University of Houston Honors College Founding Dean, Ted Estess, will read from his new book—The Cream Pitcher: Mississippi Stories --- at the Friendswood Public Library on Wednesday, April 25 at 7pm. Dr. Estess has long emphasized the importance of stories and storytelling, including using a Samuel Beckett quotation: "To have lived is not enough. We have to talk about it." Come hear how Dr. Estess talks about that living. Some of the book is devoted to Estess family stories, as well as stories passed down from family and friends. According to a review in the Tylertown Times, these stories "passed down as an Estess family tale would be suited to any other family," especially in the Mississippi area where Estess' family lived. Of course, the book and its stories are not limited to Mississippi and its inhabitants—you might see your own story or family, if you imagine a few details differently.
“Family Reunion” appears in The Cream Pitcher—Mississippi Stories, by Ted L. Estess (Portland, Maine: Inleaf Press, 2010), 7-18. Ted Estess is Dean Emeritus and Professor of English in The Honors College at the University of Houston.
Family Reunion by Ted L. Estess
There's nothing like going to a family reunion to disabuse you of the notion that you are an altogether separable, unique individual. You talk to one uncle and realize that you stand as he stands. You move on to a cousin and see that she purses her lips and turns her head as you do. After several such jolts, you begin to think that you are in some bizarre hall-of-mirrors.
I was reminded of these things this past Sunday when my wife Sybil and our son Barrett went with my parents, Ansel and LaVerne Estess, up to Jackson for the annual Estess eat-off, otherwise known as the holiday family reunion. On Sunday, Uncle Charles told me that I tilt my head to the right and prop it against two fingers of my hand as my father does. Charles is the same uncle, who at another family reunion some years back observed that I walk like Uncle Jesse, who was one of my grandfather George’s brothers. Uncle Jessie was born in 1861 and died when I was five years old. He probably walked like somebody whose name he didn't even know. To top it off on Sunday, my Aunt Carey told me that when she saw me coming in the door, she said to her brother Elton, “There’s Ansel.”
So at the family reunion, I was reminded that we are all composites, with the ears of one relative, the hips of another, the smile of another, the walk of another. We all are bionic creatures, stitched together from spare parts borrowed from others, some present, but mostly some absent.
Now it’s true that members of some families flee each other like the plague, because families—as one of my good friends is given to say—while they might sometimes be heaven, can also be hell. Usually are—both. So some brothers and sisters and parents and children stay far from one other, likely because they know each other too well.
But this Estess family into which I was born has three or four reunions a year. I suspect that some in the family, especially some of the in-laws and children, get tired of it. Nonetheless, they usually show up. Lately, I’ve thought that either these Estesses don't know each other well enough—hence they get together to rectify a problem—or they really do enjoy one another. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, because when we all get together there is always a good deal of hilarity and announcements of upcoming reunions.
In Jackson, my father invited everyone to gather here at the farmhouse as the family does on the first weekend of every April. His brother Elton announced the reunion that occurs in Alabama when Mississippi State plays Auburn; so in October, fifty or so Estesses will drive nearly three hundred miles to see the Bulldawgs play football, even if they expect to lose, which they usually do. Aunt Carey mentioned the annual Smith gathering in July at cousins Willa and Alda Smith's house. A good number of Estesses pile in for that one, too. It just goes to show you that some people will drive a long way to get a good piece of chocolate pie.
Sybil, Barrett, and I missed the last three holiday gatherings. For two years we went to Flagstaff, Arizona. The year before that, we traipsed all the way to Montana, but this year we decided to be with the family. So during the holidays, our son Barrett, who is coming up on his thirteenth birthday, is having time with his grandparents, Sybil is enjoying being at home in Poplarville, and I am having ten or twelve days, mainly alone, here at the old farmhouse near Tylertown and my parents.
When we decided to come to Mississippi for the holidays, Sybil said, “You know, it might be the last year for Paps”—who is my father—“or for Papaw”—who is Sybil’s step-father. We are aware that time presses in on these two octogenarians. And also on my mother, who is Barrett’s “Mams,” and his “Mimi,” who is Sybil’s mother. Thinking of these four as old allows us to forget that each of us—every last one of us—is equal distance from death. Who knows, it might be the last year for Sybil or Ted or . . . Barrett. As my Uncle Smith said in September when the doctor told him that he had brain cancer, “That's a hell of a note.”
