It was 1959 and I had just gotten my very first job. The whole family was sitting around the dinner table when I entered the kitchen on that hot summer day. Chester (my uncle) turned with a biscuit in his hand. “Hey, Pat. Pull up a chair.” Chester was a typical down to earth family man and was generally quite amiable but had an incredibly short fuse.
“No thanks, Uncle Chester,” I said with a smile, turning to Aunt Olivia, “You wouldn’t happen to have a white uniform, would you?”
“You know what,” she said, putting the fork in her plate, “I think I do.” She left and went to her bedroom, leaving me with the family at the table.
Joe (Olivia’s brother) had his chair propped against the wall on two legs chewing on a freshly lit cigar. The youngest boy got up from the table and went to the back screen door, pushing it open. “Come on, Beth,” he said to his sister, “let’s go.”
Beth wasn’t finished eating and her brother tried to rush her, starting an argument. Chester slammed his fork down on the table and said, “Shut the dad-blame door, son. Your lettin’ ever fly in the neighborhood in.”
He picked up the fork and when the screen slammed shut he slammed the fork down. “Did you have to let it bang?”
“I didn’t bang it, Daddy. It banged itself.”
“A dang door don’t slam itself!” he shouted, snatching up the fork. “Now get on outta here and let us finish eattin’!”
The boy opened the screen door and turned back to his sister. “Well, are you comin’, Beth?”
Down went Chester’s fork again. “If I have to come after you-“
Joe dropped his chair down and lightly popped the boy’s head with the tips of his fingers. “Do what you’re told, young’un’!”
The boy left in a hurry, followed by the others with a noisy scraping of chairs.
Chester glared at his bother-in-law as the children left the kitchen. “What in the world took you so long, Joe? You was sittin’ right there.”
“The onliest reason I did it was to keep you from a bendin’ that fork so outta shape nobody could eat with it.”
Bob, Chester’s brother, came into the kitchen by the back screen door carrying a paper grocery bag. Chester had sent him to the store.
Bob was a little on the dim side and he irritated Chester to no end. “I had to get cookies,” he said, putting the bag on a chair. “They was plum sold outta ice cream.”
Chester lit a cigarette and a raised a brow at the items Bob was taking from the bag. “I didn’t ask for no cookies. What’d you get them for?”
With long, slender fingers Bob pushed back his Atlanta Braves baseball cap. “Well,” he said, taking a bottle of chocolate syrup from the bag. “I figured you wouldn’t want me to come back empty handed.”
“Well what’d you get the syrup for if they was outta ice cream?”
Pulling a wrinkled piece of paper from his pocket, he shoved it at Chester and said, “It was on the list.”
“Oh good grief, Bob. If they was outta ice cream we didn’t need no chocolate syrup.” Then he paused, glancing at the pack of Bologna next to the hotdog buns. “Bob,” he said with a slow roll of his eyes, taping his cigarette vigorously against the ashtray. “Why did you get baloney?”
“Oh yeah! They was outta weenies too.”
“Then why’d you get the hotdog buns?”
Bob’s huge brown eyes bulged as he thumped the piece of paper and said, “They was on the dagum list, Chester!”
Olivia finally came back to the kitchen with a yellowish uniform and handed it to me. “A little bleach will make it white again. Your mama’s gonna have to cut it down for you.”
Glancing around the table, Olivia noticed the things that Bob had gotten at the store for them. She turned to Chester who looked sideways at her and shook his head. “Don’t ask cause you don’t wanna know.”
Bob eased his lanky frame into a chair and opened the pack of cookies. “I bet that chocolate syrup would be good on these here cookies.”
“Eat all you want, Bob,” Olivia said, taking a seat. “You need to put on some weight.”
His large Adam’s apple jumped as he swallowed and said, “I done put on three pounds since last week.”
“Where?” Chester asked, shoving his cigarette into the mashed potatoes on his plate. “You’re a dad-blamed bean pole, Bob- a walkin’ skeleton covered with skin. If you was to stand up, turn sideways and stick your tongue out, you’d look like a dang zipper!”
Family reunion four months later…
Planks of cloth-covered plywood lay atop sawhorses shaded by drooping weeping willow trees as I helped the other women set out bowls of salads, vegetables and desserts. Joe stood with a cigar clasped firmly between his teeth over the brick barbecue pit turning ribs, pork chops and chicken.
