The Family Tree - Part 2
Author: Mellie Duke Justad
“Hey, Corny, I don’t see no spaghetti on the table, where is it?” he demanded. “You know how I love your homemade spaghetti,” he declared, as he slid into the seat next to me like butter on hot cornbread.
“Sorry, ‘bout that, Ed. It was hiding back in the fridge behind the poke salat and I didn’t see it, dear. Here, take some sauce,” she said, as she passed him the bottle of… ketchup?
We all watched in disgust as Uncle Ed dumped an entire bottle of Aunt Cornelia’s “homemade” sauce atop his noodles. I was glad he’d unloaded all of it onto his plate so I wouldn’t have to offend Aunt Cornelia with a polite, “No thanks, but I’m allergic to homemade spaghetti sauce” when it made its way around to me. An hour later it was Aunt Cornelia who yelled a loud, “Time to bed down!” with an armload of malodorous squishy feather pillows and from the swell of them, direct from her backyard chicken coup.
Bed down? It wasn’t even dark out. I hadn’t been to bed this early since I was five.
We soon to found out that the term, “bed down” meant just that. I was about to ask Mama where I was supposed to sleep when Aunt Cornelia yelled for everybody to come into the parlor, “Get on in here and grab yourself a mattress. There’s plenty for everybody, just put it wherever you can find a place,” she instructed.
Two minutes earlier, five of Aunt Cornelia’s snot-nosed, whiney grandchildren, my little pesky cousins, who were excited as could be cause they’d never met anybody from Georgia before, showed up at the front door pajama clad insisting on sleeping over.
We promptly began digging through the stack of thin, lumpy, worn, mattresses that comprised the sofa in the corner to find the best one. That took some doing as the pickin’s were mighty thin, just like those mattresses.
We scattered throughout the furniture crammed, dismal beige parlor with its hideous gold and black draperies that I suspected Aunt Cornelia made herself, and into the dining room as we bedded down for the night, toe-to-toe or nose-to-nose, whatever the case happened to be.
Through the open windows we could hear everybody yelling goodnight to each other all up and down the lane. It was like a scene out of The Waltons. We even got in on the fun. “Good night, Mama. Good night, Daddy. Good night, Mellie Ellen. Goodnight, Kim-Bob.”
Long before dawn and before the first rooster crowed we were up and dressed in our finest church attire, and sitting in the sanctuary for the traditional Easter Sunrise Service. There were Swains to the left and Swains to the right. We sat sardined on the dark wooden pew next to Aunt Cornelia, who was all gussied up in a fussy, pale green organdy ensemble complete with matching gloves and heels. The world’s oldest living bridesmaid. She had insisted we sit right down in front so we wouldn’t miss a single word of the morning sermon. I think it was partly so everybody could see her walk down the aisle in her Easter getup.
The tiny white wooden church with its beautiful, colorful stained glass windows had stood over a hundred years and had seen generations of Swains married and buried. My attention was drawn to the dark wooden pulpit where there stood a short, plump, matronly woman dressed all in yellow from her Sunday pumps to her huge Easter bonnet. She wore a giant Easter Lily corsage pinned to her lapel. Adorning her bonnet were three long stemmed Easter Lilies, which protruded from the top, and looked out over the congregation like gigantic searchlights.
“Mrs. Hathaway is just wonderful,” beamed Aunt Cornelia. “You’re in for a real treat.”
A woman minister. Didn’t know it was possible. I’d seen a lot of preachers come and go through the front door of First Methodist back home, but none of them had ever donned a dress.
“Has she been here long?” asked Mama from behind her program.
“Ever since her husband, the Preacher Hathaway, passed on three years ago,” she said.
Ah--self proclaimed ministry. So that’s how they did things down here. I had never heard of such a practice, but the Swains didn’t appear to mind.
“The Lord has R-I-S-E-N,” Mrs. Hathaway spoke in a loud, overly thick Southern voice as she raised her hands over her head and looked up towards Heaven and delivered her opening remarks.
The Lord has R-I-S-E-N!” Mrs. Hathaway shouted a second time, a bit louder as she looked out over her congregation, her voice shaking the old wooden beams over head with such force it startled a dozing Daddy to the point of dropping his hymnal on the floor with a loud “boom.”
If looks could kill Daddy was already a dead man. Aunt Cornelia’s icy glare was enough to melt the polar ice caps. But, up in the pulpit, where it mattered most, the ever undaunted, Mrs. Hathaway paid Daddy no mind and continued on with her sermon several more minutes before she fervently repeated the phrase again.
“The Lord has R-I-S-E-N!” she shouted once more at the top of her lungs.
Her voice strained, pitching higher, like the engine of an old tractor about to blow its head gasket. She stood on her tippy toes arms extended overhead reaching upwards as if she were about to grab hold of a trapeze and swing from its rafters.
Well, if He hasn’t risen by now, He’s certainly about to. Even the Lord wouldn’t have wanted to miss what happened next! As she exhaled during her emphatic delivery with her short stubby arms stretched out over her head, we heard a loud “pop”. Slowly something white began to inch its way down around her purplish, pudgy calves.
“Good God!” Daddy stood, pointed, and shrieked, his eyes the size of Moon Pies, “What’s that?”
We barely heard his words, completely hypnotized by the enormous white mass that continued to slide to her feet. I recognized what they were right away, but until that day had never seen any of that magnitude. They were, hands down, the largest bloomers we had ever seen! Why, they could sail a ship!
