I grew up in a family that ate our meals together at the kitchen table or the dining room table. We had assigned seats at each place that I never figured out. The kitchen table was round, and the dining room table was a rectangle. Mother fixed and served our childhood plates.
One of my earliest memories of a catastrophic supper was at our small duplex on East Main Street in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
As an opinionated preschooler, I had decided that I didn’t like the taste or texture of raisins. My two-year-old brother Critt was given the last of the corn flakes; he sat in his high chair munching away. The next thing I knew was that a bowl of Raisin Bran was in front of me. I questioned this decision and made quite a protest. Then I had the audacity to demand a switch with my brother. Neither of my parents listed to me, so I made a decision to take the situation into my own hands. Without thinking about possible end results, I stood up, grabbed the high chair’s tray, and pulled.
The results were not what I expected.
With a noisy crash, the high chair fell forward. Then with an earsplitting scream, my brother announced that his forehead hit the table. Bedlam reigned, as my parents jumped into protective mode. Blood, a high-speed rush to the ER, and stitches were the end result.
No, I never learned to either like or eat raisins, but my selfish, childish actions have caused me embarrassment. A smidgen of this escapade still rattles around the corners of my memories.
My dad was a stickler for manners on all occasions, even at the table. “Please” and ‘Thank you” were phrases that were expected. If we wanted the ketchup bottle, we had to use the required “please.” If “thank you” was not our next response, the ketchup would be taken away. We learned in a hurry to not forget the phrases.
I clearly remember a few weeks at the supper table that provided distinctive entertainment.
My brother was around three, and I was six. Picking up his milk glass for a drink became a challenge for some reason. He took several sips and then spilled the rest of the glass on the table, the floor, and himself. (Interesting that this accident never happened at any other meal.) Through surreptitious glances in his direction, I remember watching to see when the trouble was going to happen, and then suddenly he just stopped spilling the glass of milk..
Critt was always a jokester and a tease. He particularly relished my gullibility, as he shared tall tales with me. To this day, I don’t know whether the spills were purposeful and he finally grew tired of the game or what. I was sorry the anticipated spills stopped, but am sure my parents were thankful.
Our family meals were not always around a table. Franklin Curtus Justus, known as F.C., my grandmother’s brother, enjoyed camping in Pisgah Forest. He and his wife Ina lived in Hendersonville, North Carolina, so the commute was an easy one. They often invited other family members to join them for breakfast on Saturdays.
My dad was convinced that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, so he was eager to accept these invitations to a cooked meal on a creek bank. I can see his smile of anticipation, as we walked toward their camp site.
There is a lush area of cove forests and streams known as the Pink Beds, and this was the chosen place. The area is named for the profusion of pink wildflowers, including mountain laurel and rhododendron, which appears in the spring.
It was the smells that led us to breakfast from the car. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee burst through the air. Shortly behind were the scents of bacon frying in an iron skillet over a cooking fire. Hollers of welcome soon joined the mealtime odors.
Before long, blue tin plates, almost overflowing with eggs, grits, and bacon, were in each hand. Hot coffee or milk was poured into matching mugs. A hodgepodge of forks and spoons were available, and my grandparents (Alex and Edythe Cox), parents Sam and Evelyn Collins, various great aunts and uncles found canvas camp stools, metal lawn chairs, or stumps to sit on. There were always several station wagons, and the tail gates were let down for more seating.
No one sat far away from the group, because everyone wanted to be part of the conversations. As the plates were cleaned, the chats increased.
Family memories were shared about my great grandparents and the rock house that Pop (Franklin Curtis Justus, 1871-1958) built. He was a contractor for the Saluda Grade that ran through the Saluda Mountain, and he owned acres of land in Hendersonville County until the Crash and Great Depression. A tall, strong man who took what was available in the job market, even if it was bagging groceries, to keep his family together. Hearing his adult children talk about him, their admiration was evident.
