Last week I said we would begin having “Southernisms” be the theme for our weekly hashtag game at Progressive Redneck Preacher. A southernism is a phrase, activity, or ritual common to our southern culture – sometimes amazingly beautiful, sometimes pretty helpful, sometimes uproariously funny.
Having just come out of family reunion season in my family, I thought the theme of family reunions would be fun so I did #familyreunionbloopers. We didn’t have as much participation as in previous weeks, but I’ve got some funny stories I can share about family reunions either way.
I found out in putting out the call for family reunion bloopers that we have quite a few readers from up north who get a lot out of reading my blog, who apparently don’t know a lot about southern culture. One, my good friend and fellow Progressive Christian Alliance minister Rev. Beth Abbot, wrote back saying she had never been to a family reunion. It apparently isn’t as important a thing up in Pennsylvania as it is here in the old north state. She asked, “Is it something like this?”
Well, I’ve got no secrets here, Beth. I’m more than happy to baptize you in the muddy waters of southern culture, and learn y’all some about the south and our ways.
Family reunions are a huge part of southern culture. To help you understand the importance of family reunions I thought I’d share some quotes from other southern bloggers about what they are and why they matter.
Brian C, a Virginia native who has resettled in New York, blogs on mytearsspoiledmyaim.blogspot.com about family reunions, writing:
“For southerners, a large-scale family reunion is an event – the Jerry Springer Show and Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck family jokes notwithstanding – that can rival a county fair for groaning tables of food and animal exhibits. And whether “Baptist dry” or punctuated by worries over alcohol poisoning, these affairs, particularly when measured out over decades, take on an organic life that echoes the births, deaths, and divorces of the actual participants.
“That’s certainly true of my mother’s family, which has held a yearly late-summer reunion since the 1920s (My mother hasn’t missed one since 1941). Started by my great-grandparents’ generation but nurtured carefully by my grandparents and a gaggle of nearly two dozen siblings, these day-long spectacles draw family members from the isolated corners of Virginia to Halifax County, an area south of Lynchburg in the heart of one of the oldest tobacco producing regions in the country (The maternal side of my family has been farming the land there since the 1730s). We would converge on a local community center or, most often, on the spacious grounds of the home of the lone, openly gay member of the family. His hospitality knew no bounds, nor did his sense of humor, although I think he began to worry some of the family when, in his dotage, he began to take great pleasure in announcing loudly that he wasn’t sporting underwear.
“I remember all of this because naturally I was dragged to the reunion each year from birth until I left home for college . . . and for most of my childhood the event was a very ritualized affair, as if my grandfather had drafted a liturgy, interspersed with hymns of ‘when will we get there’ and ‘I need to go to the bathroom’. For example, each year he and my grandmother would arrive at our home on the appointed Sunday at 5:00 a.m. sharp, his Ford Galaxy 500 packed like one of those brain-teaser puzzles with coolers and tupperware and plates and everything but the kitchen sink. My parents would pack their car quickly while my brother and I would fight over the best spot to sleep in the Gran Torino station wagon. And off we’d go, a few car lengths apart, in a family caravan of four hours, driving across Route 58 through little towns like Disputanta and Appomattox.” (Taken from http://mytearsspoiledmyaim.blogspot.com/2007/04/family-reunions.html)
Another writer, actually just north of the Mason-Dixon line, talks about the importance of family reunions to black southerners. At http://somd.com/features/family_reunion/ she writes , “Family reunions are changing and often involve elaborate gatherings at exotic destinations. The interest in reunions was rekindled in 1977, after the TV series “Roots”. That series spurred a huge interest in genealogy and prompted African-Americans to learn more about their collective past. Knowing where you come from…gives you a little head start on where you’re going. People want to find out ‘who I am’ by finding out ‘who is my family’.
“Today our sense of home is rooted less in a place than in the family spirit itself… Reunions reinvent home, place, and culture.”
“The phenomenon of Black family reunions is gaining momentum across the nation. In 1991, about one million African Americans traveled to take part in a family reunion. Black families are holding reunions in numbers to which no other group can make claim.
“At the center of the African tradition is the family, but slavery disrupted the essential role of the family. Slaves brought their heritage with them to the US, including a strong commitment to one’s tribe – one’s relatives. The abolition of slavery also helped give birth to the reunion. As more Blacks migrated north, the reunion tradition began to take hold, as did the idea of inclusiveness. African-Americans think of family as aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends…and that can be a positive influence in a world where the traditional nuclear family is far from being the norm.
Family structures in America, regardless of race and ethnicity, have changed, and the diminishing role of the extended family has been noticed as a profound loss. Family reunions can be a tool for re-establishing ties to extended family.
But Blacks are not the only Americans who are turning to reunions for comfort, especially in the wake of September 11. The Travel Industry Association says that 37% of Americans plan to attend a reunion this summer, up from 25% last year. And, it is estimated that there will be 200,000 reunions in the US this year”.
“In 18th century Scotland, workers who had left their rural homes for city jobs would return to the countryside to attend outdoor religious gatherings. Often these holidays were the only vacations workers would receive. Over time, these “camp meetings” became more focused on reconnecting with family. When Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants began settling in the US, they continued this tradition – which became one root of the family reunion…”
So for African American members of our southern culture, there is deep, rich, and profound meaning to the family reunion. Whether from that background, or like myself and Brian C., one of the many southerners of Scots-Irish and other European backgrounds, if you are from a family from more than a few generations back in the south, you know how important family reunions are.
For me, some of my earliest memories are being out on the lawn of my great-granny Vida’s little tin roofed house. The family would gather on the anniversary of my late great-grandpa’s birthday, laying out a table that stretched for what seemed like miles, in the shade of trees whose branches seemed to embrace us all. I remember sitting wide-eyed at what seemed like the endless assortment of foods, hearing the crisp city accents of some of us mingling with the rich variety of twangs of our more country-fied cousins.
