First Memories ~ The Community of Family
Southern women with the soft beauty of a flower and theresolved strength of galvanized metal are known as “Steel Magnolias.” I am the daughter, granddaughter, and niece of a large bouquet of those very blooms. I saw their loveliness in the graceful ways they carried themselves, in how they dressed for going to the market or for just sitting on the patio. But I was also witness to their most intense beauty during times that called on their steel. They balanced femininity and fortitude the way a butterfly balances itself with two wings. The right or wrong response from either wing can send you flying or falling. In the context of this sisterhood, I was introduced to the potluck, and it became my template for community. My first memories were of aproned aunts scrambling for position in the kitchen; they worked for hours, and by the time morning gave way to afternoon, the refrigerator was full of the fruits of their labors. Creamed corn in a deep bowl looked up through plastic wrap on the shelf next to breaded okra. The corn had been shaved from the cob by my bony but pot-bellied oldest aunts over morning cigarettes and coffee. They mixed the corn with sweet milk and butter in the frying pan and cooked it until the sugars were released. The okra was washed, cut up, and dipped in egg, followed by a dusting of cornmeal. It would be fried in the same skillet as the corn was, just before we sat down to eat. My most flesh-endowed aunt snapped the sugar peas after opening her first Coke bottle of the morning. My morning Diet Coke drinking is clearly genetic in origin.
Arguing over whether to bake the buttermilk corn bread in an iron skillet or in muffin tins, my mom (the youngest) and her closest sister, Gene, huddled in muffled cackles, making comments under their breath about their older sister, Virginia, who told off-color jokes. By afternoon, muffins and
skillet corn bread were piled up beside fried chicken on a platter covered in foil, and Aunt Virginia’s “blue” joke had been retold a half-dozen times in quiet corners around the house. Mom’s pale, yellow-tinted potato salad, bound with mustard instead of Nanny’s Miracle Whip, completed the list of things to be prepared. After adding their own individual touches to the meal to come, the sisters sat down for a glass of sweet tea.
I can remember the smells settling over the house in the early afternoon, signaling that dinner was not far off. The uncles put the kitchen and card tables toe to head, and a patchwork of Pyrex dishes and Fiesta bowls, covered casseroles and dutch ovens, crockery and carnival class was placed within reach of every diner. I loved the deviled-egg plate, with its egg holders arranged in concentric circles, and the slotted relish trays that served up sweet pickles and olives. Every food was at home in its dish, and I was most at home in my skin at those tables.
At family gatherings during my childhood, when relatives arrived at the designated aunt’s house, the initial conversation was a bit labored with the formality that accompanies distance and time. But as minutes became hours, the formality passed as one of my uncles pulled a dime out of my ear or dropped it from my nose. We all responded with proper amazement at the mystifying world of magic.
Next came the comments on how all the nieces and nephews had grown, inquiries about boyfriends or girlfriends, and reports on the various illnesses and “conditions” of the uncles and aunts. With the initial state-of-the-family reports out of the way, we settled into a comforting rhythm of conversation, shared lives, and easy presence. Someone always asked about my navy dad, what faraway port he was stationed in or where his last letter was posted. Uncle George relayed the latest news about bicycle repair, Uncle Wigi shared a gruesome story from his surgical practice, pausing occasionally to puff on his pipe, and Uncle Jess discussed his latest business ventures. It wasn’t the stuff of big-screen movies, just the stuff that lubricates time, making life slide from one day to the next.
Whatever home we were in, the sights, sounds, and smells were similar. In my mind, I can see the same scene repeating itself throughout the years. Aunts busied themselves in the kitchen chopping onions, stewing greens, frying fish or chicken or corn bread. The life of the family swelled in its fullness to push against the walls and windows of the house. By the time the food was prepared and we sat down at the mix of tables, our family was comfortable again, familiar and safe. We filled our bellies with the endless parade of food and our hearts with what would become the best memories of my childhood.
We children were never deemed old enough to help with either the meal preparation or the cleanup. And although not being allowed to help did little to train us for when it would be our turn in the kitchen, it extended our childhoods generously. So, happy to be children and play after we ate, we moved to the carport to mount bicycles or go-carts, motorcycles or lawn tractors. Meanwhile, the aunts washed the dishes and the uncles nursed their strange-smelling adult drinks on the back patio and talked about charcoal grills and gas mowers.
After the last crumbs were wiped from the fully extended table, the aunts settled in for an evening of canasta. An hour into the game, one or two aunts scooted back from the game table and fixed a glass of buttermilk with broken-up corn bread floating in it. Someone else shopped through the refrigerator and grabbed a piece of bread to fold over cold chicken. And soon the scent of leftovers floated throughout
the house, beckoning everyone to return to the kitchen for plates of potato salad, okra, beans, and creamed corn. Uncles shimmied past an aunt on their way to the refrigerator for more “Husband’s Delight,” a favorite chocolate-puddingcream- cheese-walnut-crusted dessert. By bedtime the sink was full of dishes again, but they could wait till morning. Our family gatherings were warm times of reconnecting over dinner and games, preparation and cleanup, patio talks and go-cart rides. Important thoughts were shared and counsel was offered to those making decisions and life choices. Personal victories were celebrated and mistakes were teased. My older sister was relentlessly nagged about her dark eye makeup and long bangs—no one bothered to comment on her short skirts. But she held her head up, ironed her long and beautiful red hair, and added more mascara to the lashes peeking out from under her bangs. I thought she looked like the cover of a magazine. To this day, my sister is more resilient than I am, and maybe it’s because she has been a steel magnolia for nine years longer than I have. Year after year our family potlucks were the place for skin to be toughened and hearts to be softened.