Granny (Minnie Fortune Justus, 1875-1970) graduated from Asheville Female College with a degree in Mistress of Arts and Sciences. To make ends meet for their large family of ten children, she took in boarders and used her gift of hospitality to make all welcome. From using clean, ironed cloth napkins at each meal to seeing that fresh room linens were always available, she taught her daughters why sharing the best was important. Even into her late 80’s, all received a warm welcome to her home.
I learned some of my family history at these breakfast picnics. This generation learned how to ride horses, before they drove cars. They plowed, planted, and weeded gardens before they ate the fruit of their labors and sold the access. Fishing, hunting, and raising beef cows, hogs, and chickens added to the vegetables they grew. Being only familiar with grocery shopping, their lives sounded like fascinating tall tales to me, similar to one of my favorite books, Little House on the Prairie.
Mostly I caught and grabbed hold to the love and respect that was an essential portion that tied them together. Though they lacked much in worldly possessions, they relished the retelling of stories about their kinfolk and lineage.
On my dad’s side of the family, we also often shared meals outdoors, rather than indoors.
For years, we spent his week of summer vacation at Mirror Lake Farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Though born in Louisville, Daddy, his two brothers, and sister learned to walk, climb trees, and milk cows on this dairy farm.
My grandmother Lulu and her brother and sister enjoyed getting together. When we visited, we spent one day in Lexington with her brother Owen Hitt. They lived outside the city, and his wife Carrie Lee would prepare a picnic lunch to be eaten on a picnic table under the trees in their back yard. There was fried chicken, an array of vegetables from her garden, hot biscuits with homemade butter, and cobbler for dessert. Sweet ice cold tea was the beverage. It was a feast! Our hostess was full of laughter and energetic. Our next treat was to go to the fence to talk and pat the horses in the field, and the adults joined us.
On another day, we went to Louisville to be with Aunt Kitty. Here we were back to the dining room with the lace tablecloth, silver, and lovely china. Our hostess was conscious of good eating habits, so baked chicken or ham, a couple of vegetables, yeast rolls, and usually a slice of pie were served. Water in goblets and coffee were served. This was where I first saw individual salt and pepper shakers and bread and butter plates and knives at each place, The table cloth and napkins were hand embroidered by her mother-in-law. I felt like a princess here and learned that table conversation can be quiet. Trying hard to be compliant and well-behaved in such surroundings was a challenge worth meeting. Going through the many book shelves in her home were the entertainment as the adults visited.
Lulu prepared a family picnic the day before we left for home. Contributions from everyone led to two eight-foot tables sagging under the weight of all the food offerings. Lulu’s garden served up lima beans, corn, tomatoes, green beans, and beets. Her blackberry cobbler and chocolate pie had to be tasted by all. Cousins came to play, and the yard was our playground. There was no jungle gym, but a tire swing hung from the apple tree. We hung on the rail fence to watch the cows meander back and forth from the barn. A game of softball catch was fun, and we tried our hands of little skill at horse shoes.
Ladder back chairs and stools were brought out from the kitchen. The cast iron outdoor glider, swing, and chairs were arranged in a circle, so the adults could hear each other. We children were allowed to roam free after the blessing. Laughter and loud talking were in equal measure, as plates were refilled from the lavish tables.
They shared both familiar and new stories. Our ancestor Jesse James, the bank robber, was vilified and defended. Since we had all visited Boonesborough, Lulu would disclose her knowledge about Daniel Boone and his clearing a path through the Cumberland Gap. Then we begged for the story of Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia and his adventures in finding new land in Virginia with his Knights of the Golden Horseshoe. Sitting on the grass, making daisy-chain necklaces, these adventures became real.
Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap (George Caleb Bingham, oil on canvas, 1851–52)
It is no wonder that I used to pack my little brown suitcase and want to go to “Tucky. Since it was my doll’s luggage, there was little room for anything. But I wasn’t planning on an extended stay; I was yearning for my family and their stories.
American writer, Michele Huey, said “Roots are, I’m learning, as important as wings.”
Our stories are important; let’s share them with family and friends.