by Douglas Young
For as long as he could recall, whenever Fitzhugh asked his Presbyterian grandmother if she and Granddaddy Rainwater were visiting that weekend, the reply never wavered.
“Well, if the Lord’s willing.”
Whenever they did visit, though their grandson now had his own apartment across town, he was sure to drop by his parents’ home to spend time with them, especially his dear grandfather with whom he had always shared a special bond. At the Rainwater family’s annual Christmas reunion one Saturday in mid-December, a slew of relatives from their part of the state made the pilgrimage to Fitzhugh’s family home for the big meal.
Due to a late start in the morning – having remained at the Zadapad until well after 1 a.m. laughing with his lonely host who pleaded with him not to leave — and running several errands before many businesses closed at one, Fitzhugh missed the 1:00 scheduled lunch time. He dutifully called his parents to apologize he was going to be late and implored them to please not delay the meal. When he at last arrived at 1:30 to see everyone had patiently waited on him, he profusely apologized to all. The welcome from the kitchen was immediate and loud.
“Well, Merry Christmas!” bellowed Aunt Zoella, his favorite aunt for being the relative most like Zada in never hesitating to speak her mind, and loudly. Fitzhugh had even speculated if the two could somehow be distant cousins. He envied both as personifying the antonym of “shy.” Philmont praised his 53-year-old, large, and never-married aunt for having “chutzpah in spades.” Zoella Rainwater was certainly Fitzhugh’s least inhibited relative, and by far. He often marveled how such an outspoken lady could be a blood member of his otherwise pretty restrained family tree. Her branch was certainly the clan’s most colorful.
“Hey, Aunt Zoella. How goes it?” Her nephew smiled.
“’Bout to faint from starvation.”
“I’m real sorry I’m late. Y’all shouldn’t have waited on me to start eating. But guess who I saw on my way back from the Piggly Wiggly?”
“Georgialina McClusky, Deangela Doolittle, and Farnell Cobb,” Fitzhugh replied.
“Well, that’s sure a fine Christian gathering. Where’d you spy them – at the liquor store?” Zoella snorted.
Now laughing too hard to speak, Fitzhugh gave his aunt a hug and a kiss.
“No kiss, Aunt Zoella?” he asked.
“You don’t deserve no kiss,” she shot back. “Making your relations wait near half an hour so’s you could go gallivanting with the likes of Miss Georgialina, Miss Deangela, and Farnell Cobb. When’d he get out of jail?”
“He’s never even been arrested,” her nephew grinned.
“Probably ’cause his daddy’s the preacher at First Methodist. That boy was always getting hisself into one kind of mess or another growing up. If he ain’t a typical preacher’s boy, I don’t know who is,” Zoella pronounced with conviction. “Now, Ruby, I sure hope and pray your only son ain’t taking no shine to the likes of Georgialina McClusky or Deangela Doolittle. Have you seen how them gals dress? Does either of ’em even own anything other than a halter top or short shorts? What a delightful daughter-in-law either of them fine young Christian ladies would make, huh?”
“Well, now they’ve always been real nice to me, Zoella,” Fitzhugh’s mother remarked as she carried the turkey to the dinner table.
“That’s ’cause everybody’s nice to you, sister-in-law ’cause you just can’t help but be your own sweet self to one and all. Shug, I remember you going on about how ‘kind and sure sorry that poor man was’ after that no-good drunk ran a red light and plowed right into your car. Here the sorry fool was totally at fault and that new car of yours was totaled and you’re all worried about whether the drunk’s all right. Shoot, I’d a taken my pocketbook and had a sho’ nuff come-to-Jesus meeting with that fool.”
“Now let’s just all gather round the table so we can eat,” Fitzhugh’s mother smiled and announced as her son embraced all the guests. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents commenced to sit around what was now a long table made from two smaller ones to accommodate the whole group.
Seated at the head of the table was the family patriarch, Fitzhugh’s 85-year-old grandfather, Micah Rainwater. Hard of hearing and generally unable to walk without assistance, the old gentleman was revered by all for his unfailing kindness and generosity. Though his son Raleigh had long since had the final say in family matters, Granddaddy Rainwater received all the more respect as the Rainwaters’ formal paterfamilias.
The real changing of the guard in family authority had occurred years before when Raleigh Rainwater reluctantly bent to his mother Rebecca’s longstanding pleas and asked his father to relinquish his car keys. The old man gave them without a fight and accepted the situation magnanimously, prompting his son to sob silently after his father left the room.
Told it was time to say grace, the paterfamilias bent his head on cue and gave the prayer he had recited his whole life. Though his vocal chords had long deteriorated to the point where it was difficult to understand him, everyone knew the words.
“Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this bountiful harvest and beseech thee to bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies so we can better serve you. We ask this in Christ’s name, our Lord, Amen.”
After everyone echoed “Amen,” eight-year-old Matthew Rainwater turned to his grandmother, 83-year-old Rebecca Rainwater.
“Grandmomma, can you understand everything Granddaddy says?”
“No, child, but the Good Lord hears every word.”
“Amen” echoed several relatives.
The food was passed around and the fun began. Fitzhugh adored his family and relished playing relatives off each other to create humorous fireworks. He especially loved teeing up a softball for Aunt Zoella. When the conversation turned to saving money on expenses, a topic utterly uninteresting to Fitzhugh, he saw an opening to rescue himself from complete boredom.
“For better gas mileage to save on gas money,” Fitzhugh interjected, “My buddy Farnell Cobb refuses to turn on his car’s air conditioning — ever, even in August. He says ‘You’re just blowing money out the window doing that.’”
“So Farnell’s a stubborn cheapskate too,” Zoella remarked.
“Maybe the boy’s on a real tight budget,” Ruby speculated.
“Maybe not,” Zoella responded. “I bet his daddy’s making one fine salary pastoring First Methodist. Have y’all seen that big new Buick the Rev. Cobb’s driving now? And the Cobbs live in the biggest, finest manse of any clergyman in this whole town. A little too fine, if you ask me. It seems a whole lot of preachers today are living just a tad too high on the hog. But what do I know? I just worship a Jewish carpenter from 2,000 years ago.
“And so as far as Mr. Farnell’s concerned,” she continued. “Shoot, I ’spec’ that boy’s got plenty of money for air conditioning. Maybe he’s just too drunk or stoned to care.”
“Actually, he’s now making good money managing W.T. Wofford’s new ’s convenience store at the corner of Lafayette McLaws and Abner Perrin,” Fitzhugh announced with a smile.
“Oh, yeah – the one that sells liquor. I know that’s a fine place,” his aunt pronounced.
“Now, Aunt Zoella,” Fitzhugh said slowly not to laugh, “When I asked if he really can’t afford turning on his car’s A.C., he said, ‘Don’t make no difference. That’s beside the point. Sure, I can afford to pay for A.C. But can I justify it?’”
“Well,” Zoella laughed, “I suggest that boy better find a way to justify it if he ever wants to take a gal on a date – that is, if he wants a second date. ’Course, ‘dating’ may be a polite term for what he’s likely up to with women.”
“Now, Zoella, mixed company,” her brother Raleigh smiled gently as Fitzhugh winked. “Say, John B., how’s your truck doing?”
“Fine now that I got it fixed” his younger brother replied.
“You know, I enjoy driving that pickup, too,” Aunt Thelma Jayne, John B.’s wife, spoke up.
“Well, every woman needs a good man and a pickup truck,” Aunt Zoella declared.
“Why both?” Fitzhugh smiled.
“Well, one’s not much good without the other,” Aunt Zoella stated matter-of-factly.
“Aunt Thelma Jayne,” Fitzhugh spoke up, “I saw you driving the pickup downtown last week. I waved but I don’t think you saw me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t see you. Where were you?”
“Zada McMayer and I were on Pickett Avenue coming out of ’Cause You Like Custard.”
“Oh, my Lord,” interrupted Aunt Zoella. “Nephew, you are keeping some mighty high-class company: Georgialina McCluskey, Deangela Doolittle, Farnell Cobb, and none other than Zada McMayer. Hmpf. I wonder when’s the last time any of them fine folks was seen in church.”
“They’ve always been kind to me, Aunt Zoella,” Fitzhugh replied, trying not to laugh. “I really believe that, if you got to know them, you’d see what good, decent people they are.”
“Oh, yeah. I ’spect Miss Zada’s singing in the church choir now,” Aunt Zoella rolled her eyes. “Ruby, you ever teach that wild child?”
“I never had the privilege,” her sister-in-law answered. “But as sweet as she’s always been to Fitzhugh, it would have been a real blessing. She’s been the sister he never had.”
“Well, Lord help you, boy. I sure hope you don’t ever take no shine to the likes of her. Oh, my word,” she turned to Fitzhugh’s father, “Can you imagine her marrying into this family?” Aunt Zoella crossed herself.
“We’re dear friends, Aunt Zoella,” Fitzhugh said smiling, “But we’ve never dated.”
“And you just be sure and keep it that way, nephew,” she pronounced while aiming a drumstick at him. “Your momma told me years ago how that little tart announced she was a marrying you if she was still single at 30. And that is entirely possible too, young man. Shoot, that child’s momma was already divorced two or three times by 30. Now there’s a real nominee for Due South’s Mother of the Year Award. Miss Magnolia divorced her fifth victim before she was even north of 40.
