Immediately inside, and into the fray, we were quickly introduced to my great-aunt, my grandfather’s sister, whose birthday the gathering was to celebrate. It’s possible her name escapes, but she was an elderly woman with nicely coiffed white hair and a friendly face. (And all of her teeth.) She had on a headband with floppy glittery hearts and announced matter-of-factly, “I’m 27. Sounds better than 72, and it’s my birthday, I get to decide.” I breathed a sigh of relief, entertainment was surely to be had, and perched by the door as we continued the clumsy introductions around the room by way of familial connection.
Shortly after introductions the conversation moved quickly, in politely invasive southern style, to the “who are you really, and what do you do,” portion of the interrogation-through-smiles Texas way of digging for the interesting part of someone’s personal business. Now, out of deference to my family and polite southern conversation, I am somewhat circumspect in describing the specifics of my work and its content in certain situations. I answered with an evasively general, “I work in film production.”
My great-aunt had several of her friends in attendance. Two of them she introduced by announcing, “we worked together in the special ed department a long time ago.” I bit my tongue rather than wondering aloud about what special ed looked like back then, thinking it was probably in the day when you handed them a sucker, put them in a corner and hoped for the best. I was not quite sure this approach to humor would win me any fans quite so early in the evening.
One of her friends, Kay, jumped on my film production response and shared that she has a nephew that works as a “grip, I believe it’s called, though I’m still not sure what that means he’s holding onto” on a number of shows in Hollywood. He apparently hates working for reality TV shows. I nodded and let her talk – this is what you do with older southern women once they get started if you value your life. She then shared the information that made us immediately friends, “but I do love the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills though.” Oh Kay, I’m in love with you already. “It’s possible I’ve never missed an episode,” I admitted. “Well I just love that Lisa Van Der Pump, but I have to admit that Brandi is just a…(looks around, then whispers)…bitch. I wouldn’t mind if she ended up falling off a cliff.” I choked slightly on the Coke I had just been handed, and chose, wisely if I do say so myself, not to come to Brandi Glanville’s defense, though I do adore her.
Relieved that all seemed to indicate that we were in for at least a pleasant time together, I watched as photo albums were pulled out and a good bit of time was spent reminiscing about family members long dead or far away, content to watch and hear the stories. I feigned interest in the photos just long enough to allow the next series of anecdotes to be shared around the table.
If you have never experienced the way a group of southerners weave stories in and out and drop the most shocking gossip in between the most banal bits of useless information, it is quite entertaining. It just means you may have to listen to ten minutes of discussion about exactly where along the railroad tracks a particular part of the family’s house was located before someone announces, “well she met him during the war, the Samoan man she married, then they moved to Samoa and she stayed there after he died till their son was eighteen and they moved back to New York. While her husband was alive, they were friendly with people very high up in the government and treated very well. After he died, they were treated like outsiders again. It’s a very closed culture, apparently. You know when he first asked her out, she said no a few times. Wouldn’t date him at first ’cause she though he was a Mexican. ‘Course once she realized he was Samoan it was all fine.”
That, ladies and gentleman, is why you keep paying attention. Casual racism, always politely expressed of course, and what’s not to love about that? The thread of the story may wander, but it’s more than likely going to end up somewhere fantastic at some point. If you think this was the highlight moment of the evening, you would be wrong. That story was courtesy of my great-aunt, the birthday girl. Not to be outdone in the “I have story that is mildly racist” category, Kay had one of her own to share.
I was remiss before in describing Kay. She is clearly the ringleader of these ladies, sitting at the head of the table with her slightly thinned white hair quite well set in her bouffant. She had a red power jacket with a great deal of beading down the front, and she wore far more jewelry than necessary for a casual gathering serving barbecued hamburgers. The lead up portion of her story was similar to the one above, so I’ll fast-foward to the relevant racism. The story regarded some man who had attempted to flirt with her some years back, and she was having none of it. He was apparently quite aggressive, and she finished her description of him nonchalantly with, “He was not the type to drive a car to work, if you know what I mean. He probably rode a camel. And I don’t much care for those type. Not that they’ve never done anything to me personally you understand.”
WHAT?! Ummm, amazing. Classic old people casual racism. Make the racist statement, explain the not-quite-sound reasoning and then backtrack it just a little bit for good measure. It’s the kind of offensive that just has to be funny because there is no way to try to reason with it, and it would not do any good to try.
The conversation carried on, it reached a game of one-upsmanship surrounding food experiences that provided the following gems. First from my great-aunt, “Last night I had my first taste of sweet potato fries. I told ’em they could have ’em back.” Then from Kay in response to someone professing they loved raw oysters, “I don’t. I only ever ate one, and that’s only ’cause once I got it in my mouth I couldn’t get it to stop!” My father managed to win, or lose, the weird food game by explaining he had once eaten oxtail penis soup. None of the women knew quite what to do with that and one of the only silences of the evening arrived as no one was quite sure what to say next.
I wandered into the kitchen at one point during the non-stop conversation where my great-aunt’s two daughters, one of whom owned the home we were in, had escaped to and stayed. Undoubtedly they had heard all of the stories I was so amused by. In an attempt to make a connection with them, I shared the story of the no-teeth barbecue family reunion catastrophe. Of course, right before I got to my “four guys to make one set of teeth” line, one of the women’s boyfriend, whom I had not yet met, came in from the patio, wearing a wifebeater and jean shorts looking exactly like the men in my story. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should wait for him to smile and assess his dental situation before landing the last line of my story. Screw it, I laid it out there, and then hemmed and hawed and qualified it with explanations about how, “I’m sure they were wonderful people and all.” Then I ran back to the older ladies holding court at the dining room table.
