A Peaceful Place to Rest

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Mom has a birthday this week, so I decided I’d take this weekend and travel to Mississippi to spend a little time with her and Dad. On Saturday afternoon we took a trip to the local Sonic Drive-In for happy hour half-price soft drinks, and then – as we are wont to do – we decided to take a drive through the countryside.

We wound our way through the back roads of Tishomingo County, looking at farmland and houses old and new, remembering whose homestead was at a particular site, where my grandparents lived when Mom was born, speculating as to who wound up where, and as we drove and talked, we drank in the sight of trees budding, daffodils along the roadway, the bright, fresh green of new grass, and fields still lying fallow, stretched underneath a spring blue sky, waiting for the growing season to begin.

Eventually we meandered over the state line into Alabama, and found ourselves in rural Colbert County, turning onto the gravel road that leads to Russell Cemetery.  My paternal grandparents are buried there, along with two great-aunts and a great-uncle, my dad’s grandparents, and his little brother. Other relatives and members from other families in the community also find their final resting place there.

In the South, we have what we call “decoration” days, and the Russell Cemetery Decoration Day is the Saturday before the first Sunday in May. When I was growing up, the families whose loved ones lie there would gather on that Saturday morning in their work clothes, don their heavy work gloves and hats, and, armed with mowers, weed eaters, rakes, clippers, rags, soap and water, would set about cleaning up the landscaping and the tombstones. Then they’d place flowers on the graves.

CivilWarvetWe kids would occupy our time going down into the woods to the spring, watching the Santa Gertrudis cattle in the adjoining pasture (the bull, a particularly handsome fellow, would huff and puff at us, and paw the ground, in equal parts annoyed and curious), and visiting the various tombstones and speculating about the lives of the people buried there.

One tombstone featured an old sepia photo of a couple from the 19th century, the man’s coat sleeve hanging empty where he lost an arm in the Civil War. In another corner of the cemetery, rough-shaped stones – all but one or two uncarved and of indeterminate age – mark the graves of anonymous bones, people whose lives and names and stories are long lost to the past.

With the morbid fascination typical of children, my cousins and siblings and I always paid particular attention to a grave marked by a tiny tombstone on top of which perched a marble lamb. Toy cars, teddy bears, and other toys always adorned this gHallchildgraverave. Our parents had explained to us several times over the years that the little boy buried here had died at the age of three after falling into a washtub of scalding hot water. We shivered at the horror of this story, and at the idea of death visiting a child close to our own ages. Sometimes we would bring a little toy as our own small token to place reverently on the grave of this child that we felt sure was a kindred spirit.

This young boy’s brother, a man named Rick Hall, grew up to found FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals, Hall gives a harrowing account of his brother’s death, and it is obvious that he still bears the emotional scars of that tragedy and its aftermath.

But in spite of the somber setting and the unsettling story of the little Hall boy, Decoration Day was, by and large, a fun time for children and adults alike, a day spent in an idyllic rural setting.

One year, the adults noticed that several cows in the adjacent pasture were acting odd. They were clustered in a circle around something on the ground that held their attention. They’d inch slowly up to the center of the circle, then quickly back away, shying away from whatever held their fascination.

“A snake,” everyone decided, and several men, armed with garden hoes, made their way into the pasture to kill the snake, only to find the cows spooked by a plastic grocery bag tumbling around in the spring breeze.

 

Generally, the morning’s work would go quickly and then we would haul lawn chairs out of our cars, set food out on two huge picnic tables comprised of cinder block legs and giant slabs of concrete for table tops, and feast on a great pot luck meal. The eating and the visiting would last a good two hours.

Many years later I was working in an office on Music Row and explaining that I was going home for the weekend. “It’s Decoration Day,” I said, explaining our family tradition to my office mates. My coworker Hal, a native of Long Island, New York, couldn’t get his mind around the concept.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You go to a cemetery…and you have a picnic?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I said. Thereafter Hal would use that story to tease me about how weird Southerners are.

My cousin Mac likes to tell the story of how one year after dinner he and my brother Bob locked themselves in one of the cars and consumed the remainder of a chocolate cake my great-aunt Martha had made. Apparently they got in big trouble, and also got sick. And apparently they had taken both possibilities into account and had decided it would be worth the risk to eat the cake.

