Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Real Family (Holidays)

The Real Family

            My mother was the focus of what sociologists would call an "extended family".  All her children were crazy about her: the daughters always lived as close as possible to where we did, sometimes on the premises when their husbands were "out of a job."  Bud Stiles (married to my older half-sister Ruby) and his siblings felt the same way about their mother; so traditional holidays (Christmas, New Years, Easter, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving) were almost always multifamilial.

            New Years was no big deal for the kids, and there were lots of us; we just shot off a few firecrackers and watched the adults drink homebrew and bootleg likker.  Just before midnight on New Year's Eve; the men  would all load their shotguns, go outside and, on my father's signal from his Railroad Gold Pocket Watch--certified monthly by an accredited jeweler to not be off by more than five seconds--would empty the guns into the sky at exactly midnight .

             I could never figure out that ritual: when I was allowed to hunt by myself, I was expected to come back with at least one of something--dove, squirrel, quail, rabbit or duck-for each round expended--and they threw it away at New Years.  I also had problems with fireworks, both at New Years and Fourth of July.  The little money I got my hands on came too hard to waste it making a loud noise.  Shucks, I could make enough noise just hollering real loud, and it didn't cost a thing.

            Now EASTER was something else!  It was the "Rites of Spring"-- even if everything was still frozen solid in North Texas..  The Mothers secretly spent late night hours hard boiling and dying hundreds of eggs; depending on the employment status of the fathers, a variable number of sickeningly sweet colored candies, and, greatest prize of all, big chocolate Easter eggs were added to the treasure.  The men went out early in the morning and hid the eggs in some selected site on a river or lake.  We kids would immediately begin bugging (it was called "begging" then) the women to go "EASTER EGG" hunting.  As soon as they had the trunks of the caravan of cars loaded (the kids filled most of the available seats), we headed for the river.

            Now those were EASTER EGG hunts and those were PICNICS!  On my mother's side of the family, there were Ruby and Bud's two sons, Audie and Jim; I eventually had eleven other nephews and nieces as offspring of Bessie, Lorrenze, and Billy, but not all of them were around for the early Easters.  The Stiles side of the family was also fecund; there were many of them, but I especially remember Marshall and Ruby (Bud's younger sister) Barnes and their son Ray, who was about Audie's and my age.

            The men who had hidden the eggs would line the kids up at some agreed upon starting line, making sure the youngest were in front, and, on someone's signal, we would dash for the Easter Eggs.  We bigger kids immediately ran over the little ones; that not only got them out of the front of the pack, but it delayed them further while their mothers comforted them.  We got most of the eggs.  The family Easter Egg Hunts began so early I can't remember when we didn't have them, and they continued at least until Audie and I were in our early teens.

            After the egg hunt we had a ritual "Rite of Spring"; all the boys and young men went swimming to celebrate the end of winter, even if we had to break the ice because of an early Easter or a late North Texas "Blue Norther."  To "chicken out" was an open admission of the onset of middle age and subjected the "chicken" to the derision of all participants.  Sometimes the swims were short: a dive or jump into the icy water, a furious threshing to regain the relative warmth of the atmosphere, and a frantic toweling to dry before slipping into warm clothes.

            While the kids were hunting Easter Eggs, the women were busily setting up the picnic.  We always had tables and table cloths with place settings of plates and silverware.  At each of the multiple tables, there were always more than thirty of us and usually more; a veritable cornucopia of good food lined the center--even during the depths of the depression.  Mr. Stiles, Bud's father, worked for a "produce company" and always managed to "salvage" immense amounts of such exotic fruits as   oranges, bananas, apples, various kinds of early melons imported for the rich folks, and even pineapple.  On each table there would be an immense bowl of fruit salad.  There would also be platters of fried chicken (that put a dent in my mother's fryer population), ham, and fried fish -- if anyone had recently caught a big catfish or a mess of crappie.  I don't think we had discovered barbecue then, so we didn't have ribs or barbecued beef and chicken, but we did have roast pork and sweet potatoes. 

            The culmination of that annual orgy were the deserts.  Every woman made her best desert, as though she was competing in the County Fair.  There were coconut cakes, lemon chiffon pies, coconut creme pies, chocolate cakes, blackberry cobbler (if the season was late enough) and others too numerous to enumerate.  If it was a late Easter, my father would also do a little "salvaging" from the Railroad -- a few watermelons shipped out of Alvord, Texas, where the best watermelons in Texas were grown.  The children, and most of the men, ate beyond satiation. We lay around somnolent while the women cleaned up the mess; then someone drove us home. 
            Easter was not a religious experience for our family; we didn't go to church before our Easter Egg Hunt and Picnic.  It was more like a pagan rite, celebration of having survived another Winter and welcoming Spring.  Interestingly, it never seemed to bother my mother, who was a regular church-goer; she only missed Easter Sunday and Christmas.  I suppose she, in her pragmatic way, figured God would understand that she was always faithful and would excuse her a couple of times a year.        

