Uncle Green was late so that meant all the Blue Gums would be late too. He was up from Alabama for 20 days with a $500 bill which never broke because nobody – nobody – had change and so he had to borrow whatever he needed until the time he could get to a store big enough to handle it. Mama and Aunt Millie looked at his big bill, then at each other, then at the sky that stretched overhead with precisely the infinite patience they had lost.
The fish were already awake, the potatoes were sliced and simmering next to the onions, and this whole tribal effort to have a day-long fish-and-cookout at Turkeyfoot Lake in honor of the eldest member of the Alabama wing of the family was beginning to draw Mama’s and Aunt Millie’s lips together in annoyance. For one thing, the Blue Gums (the Akron group of the family) thought Uncle Green belonged to them more than to us because they were more his age and remembered Alabama the way he did long before the migration North had begun: the first day the general store down home sold light-bread; the farm of 88 acres when it was prosperous and could feed 17 people year round; and other family reunions which were never ever called cook-outs in spite of the fact that they roasted corn and skewered fish over pine-cone fires on days just like this one.
They were possessive about Uncle Green, and so were we. For in spite of the unbreakable $500 bill – a testimony to his ancient chinchy-ness – he carried with him, on those annual visits North, like the light from a communion cup, the spirit, the recollection, the character, I suppose, of the whole tribe. A grandeur, a cohesiveness, a constant reminder of what they had all done to survive and even triumph over during the last 141 years that they knew anything about first hand. He spoke the language in the old way: called white people buckras, spoke of java, and goobers, remembered when wakes were called settin’ ups, and referred to plat-eyes, and balongas, and the Big Raid of ’61.
And although he never buttered his own biscuits or poured his own coffee, he gave us the spark we needed to get up at 3 in the morning, pile into a 1935 Chevy and two Tin Lizzies and, loaded with eggs, milk, coffee, ham, green onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, roastin’ ears, laid-out biscuit dough, graham-crackers-for-the-kids, and sugar-tit-for-the-baby, lard, butter, grapes, yellow cake, beer, ice, worms, poles, string, buckets, skillets, tablecloths, plates, U.S. Steel Company forks, and try to get to Turkeyfoot Lake before the fish woke up.
So when he did come, at last, in the Blue Gum’s car, Mama and Aunt Millie forgot the $500 bill, the smug grins of the Akron folk which showed their blue, blue gums. And daddy and the uncles forgot about the fish and the dying worms and stood up to greet with loud shouts the man who made them feel their manhood anew. The man who spoke the names of trains they too had ridden as though they were old friends; the man who had beat them all at hambone contests, who had married a girl named Sing and had seven sons, the man who carried his life-savings in one bill deep in his pocket to bear witness to a million sacrifices and tiny thefts and knew, as they did, that it must never be broken into mere “change.”
Mama stood and put her jealousy into the paper bag with the egg shells and began to whip the eggs with a slow, wide and generous beat. Aunt Millie turned the fried potatoes over, saying a little splash of beer over the frying ham would be good. Green always liked it that way.
He brought us together. He meddled in the cooking and baiting of hooks. Told the older girls how to bile the coffee proper and to get them roastin’ ears out of the sun. He directed the boys to the coolest part of the lake to sink the beer in.
The day moved then into its splendid parts: a ham, fried-potatoes, scrambled-egg, breakfast in the morning air; fried fish and pan-cooked biscuits on the hind side of noon, and by the time Mama – who had never heard of Gerber’s – was grinding a piece of supper ham with her own teeth to slip into the baby’s mouth, and the Blue Gums had unveiled their incredible peach cobbler, the first stars were glittering through the blue light of Turkeyfoot Lake.
Were were all there, All of us, bound by something we could not name. Cooking, honey, cooking under the stars.
(Originally published in the New York Times, 1973)