Over the years, the number of people attending Decoration Day has dwindled, and the pot luck dinner is no more. The little Hall boy’s grave has no toys on it. The silent unmarked graves keep their silence. The pasture is empty of cattle. But the beauty and the peace remain, unmarred by the modern world. Wind sweeps through the tree tops, across the sage grass in the fields, and over the occupants, ever asleep in tranquility’s quiet embrace.

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THE SACRED SEASON

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Today, like churches all over the world, my church observed the second Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation to welcome Baby Jesus, the Christ Child, whose humble birth Christians celebrate at Christmas.

For me, an aura of holiness seems to saturate the very air every Christmas season. Christmas Eve, in particular, holds a particular sweetness to me.

One could argue that it’s a carryover from my childhood anticipation of awakening the next morning to the wealth of gifts that the mysteriously powerful Santa Claus would have left under our Christmas tree overnight for me and my brother and sister.

Or maybe it’s the giddiness of having my grandparents spending the night and my grandmother singing, “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” and then watching the 10 o’clock news to see the weatherman tracking Santa’s progress across the weather map.

Or it could be the joy of snowing our Christmas tree, decorating it, then sitting in front of its twinkling lights in a darkened room that night before we go to bed, savoring the quiet, letting the peace of just being still calm our hearts and minds.

Or perhaps it’s the anticipation of meeting my cousins at my great-aunts’ house on Christmas Day for a delicious meal followed by an exchange of gifts like socks, pencils and crayons, and Lifesaver books, then watching my brother Bob and cousin Mac setting off fireworks in the middle of the rural Alabama road.

Or it might be the joy of being out of school for several weeks, and the happy near-certainty of getting to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with my first cousins.

But, no…no. No, those are not it. All of those things contribute to the pleasures of the season, but none of them hold the essence of Christmas. They are special things, but in and of themselves they are not sacred.

Every year, I read magazine articles and devotional booklets that rail against the commercialism of the season and moan about how easy it is to become so busy that you forget “the reason for the season.” But for me, the underlying sacredness of Christmas permeates everything: the greenery and candlelight in homes, in stores, in churches, even in offices; the brilliant twinkling colored lights of countless downtown street lampposts; the gala atmosphere of parties with coworkers, families and friends; the favorite music and television shows and movies of the season; the hustle and bustle of stores as people seek gifts to delight loved ones; the sparkle in children’s eyes as they watch the community Christmas parade and run to catch candy thrown from floats and clowns and beauty queens and Santa. Somehow, in all of it, I find the joy of the sacred.

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Christmas also highlights for me, more than any other holiday or season, the strong elements of the Jewish faith that permeate the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The dates of Hannukah coincide with the Christmas season. This year my Jewish friends will celebrate Hannukah beginning the evening of December 24, 2016, and extending through January 1, 2017.

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Many Christmas carols feature melodic lines with minor chords typical of music from the Jewish tradition, as well as lyrics from the Old Testament prophets that predict the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus’ lineage, as listed in the first chapter of Matthew, reads like a Who’s Who of the Old Testament. His parents took Him to the temple as soon as they could, where Simeon and Anna recognized Him as the Messiah and proclaimed it to all within hearing. When He was 12, Jesus debated in the Temple with rabbis and scholars, neglecting to tell His parents, Joseph and Mary, of the change of schedule for the trip home.

This Christmas season I find myself feeling even more strongly this visceral connection to Christianity’s roots in Judaism.

I am currently reading a book that reminds me of why I find reading such a delight. On every page of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, I find myself learning something I did not know before, and marveling at how much information exists out there. The more I know, the more I realize how little I know about this world we live in.

And somehow, in reading this book and marveling at the intellectual nuances of the Jewish faith, I find my own Christian faith stronger. Stronger, and yes, sweeter, as we progress through the Advent season toward Christmas Eve, the sweetest, holiest, most sacred night of all.

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In my mind’s eye, Christmas Eve has always been, and still is, overlaid within the embrace of a midnight blue sky lit by the twinkling glimmer of a hundred thousand stars; with the sensation of angels’ wings brushing the air around me; with the ethereal harmonies of a heavenly chorus echoing softly in the air; with the shadows of shepherds and sheep dotting the moonlit hillsides; with the dim lantern-glow of a stable warm with firelight and the sweet musty smell of hay and livestock as a young, overwhelmed couple contemplate their newborn child; with the mysterious Magi compelled to journey across long miles to bring gifts for the King they know the Christ child to be.

