Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Family Tree - Part 1

The Family Tree

By Mellie Duke Justad

The reunion was planned for Easter weekend down in Southern Mississippi. There would be no real strangers here. According to Daddy, I was kin to everybody in the town, even if the population was only about four hundred. I had not seen Daddy’s people since I was a baby. Mama’s family was always referred to as family, but Daddy’s family was referred to as “people.” His people, until that point in my life, had been a few pictures in family albums and some whispered stories around the supper table. Now, I was going to experience them in the flesh. If I had only known what lay ahead, I would have surely scheduled a quick visit to the local tree surgeon to have all my limbs permanently amputated.

They all lived on the same little dirt road, Swain’s Lane, right off the Tupelo to Hattiesburg Highway. Must be a mighty long road, if four hundred people could live on it without driving each other nuts. Daddy said we could walk from house to house to house and still be on “cousin somebody’s” land. I envisioned the Kennedy Compound, except with chicken coops and combine harvesters.

“It’ll be lots of fun,” assured Mama. “You’ll see cousins you never dreamed you had,” she remarked to my younger sister, Kim and me one dreary February afternoon.

What did she mean by that? From the amused twisted sneer on her face, it was obvious she knew something we didn’t.

“Why don’t we ever go see them?” Kim asked.

“Well, they’re really great,” said Daddy. “They’re just a little...”

Weird?” Mama finished his sentence not bothering to lookup from her magazine.

“Now, they’re not that bad,” Daddy protested.

“What about Aunt Louise?”

“So? Can she help that she has a glass eye?” Daddy said defensively.

“No. But she can help taking it out and losing it every five minutes.

Kim and I exchanged looks of sheer panic.

“Well…” Daddy started, but before he could continue was interrupted again.

“And have you forgotten about your Uncle Ed?” Mama asked quickly in her “I told you so” voice who we discovered was more commonly known in the family as “The Tongue.”

“The Tongue!” Kim gasped in terror.

“Oh, Ed’s not so bad,” Daddy contested.

“That’s because you’ve never had the pleasure of kissing him,” Mama retorted.

“Girls, just make sure you turn your cheek when you meet your Uncle Ed,” Daddy instructed, laughing, completely aware of what was awaiting us only two states away.

Six weeks later, we were Mississippi bound in Mama’s Town Car, apprehensive at the thought of having what might be my first “French” kiss from Uncle Ed. Several uneventful hours later, we arrived at the lone blinking light, on the old Hattiesburg Highway, the only indication that we had indeed made it to our destination---Piney Ridge. We turned onto Swain’s Lane a narrow mailbox lined red dirt road, while billowing clouds of dust kicked up behind the car.

“Okay girls. Keep your eyes peeled for the front porch with the most people on it,” Daddy instructed.

We rolled our windows down sticking our heads out like dogs to get an unobstructed view of what in our minds was a carbon copy of the front porch on our favorite TV show, Hee Haw.

The family patriarch, my great-granddaddy, Papa Swain built the first house we passed, Daddy informed us. A tall, rambling, unpainted, dark wooden structure with a rusting tin roof and an assortment of narrow, brick chimneys of various heights that tumbled in every direction imaginable, sat underneath a large green canopy of pecan trees. It was what Daddy referred to as a “shotgun house” which meant it had been added onto so many times it looked like it had been blown outwards from the inside. The dilapidated front porch sank in some spots and rose in others, and appeared to wrap all the way around the massive house. Partially adorning the porch were remnants of a rotting wooden railing which made a futile attempt to hang onto the sagging edge. Both the porch and rail leaned pitifully to one side, reminding me of the Tower of Pisa. The lone cinderblock step that led up to the planked porch surface was a couple of feet shy of its target, making me wonder if its inhabitants had legs that were over eight feet long or if folks just rode in piggyback. The mere sight of my family’s old home place was quite unsettling and beginning to render me a little nauseous. Until then, I had still clung tightly and proudly to the rumor that some of Swains had come from fine stock- not livestock. In the early 1800’s, supposedly one of them had married the governor of Louisiana and another had become a governor himself, or so the story was told. I found it impossible to believe as we passed the rickety old house that I had once envisioned as a stately mansion.

While driving slowly down Swain’s Lane, I got a good look into the side yard where there lay an assortment of vehicles-- a pulpwood truck, an old rusty tractor, and the infamous “Mississippi sun porch”- a black, spacious, 1931 four-door Buick touring car. Daddy had explained that Mama Swain would normally get all dressed up in her Sunday best, complete with heels, make-up, gloves, jewelry, perfume, and a hat and make her daily tour up and down Swain’s Lane, visiting unannounced all along the way. But in the winter, when it was too cold for the daily trek, after getting completely dressed up, she would go out and sit in the “Mississippi sun porch” where it was warm and where she could keep a close eye on all the comings and goings on Swain’s Lane.

