I recently hosted a family gathering in my home and served all the favorite dishes from the 60’s. These were foods our parents were preparing for their parties, and food we children came to know and love; the temperamental chiffon cake, the iconic Jell-O mold and Ruffles with Lipton Onion Soup Dip to name a few. The preparations brought back precious memories from my childhood and made me pause to remember the good old days. It also brought forth the realization that family gatherings, a staple of my youth, are few and far between now. Growing up, my daughter never experienced the weekly Sunday family dinner and fellowship. My generation was set on making our own way forth in the world which led us to move away from our home states to forge a new path. More of attended college and procured jobs outside of the areas where we were born and raised. Work quietly slipped into the prime position ahead of family. Dinners became fast food and quick fixes eaten in different rooms or in front of the television. Relatives are spread out over numerous states and visit only a few times a year for holidays. This saddens my heart as I cannot imagine my childhood without these memories.
I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, in the middle-class neighborhood of Ortega, surrounded by an extended family. On my father’s side, I had two grandparents, two Uncles and their wives, and seven first cousins. My grandfather was lovingly known to me as Dedaddy, and to others as Father Frank Dearing, as he was an Episcopal minister. My grandmother, Mema, was actually named Lady Claire, no joke. On my mother’s side were Henry and Gladys Webb, whom I also called Mema and Dedaddy. I believe Mema would have preferred Granny, but my sister, being the first grandchild, had chosen their names for them. There were two uncles and an aunt, their spouses, and five first cousins. We alternated Sundays with each set of grandparents, for it was a family day, no matter what.
On Sundays, if it was the Dearings’ weekend, the entire clan would gather for church at St. Peter’s Episcopal where we were to be on our best behavior. Afterward, we would all drive over to the S&S cafeteria for lunch. They knew the Dearing clan and always had an extended table set up. As we walked through the buffet line the servers always seemed to remember our favorite dishes. ”We have trout almondine today, Father Frank”, “Your fried chicken just came out of the oven”, and “Lucky you, there is still some egg custard pie left” were common phrases I remember. No matter how many times we went, we remained creatures of habit. I always chose the Salisbury steak or fried chicken, accompanied by a dessert of either a green or red jello parfait. My sister usually had the chicken and a slice of egg custard pie. I remember that my dad and Dedaddy would occasionally get the trout almondine. I thought it was so fancy and longed for the day I was grown up enough to try it. Once dinner was over, Mema would open her purse and pull out extra napkins or baggies where those uneaten pieces of chicken would soon reside. That purse also always contained plastic disposable rain bonnets for every female should it be raining or sprinkling outside. As a young child, I thought they were awesome and almost wished for rain.
After lunch, we often headed back to Mema and Dedaddy’s house for family time. Dedaddy would read amazing books to us: Mr. Pine’s Purple House, Jelly Beans for Breakfast, Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Wind in the Willows, to name a few. If it was nice outside, he would take us on adventurous walks around the neighborhood, making us stop and take notice of a beautiful flower or a calling bird. Eventually, the entire group, kids and grown-ups alike, would end up in the back yard playing frisbee. Then satisfied and exhausted, we would all head back to our homes.
Now, if it was a Sunday with the Webb family, things were a little bit different. After church, we would drive over to Mom’s parents’ house. Mema would have been hard at work all morning preparing a feast. The menu was always fried chicken, mashed potatoes, field peas, biscuits, yellow cake with chocolate frosting, and sweet tea or Pepsi. Always. And that is exactly how we liked it. She made everything from scratch and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better biscuit in my life. My Dad always acted like he had gone to heaven each time he had one, and it thrilled her to no end. She cooked with lard and I can still see the can sitting on the dryer in the kitchen. If we were lucky enough to have visited the previous day, there was a good chance that we had picked and shelled those field peas or “helped” make the cake. I can still picture that aluminum cake cover with the black knob on top that she used to cover the cake plate. I also remember that Uncle Gainey’s girls liked to drink a milk and Pepsi combination that to this day I have never tried.
As time wore out Mema’s hands with rheumatoid arthritis, the only concession she would make was to let us pick up fried chicken. Back then, fast food fried chicken was somewhat of a novelty, and her favorite substitute was the chicken from Krystal. Yes, believe it or not, they used to sell chicken in a small side building separate from the burger sales. It was crispy, greasy and good, just the way it should be. But it was still no match for the real thing.
After eating, the men would sit in the living room while Dedaddy watched “wrastling”. They would pretend to watch and enjoy it with him, making the appropriate “oohs and ahhs”. The women would go to the front porch with us kids. The front porch had the best rockers in the world. There were two big ones and a short one if I recall correctly. And they made the perfect soothing creaking noises as they went back and forth. On a side note, I recently found an old rocker that reminded so much of those days that I was forced to buy it for my home. Sitting out there rocking, the women would talk about their “stories”. As The World Turns and Guiding Light were always top news. I would sit on the front porch steps, petting Skippy the fat chihuahua, while trying to hear every word. Eventually, they would shew me off to play with the other kids.
We would play Cowboys and Indians, tag, hide and seek, and any other game where we could run and be loud. Sometimes the neighborhood kids would join in. And when we became too loud and rambunctious, Mema would rein us in by putting us to work. She would give us a bowl and send us to the back yard to pick berries. Now when I was young, that back yard seemed as long as a football field. Directly behind the house were a few nut trees and flowering trees. Next was a row of shrubbery with a little pathway to the rest of the yard. In the back part of the yard were small wild gardens made up of field peas and berries lined up in rows in front of a large working garage. We felt like we were on a safari hunt as we traveled to the far reaches of the yard to pick those berries. I recall more landed in my mouth than in the bowl.
At the end of the day, we left their house happy and dirty with berry stained clothes. Mema would be on the front steps, all 4 feet 11 inches of her, wringing her apron. I can still hear her say “Seems like y’all’ve been here no time at all.”
When I reminisce about these precious moments in my life, I can’t help but feel the generations that followed suffered a huge loss with the decline of the Sunday dinner.