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Christmas Eve is sweet anticipation that yields to the joy and relief of Christmas Day, when Love came down, when all that is sacred became flesh and they called His name, Emmanuel, meaning, God with us.

via Daily Prompt: Sacred

CHRISTMAS TREES I HAVE KNOWN

Friday night after Thanksgiving my parents helped me put up my Christmas tree.

I love my Christmas tree. I spend a lot of time with it every year – usually at night, just before bedtime, in a darkened room, where the tiny colored lights shine their message of the season’s peace and soothe my soul as I contemplate life’s questions large and small.

I prefer a fairly traditional tree, with the traditional fire engine red (not burgundy) and dark green colors (not lime or citrine or turquoise), tiny multi-colored lights, and garland. I trim it with garland and wooden cranberry beads, red bows and peppermint canes, and a hodgepodge of ornaments collected over the years – some with sentimental meaning, some gifts from family and friends, some just because I thought they were pretty. I call it my red tree, and it might not be everybody’s idea of a pretty tree – it’s not trendy, you know – but it suits me very well.

It’s not the same as having a live tree, of course. But several years ago I reluctantly bowed to expediency and purchased an artificial pre-lit tree. I had had one too many battles involving berber carpet, six-week-old dry pine needles and an old vacuum cleaner; and one too many battles with the city’s refusal to haul away my old tree, and having to rely on the man who mowed my yard in the spring to haul its dried carcass off at the first mowing. And even then, some years I would have to postpone getting rid of it because an enterprising bird would have built a nest and begun a family, and I would have to wait until the eggs had hatched and the baby birds had flown.

So, no more real trees for me until I have hardwood or tiled floors, and until I have a vehicle big enough to haul it away, or friends willing to do it for me.

But my tree is missing something else: Ivory Snow®.

 

Ivory Snow Box with Marilyn Chambers-8x6.jpg

The Christmas trees of my childhood

The scent of Christmas for me will always be the clean smell of fresh evergreen mixed with the scent of Ivory Snow® laundry detergent. When I was growing up, my mother carried on a tradition from her girlhood of mixing Ivory Snow – first in flakes, then, as technology “improved,” in concentrate – with water and a little salt to harden it, then taking a dishpan full of the sweet-smelling “snow” outside to “snow” the tree.

Snowing a tree was a grand excuse for my siblings and parents and me to get into “snowball” fights. Hey, it was soap, right? It could only make us cleaner.

We would let the Ivory Snow “snow” dry and harden overnight, then bring the tree in the next day to decorate it with lights, gold and silver garland, and ornaments.

We put peppermint canes on the tree until we got our miniature poodle, Penny, when I was 10. Penny liked to eat the peppermint canes off the tree. Within a day the bottom two feet of the tree would be bare of candy. Eventually my parents decided to stop putting peppermint canes on the tree for fear that Penny would pull the tree over one day while we were all at work and school. But she never forgot, and until the end of her days, whenever we brought a Christmas tree into the house, Penny would immediately begin sniffing its boughs for peppermint.

For many years, after Christmas I would pull a sprig off the tree along with one of the peppermint canes, and stash it in a box, sometimes writing a note of a Christmas memory from that year. Eventually I tired of hoarding small jewelry boxes of dried pine needles, but I always hated to say goodbye to a tree.

I still do the peppermint canes, but as far as I can tell, Ivory Snow® is no longer available in powder form, thus ensuring I will never be able to completely replicate the Christmas trees of my childhood.

 

Dick and Jeannette and Russ and the kindness of strangers

I’ll never forget my first Christmas tree as an adult living on my own. It was Christmas 1989 and I was living in an apartment complex off Lawndale Drive in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I lived for my first two years out of college. Across the way from me lived a middle-aged couple named Dick and Jeannette. She looked like Tammy Wynette, and he looked like a lumberjack, and in fact he owned a Christmas tree farm up in the Blue Ridges somewhere.

I didn’t know Dick and Jeannette except in passing, but one day we ran into each other outside our respective apartments, and they asked if I had my tree up.

“No, I’ve never had a tree,” I said. “I’ll be going to Mississippi for Christmas, and I don’t have a lot of extra money for one and I won’t be here for most of the holiday anyway.”