“I remember in high school when I was a senior and Miss Magnolia was a freshman, and dog if that little tramp wasn’t already dating near half the football team, including seniors. Her momma Zelda didn’t seem to pay no mind. ’Course, knowing Miss Magnolia, I ’spect she was already teaching them older boys a thing or two.”
“There are children at the table, sister,” Fitzhugh’s father declared before smiling at his son.
“Now y’all, Uncle John B.’s going to Japan Monday,” Raleigh Rainwater announced loudly to change the subject. John B. Gordon Rainwater was a successful businessman whose work sometimes had him travel abroad.
“What all do you pack for such a big trip, John B.?” Ruby Rainwater inquired.
“Lots of clothes,” Aunt Thelma Jayne answered. “And he just bought a box of cigarettes on sale to last him the whole trip.”
“Still committing suicide on the installment plan, huh, John B.?” Zoella observed to a mix of muffled giggles and frustrated frowns. “Can’t leave God’s country without plenty of coffin nails. No way this American patriot and veteran is buying any Japanese cancer sticks,” Zoella continued.
“I’ll pack him several boxes of peanut butter crackers too,” said Aunt Thelma Jayne.
“How come?” asked Fitzhugh.
“’Cause your uncle says there’s no way he’s eating at any Tokyo restaurants,” Aunt Thelma Jayne chuckled.
“Why not, Daddy?” asked one of Fitzhugh’s first cousins, 10-year-old Jared.
“’Cause their food’s terrible. That’s why them folks is so small,” Uncle John B. replied.
“But how do you know? You’ve never even tried it,” Aunt Thelma Jayne asked.
“’Cause it’s too terrible. I don’t want to shrink and be like them people,” her husband answered.
“Your daddy’s just old-fashioned,” Aunt Thelma Jayne chuckled to her son.
That’s a pretty polite term for it, thought a smiling Fitzhugh as his father winked at him and Aunt Zoella shook her head.
“Are any of your business partners going with you, John B.?” Fitzhugh’s mother asked.
“Just Philomena Tompkins,” her brother-in-law sighed.
“Oh, now is that the real pretty one I’ve heard about?” Ruby asked.
“No, she’s the one built like a bale of cotton and with almost as much personality,” he replied.
“Well, I’d a whole lot rather Miss Philomena go with you than either of them other two partners,” his wife declared emphatically.
“Amen to that, sister-in-law,” proclaimed Aunt Zoella.
“Now who are they again?” Fitzhugh asked, knowing exactly who they were but hoping to light some fireworks.
“Jubal Early and Lorelei Dietrich,” Aunt Thelma Jayne answered evenly.
“If Mr. Jubal went, he’d wanna’ go a drinking and strip clubbing every night,” Aunt Zoella declared. “And if Miss Lorelei went, Lord knows how many men she’d be liable to bring back to her room. I wouldn’t be surprised if she even tried to stay in John B.’s room.”
“Are they each still married?” Ruby asked.
“Well, no and yes,” Aunt Thelma Jayne replied. “No, they both got divorced over the last couple of years, but yes they’ve each already gotten hitched again – his second and her third.”
“Lord help their latest victims,” Aunt Zoella sighed. “There’s sure never any shortage of fools in this world.”
“What’s a strip club, Aunt Zoella?” Her nephew Matthew asked.
“A place where naughty women work,” his aunt answered.
“Why would Miss Lorelei want to stay in Daddy’s room?” Her nephew Jared inquired.
“’Cause she’s a naughty woman,” Zoella announced.
“Did Daddy meet her in a strip club?” Matthew wanted to know.
“No,” John B. chuckled, “But let’s try discussing something else, boys.”
Inevitably the talk turned to absent relatives, with much critical commentary none would dare share were they there. After just about all the absent aunts, uncles, and cousins had been criticized or made fun of, Ruby got up to go to the kitchen and then hesitated.
“Now, y’all, in light of what’s been said about all our kin not here, I don’t know if I want to leave the room,” she giggled.
“Oh, we love ’em all and they love us,” declared Aunt Zoella. “And don’t think for a minute they don’t talk about us when we’re not there.”
“I just sure hope their ears ain’t burning too much now,” Aunt Thelma Jayne volunteered.
“And I’d just sure like to see a little more effort on some of our relations’ part to make it to family functions,” Aunt Zoella declared. “Okay, a lot more. Lord knows, the family doesn’t get together nearly as often as we should, and most folks not here wouldn’t have had more than a two-hour drive either.” There were several nods at the table.