One needn't be too gloomy about these matters, I suppose. For instance, I stopped by to see my father’s cousin Kenneth Estess this morning. Kenneth is seventy-six now and pretty well broken down. He said, “I tell you whut, Teddy, I tried to die four times, but they won't let me.”
Kenneth laughed and went on to tell me that his dentist had pulled out the rest of his teeth and put in a set of false ones. He said, “I wish I’d had all the damn things pulled out fifty years ago. It wudda been a hell of a lot less trouble. And you know, Teddy, they put in some new lenz-zes when they took off my cataracts. Now they want to put in hearin’ aids. If I buy them damn thangs and ever shake my head, everythang is liable to fall out all over the floor. It would take me thirty minutes to get all that damn stuff back in.”
Up in Jackson on Sunday, it occurred to me that we were not getting together only to see the living, we were also—even without saying anything about it—remembering the dead. To tell the truth, it could be that families, at least old-timey families, are—or were—held together as much by those who are absent as by those who are present. The ones long-gone come ‘round and visit in memories and stories and dreams.
You mix together absence and presence and words and silence and you get the stuff that helps families and communities cohere. The biggest deterrent to cohesive communities might be that folks can't put up with absence and silence long enough to get connected with one another. We flee them, and in the process we flee each other, ourselves, too. To some extent, we know ourselves only as we meet ourselves in the others, which is the best explanation I know for why we sometimes get really aggravated at other folks, especially relatives: seeing ourselves in them, we often don’t like what we see.
At the reunion just past, things weren't right. Seventy or so of us were there, but we were aware of someone not there. We felt it. You could say that an absence was present. No one talked much about it, but absence stalked the restaurant of the Sun-n-Sand Motel like a cat. After feasting at the restaurant, we retired for further visiting and grazing at Aunt Carey's house on East Riverside Drive.
Things were not right because Uncle Smith was not there. When the doctors told him that the cancer was in his brain, they went ahead and told him they couldn't do anything for him. He was eighty-three years old, but we wanted him to live on and on. We wanted him to lead the laughter as he always did. Once there were seven brothers and a sister. Now there are four brothers and Aunt Carey. We miss Uncle Smith and wish we could get him back.
In mid-October, I flew over from Houston with Barrett so that I could visit Uncle Smith. Dad had told me on the phone, “Ted, Smith’s in bad shape, real bad shape.” Barrett and I drove up to Canton with my parents. My cousin Penny and Aunt Daphne were there, bearing up nobly. Uncle Smith smiled to see us. With my prompting, he started a story. But he botched it. He conflated a mule story with a horse story. He couldn't follow the line, and we all felt what was slipping away.
When we got ready to leave, Dad shook his brother’s hand, and I leaned down and gave him an awkward hug, my cheek brushing his. Barrett hung back, and then went over to stand awkwardly by his great uncle. The old man raised a limp arm and draped his hand across his great-nephew's shoulder. The last words I heard Uncle Smith say were directed to Barrett: “He's a fine boy.” It was as though an ancestral voice from a deep source in the deep past bestowed a benediction on a member of the rising generation.
Through the fall, Dad and Mother went back to Canton a few more times and kept me posted as Uncle Smith declined. One night on the phone, Dad told me that he had taken some sugar cane from his garden up to Canton and peeled it for his dying brother. Over seventy years ago, these two would walk about two hundred yards south of this farmhouse where I am sitting just now, and there in the cane patch, their father George would peel sugar cane and pass pieces among whichever of his children happened to be standing around, Vardamon or Lynn or Carey, Smith or Ansel, Charles or Wensel, and later Elton, each one getting a piece in turn, mashing the cool juice in the mouth and standing to wait for another sweet slice as their father gave to each in turn.
Years later, when I was a boy, my brother Roy and I repeated this country communion. There we would be, standing in our father's garden, chewing Blue Ribbon sugar cane. Every time, we were amazed by the ease with which our father wielded the knife. And just yesterday, Barrett and I stood in the same garden with my father and my brother. This time I took the knife and handed the pieces around. My father chewed gingerly, his teeth now not up to the pace; but Barrett and Roy waited with extended hands, taking the stringy fruit as fast as I could hand it over.