Directly across from the house, stood the old family store now covered with leafy green kudzu. The sight where many a jar of moonshine was passed over the counter surreptitiously by my enterprising great granddaddy, Papa Swain, whose sons, my great uncles, acted as delivery boys bringing cheer to customers throughout the county, from the secret still concealed out in the woods in a hollow. Was his business successful? Looking around at the thousands of acres of prime cattle land, I naturally assumed so. It certainly hadn’t come from the present family business of pulp-wooding.

“This is it,” Daddy said as we pulled up to Uncle Ed and Aunt Cornelia’s modest dark green shingled two-bedroom house.

There were as many chickens running around the yard as there were people on the front porch, and there must have been fifty of those. They all looked normal.

“Do you see Uncle Ed up there?” Kim asked worriedly peering up towards the porch.

“Don’t worry, he’s probably inside watching the Braves,” said Daddy.

Yeah, or warming up his tongue in the bullpen.

“You two ought be safe for at least another inning,” Daddy teased.

It took several minutes to emerge from the car as it was immediately swarmed by overly friendly relatives and equally excited barking hound dogs. We made our way through the half-hour ritual of hugging and kissing people I’d never laid eyes on. It was Mama who spotted Ed, or rather he, her. In his sixties, he stood hands on his hips, pot bellied and squinty eyed, with a big nasty plug of chewing tobacco in his lower jaw. His crowning glory--- his greased-back, poorly dyed black hair. Straight from a can of shoe polish. When he smiled, we noticed a row of mismatched teeth-- a few brownish tobacco-stained ones, scattered among a few yellow perfectly straight ones. Wonder which ones were his and which ones he was still making monthly installments on?

His blue and red plaid, stained shirt was sloppily hanging out over his jeans most likely because he’d just finished zipping his pants up from their usual “comfortably unzipped while sitting in front of the TV position”. Kim and I watched intently, as he licked his lips, the saliva rolling from the corner of his mouth, as he made his way straight towards us!

Kim shrieked and grabbed my hand squeezing hard, till it ached.

“You girls are so purdy and fat. Corn-fed, that’s what you two are, two little corn-fed, Georgie girls,” said Uncle Ed, as he later snuck up from behind, squeezing both of us tight, around our necks in a double headlock. He nearly knocked us over when we got a big whiff of the rancid chewing tobacco that lay hidden against his lower gum. He spat the brown tobacco juice right onto the emerald green painted wooden porch, just missing my white Keds by an inch. Just as I suspected, a Skoal man.

A couple of hours later Aunt Cornelia who’d been scarce since our arrival busying herself in the kitchen preparing our big feast, appeared on the front porch wading chest deep through kinfolk to announce “supper.”

“Ya’ll come on in here to the table, the food’s almost ready. Hurry up! I’ve been in this kitchen since early this morning,” said Aunt Cornelia almost breathless, in her navy and white polka dot dress, her short cropped, salt and pepper hair perfectly in place, a sure indication she’d most likely been at the beauty parlor all morning instead. We knew better than to keep her waiting. Daddy had told us she was a stickler for good manners, the “Emily Post” of Swain’s Lane, so we high tailed it into the dining room all snappy like.

Having forgone any food on our trip down in anticipation of one of Aunt Cornelia’s famous home cooked meals I was the first one on the scene at the supper table. The wooden planked walls in the cramped dining room were painted green, the same ugly shade as the exterior of the house. The rough walls were adorned with portraits of my fine, illustrious family ancestors, many wearing long thick mustaches, even some of the women. As we sat before our meal on the white-laced tablecloth, we were astonished at the bountiful array in front of us. I took a deep breath in full anticipation of being overwhelmed with the wonderful aroma of hot, ambrosial delights. Instead I got nothing, except the tell-tale scent of mothballs? Was I so delirious with hunger that my sniffer was out of whack, or was that red bowl of suspicious white lumpy stuff, puree of mothball soup? I leaned over to get a closer whiff. Phew! Just the tablecloth.

A large platter of cold fried catfish had a place of honor on the center of table and was surrounded by the most unusual assortment of side dishes we had ever seen! A large dish of canned cranberry sauce and an equal sized bowl of cold carrot and raisin salad, which I detest, were nestled among various, small bowls. Each one contained such delectable delights as, a small green tomato thinly sliced, a half a cup of black-eyed peas with a thin layer of white solidified fat that you had to break through with a spoon to get to. A cup of wrinkly looking Lima beans. Maybe 3/4 cup of lumpy mashed potatoes, with a side of gravy from some undetermined origin. Four shriveled ears of corn and a lone deviled egg- all served ice cold directly from Aunt Cornelia’s refrigerator. This was the meal I had starved myself for in great anticipation during the last eight hours? This? I wanted to kill Daddy, but he looked just as astonished as the rest of us.


Look For Part 2 Next Week!