November 26, 2015

Rejoice in all things

Thanksgiving

By Jack Smith

This is a new version of an old blog, but its truth still resonates today. 

Today I’m thinking of friends and family who won’t be with us. 

And I’m remembering what Paul wrote: To rejoice in all circumstances. Not just the good ones.

Thanksgiving was my father's favorite holiday. It may have been his favorite day of the year.

He would rise early, whistling with gusto and singing silly songs in the shower, while mom did all the work in the kitchen.

Dad loved Thanksgiving, because it was the one day of the year he was sure to see almost all of his Smith kin. Especially his five brothers and sisters.

They were an unusually close set of siblings. Their relationships were forged by fire in the tragic early death of their mother, who died when my father was 11. The youngest was just an infant. When Dad was in college, their father died after living for years with a broken heart, never remarrying or even dating.

Thanksgiving mornings were always fun for me as a kid. After watching Big Bird, Kermit and others float through Manhattan, we'd pile up in the station wagon and motor through the Wiregrass toward Geneva, home of my namesake.

Uncle Jack and his sweet wife, my Aunt Mildred, hosted all the Smiths every year. They fried up the best hand-breaded chicken fingers you've ever tasted and put out salty Apalachicola bay oysters before any of us even arrived. I ate more fat oysters on Saltines, dripping with tangy cocktail sauce, than one could count.

Mom always brought the mouth-watering homemade dressing, never cooked from a box. She always baked a plump turkey in the oven and made gravy from scratch.

Each time one of the siblings and their families arrived at Uncle Jack's, they were greeted with an uproar as though a celebrity had just arrived. There were big hugs and smiles, laughter and commentary on how much the children, usually dressed in khakis and button down shirts we didn't want to be wearing, had grown.

My cousin, Mac, was in charge of pouring and refilling the champagne. It made the day more fun and interesting as it went on.

My Aunt Janice, an attractive French teacher, and her husband, my Uncle Doug, were usually the last to arrive. The fun didn't start until they had gotten settled in. One year, Aunt Janice paraded around with a boom box, trying to lead us all in the singing of Handel's Messiah.

Another year, I she sang something in French and played conductor on the back steps, trying to get the children too busy playing football to sing along. They didn't. Aunt Janice, who would hold her chin high while taking drags from her long cigarettes, was always interested in me and told me she loved me.

My Uncle Maury was the family patriarch, an esteemed and brilliant attorney, always dapper in slacks and a stylish coat. He had a booming voice and a great laugh. Uncle Maury was more than an avid Alabama fan, he was a member of the university Board of Trustees.

My favorite part of the day when I was a kid was making my annual $1 Iron Bowl bet with Uncle Maury. In years I'd win, he always sent me a crisp dollar in the mail with a gracious note. I'm not sure I ever paid him.

One of my uncles, who dad always said had more personality than most accountants, was less friendly to any Auburn fan. One miserable year when some demonic TV executives decided the Auburn-Alabama game should be played on Thanksgiving, we all gathered around the television at Uncle Jack's.

My gregarious and really funny uncle drank a few Coors Lights, "Silver Bullets" he called them, and threw a yellow napkin at my feet on the floor every time we got a penalty.

It took me a while to get over that, but I did because he's married to my Aunt Sarah, the kindest person I've ever known. She went to Auburn.

Uncle Jack and Aunt Mill worked like dogs to make sure we all had plenty to eat and drink. They even put an addition with big windows on their house, mostly for our family reunion.

Uncle Bob, another attorney, showed up every year wearing a coat and time, his graying hair neatly combed to the back. He always had a story about his children, my cousins who we loved to get into mischief with during our day in Geneva. Uncle Bob and Aunt June were kind and engaging, and I loved visiting with them even though they were Democrats. We didn't talk politics.

Somehow, Uncle Jack, a contractor with all kinds of big toys on his spacious back lot, never lost his patience with the cousins who played around on his crane and even managed to crank up a diesel truck one year. We couldn't turn it off, so Uncle Jack walked out back and shut down the throttling engine without saying a word.

It seemed to take hours for Aunt Mill, her sweet daughters and "the help" to put out all the food, a feast fit for a king. We all ate too much, laughed, and sometimes looked at pictures from the siblings' childhood years or Thanksgivings past.

Dessert and coffee always followed while the Lions and some other team played a meaningless football game on the living room television.

It always ended too quickly, and we left with full bellies and heavy eyes. The drive home from Geneva to Eufaula was quiet, the autumn orange sun casting long shadows off the Southern Yellow pines.

We made that trip to Geneva for more than 30 years of my life. Today I cherish those memories. My father, Uncle Jack, Aunt Mill, Uncle Maury, Aunt Cile, Aunt Janice and Aunt June are no longer with us.

I know we will all reflect on those special days, even though holidays are made harder by death and divorce and other things that just happen.

We will all find something to smile about. We will go to bed with full bellies, grateful for Thanksgiving memories and the ties that bind.

I'll be happy just knowing God put us all on this earth together.