It was always hot. So hot, your britches were always a little on the damp side. And whenever you hugged your aunt, your wet skin slipped against hers.
And then there was the guitar. My uncle could make it sing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so mesmerizing as when he picked out, “When We All Get To Heaven.”
I made him sing that tune a hundred times.
Behind us sat the iron beast, with smoke puffing from its stack. Four men sat directly behind it. From time to time, they’d shovel smoldering hickory into its belly, frowning.
Then, they’d visit the cooler, saying, “’Nother beer?” Which was only a formality—the speaker already had four in his hand before anyone answered.
And baseball. My cousins played catch with Daddy. They remarked on what an arm he had. They’d lob the ball at him. He catch it, spin around like he was turning a double play, then fire back.
My cousin flung his glove off and moaned, “Geez, that one hurt my hand.”
It was one of the only times Daddy felt exceptional.
Beneath the big oak were folding tables, topped with foil-covered casserole dishes. If you so much as touched that foil, some angry woman would castrate you with a spatula in front of God and country, saying, “Hands off that tenfull!”
If you got thirsty, there were coolers. Kids under eighteen had two choices: iced tea, sweet enough to kill you, or Coca-Cola. Over eighteen: grab a beer. Over thirty: get some of that clear stuff in the recycled ketchup bottles.
Whenever someone took a swig of that stuff, they’d look like they’d swallowed a mouthful of cat tee-tee.
Finally, the time came to remove the meat from the fire. The men chopped it with cleavers on a wood block. What remained was a pile of pork large enough to feed the Red Army.
Then the prayer.
Everyone quit what they were doing. Daddy tucked his mitt in the small of his back. Folks formed a lopsided circle while he recited something in a voice that didn’t sound like his.
“God,” he’d say. “Make us truly grateful for this bounty, and take care of those who’ve departed, who wait on the other side…”
I don’t know where he learned to talk like that.
We mumbled amens, formed a line, and then, by God, we ate until we were sick. Most of those people are gone now, including the guitar-player, and the one who said the prayer.
For years, I thought the whole holiday was about a barbecue.
I was wrong.