Never missing a beat, nor looking down once, she cleverly maneuvered those gigantic panties with only one foot behind the Easter Sunday palms. Impressive footwork for a woman who weighed in at over two hundred and fifty pounds and probably hadn’t seen her feet in over twenty years.
The ancient, wooden pews in the church were rocking as we all realized what we had just witnessed. Aunt Cornelia was totally beside herself, frantically giving everyone dirty looks as she tried to restore some decorum among the Swain clan. But by then, we were all too far-gone.
“Good Lord, woman. Put your dang drawers back on!” Uncle Hershel bolted upright, stood and shouted at the top of his lungs. “You’re in the Lord’s house, for Christ sakes.”
Finally, the pious, panty-less pillar of strength crumbled, running out of the church screaming, her bloomers tucked into her bible like some fancy, frilly bookmark, her pride checked at the pulpit. The uncontrollable laughter reverberated between the Swains in the choir loft and the Swains in the congregation until the very rafters of the old church threatened to fall after a hundred years. Was she as good a preacher as her late husband? I imagine so. After twenty-five years, it’s the only sermon that I can recall in its entirety. Could be because it only lasted seven minutes.
We arrived back at Aunt Cornelia’s before six in the morning---the sermon cut short by about thirty-eight minutes. As Aunt Cornelia was completely inconsolable, we felt it best to leave her alone and we quickly volunteered to go help Aunt Willona with the Brunswick Stew. It is one of Daddy’s many specialties and it’s got all kinds of things in it. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to stand out in the driveway for eight hours tending his masterpiece in its huge cauldron stirring it to perfection with a boat paddle as the neighbors came by to sample and sniff. His secret ingredient of course, is no secret at all--- Tabassco sauce and lots of it. It wasn’t ready till Daddy’s upper lip was beaded up with sweat and his hearing was gone due to all the ringing in his ears.
“Ah, it’ll be alright,” said Daddy sticking his finger in it to get a little taste.
With Daddy preoccupied with the paddling of the stew, Aunt Willona, Kim, Mama and I headed on up to pay Cousin Claude and his new bride a visit. The all too familiar mattress-sofa combination had an important spot on the front porch of the cabin as well, but it did little to prepare us for what lay inside---Cousin Claude’s new wife, Gracie Lou for one. His mail order bride factory-direct from the set of Hee Haw. A buxom blonde, all of fifteen, she sat perched along with a few clucking chickens on the wooden porch railing nosily popping a big wad of bubble gum. She was attired in what I was certain was her wedding day trousseau---a skin-tight T-shirt, short denim cut-offs, and a pair of rhinestone studded high heeled sandals direct from the double discount rack of K-Mart. She greeted us with a friendly, “Ya’ll come on in and see how I’ve redecorated this old cabin into a real “love nest.”
Once inside, Kim and I stood in awe, mouths and eyes wide. We had never seen anything like it. Stuffed animal heads, some with complete bodies, along with several prized trophy fish were mounted on the wooden walls, all in tribute to Cousin Claude’s expertise with a variety of weapons. Some love nest! Gracie Lou must have gotten her decorating ideas from Field and Stream. “Early American Norman Bates.” There were turkey tails and beards, deer, raccoon, squirrels, snakes, polecats and even a three-legged possum. The real money in this town wasn’t from pulp-wooding, but from taxidermy-ing.
“Hey, ya’ll,” a tall, barefoot, bearded guy wearing overalls and an old black felt hillbilly hat walked into the room. He was at least fifteen years Gracie Lou’s senior.
It was Cousin Claude. Who else would have bragged for over twenty minutes how he’d built this palace all by himself, even rigging it with all sorts of unusual surprises? Quickly turning off the lights, he hit another switch, causing the eyes of the entire stuffed menagerie to blink with twinkling red Christmas lights. It was quite effective in the dark. We noticed something glowing from the ceiling and looked up at the enormous mirror that was fastened overhead. Kim and I exchanged glances. Mirrors on the ceiling? Every ceiling? At our young ages, we didn’t know quite what to make of it, but the snickers coming from Mama and Aunt Flora were an indication that it had something to do with the cabin being called a “love nest.” Our curiosity was satisfied a few weeks later as Mama was forced to have a rather unusual little “mother-daughter” chat with Kim and me about “newlywed” interior decorating--- or what we later referred to as “Kinky and Country”.
The only room in the cabin that didn’t sport a mirror on the ceiling was a secret gun room containing an entire arsenal. Cousin Claude was well equipped for any potential uprising or what was referred to as the second coming of the “Nawthun Aggressas.” I guess every family should have at least one vigilante, Cousin Claude was ours.
“C-o-m-e. Spat. “A-n-d. Spat “G-e-t. Spat. “I-t!” hollered Uncle Ed in between spats of tobacco.
Our grand tour abruptly ended, we headed outside into the stifling heat, loaded up our plates and proceeded to “pig out” with all the kin.
Reflecting on that weekend, Kim and I decided Mama and Daddy had both been right. His people were nice, but they were definitely weird, too. I wondered if everybody’s family tree was as gnarly as ours was… nah, it wasn’t possible. Fortunately Kim and I had one thing going for us--- we’d managed to escape being cornered by Uncle Ed when we said our good-byes. Poor Mama. She wasn’t quite so lucky.