            Fourth of July -- we never called it Independence Day -- was not nearly as big.  April 21st, Anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto where General Sam Houston and a few hundred Texicans defeated General Santa Anna and his thousands of Mexican soldiers in the bayou country of Southeast Texas, was the REAL Independence Day.  Besides, the wounds of the War Between the States (usually referred to as the War of Northern Aggression--never the Civil War) were still too fresh to make too much of events that took place way up North involving a bunch of Yankees.

            Actually, we didn't know much about the history of the United States, but we did know a lot about Texas history.  Some commercial concern produced a comic book, Texas Under Six Flags, that got into the hands of all children.  Once we started to school, we had Texas History every semester from First Grade through Junior High School.  I think we were required to take one semester of American history in High School, but I know one had to have had a course in Texas history in college to obtain a Teacher's Certificate for teaching in the Public Schools of Texas.

            The one certainty of the Fourth of July was that Audie, the consummate entrepreneur, would set up a Fireworks Stand on July 1st,  stocked with prosaic firecrackers of varying sizes and loudness and exotic items such as cherry bombs, rockets and Roman Candles.  Most of the kids in the neighborhood spent all their money with Audie-- and probably went into debt to the extent he would carry them -- but the amazing thing was that he sold most of his sophisticated fireworks to the adults.  I can't remember ever buying a nickel's worth from Audie; he usually shot off the remnants after business had ended.  I do remember one episode in which we were shooting Roman Candles at one another.  Surely I didn't buy one of them just to shoot it at Audie.

            Thanksgiving was another story, we embraced the holiday-- with little concept of the mythology of the First Thanksgiving where the resident Indians joined with the Invaders in peace and harmony to celebrate the latter's survival -- because it gave us a bonifide excuse for another feast.   Once again, it was the extended family; they must have rotated the site, but we kids neither knew or cared about the logistics.  Usually it was either at our house or at Ruby's, but occasionally at the Stiles' (Bud's Parents). Audie and Jimmy had a good thing going; they had two grandmothers within walking distance.  To them, my mother was "Mimi" and Mrs. Stiles was "Other Mama."  I never heard either of them address either of their grandmothers differently, even when they were teenagers.
            We usually had to either eat in shifts or they set up tables in the kitchen for the kids.  Typically, at the main table would be my mother and father (he must have felt like an illegitimate child at a family picnic), Ruby and Bud, Mr. and Mrs. Stiles, my sister Bessie and her husband Curtis, Lorrenze and her husband  Charlie, Bud's younger brother, Earl, Bill, and the Barnes.  At the kid's table would be Audie and me, Ray Barnes, Jimmy, and various other nephews and nieces -- the number and names depending on the date because some of the daughter's dropped a new one every year like cows calving. 

            How they did it in the depths of the depression, I don't know, but the food was both bountiful and delicious.  In retrospect, almost all of it was homegrown, caught, shot, or scrounged.  The featured attraction was the turkey, raised by my mother and grown to gargantuan proportions with her encouragement (I'll bet the chickens were glad to see that chowhound go).  We also had ham, riddled with cloves and glazed with secret sweet condiments, baked chicken and a succulent pork roast, plus roast duck and any other available game.  Vegetables featured candied yams, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, and English peas.  I suppose there was lettuce and tomato salad, but the favorite was always potato salad, with several varieties to choose from.  The deserts were even more numerous and varied than at Easter because more fruits and berries were available for the women's machinations.  We were not distracted because there was NO FOOTBALL; television had not been invented, and none of us had an Alma Mater to support via radio.  We just ate until we couldn't hold any more, then lay down, like pythons that had swallowed a pig, until we were mobile again.  Some of the hardier ones would regain their feet around 4:00 PM to pick the bones of the departed turkey and sneak a little of the marshmallow topping off the candied yams.

            Christmas must have been a real problem for the family during the Depression; they not only had to provide the feast, but presents for the children as well.  Audie and I figured out Christmas real fast, but we agreed to not tell Jimmy and the other kids that there was no Santa Claus because they might spoil the whole thing by talking to the grownups.  We decided to  "innocently" keep this Santa Claus thing going as long as we could.

            Bud Stiles was Santa Claus; he had all the requisites: figure, voice, demeanor, and, most of all, a Santa Claus costume.  In someone's living room we would have a decorated Christmas Tree, surrounded by multiple wrapped presents.  Bud, "Santa Claus," would pick them up, one at a time, read the out the name, and hand them to the recipient.  Most times he entered the room with a "HO HO HO," carrying a sackful of gifts.  All the pageantry undoubtedly distracted us from realizing there were pitifully few Christmas presents. 

            However, we did eat well. Christmas Goose replaced Thanksgiving Turkey as the center of attention, but there was always one of the latter for those who couldn't take the fatness of the goose or just preferred the dryness of the turkey.  Vegetables and deserts were about the same as Thanksgiving, and nobody had room for salads at Christmas dinner.

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