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Far ago and long away, I dreamed a dream one day.
The time is far, far ago, but it is ever fresh in memory. Some of the best times of my life were spent in Peterson, a village between Tuscaloosa and Brookwood, a stripped-out mining town. In Peterson resided my maternal grandparents, as well as various aunts and uncles and cousins, and back then, some sixty years ago, all us kinfolk liked nothing better than to converge and reunite and party together on a Sunday afternoon.
Now this may not be you young’uns’ idea of partying, but it was everything we knew to do, in order to have a good time. The time is long away, but here’s what a McGee reunion felt like:
Dried butterbeans under a tree in Uncle Pat and Aunt Elizabeth McGee’s sideyard. No, we didn’t eat the butterbeans except one time, and once was enough. What my uncles did with the butterbeans was use them instead of chips, to sit on the ground and play poker. The summertime buggy and humid heat was barely noticed, because the Games and the Slow Roast were the thing. Two games went on simultaneously. The poker game—in which all the winner got was a bunch of dried beans—and the baseball game on the radio. You see, back then, nobody had portable radios, so the Big Game emanated from one of the old cars in the family. One uncle would pull his car near the Game and leave the door open so we could all hear the big plays, the excited crowd, the crisp snap of wood against hide, the terse shouts of the umpire.
The Slow Roast was right next to the game—big hunks of pork turning over an open-pit fire, smoking up the woods and forcing all humans who care about eating to salivate involuntarily. Cousin Patricia reports six decades later that, after we’ve eaten, Uncle Buddy reveals that it is goat meat—not pork.
This was Division of Labor stuff back then. The men were in charge of staying up all night, tending the cooking, biding their time with poker and baseball, and trying their best to set sedentary examples of good behavior for dozens of run-amok kids. The women did everything else.
Mind you, this was the post-economic-depression era when all men worked hard at hard-time jobs, when Sundays with family were their only respite, when for a few hours they could pretend to be hotshot gamblers and master chefs and wizened tribal chiefs.
Meanwhile, cousins and their playmates were free to roam wild in Uncle Pat’s woods, chase after and be chased by spiders and snakes, attract redbugs and ticks, laugh out loud and wrestle, play their own baseball game in the nearby cornfield, pretend to be feral Tarzans and Noble Savages and in general let out all that energy that had been pent up during the week.
The women would cook and wrangle kids and socialize and gossip and knit and darn and set tables and wash dishes and collect detritus that the men would later dispose of. Both men and women would share in the arduous task of making gallons of ice cream on the spot, emptying ice and salt into buckets while older kids took turns cranking and cranking and cranking, their only motivation being the sweet taste of fresh peaches absorbed into the creamiest ice cream you could ever imagine.
Everybody knew their responsibilities in those days, nobody hid from helping out, everyone came to each other’s rescue when a bruise appeared, all accidents were tended to in gentle good humor, all conflicts were mediated and peacefully settled, all passions channeled for the good of the one-day commune.
At the end of the long day, each family would sit wearily and happily in automobiles waiting while relatives leaned and said 45-minute lingering goodbyes to each other. Nobody wanted to leave the scene, everybody had to, and, regardless of how tired and spent and scraped and bloated and bugbit each of us was, we couldn’t help but think about the next reunion when we’d do it all again.
Yep, far ago and long away, I dreamed a dream, a dream that still seems true when I look at the results of those strong and handsome adult relatives who set such powerful examples for us kids. The truth is in watching those kids today, now elderly kinfolk with their own kids and kids of kids, each year once more holding a reunion and passing down the generations a rich appreciation of tribe and family and genetics and mutual support.
It’s all still there, and the next reunion is next year, and I’m salivating already