Family is a big theme at this time of the year. As we all know, families are imperfect, a mixed bag of emotions, family systems, histories, arguments, etc. After a holiday trip with my new sweetheart, Heather, I found myself wanting to share with her memories of my life with my Whitley/Poplin family. Upon writing it, I realized I also want to write this letter to MY biological family…all those cousins and aunts and uncles as well as my immediate family. It never hurts to be reminded of the love we share, the love that is foundational and historic. Heather’s family is from a city, so this morning I wrote her about what it was like at our rural family gatherings. The Whitleys were farmers, and the Poplins were millworkers at a small Southern Cotton mill. We lived in the small town of Oakboro, NC. Our local community neighborhoods had names like Big Lick, Frog Pond, Booger Holler, and Red Cross.
When our rural families gathered, there was always food of course. Afterward, there were various ways the family gathered after all the women cleaned up. During the 60s and 70s, most men smoked so the men would go outside and smoke. The uncles who didn’t smoke (I can only think of one), went to stand amid all the smokers of Winstons and Lucky Strikes. The extended families didn’t play games together like puzzles or board games. Definitely not cards around the Whitley grandparents who were thought that dancing and cards were not good for us. I don’t know exactly what Grandma and Grandpa believed, only that mom asked us not to even play Go Fish if they came to the house. I do remember something often said in our rural and religious community, “idle hands are the devil’s tools” so it may have had something to do with that.
At Whitley gatherings, once the meal was completed and the kitchen cleaned, everyone gathered in the living room around the wood stove that Grandpa kept going. The adults all sat catching up on local events, families, deaths, and crops or gardens as they sat on Grandma’s gold-colored Naugahyde couch. Grandpa was in his Naugahyde recliner with a dip of snuff by that time, his spit can to the right of his chair that faced the window looking out at one of his fields. Grandma had a flowered rocking chair with curved handles shaped like swan necks and her snuff can was to the left of her chair. I don’t remember her dipping snuff on Sunday, just that the can was there and all snuff cans were disgusting to us kids. Her rocking chair looked out the same window to the field. Her singer sewing machine was in front of the window with a radio from the fifties atop a doily that she tatted. When we weren’t outside or in the parlor playing, my sister and I would sit with a parent or Grandma and watch the adults fall asleep to the sound of Grandpa’s antique cuckoo clock. All the kids loved that cuckoo clock and we couldn’t wait to see its yellow bird come out. Our dad was usually one of the first to stand and say it was time to go home and take a nap. Grandma always wanted everyone to “stay bit longer”.
After we finished napping at our house, our family of four then visited Grandma and Grandpa Poplin’s house. According to the time we arrived, we gathered around Grandma’s kitchen table with the others who were visiting to eat the leftovers from Grandma’s Sunday lunch. There was always a lot of laughter around Grandma Poplin’s table. After cleaning the kitchen, we all went back to the living room and the adults began yakking. The Whitley’s talked but the talk was much quieter. The Poplin family were vibrant talkers who also talked fast and most often, with several different conversations going on at once. Truthfully, there were usually so many conversations going on at the Poplin family gatherings that I was never quite sure what they were about. Then, at seven p.m., Wild Animal Kingdom came on. We loved that Grandma and Grandpa liked that show and would watch it with us. After that was Disney. This living room was heated with an oil heater and there too, the heat had a drowsing effect on all who remained. Summer was hot at both family places since there wasn’t a prevalence of air conditioning. Most of our summer gatherings were outside on porches or under trees.
I loved growing up in the country and will always be a country loving person. I do wish we had had better schools then, but our communities were not wealthy communities. Those are just things I know as an adult. As a youth, nature was all that I wanted or thought I needed besides G-d and music. My family not only gave me the blessing of growing up in the countryside, the faith they shared and the music that gave is coded into my genetic and spiritual DNA. What better love can be given than that? I love you, dear family. We may have our differences, but I really love you every day that I breathe.