I remember playing with my cousins John and Cynthia there, games of tag and hide-and-side. I remember marveling that they both shared the particular red hair I had, my freckles, and that particular smile I got from momma.
I can also remember my uncles Earl and Fernie opening up the books they had put together, books of genealogy, which told the story of that side of our family, as far back as arriving in Jamestown, VA, and sitting spell-bound with the wonder that my family goes back further than the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Like Brian C., I went through a time I didn’t care for reunions. As a child, except when cousins my age were around, there really was only “grown-ups” with their boring stories of how things used to be. But as I’ve gotten older, traveled across our great country, and begun a life of my own, I’ve begun to learn the joy of feeling rooted, of knowing where you come from. This has been especially true as I’ve seen some of those old wrinkled hands and smiling faces disappear at the reunions, as they passed over the river Jordan into a sweet bye and bye with my ancestors who went before me. Now, hearing the stories of what has been reconnects me with the lives of many who loved me, held me, laughed with me, and prayed for me while I was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Also remembering who I am helps me practice one of the things that has come to be a part of my own spirituality as a progressive Christian – what I call conscious evolution. Growing up and beginning a life of my own has meant facing in my own life and family what I talk about facing in terms of my own faith as a southern Christian. In my faith, I’ve faced the legacy of slave-holding Christianity, those aspects of my faith that I’ve determined are harmful so that I can embrace the good, beautiful, true, and life-giving aspects of the faith of my fathers and my praying mothers & aunts. In my life too, growing up has meant facing aspects of myself that are gifts and curses of my ancestors. There are many beautiful gifts, experiences, and talents I have which I learned from my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and now many a long-departed great grand in my life. Whenever I come to family reunions I can remember each of these who have blessed me.
Yet also I can remember the great-uncle who showed up drunk to the family reunion outside a Primitive Baptist church, having lost fingers hunting while drunk. I can confront the desire to live life to its fullest, but also the tendencies which could burst forth into alcoholism, raging, violence, and addiction my family legacy has given me. I can remember to keep his love for life, while choosing to try and let the alcoholism, anger problems, and violence that are a part of my family legacy die with me, not being perpetuated by me to future generations. I can remember the family members who told racist stories, who put down gay people, while also giving the shirt off their back and food from their shelves to their neighbors selflessly. Both hatred or bigotry and selfless hospitality are my heritage. I can choose which to let live on through me, which I pass on to those who come after me. Family reunion calls me to remember how my family has shaped me, and choose which parts I wish to continue after me in the lives of those I touch.
So for me, family reunions are a beautiful time of reconnection.
Well, without further ado, here are the stories related to family reunion bloopers for this week:
So I was visiting a side of the family not in the south. The aging, now senile matriarch of the group says, “We should get everyone to show up for the anniversary this year.” They begin to list different grand-kids, great nieces and nephews to invite. “How about,” she lists one grand-nephew, “and his wife and kids”. And then someone asks about the openly gay and partnered grand-nephew. Oblivious to what being gay is, the senile old grand-lady says, “and who is his wife?” Someone shouts out his husband’s name, clearly a man’s name. Not phased at all, she says, “well invite her too”. Someone decides to help her out — “mama, that’s a man”. She looks puzzled. “It’s a –” (clearly stumbling over words) “one of those homosexual arrangements”. My wife and I died laughing later. I thought “I sure wonder how that would’ve been handled with my southern kith and kin”.
At one point I dated girl whose momma was Italian American with the dark hair, dark complexion, and propensity to point out ragu and noodles are not an Italian dish. Her daddy was a died-in-the-wool Johnston County redneck. She looked more like her momma than him. For some reason we went to a family reunion of his. Everything was going ok until one of the distant cousins, noting her complexion and hair, got irate. “Jimmy-boy,” he said to her dad, pointing at her, “what’s that there Mexican doing at our family reunion”. With only the sternness a southern daddy can have, he glared at the man and say “that ain’t no Mexican. That’s my daughter”.
Alicia Joy Turner Beard writes about a time when “people (not in my family) just showed up because they saw the reunion listed in the paper, and they thought they might know some people. It was so awkward, and they showed up without food and ate a lot. And they didn’t know anybody, and we didn’t know them.”
When I was about 13 at a big family reunion in Johnston county, an older man, probably a great uncle, turned to me and with a mischievous look in his eye, whispered, “Boy, if I were you, I’d have a time meetin’ all them pretty girls”. My face blanched. “Umm… er … eww… they’re my cousins, dude!” He laughed, shrugged, and said in best redneck twang “Well, far as I can see it, that don’t hardly count after second cousins”.
My sister was asking a great-uncle about our late grandfather. She had heard since he was a Barefoot, he was Native American, and was pretty excited to hear we might be part-Native American. “So, is it true grand-pa was a Native American?” Our uncle holds his chin up high, shoulders back, and says “You betcha. Born and bred”. “What tribe?” “Tribe? Girl, didn’t you listen? He’s a native American, not an Injun. Was born right here in Johnston County, as native as they come. Fought in the Great War, your grandpa did”.
Do you have any other family reunion stories you’d be willing to share?
Next week’s southernism is inspired by the picture provided above by a reader: #southernetiquette . In it are little rules of how southern folks expect you to behave. Examples: southern folks expect you to say “ma’am” and “sir”, to open doors for people when they walk by, and to not put brown sugar in your grits. They’re grits, not oatmeal, for Christ’s sake. Type up a rule of southern etiquette, maybe a funny picture or video to go with it, and share it with us on our Facebook page or even on this blog, typing #southernetiquette
Until next time, I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,