Reflections on a Reunion

photo frames on a nightstand/dresser

Southern Exposure

women walking and carrying objects on their head

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 5, "The Smoke Ring." Find more from that issue here.


The church was smaller than I remembered it. It had become - through my growth, not its own - a rather quaint structure. Made of fieldstone or sandstone or some such stone, it formed something akin to a pregnant "L" with the front of the sanctuary pompously cresting the hill over- looking Old Canton Road and the education wing tapering off down its side. Even the hill itself did not rise to the adventurous heights it had once seemed to scale. All in all, it appeared comfortably pleasant in its midtown setting.

The church of my earliest childhood, it was also the church of my great-grandfather, for it is his name which it bears; and gathering there in reunion was the family he and his bride began at the end of the last century with the birth of my grandmother. The Family and the church and I hadn’t visited with one another in years. I was six years old when we left the church and nine when we left the city. And though we occasionally returned for a Thanksgiving or a Christmas over the next few years, by the time I was in my teens The Family had become, like the church, something to which I felt only vaguely and historically related. But on this day we were coming together again: for the celebration of Bill and Emily’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, and for renewal.

I have always thought of The Family as my grandmother and a cast of thousands, since that was easier than sorting through who belonged to what branch of the family out of which union, and have thought more than once that Jesus would need a good night’s rest before attempting to feed this bunch with five loaves and a pair of fish.

The Family began when David and Annie Fondren decided to have children. They started about six months after they were married and didn’t quit for two full decades. Whether they intended to give birth to 11 children or whether they just couldn’t help themselves is now known only to God, but when you have been acquainted with the eight who lived to adulthood, you get the lasting impression that David and Annie would have begat a whole new nation if they’d had a little more time on the biological clock. My grandmother was the first and my Aunt Dee was the 11th, and they were all born and raised in a little settlement on the northern edge of Jackson, Mississippi. The settlement itself bore the family name and was annexed by Jackson in 1930, the same year that Fondren Presbyterian Church was organized in the family home.

There is something at once compelling and aversive about a call to family renewal. You are drawn to it by an almost irresistible sense of history and heritage and the outstretched tendons of your roots beckoning you “home.” There is somewhere deep within you the nagging suspicion that you are who you are because of who you were, that the six year old still resides to some degree in a part of the 32-year-old body, and that to know him at all you must return to the old surroundings and to the old faces that did most of the surrounding.

But there is also somewhere closer to the surface of you a counter-proposition that these thoughts are so much sentimental gibberish. It would be easier to stay away and be your own, safe, unscrutinized self, nursing a beer and watching the ball game, and to think of The Family as a pleasant band of angels that, nonetheless, belongs only to childhood memories.

Although I have always adored my great-aunts and enjoyed their families (when I was growing up in Jackson, my best friends were my cousins, not my schoolmates), and although it would be pleasant enough to see them again, I could not make myself relish the thought of wandering about for three or four hours trading small talk with people I hadn’t seen in 10 or 20 years. I thought I would have a silly enough time matching old faces to the young feces I remembered without struggling to find some common ground beyond “how are you, where do you live now, what do you do,” and “oh, so this is your wife/husband and your children.”

I pictured myself standing in the middle of a large room, rocking back on my heels, with my hands in my pockets and a grin ridiculously frozen on my face, nodding at this person and that person — whoever they were — and wondering why God had ordained all of my cousins into marriage and three children each and me into a mid-life bachelorship and identity crisis.

It isn’t that I don’t care for The Family or that I haven’t from time to time missed some of those who make it up; it’s just that I am uneasy in most any situation in which I am surrounded by husbands and wives, their three children (they all have three children, as if it was the 11th Commandment to do so), a bowl of greenish punch, and traditional Old South values. So, when I got there, I sat with my chin on my hands in my car in the parking lot and tried to remember what it was that compelled me there.

What it was, I supposed, was my grandmother. Of the eight children of David and Annie who survived childhood, five sisters remained to survive this reunion. The last time The Family had gathered was for my Aunt Mae’s funeral. And the next time The Family gathers it will probably be for another funeral — maybe my grandmother’s, maybe someone else’s grandmother’s. So the reunion is for them — these grandmothers and aunts and mothers — that they may again absorb the fullness of the family they bore and the goodness that is borne with them.



Name-tags helped. They helped identify the wives and husbands and teenagers I had never met, and whom I wasn’t supposed to know. But, surprisingly, even the faces of those cousins I had not seen but two or three times in all of the years between then and now smiled at me and I at them in recognition of one another. Sometimes I greeted them more tentatively than assuredly, and sometimes I met another’s eyes across the room, out of range of the name-tag, and wondered if I was supposed to know their owner, but as my relatives trickled in throughout the late afternoon, I found that the years had not changed them nor my impressions of them nearly as much as I had thought they would.

I wandered about the dining hall, avoiding equally the green punch and the videotape camera someone had brought to record the event, and between introductions to a wife here and to children there and the short conversations about what we each do in the world that always ended with our nodding our heads and saying, “Oh” at each other, it slowly dawned on me that here was a family of some 85 people, all bom and bred in southern Mississippi, and we didn’t have a single Bubba or Lula Mae among the bunch of us.

