TALL AND STERN they stood, staring straight ahead from the screen, in suits fresh off the racks of Robert Hall, their ladies blushing alongside like a covey of Loretta Youngs. "I don't remember any of them!" sniffed an 11-year-old boy, as the slides clicked into view, "All of 'em got on funny clothes. They look like they crawled out from under a dump!"

"Show some proper respect," said Uncle Presley. "Everyone in that picture is dead. That's your Uncle Rodney, Uncle Todd, Aunt Sarah . . . slide's so old, everyone's got mildew on 'em . . . Push it."

Click.

It was my debut that year, my first Christmas inside an extended family of in-laws. My own is unique enough by its diaspora to various continents, but I was hardly prepared for this -- a roomful of perhaps 50 people at least first-cousin close. Not only that -- most lived around the corner from one another, and appeared to genuinely celebrate their red-clay togetherness.

We had been ushered into a large room with folding chairs and seated before a white screen. It was the time for newcomers among us to be taken into the family confidence, made privy to the family skeletons -- Uncle Presley was showing home movies, actually slides, to a tittering mass.

The veterans laughed and hooted as aunts, ex-husbands, old dogs and children now grown flashed on the screen. They wore the family secrets comfortably, like an old shoe, and tidbits of candor spilled out here and there. But, for the most part, those who knew weren't telling.

The newcomers were like first-timers at the opera -- we had to peek at our neighbor to know when to clap.

For ages now, the dapper, 60ish construction executive had snapped away at these twice-a-year reunions, but the pictures had remained a mystery. No one had ever seen them, before, and some had even wondered aloud if Presley put film in the camera at all. But here was the proof -- Presley had not been bluffing.

For most, it was just one more Christmas afternoon, but for me it was a delightful, if sometimes unnerving, tiptoe into the heart of The Southern Family.

I looked around the living room, where small boys, their bow ties askew, whooped and hollered and wrestled each other into human knots, the big ones riding the little ones like wild bulls at a rodeo, the bulls bucking and kicking and snorting on hands and knees about the furniture. there were a few who preferred racing fire engines over toes and into the shins of adults. No matter, cops weren't handing out tickets.

Off in a corner, family members huddled about a mammoth pine, festooned with candy canes and silver tinsel and surrounded with presents. Self-appointed Santas picked from among the gifts and shouted for the owners to step forth.

Who would give to whom had been determined at Thanksgiving, when names were drawn from a hat. I had drawn Richard.

"Who's Richard?" I asked my wife.

"He's your cousin."

I shrugged. "What should I give him?"

"A belt." she said.

"What size?"

"It doesn't matter. He can punch holes in it with an ice pick, or he can take it back."

And now, Richard smiled as he handed me a travel set of Scrabble. He said that he'd heard I traveled a bit and that I liked playing with words. "Welcome to the family." he said. I thanked him.

Nearby, in an elegant armchair, sat a proud, sturdy white-haired woman who still speaks her mind clearly and firmly after 88 years. It pleases her to be called "Grandmother," which she is several times over, but is a newcomer seems hesitant about such instant acceptance, she says that her first name will do nicely.

She perched ramrod straight as a glittery pile of red, green and silver boxes mushroomed around her.

Born fittingly on the Fourth of July, the other family reunion day, she remains the clan's respected matriarch. Back in 1913, a man everyone called "Big Daddy" married her and they went on to have six children, who in turn bore 15 more, several of whom have had children of their own, allowing Grandmother to qualify for a "great" before her name.

Only Grandmother gives presents to everyone, and everyone gives them to her. I watched as she opened her fourth pair of bedroom slippers.

That anyone was able to bend down for their due was a bafflement, as belts creaked beneath the weight of Christams dinner, a feast of turkey, baked oysters, cranberries and dressing, sweet potato pie, squash, artichoke hearts, biscuits, cornbread, bing cherry salad, brownies, cookies and caramel cake.

Carmel cake was Grandmother's annual offering, a rich yellow poundcake drenched in sugary brown caramel, the ownership of the end pieces being the source of many a family fight. A little girl in a starched blue smock reached for the plate. "But you got to eat the end piece last year," whined her brother. She grinned and gulped it down.

In the old days, I was told, the children sat off by themselves and reveled in food fights, and butter had to be scraped off the ceiling. Even though those children are parents now, in their 30s, they still haven't graduated to the grown-ups' table, which is over-crowded with gray eminence.

"Hurry up," said Presley. Time for the slides.

We all ambled to the folding chairs. A fire crackled on the hearth. Small children jock-eyed for laps. The lights went down.

"Push it," said Presley.

Click.

An immense nurse loomed before us, a handful of toddlers clinging to her starched white skirt. "That's Errin," said Presley. "She was the one who raised your mamas and papas, aunts and uncles. She taught everyone here their manners."

Click. Click. Click.

A balding hulk of a man with a likeness to actor Donald Pleasance flashed on the screen.

"Who's that?" demanded the 11-year-old, now enthralled with his roots.

"That's your great-grandfather," said Presley, "Everyone called him 'Big Daddy.'"

"What was he like?" asked the boy.

Presley remembered him as tall and solid and proud, a man "so strong he could lift up the front end of a Cadillac as if it was light as a feather." Big Daddy wore the same fierce expression that surely scared death away for all his 77 years.

Grandmother sat in the front row and stared straight ahead at the slide of her late husband, perhaps lost in thought over her children and their children and their children's children and the horses and the Woodie they had driven about the farm.

She beamed as her progeny whirred from the projector.

Some relatives flashed on the screen with only a two-word commentary: "Push it."

"All the boys in his family got ears that stick out like Dumbo the elephant," observed the boy.

Grandmother said she felt just fine watching the family grow up in an hour. It reminded her of Sunday afternoons long ago, when her children brought their little ones over to the house. Big Daddy, she recalled, loved those Sundays, and there had been so many Sundays, so many reunions, so many relatives, so many caramel cakes, it made you wonder how a family handled it all.

And then the slides were over, and Presley flipped on the lights. And the women hugged and the men shook hands and everyone kissed Grandmother, went on briefly about the caramel cake, said goodbye and drove off into the night.

No one lingered at the door the way guests linger at the parties of strangers, lavishing an extra helping of praise they don't mean on people they never expect to see again.

For this was a close-knit consortium that practiced coming together, like clockwork, twice a year, as a family. They didn't have to linger, or say things they didn't feel like saying at the door. They all knew they would be seeing each other at the next reunion, and for a long time to come.