“You should get one,” they said, and I promised to think about it.

About a week later I came home from work and found standing in front of my door a little Scotch pine about three feet tall, in a red and green metal Christmas tree stand. In its top boughs perched an envelope with a Christmas card that said, “All it needs is a few lights, a little water and a lot of love. Merry Christmas! Love, Dick & Jeannette.”

I went to Walgreen’s and bought a box of peppermint canes, one strand of gold garland and one silver, two cards of tiny red bows to tie onto the tree, and two 50-light strands of lights, one white and one multi-colored. It might have been the most perfect tree ever. I wish somewhere I had a picture of it, but I don’t think I do.

When I lived in south Nashville I would go to a tree lot next to Harding Mall at the corner of Harding Place and Nolensville Road. My first year, as I was looking at trees, I found one then looked around for help, and approached a man in Carhartt coveralls.

“Are you waiting on someone?” I asked.

He looked at me and said, “You.”

We went to get my tree.

“Can you put it in my tree stand?” I asked.

“Yep.”

He put it in the tree stand then wrapped it in netting.

“Can you tie it into my car trunk?”

“Yep.”

And he did.

Then, finally: “Do you take a check?”

“Yep.” A long pause and a small upward tug at the corner of his lips. “You have an honest face.”

Every year thereafter, Russ would help me put the tree of my choice into the red and green tree stand that Dick and Jeannette had given me, wrap it in netting, then tie it into the trunk of my tiny car, first a Hyundai Excel, and later a Toyota Tercel.

I never really got to know Dick and Jeannette or Russ, but I think about them every Christmas with gratitude.

 

Going artificial: the blue tree, the peppermint tree, and the traditional red tree

Pre-lit trees were still pretty new to the decorating scene when I first decided to go the artificial tree route. My first artificial tree was a 7½ -foot blue spruce in K-Mart’s Martha Stewart line of products. (The K-Mart guy said some choice words trying to fit that box into the back seat of my Tercel.) It’s a beautiful tree and it looks wonderful when it’s put together but it’s almost as much trouble as a real tree. It is not pre-lit, and it has branches of differing lengths with color-coded tags on the end of each wire branch to indicate into which level holes of the “tree trunk” I should insert the branch.

Eventually I purchased my current tree, which is pre-lit and a thousand times easier to put up and take down than the Martha Stewart tree or a real tree, and although it’s not as full as I would like, it is still pretty. But for a few years I lived in a partially furnished house that allowed me room to put up both trees. The lady who owned the home had a blue formal living room, so I decided to decorate the Martha Stewart tree in blue, white and silver. It was lovely. I thought it might be anemic-looking, but instead, it gave an air of serenity, its blue and white colors reminiscent of moonlight on snow.

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Then in 2014, after I had returned to Tennessee from law school and both my pre-lit and my Martha Stewart tree were in storage, I purchased a solid white Christmas tree for my little apartment and decorated it all in red, as my “peppermint tree.” In 2015, in a more permanent home and once again in possession of my belongings, I took the white tree to work, where it adorns one corner of my office.

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One day when I live somewhere that allows room for two trees, I’ll have the blue tree again. I might even have a peppermint tree there, too. But in the meantime, I must limit myself to my old-fashioned red and green tree, which comes as close as I can currently get to looking like the real Christmas trees of my childhood.

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And I’ll fix a mug of tea and sit before its lights in the quiet of the night and think my thoughts, dream my dreams, hope my hopes and pray my prayers. And its ornaments will remind me of loved ones and memories. And its evergreen boughs will remind me of everlasting life. And its lights will remind me of the Light of the World. And thus it fulfills its purpose, artificial though it may be, just as a real tree gives its life, to spend these few weeks every December honoring the One who gave His life for us, Whose birthday we celebrate this holy season.

And I’ll go to bed and sleep in peace.

THE EMBRACE OF HOME

Above: Mom and Dad leaving for church on Easter Sunday 2016.

Like most jobs, my job entails duties of a certain cyclical nature. It holds a certain natural ebb and flow, so that – while it’s a stretch to say it is ever stress-free – periods of long hours and high stress alternate with periods of manageable work loads and lower stress.

