Saturday, November 10, 2007

Southern gothic Thanksgiving story

I know that by the time you're reading this most of you have already had your Thanksgiving dinner. But if you've been blessed (or burdened) with relatives, you're probably still enjoying their company throughout the weekend.

And sometimes, the presence of your relatives makes you realize that Thanksgiving, which is supposed to unite us as a nation, actually divides us regionally more than any other holiday.

It has to do with where you were raised. I was raised in the deep South, where being southern was considered a religion.

When you're from the South, you never know what's going to come out of a family member's mouth.

My mother was raised in the funeral business. Her childhood growing up among caskets and funeral parlors in the 1930s and '40s inspired some pretty lively stories at the dinner table.

But the most memorable of them all came out one Thanksgiving when my brother Kevin brought his fiancé, Jann, home to dinner for the first time. You don't spring the unknown at your fiancé during her first family Thanksgiving dinner, and my mother is Mistress of the Unknown.

Understandably, Kevin was a bit worried.

Jann, who is not from the South, bore well the steady stream of conversation and non-sequiturs that every southern mother indulges in during a family occasion.

That is, until Mom dropped her Great Bombshell.

During one mini-second of silence, my mother said casually, "Of course, when we lived in North Carolina, on Sundays my Daddy would always take us to see Uncle Ben."

My brother perked up his ears suspiciously, and so did I. This was a relative we'd never heard of, and God only knew what HIS story was.

"Uncle Ben?" my brother asked warily. "Who was he? Do we know him?"

"No, Uncle Ben wasn't family," said my mother sweetly. "He was out at the funeral home in this little town a few hours away from Winston Salem. My Daddy would say, 'C'mon, let's go see Uncle Ben,' and we would pile in the car and go."

At the mention of the words "funeral home," Jann looked up. She didn't know Mom's history.

"What did 'Uncle Ben' do at the funeral home?" I asked.

"He didn't do anything," said my mother, with a faint sound of reproach in her voice. "He was just there, and we would go see him."

We waited for the rest of the story. And then it came.

"He dropped dead on the sidewalk in front of the funeral parlor one day, and no one ever claimed the body," said my mother matter-of-factly, taking a spoonful of stuffing. "So they embalmed him, and they propped him up in a chair, and we all used to go see him."

In the silence that followed, my brother's face had turned a shade of green that, to this day, has never been replicated.

Jann's face, on the other hand, showed undisguised horror.

Clearly, my brother thought (as he often told me later) that the wedding was off.

My mother, as befitting a true Southern Lady, was totally unaware of the commotion she had caused and kept right on eating.

It was my Dad who regained his presence of mind before any of us.

"Don't tell Jann your funeral home stories," he said, in a half-joking attempt to save the situation. "You'll scare her."

At this point I had to intervene with the one question that, to this day, Kevin and I have never gotten a satisfactory answer for.

"Mom, WHY didn't you tell us about Uncle Ben before?" (Translation: Why did you wait until your son brought home his future fiancé to tell us your Family Corpse Story?)

"You mean I never told y'all about Uncle Ben before?" she asked lazily. "Well, I guess I just forgot."

We finished our meal in silence. But then I just had to ask.

"Isn't that - well, against the law, having a dead body sitting there?"

"I don't know," she said. "It probably was. They didn't think about things like that back then."

"But Mom, why did you drive out on Sundays to visit a corpse?"

She paused.

"Well, I don't know," she said reflectively. "It was just something that everybody did."

Kevin and Jann are celebrating their 14th wedding anniversary this December - luckily Jann showed her mettle by taking the whole thing in her stride. I think she recovered from it faster than Kevin and I did.

But to this day, Kevin and I still feel the presence of Uncle Ben, hovering over our Thanksgiving table.

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everybody. And that goes for you too, Uncle Ben, wherever you are.

summit daily news
November 24, 2005