TABLES overflowing with southern cooking; aunts, uncles and cousins trading stories under shade trees -- as a child, that's the way I saw our family's annual reunion in Rockingham County, N.C. I'd spend the entire car trip from our Midwestern home looking forward to this great occasion, which brought together my mother's 14 brothers and sisters and their families.
The reunion was a trip into another world, where the fragrance of wild honeysuckle mingled with the smells of rich country cooking. To me, there was nothing more wonderful than these times, picking snap beans with Granny, suckering tobacco, eating cornbread and drinking buttermilk -- sometimes from the cow I'd milked myself.
Then, for a while, when I got older, I stopped going. Reunions didn't seem relevant to my life. But intime I recognized the special significance of this occasion and went back. I've been a regular ever since, increasingly grateful for this chance to revisit the scene of childhood memories and see myself in larger context.
Every summer about 200 or so relatives of the Carter clan gather on the large mown lawn surrounding the 150-year-old log cabin that is the the focus of the family, the subject of cross- stitched samplers and even an oil painting. It was the first home of my great- grandparents, Pleasant Jiles and Sarah Sharp Carter -- "Jiley" and "Sally" as they're called by the family. The cabin is decaying now; clapboard siding that was added to the original structure is dropping away to reveal the original logs underneath. Inside, the wood has been worn to a rich patina. The original doorknobs and pegs remain, supporting straw hats that hang over antiques that first entered the cabin as new pieces of furniture.
My 90-year-old Aunt Kate Carter lives there in summers, cared for by Vivien and Mary Ruth, her daughters. At the reunion, aunts and uncles swap stories about the rain that made so much noise on the roof that no one could sleep, or the times they'd wake up covered by snow drifting in through the chinks. But this old house holds more than memories. Quilts made by Aunt Kate and her daughters glow on the beds. My great- grandmother made the feather ticking in their mattresses. The big fireplace still works, although my grandfather is no longer there to push the huge tree trunks bit by bit into the fire.
On the day of the reunion, we bring ourselves, our families, our news, our memories and, of course, our food. Aunt Kate and her daughters have already spent days preparing for the crowd. The cabin walls have been whitewashed, the chinks filled with that mixture of white clay and water we call "white dirt." On reunion morning, Aunt Kate, Vivien and Mary Ruth set out the life-size stuffed dolls representing Jiley and Sally, dressed in new costumes for the occasion and seated in an old buggy. Smaller homemade dolls are everywhere, creations of Aunt Kate and her daughters, who put them out for the children's play.
The festivities start after church services. Families arrive in their Sunday best with lawn chairs, covered baskets and containers that give off delicious aromas. We greet Aunt Kate, splendid in an old-style bonnet and gown, and get down to the business of the day -- talking and eating. The old kitchen is the center of activity. Ancient strips of sticky flypaper hang from its ceiling, and the old pump in the sink brings in fresh, cold spring water. The food is unpacked onto long tables covered with red and white checked cloths. Everyone has brought a favorite dish. The resulting feast epitomizes southern cooking: fried chicken, country ham, biscuits, half- moon pies, fresh cornbrad, deviled eggs, homemade pickles, fried apples, green snap beans, black-eyed peas, blackberry cobbler, chicken and dumplings, pecan and chess pies.
By lunchtime the road to the cabin is lined with cars with license plates from Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and closer states, such as Virginia. My mother, our self-appointed family genealogist, is already interviewing people, collecting memories and changes in the family tree. The two outhouses are mand. Children play around the old well, and under the trees the older family members sip iced tea and reminisce.
Cousin Linda, writing in her home-town paper, said that returning to the home place renews her sense of history and belonging. I know this is the feeling that brings me back year after year, that binds us -- through children, through grandparents, even through the cabin -- to the great-grandparents who made it their home and whose blood still runs in our veins. It's always seemed fitting that we walk the dirt road to the family cemetery, where one of my great-grandparent's gravestone reads:
Remember me as you
As you are now, so once
As I am now, so you
Prepare for death and
strengthens our sense of life and continuity. The reunion is the time even ancestors seem present, joining in the feast as we help ourselves to more chicken, more pie, more stories and a greater sense of our past and ourselves.