It must been a touching scene in Canton in early November, just after the first cold snap brought up the sweetness: eighty-year old Little Estess putting small pieces of sugar cane in Big Estess' mouth. The two got these names at Mississippi State in the early ‘30s, my father Ansel called Little because he was younger and smaller than his older brother Smith. Only their college friends remember this, and most of them are dead. Sybil's step-father, R. F. “Racehorse” Cochran, lives on and still uses those old names. Over the years, Racehorse has often asked me, “How's Big Estess doing?”
Almost all the Estesses went to Uncle Smith's funeral in the First Baptist Church in Canton on the Friday before Thanksgiving. He and Aunt Daphne lived in Canton for over fifty years in the same house on Semmes Street. In Canton he was known as Sam Estess, another name he picked up at Mississippi State. Smith Estess, Big Estess, Sam Estess: you needed several names to contain this man, and three weren't enough as we filed into the church house. It seemed as if the whole town showed up, even on a rainy day. There were more Estesses there than at a family reunion, including, of course, Aunt Carey and the four surviving brothers—Ansel, Charles, Wensel, and Elton. Thirty Rotarians were honorary pallbearers, men remembering a friend.
Sitting there I thought of a measure that I sometimes apply to my relationship with a colleague, friend, or erstwhile friend: I wonder whether the person might show up for my funeral. I don't consider whether he actually will be there, but whether he would be so inclined were he around and if it were reasonably convenient for him or her to do so. Fifteen hundred miles, say, would be too far to travel for my funeral, unless I owed a man some money. I do expect my parents and brother to show up, if they are still hanging on, and of course Sybil and Barrett. My neighbor down the street won't bother. He thinks I'm a jerk. Applying this measure to estimate the probable attendance, I’ve told Sybil to plan on holding my funeral in the telephone booth on Calhoun Street near the University of Houston where I work. Problem is, now there are no telephone booths. Sybil doesn't care for my humor.
Smith Estess' funeral drew a lot more folks than mine likely will, and one reason is this: he was a storyteller. People came to his funeral to remember him telling stories. More precisely, they came to remember how they felt when he told stories. They wanted to reserve a little of that feeling against the time of its absence.
Stories affect people that way. They feel more connected with themselves and with other folks when they hear stories. Life makes more sense and it’s easier to laugh when you’re around a fellow who tells lots of stories. With all its starts and stops and messes, life seems more manageable, more amenable to our inclination toward order when someone corrals the dissonances and loose ends of human experience into a story.
The preacher at the funeral mentioned how Sam Estess sat in the same pew every Sunday for years, right up in the front on the side. The preacher said that every Sunday folks gathered around Sam for thirty minutes before church, hoping for a story. He mentioned how Sam and a few of his friends got together every week at the Courthouse Cafe off the square in Canton. The preacher said he would see them there, four or five old men, drinking coffee and telling stories about old times, crooks, preachers, and assorted types. Sitting in the church, I tuned out the preacher and tuned in a story that Uncle Smith told me some years ago.
One time, [he said,] I was maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, Papa said to me, Smith, I want you to take that wagonload of cotton over to the compress in Tylertown. Tell old man Sumrall to store it in the warehouse in my name. I'll get over to town one day and sell it when the price is good. So I hitched two mules up to that wagon and headed off to Tylertown, but when I got there, I found out that the price of cotton was up, at least old man Sumrall said it was, so I sold the cotton and was ready to head back home when I ran into one of those travelin’ salesmen that used to cover the country. This one was dressed up in fancy clothes and was playin’ a banjo to draw a crowd on the square in Tylertown. It was Saturday and that square was full of people. Wagons and buggies, and horses and mules, were all over the place. This particular salesman was sellin’ straight razors and that razor caught my eye. I reckon I was gettin’ ready to start shavin’ myself. I watched that salesman take one of his razors and hold up a long piece of hair. He said, Look here! See what this razor can do! It slices right through this hair! And he moved his arm in a wide sweep and cut that hair as pretty as anything you ever saw. So I bought me one of those razors and headed back to Silver Creek with it in my pocket. The closer I got to the house, the more I thought that maybe Papa wouldn't exactly be happy with me sellin’ his cotton and buyin’ me a razor with some of his money. I decided I would just have to tell him about it. He'd find out anyway. So when I got home, I went in the house to tell Papa. He listened to me, and I saw I mightta stepped over the line a bit with him just sittin’ there lookin’ at me. So I tried to justify myself by showin’ off that new razor. I held it up like that salesman did in Tylertown. I reached up—I had thick black hair back then—and I pulled out a long hair and held it up with one hand, like this. I kept one eye on that hair and one eye on Papa. I took that razor and with a wide sweep of my arm, I brought the blade against that hair. But when I did, a piece of that damn razor went flyin’ all the way ‘cross the room. It passed right in front of Papa's eyes. That razor just fell apart. I felt like a damn fool. I decided right then that no damn salesman would ever take me again. I never sold any more of Papa’s cotton unless he told me to either.
