After my last blog, a plaintive rage against the negative aspects of the holidays, some of you may think I was born with a heart three sizes too small. I have great memories of the family Christmases of my childhood, and this time of year never fails to trigger my nostalgia.
Funny how my sharpest holiday memories revolve around the women in my family. As far as I could tell, the men were mere observers, invited guests who played little part in the preparations. They were generally affable, long-suffering sorts who lived on the outskirts of our lives. They worked hard, hunted, fished, and tried to stay out of the way of their womenfolk.
Likewise, children were expected to watch from a distance, do odd jobs when asked, and keep out from underfoot. The boys usually headed outside to run around and make noise, but for me and the other girls, the kitchen was a finishing school offering everything we needed to know to take over as the next generation of Southern women.
Firstly, everyone either had a nickname or was addressed with multiple names. Uncle Robert Edwin was Pete and Uncle Charlie was Jock. My cousins, John Howard, Merry Lynn and Janice Kay, remain thus to me, even if they prefer John, Merry, and Janice now. And then there was my Great-aunt Pobo. Her real name was Willie Polk, which she hated. As an adult she legally changed it to Pocahontas P., which she considered an improvement. One of the kids dubbed her Pobo and it stuck.
What is it about the southern latitudes that encourage quirkiness? Maybe it’s the heat and humidity, bringing it out in families the way it brings out mildew on bathroom tile. Movie makers and writers usually just perpetuate Southern stereotypes, with few capturing our essence. A transplanted Mid-westerner, who loved “Steel Magnolias,” was flabbergasted when I told her I was related to or went to school with every woman in that movie.
“Oh, come on,” she said. “What about the Shirley MacLaine character, Ouiser. Who do you know like her?”
“My Great-aunt Pobo and my husband’s Aunt Faynelle,” I answered without hesitation. “Every Southern family has one. Matter of fact, you’re lucky if there’s only one.”
I never knew any Tennessee Williams women. We didn’t have a Blanche Dubois or a Maggie the Cat in my family. They never stood around in their slips–that I knew of. Most of them wore corsets or enough Lycra to make their real shapes anyone’s guess. And they never “depended upon the kindness of strangers.” Most were tempered steel, wrapped in velvet. The rest were just plain steel.
Pobo tended to take out her dentures after eating and lay them on the table. My mother believed in parenting through paranoia, inventing terrifying superstitions for every occasion. My grandmother loved watching professional wrestling on television, waving her fists and yelling things she’d whack me for saying.
Women in my family had timidity bred out of them, and those who married in soon learned. You had to fight to get a word in, the noise level intimidating all but the most determined conversationalists. I never knew anyone in my family who was quiet or shy. If such a throwback existed, she would have gone unnoticed and unfed, fading away from starvation.
These women who filled my childhood are gone now, but I clearly see and hear them in my mind. They are bustling around the kitchen like tugboats in a busy harbor. Cackling laughter drifts through the house, following delicious holiday smells—ham, pickled peaches, mincemeat pie, and my mother’s “blonde” fruitcake. Made in a huge bowl I only saw at Christmas, it was chock-full of nuts and candied fruit, but not a drop of whiskey. Mama was raised Hardshell Methodist, a branch rarely found outside the South.
Above all, I hear their voices rising above the kitchen clatter:
“Did you notice how much weight Clarice has gained?”
“Notice? She looks like she’s being followed!”
“Now, y’all be nice. It’s Christmas!”
“I am being nice. Did I say a word about her hair color? Did I ask if she got it from the Ringling Brothers?”
I have a sudden craving for fruitcake.