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Fond memories of family feasts

by Debra Hale-Shelton | December 8, 2019 at 1:51 a.m.

We had a tasty but quiet Thanksgiving this year. Five of us from three generations, from my 89-year-old mother to my 18-year-old daughter, sat around a table at a small restaurant outside Conway.

We had the traditional turkey, ham, cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, green-bean casserole and a mighty good imitation of my own deviled eggs. Pumpkin pie and a short conversation with a woman at a neighboring table wrapped up the meal.

We talked, laughed and left with our stomachs and carry-out boxes full. No dishes to be done, we went home, napped and got together again that evening. The dinner was easy and fast, but not like the old days.

I can still see us sitting around the wooden table in Nana's kitchen.

Papa was always the first to take his seat. Nana sat to his right, at the head of the table. When she wasn't cooking or eating, she was waiting on him, filling his plate, pouring his milk or coffee, going for seconds.

Nana was a petite woman with gray hair reaching down to her waist when she didn't have it pulled into a neat bun. Whether frying bacon, kneading biscuit dough, or watching Slim Rhodes' country music program on television, she always wore an apron made from a multicolored flour bag that was tied around her waist.

Despite having lost all of her teeth well before I can remember, Nana feasted on the likes of bacon, country ham and biscuits topped with red-eye gravy.

Papa was a quiet man whether at the table or in his green leather rocker where he read the now-defunct Memphis Press-Scimitar and paperback books while everyone else talked. He developed severe diabetes late in life, so Nana, who administered his insulin shots, took care to make foods he could safely eat.

Most often, Nana and Papa were the only ones at the table in their white-frame house at 306 Union Street in Marked Tree. But Mama, the youngest of their seven children, sometimes had my sister Terri and me get dressed and walk about a block to Nana's house for breakfast. There were no cell phones or computers, no earphones, no YouTube or Spotify to take our attention from the food and each other.

When the families of Nana's surviving five children gathered at her home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we dined on her "candy cake," with peppermint sticks crumbled into the batter and sprinkled atop the icing.

My Aunt Frances by birth but "Pud" or "Pooie" to family faithfully brought a coconut cake among other dishes. Her husband Virgil--a big man despite his nickname "Slim"--and their son Stevie, now a college professor known as Steve, always showed up too, with much of the food no doubt having been bought from Slim's small grocery on Broadway Street.

Aunt Irene, my uncle James' wife, would come with a delicious chocolate pie or an orange cake, not to mention her impeccably styled hair and makeup.

Aunt Nell and her husband Aly had to drive in from Illinois, so she'd help with the last-minute cooking at Nana's stove.

By the time everyone arrived for the holiday meal, there was no more room at the table; some of us took our plates to the adjacent living room where every year we talked, laughed, and praised the food as the best we'd ever eaten. Just in time to hand-wash and dry the dishes, Nell invariably seemed to vanish to the bathroom.

Mammaw, my dad's widowed mother, always joined us, sharing banana-nut and raisin-nut cakes and fruit salads she had made from scratch. Her daughter-in-law, my mother Dorothy, got Mammaw's recipes and makes the banana-nut cake to this day.

I can still see Nana's table with its plastic tablecloth and a stick of room-temperature butter always sitting on it.

I miss Nana, Papa, Mammaw, the aunts and uncles who have passed on, Irene who's in a Tennessee nursing home, and the other in-law aunt, Vonda Lee, who like James died too young. I miss the friendly political arguments Pooie, Wes and I had as I grew older and more opinionated.

I miss handsome cousin Mike whom I've not seen in decades and his sister Mary who attended my wedding in a wheelchair and later died of multiple sclerosis. Most of all, I miss Daddy, who in September left the family table two months shy of his 92nd birthday.

And I miss Nana's humble table that sat four, maybe six people, but always abounded in homemade food, down-home conversation and the simplest but strongest family love whether we laughed or sparred.

Now, I look forward to our next family feast. This time, the table will be long enough to accommodate all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the in-laws, even the two uncles I never met--one who died as a teenager of tuberculosis; the other on a faraway island during World War II.

The food will magically appear; so will the cleanup. I don't know who will sit at the head of the table, but I know we shall all be there, eating, laughing, and declaring this the best dinner yet.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be emailed at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 12/08/2019

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