“We just never know what folks may be going through,” Aunt Annabelle gently admonished her older sister. Annabelle was Raleigh, Zoella, and John B. Rainwater’s younger sister, a 50-year-old who had had “a difficult life” as relatives delicately put it in soft tones. Recently divorced from her second husband — “another troubled marriage, bless her heart,” the family agreed — she had successfully struggled to overcome addictions to nicotine, booze, and prescription pills. The only downside to slaying such demons was the new primacy accorded food, causing her weight to balloon considerably. When she reached for a second piece of blueberry cobbler dessert and noticed several sets of eyes watching her, she decided to defend herself against any silent accusations.
“Well, at my last check-up when Dr. DuBose gave me his annual little speech about needing to lose weight again, I decided I’d had enough of that and finally put a stop to it. ‘Now, Doc,’ I said, ‘Let me make things crystal clear for you. I’ve given up smoking, drinking, drugging, and sex. I ain’t giving up food.’” With that, she took a large bite of cobbler.
After the table was cleared, Fitzhugh helped his grandfather walk to his favorite spot in the back yard where the old gentleman loved to sit, read, and talk — under the big pecan tree canopy next to the old Magnolia tree. When Fitzhugh was little, his grandfather sat there to baby sit him. Now the roles were somewhat reversed.
Jared and Matthew Rainwater were soon wrestling on the grass nearby, each imitating his favorite comic book superhero. Fitzhugh and Micah Rainwater sat on lawn chairs hugging the shade, each reading a newspaper. Fitzhugh had always adored his paternal grandfather. He was the man who taught him how to play checkers when he was little and chess when he was a little older, and his grandfather had never been too busy to play either game with his grandson. Now ever more rapidly coming apart, the oldest living Rainwater was no longer corrected when he increasingly moved a piece out of turn or even moved Fitzhugh’s pieces. Though the young Mr. Rainwater dreaded the inexorable decline of old age, he was heartened the elderly gentleman seemed to only get even kinder and still more gentle as he got older.
Suddenly his grandfather turned and asked a question. But the grandson couldn’t understand him. The old gentleman’s vocal chords, once so strong he sang solos in the church choir, had now weathered to the point where only his patient wife could consistently discern what he said and not always.
“Do what, Granddaddy?” Fitzhugh asked in an elevated voice to compensate for his grandfather’s hearing loss.
Again the old man spoke up, but again the young one was confused. Fitzhugh lifted his head from the paper, wrinkled his brow, and blinked.
“Say that again please, sir.”
The same sounds were repeated, word for word, but to no avail.
Putting down his newspaper and leaning forward, Fitzhugh gave his grandfather his total attention.
“Granddaddy, I’m sorry. I’m having trouble understanding you.”
At this point the old gentleman betrayed the first hint of frustration. Raising his voice and now choreographing his words with facial expressions and hand movements, he repeated the question.
But the grandson failed to pick out more than a couple of disconnected words from which he couldn’t make sense. Before he could ask his grandfather to please repeat the question yet again, the old man did it for him, this time moving his whole body to emphasize his points.
Aggravating Fitzhugh’s task was the rising volume of noise coming from his young cousins, oblivious to the family drama building beside their wrestling match.
“Let’s please turn it down, boys. Granddaddy and I are trying to talk,” their older cousin requested.
Before turning back, the old man repeated the question again with a look of concern. Now desperately trying to make some – any – sense of the grandfather’s request, his grandson looked at the ground and caught himself ready to cry. Long-forgotten memories of disappointing his granddaddy as a mischievous little boy raced across his radar screen. Painfully shameful moments confessing some misbehavior seared his mind. Most of all he felt a terrible inability to help the man he loved more than any other save his father, a desperate helplessness he could not recall feeling so keenly. Not wanting to lose control of himself and suddenly too exhausted and frustrated to go on, Fitzhugh bent down, put a hand on his grandfather’s knee and, once composed enough, looked up at the old man.
“Granddaddy, I can’t understand you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But I love you, Granddaddy. I love you.”
There came a silence made all the more abrupt by the lack of noise coming from the boys who were now contentedly climbing the pecan tree. Their older cousin collapsed back in his chair, one hand loosely holding a newspaper and the other his grandfather’s knee as he stared at the ground silently.
Soon his grandfather’s hand settled on his own, and he noticed the old man had leaned back in his own chair, no longer reading. Daring to peak at his face, the grandson saw the old gentleman smiling. When his grandfather saw his grandson looking at him, he turned and winked.
Letting out an almost noiseless sound he wasn’t sure was a laugh or a sob, his grandson smiled back. The news stories riveting his attention until minutes before no longer registered on his radar as he sat without conscious thought. Instead, he looked at his grandfather’s hand gently resting on his own and relished a sense of relief and peace he could not recall. The boys were now loudly trading mock insults on branches high up in the pecan tree, but neither man heard. Each realized how brightly the sun was shining while staring at the pair of statue-like shadows on the lawn.