Leroy, the oldest brother, pulled stacks of folding chairs from the woodshed as the laughter of small children came from the quilt they were playing on a few feet from the makeshift tables.
Chester and Olivia had teamed up with Bob and his wife Gail for a game of horseshoes and Chester, as usual, was getting irritated.
Olivia lined her horseshoe up with the post and said, “I don’t know why I let you talk me into this, Chester. I always get a blister on my thumb.” Lining the shoe up with the post, she swung it forward and it sailed smoothly through the air, flipped once, and landed securely around the post.
Bob’s gangly body twisted as he snatched off his baseball cap and slapped a hand to his forehead. “What dumb luck!”
“Oh, I see.” Olivia said. “When you guys get a ringer its skill and when we get one it’s dumb luck!”
“What in Sam-hills is the matter with you, Bob? Chester shouted. “These women are kickin’ our butts. I done got a double and you ain’t throwin’ worth a damn!”
“Well dagum, Chester. I done hit the post twice.”
“And they rolled half way across the yard! You don’t get no points for that you scatter-brained nitwit!”
Olivia lined her other shoe up with the post. “Ain’t neither one of you as good at this as you claim to be.”
Chester’s face colored rosy red as he threw his horseshoe to the ground. “You ain’t never got a ringer before! I guess you think one ringer makes you some kinda expert.”
“You don’t have to be a expert to pitch a dang horseshoe, Chester, you just pitch it!”
“That’s just about the most knucklebrainededest thing I ever heard you say, Olivia. I’ll have you know I am a expert at throwin’ ’em and it will be a cold day in hell before you ever beat me at horseshoes!”
Leroy, the oldest brother, strolled over with his hands in the bib of his overalls and said, “Olivia, you know a man don’t like losin’ to a woman.”
“They could get lucky,” Chester said, picking up his horseshoe, “‘specially the way Bob’s a throwin’!”
Olivia’s mouth flew open wide. “What do you mean get lucky?”
Chester threw his horseshoe to the ground again. “I’ll bet you a dollar right now, Olivia that you ain’t gonna get no more ringers. That was a lucky throw!”
“I ain’t goin’ to the house to get my pocketbook, Chester. You just can’t believe anybody can get a ringer ‘cept you.”
“I done got a double,” he said with a smirk. “Ain’t no way you’re gonna do that!”
Olivia turned with a grin and tossed the horseshoe, which landed right on top of the other.
“Oh… my… God!” Chester shouted with his hands in the air. “Hell just froze CLEAN over!”
Leroy laughed out loud as Chester pointed his horseshoe at Bob and shouted, “This is all your fault, Bob!”
“Me! I didn’t make that shoe go round the dagum post, Chester! I ‘as just a standin’ here a mindin’ my own business!”
Leroy’s laughter began to taper into quiet chuckles when he said, “Come on, Chester. It ain’t Bob’s fault. Olivia just got lucky.”
Olivia gasped. “What!”
Leroy slapped a hand over his mouth to muffle, “Oops!”
Joe called from the barbecue, “Y’all come on over here. The food’s almost ready!”
The family gathered around the tables, joined hands and bowed their heads as Leroy asked the blessing.
“Merciful Father and Lord Jesus, we ain’t much, but ever one of us believes you died on a cross for our sins. We’ve all been saved and baptized and we’ll have the young’uns baptized as soon as they’re saved. We ask that you’re keepin’ a eye on Doyle and Roland overseas and hope the army’s a feedin’ them too. We also ask you to bless this here food before we get to it. Oh, and we’re right thankful to get it. Amen.”
That evening, sagging willow branches moved slowly in the crisp autumn breeze as darkness began closing in. Clay jugs filled with homemade spirits were passed around among the men as children played and the women packed dishes and leftovers into boxes they’d brought with them.
Olivia stepped out on the back porch and called out, “Are you gonna suck on that jug all night, Chester, or are you gonna get this stuff in the house?”
I outgrew my father’s family and for several years I arrogantly viewed them as simple country folk and a source of severe embarrassment. Nevertheless, as I got older, I remembered how happy they were. And when I read in the bible about how the kingdom of heaven is made up of such innocent ones, I felt ashamed of how I felt about them.
Most of them have already gone to be with the Lord, but if I live to see His return, which should happen any day now, I’m sure they will be with Him.