For the last lingering weeks of this summer, I found myself suddenly feeling spread thin. It caught me by surprise. By Labor Day I found myself mentally and physically drained when I stumbled through my front door at the end of the day. At night I would sink into the mattress, but often could not rest my muscles until my mind finally slowed itself down. In the mornings – two alarm clocks notwithstanding – I would find my body reluctant to accept that I was indeed asking it to get up and propel itself through a shower, to the office, and through the demands of the day.

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I needed a vacation. Being an introvert, I longed for nothing more than to go somewhere – preferably to a beach somewhere – alone and do nothing except sleep, eat, read, and go for long walks in nature, with no need to meet any demand or expectation of anyone.

But I found a different (and as it turns out, a better) option. Last week I took a few days off from work and drove home to stay a few days in Mississippi with my parents, who obligingly cleared their calendars and stocked their fridge so that I felt no obligation to go anywhere nor do anything – neither cook nor clean nor help fold a single dish towel – nor see anyone that I did not choose to go or do or see.

“Whatever privacy you need, you just take it,” Dad said.

“Sleep as long as you want, and do whatever you want,” Mom said.

And they were as good as their word. They went about their business, including me and happy to have me whenever I chose to go along, but leaving me to my own devices. So instead of being alone in a strange place, I found myself in familiar surroundings, with ample time to sleep, journal, pray, surf the Net, watch TV, read a couple of books, and – as always when I go back to Mississippi for any length of time – to reconnect with my childhood self.

In bed at night, I would listen to the barking of the little Shih Tzu in the fenced yard of the neighbors across the street, tied to a tree with its crate nearby. Deep into the night the little dog would yip and howl its loneliness, begging to be with its owners in the house. I would find myself carrying on an imaginary conversation with it in my head.

“You matter, little one,” I would send out to the dog mentally. “I wish I could take you home with me and play with you and love you and show you that you matter.”

“But this is my family,” I would imagine its reply. “My family that gets off the school bus, and that plays with me and feeds me. I appreciate your concern but I know them. I would rather stay with them. One day they will love me more.”

And eventually both the dog and I would drift off to sleep.

I would awaken in the mornings to the “Cheep! Cheep!” of a family of cardinals bustling in the bushes outside my bedroom window as emerging morning sunlight began to outline the edges of the window blinds. Mourning doves would trill and coo softly. From the other end of the house I would hear the shower running as Dad got ready for the day, and the clacking of Mom’s house slippers as she made her way to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.

During the day I would drive the streets of the little town and pass the house where my grandmother lived and my siblings and my cousins and I spent hours in our coming-of-age years, an era where innocence and optimism ruled our young lives in spite of social upheaval and racial unrest in parts of our country and a war in distant Asian jungles. I would feel stirrings of that same eternal optimism. I would remember that, because of my parents and brother and sister, my grandparents and cousins, I am, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians, “rooted and grounded in love.”

I visited with my nephew, and my niece and her new husband and my brand new great-nephew. I visited with my first cousin Lisa and her husband, children and grandchildren. I enjoyed Bible study with my parents’ Bible study group and a sociable meal with the group that my parents meet for dinner most Friday nights.

Some vacations involve seeing new places and experiencing new things. Those vacations are a lot of fun and rejuvenating in their own way, but they aren’t always restful. I hope I can have a vacation like that sometime next year. But for now, this vacation worked for me. It offered just the right balance of rest, privacy, and interaction.

My parents – who happen to also be my best friends – plan to travel to Colorado soon to visit with my brother and my sister and her family.

(They have always been “have suitcase, will travel” people and they love road trips. They never fly when they can drive. For them, traveling truly is as much about the journey as it is the destination. I find it strange sometimes that I didn’t inherit their wanderlust. I like going to new places, and then if I like that place, I’ll just keep going back to it over and over again. There’s a place for the familiar, but I have to fight getting into a rut.)

Even though my visit with my parents is over and I’m back in my Tennessee home tonight, I will miss them while they’re on the road. I’ll worry a little and anxiously track their progress and visit Accuweather.com at least once an hour to check out the radar between Mississippi and Colorado. I’ll pray there’s no snow and ice on the roads in Rocky Mountain National Park, which I know they will visit while they’re out there.

Let’s face it. Even though I am about to wrap up my first half-century of circling the sun, even though I have a job with many responsibilities, and am responsible for my own finances and my own life, even though I haven’t lived closer than a two-hour drive away from my parents since 1983 – there is a part of me that remains a child, emotionally tied to my parents in a visceral, immutable way. And based on what I have observed of others, I’m not alone. We all grow up, but separation anxiety appears to be a permanent condition.

