Deep Down South

Every year, wife Brenda's people, the Kearses and Edmundses, have a big Thanksgiving dinner down in Barnwell County, South Carolina. It's a rural gathering, eight miles from the nearest little town, and 70 miles from the nearest big one. Besides getting plenty of turkey and cornbread dressing, everybody who comes to dinner will sooner or later end up speeding through the woods in the back of a pine straw-lined pickup truck. Everybody older than 10 will shoot a rifle or a musket. There's plenty of good, simple fun, but since most of the old folks are strict, pinch-faced Baptists, there is no music, and there sure as hell ain't no dancing.

A few years back, it was Brenda's family's turn to host the dinner. But Brenda's aging mama, Lula, wasn't feeling up to the challenge. Over the years, the gathering of the Kearses and Edmundses had gotten so it required more planning, cooking, and cleaning than one old woman could stand. What started out decades earlier as a dinner for a few South Carolina mamas, daddies, sisters, and brothers had expanded to include second husbands and wives whose names nobody could remember, one boy child who walked around all day carrying a Cabbage Patch doll, and one confirmed gay couple, which included the first confirmed non-white lifemate in the family. Don't you know, these cousins of Senator Strom Thurmond weren't prepared for all this, and some still aren't quite over it.

Anyhow, overwhelmed by the explosion of new people, and the growing diversity that had eased its way into the celebration, Lula asked Brenda to come down to South Carolina, clean up the house, cook up a massive Thanksgiving dinner, and get everybody in and out the door happy. For some crazy reason, Brenda said she'd do it.

This was back when Brenda was still working as an intensive-care nurse, every day dealing with screeching alarms, spurting blood, and heroic resuscitations. She didn't need to take on any extra stress. So, she decided to lighten her workload by picking up some prepared feast items here, and then hauling them to the sticks.

Before Brenda went food-shopping, she conferred with her Georgia-bound sister, Gwen. They agreed that some of those sweet, spiral-cut hams would be nice, and dessert would be Mrs. Smith's frozen pumpkin pies.

While they were breaking the all-food-made-from-scratch tradition, Brenda and sister Gwen decided to go a little further. What the Kearses and Edmundses needed this Thanksgiving, they agreed, were a few cases of beer and wine.

When I heard this, I told Brenda, "Y'all might want to reconsider. Remember, this celebration includes high-speed driving, and live gunfire."

"It'll be fine," Brenda reassured me.

"Before you commit to the adult beverages," I said, "I just want you to consider this: Some of these people have a mean streak. You've told me yourself that they preach hellfire and damnation on Easter Sunday. You're talking about loosening up their minds and tongues."

"Bout damn time," Brenda said. "Besides, there will be lots of people, lots of food, and precious little alcohol. I'm a trained medical professional. If I know anything, I know dosage."

So we hauled turkeys, and fancy hams, and beer, and wine to Barnwell County. Thanksgiving morning, Brenda and Gwen cooked up the birds, the cornbread dressing, the vegetables, and the traditional godawful congealed salads. They spread it all out on two picnic tables, a ping-pong table, and every inch of kitchen counter. By 11 o'clock, the house was alive with Kearses and Edmundses.

By noon, everybody had a plate full of dinner. And, don't you know, by 1 o' clock, the beer and wine was gone. People were picking up bottles and turning them upside down, looking for more. Then and there, I gave thanks that Brenda had figured people-to-liquor ratio just right, and nobody was seriously insulted or injured.

About 9 o'clock that night, the celebrants cleared out, and I started looking for leftover ham. I couldn't find one scrap. Every hambone I found had teethmarks on it.

The next morning, Brenda's daddy, Grady, told Brenda how much everybody had enjoyed those sweet hams, and he insisted on paying for them. Grady is a frugal man. He drives all over Barnwell County to find gasoline that's a penny cheaper. He buys generic cola. He straightens out bent nails. So Brenda decided to deflect his kind offer to pay for the hams. "Don't worry about it, Daddy," she told him. "That's just my little contribution to the dinner."

Grady pulled out his wallet, and asked Brenda twice more how much the hams cost. Twice more, Brenda ducked the question. I nudged Brenda. "Three-times-asking rule is in effect," I said. "If you don't answer now, he 's likely to get insulted."

Grady spoke up. "Really, dear, I want to pay for those hams. Just tell me how much."

"Well, Daddy, if you must know, that pair of hams cost about 80 dollars."

"Eighty dollars! For two hams? You can buy hams at the Piggly Wiggly for 10 dollars." And with that, Grady put his wallet back in his pocket.