Later, as we gathered at the graveyard in a heavy downpour, all of us wanted to undo the work of time. We didn’t want to leave him there with the rain pouring down.
So on Sunday at the family reunion, for the first time Uncle Smith was not with us to tell stories. We heard his voice being silent. We heard his laughter not in the room. It made us uneasy, at least it did me. Sensing his absence, I could imagine my own.
One day a few years ago my good wife Sybil, as she periodically does, inquired as to the amount of life insurance I carry. I have all such information written down for her, but she gets concerned that I might be planning a devious exit from this world, leaving her destitute in the process.
“Anyway,” she said, “Ted, I just want to know I can get by if you drop the bucket.”
“Sybil,” I said, “it's kick the bucket. “
“Whatever,” she said, “drop or kick, how much life insurance do you have?”
On Sunday, I thought that if I drop the bucket, the Estess family reunion will go on without me just as it goes on without Uncle Smith. All through the reunion, it was hard to feel right if for no other reason than that things were not right.
Aunt Carey had requested that I join with the wife of my cousin John, who is a fine physician up in the Delta, to give a little program for the family after lunch. John’s wife Dottie would lead the group in some holiday songs and I would play the piano. And then, Aunt Carey said, I would read some of the family memories that I have been writing.
Dottie called all of the young Estesses up in front of the piano. There they were standing before me, all the little girls eager to show off their red dresses and all the little boys clearly willing to do nigh anything other than stand in front of an audience and sing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” But Dottie was undeterred. She wins the prize for exuberance and vivacity in the Estess clan, which is why she is a good one to get folks singing about Prancer and Vixen on stomachs filled with turkey and cornbread dressing.
But just about the time Dottie got to “then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say,” the memory, like cream in a pitcher, rose to the top. My fingers continued automatically to play the familiar tune, but the memory unfolded like a ground bass above which various ornamentations and reindeer filled the air.
The memory was of Laura, Dottie and John’s second child. On the Day of Epiphany, 1983, Laura, who was home from Ole Miss for the holidays, went in the evening to a convenience store near their house. She aimed to buy some soft drinks.
Dottie then directed the children to Frosty the snowman—that jolly happy soul—and then to Santa who knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Still, the ground bass played on in my memory, all but oblivious both to what my fingers were doing on the keys and to the words that the children were by now belting out, the boys, too. Dottie had worked her magic again, even with this bunch of reluctant choristers.
At the convenience store, Laura ran into a high school classmate named Johnny who had made enough money carving catfish at the local plant to buy a new pick-up. He wanted Laura to see his truck, so they went for a ride. By now, Dottie had moved to include the adults, and we headed on to deck the halls with boughs of holly.
A month later, three duck hunters found Laura’s body in the Sunflower River. Johnny, the son of a Mississippi State Highway Patrolman, is spending his life in the state penitentiary.
It was all I could do to follow Dottie’s directions that we end our holiday songfest by imploring heaven and nature to sing joy to the world. But, then, I thought, if Dottie can, why can’t I? If she so implores, why shouldn’t I? Ten years ago, Dottie and John entered into the darkest vale of every parents’ nightmare. Laura visits them every day. Their lives and those of their other three children are divided into before and after. And yet—which Elie Wiesel calls the two most powerful words in the English language—they endure, sometimes prevail.