When Jim and I were first married, we joined my family for a reunion in Arkansas. We convened at our family cabin, a gathering place since my childhood. This would be our last time to go there before the cabin was sold. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren, sons, and daughters-in-law all made the journey “home” and collected by the sleepy lake spotted with cypress stumps. The cabin slept only a dozen, so the rest of us lodged in the clubhouse in dormitory-style rooms with single beds lining the walls. Jim and I suffered the heat and relentless ridicule and slept together in one single bed, our newlywed status still fresh.
Throughout our entire trip to the cabin—which entailed two plane rides and a long rental-car drive to the edge of nowhere—I described the food to Jim. In detail I told of the aunts and the full tables, the bulging refrigerators stuffed with Southern goodness, and the midnight leftover plates. “If nothing else,” I promised, “the food will be outstanding.” When we got there, we pulled onto the lawn and parked. I was excited to see Mom and Dad, my sister and her husband, my cousin and her husband, and the smattering of aunts and uncles loitering about. As we walked into the cabin, we discovered that the topic of discussion in my sister’s and cousin’s cars had been much like ours, the women telling the husbands how amazing the food would be and how they wouldn’t be disappointed.
But in the fading sunlight of that summer afternoon, the aunts unboxed deli potato salad and store-bought beans. Pale grocery-store-roasted chickens and bakery cakes lined the table and paper plates and plastic forks were hastily piled high. Pill bottles and medicines sat on refrigerator shelves that had once held crockery full of homemade foods, and a strange collection of soft-spoken women seemed to have stolen our confident and boisterous aunts, inhabiting their frail bodies like alien predators. The collection of indefatigable sisters was tired, and the kitchen was closed.
That night, with no warning whatsoever, it became “our turn.” Playtime was over for the cousins, and the torch was unceremoniously passed into our hands, recipes of cinnamon toast and tuna casserole the extent of our resources. There was no canasta that night, no midnight leftovers. Back in the dorm room, I quietly spooned under my new husband’s arms in our cramped single bed, and that night I grew up against my will. How would we pick up where our aunts left off ? What were the tools for generational transition? It wasn’t only that the food had always been good. And it wasn’t just that the sisters had managed the task of feeding and cleaning up. My youth had been filled with women in the kitchen modeling a way of life and relationship that I had only begun to know.
I wasn’t ready to lead; I had only begun to follow. Where were the recipes? Where were the safe places for figuring out how to be a grown-up? How would I navigate in my own empty kitchen?
Thanksgiving came two weeks after my mom died last year. Our typical traditions—where we gathered and what we ate—didn’t feel right. The changes were coming faster than I could adapt to them, and what I had come to be comfortable with—my family template for the way things are supposed to be—was not lining up with my new reality. Several days after the memorial service for Mom in Orlando, Jim and I went back to Nashville. I could only bear to leave my dad alone because we had agreed to meet the following week at my cousin’s house in Atlanta for Thanksgiving.
When Jim and I got home, I could barely think about how to unpack my clothes, much less what to cook and take to Atlanta. My cousin called and said, “Just come. I’ll take care of all the food.”
I remembered all the times my mom had loaded my sister and me into a car at night to drive to one of my aunt’s homes a few hours away because someone needed us. Someone was hurt, sick, or alone, and we would go to be
with them. Kitchens filled up with sisters, living-room floors were littered with sleeping cousins, and family gave out of whatever we had. It was always a feast of food and love.
We drove to Atlanta in silence, my quiet weeping steaming up the windows. I knew the holiday would be melancholy, even if it was softened by being with those who loved Mom and me. My sister and her husband would be making their way to Texas, sharing old and new traditions in their daughter’s home. Each of us would be in different kitchens, at different tables, and we would have to find a new way to
be together. When I got out of the car in Atlanta, my cousin Cindy came out of her garage to meet me. She held me, we cried, and she smelled of ham and potatoes and spicy chili. I walked into her kitchen and saw the counters filled with food and peeked into a refrigerator where a fat turkey was thawing. And I felt home beneath my unsure fet.
The next day when we gathered for our Thanksgiving meal, my widowed aunt and newly widowed dad balancing opposite sides of the table. Cindy and her husband, Greg, sat at the heads of the table, a perfect illustration of generational transition. The children’s table had merged with the adults’ table, and though our places had been rearranged, there was indeed a place for all of us. We ate a plentiful meal—some new dishes, some traditional family ones. We told stories and remembered, and we mended a little bit. Corn-bread dressing was on our table, and when I talked with my sister, I found out that the same corn-bread dressing was on her table. The same dressing that had been on our tables every Thanksgiving all forty-six years of my life.
There isn’t much to figure out in generational transition after all. When it’s time, it just happens. After dinner Jim and my cousin’s husband went to clean up the turkey smoker on the back patio, Diet Cokes in their hands. I leaned my head out the door and heard them talking about gas grills and
riding lawn mowers. Dad and my aunt dozed in chairs in front of FOX News, and Cindy and I washed dishes, trying to remember how to play canasta. Over breakfast we would talk about new beginnings, and we would swap recipes, as we stepped up to take our turns.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Potluck by Kim Thomas. Copyright © 2006 by Kim Thomas. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.