Today my parents left for church while I stayed behind to pack and get on the road for the drive home. Before they left, they hugged and kissed me. Mom packed food for me to bring back and slipped me a $20. As they started to back out of the driveway, Dad poked his head out and called out, “The angel of the Lord encamps round about those who fear Him, and He delivers them!”

Thus blessed in practical and spiritual ways, I took to the road. A cotton field bursting with big white bolls waved me goodbye, and the Natchez Trace Parkway took me over the Tennessee River, a figurative gateway from childhood to adulthood. But the child in me still feels the warm embrace of home.

Below: Cotton waiting for harvest; the Tennessee River flowing beneath the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge.

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HOW TO HAVE A GREAT FAMILY REUNION

On the last Saturday of June each year, my first cousins, my siblings and I – and our parents, spouses, kids, in-laws, grandkids, and other cousins and friends – gather for a long weekend in Mississippi to reconnect and strengthen our relationship as extended family.

We started this tradition in 2000. Over the years, as new spouses and other friends and extended family drop in, we have learned that they consider our reunion unusual in that we all like each other, get along well, and choose to be together. In fact, we go to a lot of trouble to be together.

Here’s how it all started.

My dad had one brother, Uncle Yewell Wayne (which Dad, as a child, shortened to “Nayne”) and one sister, Aunt Ella Mary. My brother, sister and I grew up in Mississippi some 30 miles from Aunt Mary and her husband, our Uncle Lyman, and our first cousins Mac, Sarah Lynn and Lisa. Our ages were complimentary: Mac and Anita were the same age, and Bob and Sarah Lynn were two years younger, so Anita and Sarah played together and Mac and Bob ran around together. As babies of our family, Lisa and I brought up the rear and were playmates from the word go.

Uncle Nayne and Aunt Lois lived in Louisville, Kentucky, so we rarely saw our more distant first cousins, twins Perry and Kerry and their younger sisters Patsy and Nancy. But they came to Mississippi for one glorious week every summer, and we had a grand time. Perry and Kerry hung out with Mac and Bob, and Patsy and Nancy and Lisa and I played together.

We were prototypical children of the 1970s. I remember we all went on a hiking trip one year, all riding together in a big Chevy van, and on the way home we sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” – still receiving heavy rotation airplay – to the tops of our lungs.

I had a device called a Lemon Twist, a black tube with a loop on one end and a plastic lemon on the other. It was like a one-legged jump rope; you kicked your leg to get the lemon rotating around, and you’d jump with the other leg. Lisa and Nancy and Patsy and I did the lemon twist for hours one summer, accompanied by our two favorite songs of the moment: The Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” and the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’.”

(If you can’t remember what a Lemon Twist looked like, here’s a link to the commercial. It’s pretty trippy.)

And then we all grew up. We started getting into high school and summer jobs and romances and dating, and college and marrying and starting our own families; the annual visits from Louisville became fewer and fewer and the Mississippi cousins went our separate ways. We all talked by phone on major holidays, but in terms of staying close, we gradually lost touch. I think the last major visit from Louisville was in 1981.

It went on this way for years. In 1992, Mama Ferrell, our mutual grandmother and family matriarch, died. The Louisville folks came for her funeral, and we spent time with each other for the first time in many years. We stood around Mama Ferrell’s grave and said we would not go so long, next time, without seeing each other.

But then we did. And then, one day, it was the year 2000. By now one of the Louisville cousins had relocated to Knoxville, and my sister and her family were in Dallas, I was in Nashville, Mac was in Nashville, and our cousin Sarah and her husband Les were in Phoenix. On one of my visits to Mississippi, Lisa and I talked about it. It had been eight years since we had all promised to stay in touch, and we had not. So we decided we would put out feelers to see how everyone would feel about a reunion. We took a survey to see what time of year would work for the most people, whether they would want to have it in a central location like Nashville or come to Mississippi, what kind of food, what type of facility, etc.

We settled on the last Saturday in June as being after school ended but before vacation time. The Louisville cousins said they wanted to come back to Mississippi, to the place where they had come every summer during their childhood, and the rest of us agreed.