You know it’s the south when a story about shelling black eyed peas is interrupted to discuss exactly what kind of black eyed peas they were, and then which are actually better. This was followed by at least ten minutes about pie, which kind is better, who always preferred what and the merits of baking your own crust. Kay was quiet for quite some time in the great pie debate before announcing “Well, now you’ve made me hungry for pie.” Great-aunt quipped back, “Well, there isn’t any.” Kay ignored her and said, “for the crust, vinegar is the key. You can work it from here to next Sunday and it won’t get tough.”
My great-aunt and I had a moment alone, and I offered that she seemed to be doing just fine at seventy-two. She paused, looked at me hard for a moment, in that way that makes you feel like they are looking at your soul and might send you out to do chores afterward, and then said, “I didn’t expect to live this long. I’m on my third husband. This is the first one I didn’t have to threaten to kill. My first husband wanted to do things I did not. Want. To do.” The clear implication was that this was somehow sexual, and no, I was not invited to ask about it further. She continued, “threatened to kill my daughter’s husband too.” At that moment her daughter appeared from the kitchen nodding and added, “she did too. I’ve got a sniper friend I can’t even tell my husband’s name to because he’d shoot him for beating on me. It’s sort of sweet though.” Now, at this point I was a little short of breath wondering at the surreal turn this conversation about her husband had taken. Clarification revealed that this was actually in reference to an ex-husband, they just seemed to assume I knew that. My great-aunt shook her head and said, “No man was gonna beat me. I told my ex-husband if he ever took a hand to me I’d sew him into the bed and then bash his face with cast-iron frying pan.” I chose not to point out that if he was asleep she could have saved quite a bit of time by foregoing the effort of sewing him into the bed. It’s possible as she finished this story I had an inappropriate smile on my face from picturing her in a nightgown with a needle and thread slowly working her way around the bed in the middle of the night by candlelight with a frying pan at the ready on the nightstand.
Over decently grilled hamburgers, Kay regaled us with tails of her fear of flying. “I’m a white-knuckle flyer,” she admitted. Pointing at my great-aunt, “but we were moving this one to New York, and wanted to make sure she was going to be okay, so I got on the plane. They asked me if I wanted a window seat and I said ‘no,’ they asked me if I wanted an aisle seat and I said ‘no,’ and then they said there were no other options so I said, well one of those would have to do. If I was meant to fly, God would’ve given me wings back there.” I chose not to argue with her logic, and I certainly did not want to interrupt the flow of her story. She continued, “I mashed the seat in front of me down the entire way. As we got there we started to land and at the last minute the pilot jerked the plane up like he was trying to take us to meet Jesus directly. I mashed the seat down in front of me so hard the woman turned around and said, ‘I think we’re going back up again.’ I stared here in the face, trying not to throw up and said, ‘Well no S, Sherlock.'” The “S” was in Kay’s telling of the story, making it clear that in the moment she said “shit” but obviously had enough manners not to include such profanity in her humorous recounting of the episode. Which just made it an even better story.
This recounting of my family reunion is in danger of growing to be longer than the actual event was, so before I get to my favorite story, here are a few non sequitur gems, courtesy of Kay.
On childhood snacks – “Nothing was better than a moon pie and an R. O. C. cola. It was just RC Cola, but we called it R. O. C. cola because that’s how the blacks pronounced it.”
On violence on television – “I didn’t like the Three Stupids. I always said it was the most violent show on television.”
Regarding a dislike for Arizona – “If I’d been a wife of a covered-wagon driver and he’d have topped some hill and shown me Arizona and said ‘This is it! Our new home’ I’d have shot him in the face on the spot.”
My favorite story, and the one my father is rather mortified that I am finding so much glee in retelling regards my great-great-grandparents. My grandfather’s grandparents. Mamie and Paw Paw they were called, and they are the reason this part of our family moved to Texas. Though, as I came to find out, under circumstances not normally discussed in polite company. My great-aunt opened up the can of worms while looking through old photos when she explained that “Paw Paw knew Mamie from the time she was born, he was thirteen years older than her, and when they would argue he used to love to tell her ‘I used to watch you eat turds from your own diaper’ and then laugh.” Now this brought laughter around the table, so I inquired further. “They grew up together?” I asked. “Of course they did,” she stated, as though I was definitely a moron for not understanding this already. “The whole reason they left Kentucky and came to Texas in a covered wagon was to escape her family that didn’t approve of the marriage.” Enthralled at this point, I egged her on, “Why not?” With no hesitation, my great-aunt dropped the bomb, “Their mothers were sisters.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked, truly hoping what I was understanding was true. “They were first cousins,” my great-aunt affirmed matter-of-factly.
I looked at my father, who nodded and said, “I discovered it a while back doing the family genealogy and asked about it. There’s a part of our family tree that should fork – and doesn’t.” Well, my face just lit up with glee, “you mean, I am only four generations from incest??” My father looked mortified, “it’s not incest. Not directly. And wasn’t illegal. They were only first cousins.”
Okay, I’m pretty sure it’s illegal most places, and if you are leaving Kentucky of all places in order to marry your cousin, then something isn’t quite right. It might explain a lot about me actually.
So that, my friends, was the highlight of the evening. We left shortly thereafter. It was obviously all in all an entertaining adventure, and I didn’t even tell Kay’s story about how she was so scared of snakes that she once left one alone in her bedroom with her newborn baby to run across the yard “this was before we had fences” to get Mr. Pickman, “the cripple cross the way” to come get rid of it. And now when I need an excuse to get out of some sticky situation I can claim incest! (And apologies to my father for airing this bit of family laundry, but it happened in like 1890, it means I have 31 instead of 32 sets of great-great-great-great-grandparents, and it is definitely hilarious.)
I will leave you with this final bit of Kay’s wisdom, “I am the kind, you leave me alone, I get along with everybody.” Me too, Kay, me too.