A NY Yankee in Downhome Christmas
by Jan Fink
I met my husband, Will, in the late ‘60s while living in New York. A year after we were married, he suggested we take a trip down to Alabama for Christmas and a chance to meet his new, extended family. As much as I missed my home in Alabama, as soon as this suggestion left his lips, I was filled with terror. My husband had never been south of Manhattan. I knew what he was in for.
I had spent time with his family. They were sophisticated and proper. As an American family, they were right up there on the same page with Ward and June Cleaver and Ozzie and Harriet. On the other hand, if you researched my family history, you would find us on the page titled “Outlaws, Moonshiners and Wild Indians.” So you can see what I was up against, but the visit was inevitable.
We rented a car, trekked South, and arrived at my grandparents’ farm Christmas morning. The old home place was located in an isolated area of South Alabama. The house had no running water and was heated by fireplaces and Big Boy stoves. Downwind of the house was a barn, pig pen, smokehouse and outhouse. The 40 acres that anchored the old house were filled with pines, cotton fields and rattlesnakes. It had been my home until the day after high school graduation when I’d fled the South and headed North.
When we turned onto the dirt lane, the old house and outbuildings came into view. Granddaddy’s old hunting dog, Paddlefoot, was already limping towards the car, announcing our arrival. Will mumbled something to the effect of “Dog Patch, USA,” and I bristled. You know that old Southern-born, Southern-bred thing. We have the right to embrace and revel in our right to be colorful and eccentric. I didn’t say a word. I just sat back and thought to myself, “just wait.”
Granddaddy was on the porch in his usual chair wearing a red flannel shirt and his Sunday overalls. His face was covered with little blots of toilet paper, so I knew he’d had a little Christmas cheer before shaving. My uncles and various cousins were on the porch also. They sat, propped back in ladderback chairs, some cleaning hunting rifles and others around a big washtub skinning and washing an animal I could not identify.
Will hesitated, the color draining from his face, and then he climbed the porch steps to shake hands with everyone but the group around the washtub. My Grandmother opened the screen door inviting us into the living room. In the corner stood the usual cedar Christmas tree Granddaddy had cut and hauled up from the woods. From my earliest memory, the only decoration it ever held was a mixture of Tide washing powder made into a paste with a little water and then pulled along the branches creating the look of a snow-laden tree. My youngest cousin, 4-year-old Little Jim, sat under the tree among the presents picking at bows and wrapping paper. In the fireplace grate, a coal fire burned. It sizzled, filled the room with foul smoke and spit angry little burning missiles out onto the linoleum.
More introductions were made. This alone was time consuming and confusing since my clan numbers 40-plus. Halfway through Will’s meeting the multitude, Aunt Vi began screaming. Little Jim was foaming at the mouth. It seems he had lost interest in the presents under the tree, mistook the Tide washing powder snow decoration as candy and had helped himself to a branch. The women grabbed him up, rushed him to the kitchen and fed him bacon grease to clean him out. Little Jim wailed till the dinner bell rang and someone scooped him up to keep him from injury in the stampede that followed.
In my family, the call to dinner sent people of all ages scrambling like shoppers at a half-off sale. There was no regard, even for the children, if they got in the way, too bad. The next time they’d learn to run faster. Once at the table, a quick blessing was said, then it was on. The meal was conducted boarding house style. The first, fastest and the strongest got the most and the warmest of food.
My Aunt Irene, who is not the most domestic of our clan, always insisted on contributing to the meal. There’s a saying in our family that she could ruin a peanut butter sandwich and kill kudzu. This holiday she had cooked a turkey. She proudly placed the platter holding the sad little foul on the table. The once proud bird had been reduced to a quarter of its size and dried to shoe leather. Unable to carve it, the young men at the table began tossing it back and forth across the dinner table. Then, tucking it under their arms, they ran for long passes throughout the dining room. This went on until the birdcage was knocked over, and Grandmother put a stop to the game.
My cousin Ida had stationed herself at the far corner of the table right next to Will. She was splendid in appearance. She asked Will to forgive her looks at the moment, explaining she had been preparing for a date all afternoon. Not yet having mastered the art of makeup, the brilliant red of her lipstick and rouge and the hot pink curlers in her hair set off a glare that even made the sweet potato casserole cringe. She elbowed Will, yelled for more dressing, and spilled her tea.
The table became a jumble of moving mouths, arms, hands, and it occurred to me to look and see if Will had even been served. He had, but he seemed to be moving the food around on his plate more so than consuming it. Suddenly, he raised his hand as if in school and asked for a piece of cake. The table went silent. Forks fell to the sides of plates, raised glasses froze in midair and a total look of bafflement filled each face.
The dessert portion of the meal had not yet been served. What Will thought was cake was cornbread. It didn’t take my folks long to figure it out. They hoisted the plate of cornbread and handed it down the table like a bucket brigade. They laughed and pounded the table while Granddaddy shouted, “Give the boy some cake!”
I must say Will handled it well. He took a bite of the cornbread and said, “very interesting. Quite a flavor.” This brought more laughter; then everyone settled back to the meal. Spoons were dropped, drinks spilled, someone was stuck by a fork trying to get the last piece of ham, and Paddlefoot bit Aunt Ruth on the ankle thinking it was a dropped piece of chicken. With the main courses finished, dessert was served. Will took pecan pie, and I asked for an Alka-Seltzer.
Next came the opening of gifts. This was done with the same lack of ceremony as the Christmas dinner. My Aunt Leona had knitted scarves for everyone. There is also a saying in our family that if anyone had the courage to clean out her barn, the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa would be solved. She never threw anything away. Everything was recycled till it pleaded to be left alone. She had wrapped our scarves in old KFC boxes but had failed to remove the leftover chicken crust from some long ago takeout. We were all unaware of this until Paddlefoot began choking and coughing up red yarn. In the frenzy of gift opening, his keen hound dog nose had led him straight to one of Aunt Leona’s gifts, and he had consumed not only chicken crust but a good portion of the scarf. The women grabbed him up, rushed to the kitchen and fed him the bacon grease tonic.
Granddaddy cursed Leona for trying to kill the best hunting dog he’d ever had, children fought, grownups argued, and gift wrapping was strewn across the room until it was knee deep. In the midst of all the excitement, Aunt Vi had been busy packing the fireplace with discarded gift wrapping. When the roar announcing a chimney fire came, I knew it was time to take our leave.
Three years later, after the birth of our first child, we made the trip back to Alabama. This time to stay. Manhattan has a lot to offer, but it was not where I wanted to raise my children. They needed to know their Southern heritage. They needed to know sweet iced tea, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, red-eye gravy, grits, how to say “Yes, ma’am and Yes, sir,” and see an Alabama sunset through tall pines. And yes, they needed to know that in the South we don’t hide our eccentricities, but wear them like badges of honor.
As for Will, he agreed to relocate with one stipulation. Holiday visits were okay, but we’d live at least 100 miles distance from the clan. Forty years later, whenever the holidays draw near and Will is asked where he will be spending Christmas, his face grows somber, and he’ll tell you:
Jan Fink was born and raised in the farmlands outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during the 1940s and ‘50s. She escaped rural life to New York City in the late ‘60s, where she met her husband, Will. They currently live in Arab, Alabama. Fink has worked as a reporter and newspaper columnist and had her short story “C-R-A-Z-Y” published in the fall 1996 issue of literary magazine Noccalula. She also published “Granddaddy, St. Clair County and Me/A Collection of Recollections” in 1991. Fink’s writing is influenced by the sometimes light and inevitably dark sides of Southern life, and her stories are eccentric, artful and simple.