LONG before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.
~ Eudora Welty, “Listening in the Dark
In the olden days, my family spent most holidays in my hometown with my father’s side of the family. Dinner rotated year to year from my house to Aunt Laura and Uncle Joe’s to Great-aunt Ethel’s. The woman hosting cooked turkey and dressing; the others brought side dishes.
Some of the same sides appeared year after year: Great-aunt Bettie’s potato salad, Great-aunt Aunt Jessie’s something-or-other salad, my mother’s pecan pie. Aunt Bettie put sugar in her potato salad–the older generation of Wallers sugared everything–and it was delicious.
Mother’s pecan pie was delicious, too; every year I ate pumpkin pie, then regretted it. The pumpkin was good, but, as Garrison Keillor pointed out, the best pumpkin pie you ever ate isn’t that much better than the worst pumpkin pie you ever ate.
Aunt Jessie’s salad was a delicious enigma. Nobody knew what was in it then, and nobody knows what was in it now. Finely chopped pecans were recognizable. Lime Jello was highly probable. It wasn’t Jello-smooth, it didn’t taste like Jello, and it didn’t jiggle. As to the third major ingredient, I’m guessing cream cheese.
She brought it to every communal dinner, and the other women wondered aloud what was in it. If anyone asked, she didn’t get an answer. Aunt Jessie certainly didn’t volunteer the information. She was known for not telling anything, most of all her age. After Uncle Curt died, she put up a double tombstone with her birth date engraved on it. Everybody in the family made a point of driving out to look at the miracle.
After dinner, we sat in the living room and the men–my father and his brothers–told stories, some about their childhood, others about local current events. As the only child there, I wasn’t outside playing with other children; I was sitting on the floor, listening.
Like Aunt Jessie’s salad, the same stories were served every year. Most of them were funny, and we laughed as hard each year as we had the last. Fentress was a singular place. It was like Charles Dickens created enough characters, most of them elderly, for an entire book and then set them down in a little town in Central Texas. Their quirks, their mannerisms, their speech, their opinions, their actions marked them as individuals.
Mr. John Roberts steered his old green Chevy well to the right before turning left, just as if he were still driving a horse-and buggy. Every time his brother, Mr. Perry, left the post office, he backed his old gray pickup at least a hundred yards before turning around to head for home (long-time residents knew not to not park behind him). My grandfather rolled Bull Durham cigarettes with one hand, drove on the left side of the road, and glided right past every stop sign he saw (if he saw them).
The stories were about small things, but they were our history, and worth hearing again. For example:
Mr. George Meadows used to wake my father up in the middle of the night because old Fritz was down in the river bottom baying at a treed raccoon and disturbing everyone’s sleep, and he wasn’t going to stop till my dad took his shotgun down there and took care of the coon.
When Great-uncle Carl was agitated, he fidgeted with the waist of his trousers. Once, back in the 1920s, a group of teenage boys, including my father’s oldest brother, Joe, went to Seguin, about twenty miles away, imbibed some alcohol, and landed in jail. The next morning, word got back to their families, and the fathers gathered downtown in the Waller store, to discuss what they should do. “Leave them there,” said Uncle Carl, “just leave them there and let them learn a lesson.”
Then someone mentioned that Carl Jr. was among the incarcerated. Uncle Carl started fidgeting with the waist of his trousers. Aunt Bettie said she thought he was going to pull his pants clear up under his armpits. He drove right over to Seguin and got Jr. out.
The best part of the story, in my estimation, is the crime that sent the boys to jail: They stole an anvil. I’ll bet in the history of the world, they were the only ones who ever stole an anvil.
The law imposed no consequences. I assume the anvil was returned to its owner and he boys apologized and that was that.
There. Those anecdotes aren’t interesting to the general public, including the readers of this post–they fall under the heading “You Had to Know the Participants,”–but I remember Uncle Carl’s fidgeting, and the image is as vivid now as it was sixty years ago. And that anvil . . .
The stories told on those holidays represent some of my happiest memories. They’re also material. I write fiction, and if you think I’m not weaving in bits and pieces, you can think again.
It would have been a sin and a shame if I’d missed out on those holiday gatherings.
I’m pleased to report that Uncle Joe went on to be a sober citizen, and a postmaster, and in that job he saw and spoke with most of the townspeople every day, and therefore had the opportunity to gather more stories to share at family gatherings.