The first few years we rented a pavilion in Tishomingo State Park, a lovely rustic park built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps from locally quarried sandstone and limestone. We reserved a pavilion on a lake with paddle boats. But it was June in Mississippi, and after a few years we found a little building in the Belmont city park that offered air conditioning, a meeting room with tables and a refrigerator for perishables and a sink for washing up, and a large front lawn for what would become the annual bocce ball tournament.

We try to keep the food relatively simple. On Friday nights we gather at my parents’ house and have baked ham sandwiches, chips and dip and desserts. Saturday, the main day of the reunion, happens at Belmont City Park. For the first few years, we would grill burgers and hot dogs and bratwurst, with everyone contributing side dishes and desserts. Later we branched out into smoked pork loin or chicken quarters or barbecue, and fried chicken. We visit all day, talking, playing Apples to Apples or Pictionary or Scattergories or charades inside, and bocce ball and frisbee outside. The little ones run through sprinklers and blow bubbles and draw chalk drawings on the sidewalks. We stay until dusk, when the bats dive for mosquitoes and the swallows are roosting in their nests above the door to the building, then we clean up and load the cars to go rest. On Sunday morning, Lisa hosts a brunch at her house. By noon we begin our hugs and goodbyes (usually with a few tears), then those of us who are traveling hit the road to return home.

Everyone who can come, does. My sister and brother, now in Colorado, manage to make it about every other year. My generation’s children became instantly hooked on it, and now their children are the ones running through the sprinklers. This year we had three newborn babies, the oldest one not quite four months old. Every year there are those who cannot come, and there are some who have never been able to make it. But everyone is always welcome.

So we have a set weekend, decided upon by majority vote, that is inviolate; we have a food routine, always subject to change as circumstances change; and we have a location that works well for us. But it takes more than that to make a family reunion a success. Here are some (heretofore) unspoken rules that our family follows from year to year that take our reunion from obligation to a highlight of the calendar year.

  1. No one postures. No one brags about money or material gain or success in this or that field. As Lisa’s husband Arthur once said, marveling, “Y’all don’t try to outdo or out-talk or out-anything. Nobody puts on airs. Y’all all just like being together.
  2. No one gets into politics. Our family members’ views rank from pretty far right to pretty far left, but we leave that at the door. We may not have a lot in common in some ways, but we have a shared history, shared grandparents, shared blood, shared memories, shared values, a shared love of music, and a shared need for the enrichment that extended family brings. We love each other. We are committed to staying in touch with each other. We don’t care about our differences. We knew each other as toddlers, long before we developed those differing views. As a result, we know, love and accept each other for who and what we are. All are welcome. Anything that might cause unnecessary dissent or hurt feelings is just not on for us.
  3. Likewise, any hard feelings between individuals are either non-existent (usually, in fact, which is amazing) or, like politics, are left at the door. Everyone wants to be considerate of everyone else. No one wants to embarrass everyone present with an unseemly public display of emotion or conflict. Except love. Everyone pretty much wants to demonstrate love.
  4. No one forces anything on everyone else. No one is forced to endure long stretches of anything they don’t enjoy. No one is forced to play contact sports, no one makes everyone else a captive audience to their karaoke skills. Everything is optional. We do have a prayer over the food (of which there is a staggering quantity and variety). We do sometimes have a “hymn sing” at the old piano, which once graced my grandmother’s living room, for a few songs, anyway. But no one takes over.
  5. Profanity is left at the door and blue humor is shared discreetly one-on-one or not at all. Children are present, and while we’re not angels, there is an unspoken rule that we keep the main gathering family-friendly.
  6. By the same token, alcohol does not play a role at the three main gatherings on Friday night, Saturday during the day or Sunday morning. What people do when they return to their homes or hotel rooms is up to them.
  7. We don’t have a program. We don’t have an agenda. We don’t have a dress code (other than, hey, it’s Mississippi in June, so be cool). We don’t have a schedule. We have no pride, no ego. Our relationship with each other means more than self-promotion. Our sole purpose for the entire weekend is to just be together.
  8. Underlying all the above rules is this: we respect one another.

The bonds between cousins get stronger every year, helped along by social networking and texting. The value of extended family as friends, apparently a rarity in the world at large, is the norm for our family. We consider it a great gift, and we cultivate it and do not take it for granted. We are committed to it. Like the song says, love isn’t just something that we have, it’s something that we do.