As the children scattered around the room, it was my turn. As Aunt Carey had requested—or instructed—I stood to read some family memories. I was glad to, for I figured that if I take the trouble to write this stuff at least some of them can listen. I had thought about reading a story that Uncle Smith told about an old farmer in Lawrence County who tried to cure a mule by making him breathe smoke from burning tar. But I decided I couldn't. I knew my words wouldn't be able to stand against his silence.
But I did hold forth. I started by commenting on how reunions are occasions for older family members to pass down accumulated family wisdom to the younger, less experienced ones.
“You know,” I said, “I've learned a lot at these family gatherings over the years. I've gotten investment advice from Uncle Charles and Uncle Wensel. Following their advice, I've pretty well lost all the money I ever hoped to have; but I have racked up some good losses for tax purposes. Back around 1955—I said—Uncle Wensel advised me that if I couldn't make fifteen thousand dollars a year I wouldn't be able to support a wife and two or three kids. In that assessment at least, he was right: I don't think I could support a wife and three kids on fifteen thousand dollars a year.”
At this, Wensel’s raucous laughter filled the room. His siblings Carey and Ansel and Charles and Elton looked at Wensel and giggled like school kids, knowing full well that in speaking of making enough money to support a family, I had touched an obsession that has haunted Wensel for all his life. He, after all, has a wife and four kids.
“And,” I said, “I've gotten up-to-date nutrition and health advice from Aunt Carey, but it hasn’t done me any good. I'm pretty well broken down now and a good deal overweight.”
Aunt Carey’s laughter, far more restrained than Wensel’s, was hearty, as was that of my cousins and their grown children, all of whom share with me distinct memories of Aunt Carey’s admonitions, mostly ignored, about diet and proper cooking and eating and exercise.
“I also remember,” I said, “Uncle Charles' analysis of race relations in the Sovereign State of Mississippi. One time back in the early sixties at one of these reunions, Uncle Charles announced with an emphatic slice of his hand through the air, ‘I'll tell you one thing, Ted: you'll never live to see the day when blacks play football at Mississippi State University. ‘”
There was some laughter in the audience, but it was clear that folks were unsure of where I was going with this venture into the delicate matter of relations between blacks and whites. But I pressed on.
“Several years later,” I said, “at another family reunion, a group of us were watching the Mississippi State Bulldawgs play in one of their infrequent bowl games. I joined with Uncle Charles to cheer on some black Bulldawgs on the TV. ‘Uncle Charles,’ I said, ‘do you remember when you told me that I would never live to see the day when blacks play football at Mississippi State University?’ Undaunted, he replied, ‘Well, Ted, I tell you one thing: you'll never see one of ‘em play quarterback.’”
Everyone relaxed into loud guffaws, knowing that I had caught one of our own voicing a cliché that, like so many clichés about blacks and whites, has long since been proved ludicrous. Fortunately, we are now at a sufficient remove from the sentiment voiced in the cliché to be able to laugh at ourselves in all our ludicrousness.
“Now,” I said, “I want you all to know that earlier today—this very day—Uncle Charles told me that the Bulldawgs probably would have gone undefeated this year if their quarterback hadn't got hurt. If I'm not mistaken, the quarterback he's talking about is a black kid named Sleepy Robinson from up around Ruleville, Mississippi.”
When I told this on Sunday, I thought Uncles Charles would lose his breath laughing at himself, everybody else, too. He’s the only man I know whose grin is bigger than his face. The whole room at the Sun-n-Sand shook with hilarity. I felt good.
There is, I think, a strange and perhaps inexplicable connection among pain and memory and laughter. It could be that folks who remember more, laugh more. That’s one thing I’ve learned at all these family reunions I’ve been going to all my life. These Estesses eat a lot, but they remember and laugh even more.
But pain gets stirred in there, too, if for no other reason than lots of memory is taken up with pain, just as it was at the Sun-n-Sand when we were missing Uncle Smith and Laura and many others. But, you know, if you want to get a good laugh, go to the visiting hours at some funeral home when somebody you’ve known for a long time is lying in the coffin. It needs to be an old person or a person who has been ill a long time, but it beats anything you’ll ever see: there people will be, standing right in front of a dead man, telling stories and laughing their fool heads off.
It’s too simple to say that laughter is a way to avoid pain. No, the laughter—which rises with memories and is conveyed and evoked by stories—doesn’t abrogate, much less deny, pain: laughter carries pain. Like breathing in and out, laughter lets pain in and lets it out; but, more important, it takes pain out of the private and makes it communal. It’s not that laughter is, as the song goes, a bridge over troubled water; rather, it provides a measure of buoyancy while you are flailing around in troubled water.
But I haven’t finished with what I said at the Sun-n-Sand:
“Last May,” I said, “we had a mini-family reunion of sorts down at our house in Tylertown; and even in a small gathering, I gained wisdom that I would like to pass on to you today.
“Aunt Carey was there, and we were sitting in the living room just talking. At one point in the conversation, Ansel asked his sister, ‘Now, Carey, why is it that all of Uncle Sam’s family died young, while all of Papa and Mama’s children have lived into our seventies and eighties, except Lynn, of course. Here,’ Ansel said,’ you have two brothers, both with big families, and Uncle Sam's children died out young and Papa and Mama’s children have lived to be old people.’
“It seemed,” I said, “a reasonable question, and a good one, too, for what does make for a long life? To Ansel’s question, Aunt Carey proposed one explanation. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘there must have been some difference in the genes, just some difference in the genes.’
“But clearly,” I said, “that was not an answer that would satisfy a man as inquisitive as my father Ansel Estess. How could a difference in genes account for so bare a fact that six or eight people died out and another six or eight, born at more or less the same time and reared within a mile of one another, are living well into their seventies and eighties? Furthermore, the children from the two families, genetically speaking, have a lot in common. Ansel failed to mention this.
“So,” I said, “sitting in the living room on Magnolia Street in Tylertown, we could all see questioning on Ansel's face. His dissatisfaction finally led him to suggest an alternative explanation, one more suitable to the startling difference in destiny of those children born in wedlock to Sam Estess and Melethia Miller Estess and those born in wedlock to George Washington Estess and Melissa Smith Estess.”
At that point, I lowered my voice and assumed the tone of a serious college professor. “The tension,” I said, “settled in Ansel’s face as he came to an explanation, or at least an hypothesis worthy of the facts, one that would bear further scrutiny and merit further testing, one that, if true, would allow him to accept the startling difference in life and death attending the offspring of Sam and Melethia and those of George and Melissa, and one that, if true, would relieve us from the unsettling thought that so minute and uncontrollable a matter as a genetic difference could be the bane of some and the blessing of others.
“Then, the look on Ansel’s face turned to the excitement of a young scientist just coming upon a new explanation that will account for puzzling facts before him. ‘Well,’ Ansel said, ‘it couldda been Aunt Melethia's cookin’.’”
At that, the whole room at the Sun-n-Sand erupted with laughter. Frankly, I didn’t expect it. When things finally quieted down, I continued.
“The rest of us sitting there in Tylertown must, by our silence, have indicated that the appeal to Aunt Melethia’s cooking was not immediately self-justifying. Without elaboration, it was not of itself sufficient to explain such a startlingly manifest difference as that of life and death. Our apparent incredulity to his explanation prompted Ansel to marshal evidence in its behalf. ‘Well, I tell you,’ he said, ‘I know Aunt Melethia couldn't cook. I stayed down there, and I tell you, Aunt Melethia couldn't cook.’
“Having presented what he took to be evidence for his hypothesis, Ansel clearly felt better, and it must have gained currency because Carey, discarding so farfetched a notion as a genetic difference, joined in support of the gathering consensus. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you know, when Uncle Sam got sick, he went to see Dr. Brumfield. Dr. Brumfield didn't know what was wrong with him, but he finally said, ‘Sam, it could be that cancer’s got in your stomach, that's what it could be.’ And Aunt Carey added, ‘After Uncle Sam died, everybody knew that's what it was—stomach cancer.’
“Ansel nodded in approval. One could see that he was feeling justified, his hypothesis now elevated to the status of theory, now rivaling in its explanatory power the one first suggested by Carey, that it's good cooking, not genetic difference, that accounts for a long life.”
Again, the room shook with laughter, which was led, above all, by Ansel and Carey. And again, I felt good. All I had done was tell a story. Actually, it was not so much a story as a simple narrating of what I had heard two persons say one May night in a living room on Magnolia Street in Tylertown, Mississippi, the effect of which was that a good seventy people had trouble breathing because they were laughing so hard, letting pain and memory in and out, in and out