About the nearest we could come to a pure Southern stamp like Bubba was a cousin two years younger than I named Wilkins, but called of all things “Wix.” Wix’ father is a big teddy bear of a man named Buster whose every utterance is followed by an infectious laugh, and I suppose when Wix was a little runt of a boy the name sat well on him, especially when it came lovingly bellowed from the father.

Wix and I had not been close, yet we had been comrades-in-arms. We had both been — in the vernacular of the day — “squirts,” and, on the rare occasions when we got together with the rest of The Family, we stuck to each other as much for survival as for companionship. Since his family lived outside of Jackson, we didn’t see them nearly as often as we did the rest of the clan, so if there was anyone I had not seen in 23 full years, it was Wix. Yet when he walked into the dining hall with his wife and children, I knew him like it was yesterday and it was summertime and The Family was holding its Sunday get-together in the Summerhouse, a screened-in patio which sat on the back of the garage.

I’ve heard that David Fondren insisted as long as he lived that all his children convene at the Big House for Sunday dinner, so I suppose that our picnics were an effort to carry on the family tradition. Even those who lived 30 miles away in Canton and 25 miles away in Edwards came to many of the Sunday picnics, so they were about the only times I got to see Wix.

We kids would wolf down the chicken and potato salad and deviled eggs and cake, and then roam the big yard in search of adventure. We played someone’s version of War or Cowboys and Indians, or simply chased after the bigger kids such as my brother John and Ed Melvin, who hauled off for places we couldn’t follow, which sooner or later usually led to the top of the garage. They jumped up to the first limb of the pecan tree, crawled out on the fat branch, and swung down onto the roof. Dick (who usually considered himself one of the “big kids” but who just wasn’t big enough), Wix, and I would undertake the task of climbing the picket fence to get to the top of the Summerhouse to get to the top of the garage, and as soon as we got there John and Ed simply jumped off and went on their way. Dick always jumped off after them (he may have been small, but he was the bravest small sumthin I ever saw), but while John and Ed took off for another sanctuary he would stand there and taunt Wix and me for not jumping. We’d sit on our haunches with our arms hugging our legs and peer calmly over our knees way down at Dick, who was yelling “chickennnn” at us.” I’d look at Wix and lie, “I’ll go if you go,” and he’d lie back, “I’ll go if you go,” and we’d both of us look back down at Dick, knowing we weren’t going anywhere and feeling secure in the knowledge of it. Actually, the serenity and peacefulness of the garage roof was not lost on us, and there was no intuitively good reason to hurry down just to try to find John and Ed and Dick, who would just run off again. When we got good and ready, which was usually a few minutes after Dick got tired of calling us chicken and went off to find the others, we would simply climb back down the same, safe way we had climbed up there in the first place.

It was a common bond we shared at the time. It was a companionship born out of a few needed moments together over a period of only two or three years. I don’t know any more now about Wix than I do about a stranger lying in the gutter, but I know that, once, we knew each other in innocent truth and trust.

Twenty some-odd years later, I recognized him as soon as he walked through the door. For a racing instant I wanted to grab him and say: “Wix, don’t you remember us? Don’t you remember the brotherhood of us sitting on a rooftop or climbing a picket fence? I haven’t seen you from that day to this one, and yet I feel we are linked by something undescribable and unspeakable. Twentysomething years have passed and I only know you as a little boy sitting on a garage roof hugging your legs. Sit here and tell me who you are.”

But I didn’t and the moment passed. I didn’t because he’d think me a damn fool, and for good reason. Instead, I said “Hi, Wix, you probably don’t remember me.” And he replied, after a glance down at my name-tag to be certain, “Sure I do. How are you?” So I shook his hand, was introduced to his wife and children, and the moment passed.



Sitting in a row of chairs just inside the door were the ladies for whom the whole affair was thrown. My grandmother and her sisters Em, Ag, Margaret, and Dee sat together squeezing hands as The Family passed in review.

They were — are — damn fine women. You couldn’t be a part of their family without feeling fiercely proud to be so. And even though each is her own peculiar brand of person, it is difficult to think of one without thinking of the others. When I was a boy, they were so very much like one another that simply by listening to them talk, you couldn’t tell them apart.

They would each show how we grandchildren impressed them by laying palm against cheek and exclaiming either “Oh, law,” or “You don’t mean to tell me!” or “Gracious!” My favorite, however, which my grandmother usually pronounced at the mere hint of an achievement, was “I’m so proud I don’t know what to do.” My grandmother would be so proud she wouldn’t know what to do if I so much as sat all the way through church service without having to go to the bathroom. And as soon as word of that magnificent feat spread through the Sunday picnic, all of my other aunts would be so proud they wouldn’t know what to do either. When she learned that I was the first one in my second grade Sunday school class to memorize the Apostle’s Creed, my grandmother was so proud she didn’t know what to do for a whole week.

It is unfair to describe one of those grandmothers from a grandchild’s perspective, because there were no grandchildren in that room that thought any of them as anything less than God’s crowning gift to the present world. I remember when I was about 20, after a particularly harrowing tug-of-war with my mother, she told me that she and her mother used to get into the same kinds of shouting matches, and my immediate and horrified response was, “Not my grandmother!”

But even if I cannot give an accurate accounting of my grandmother’s complete personality, I have come to know much about her by examining my own mother, just as I learn about my aunts as much by watching their children as by watching them.



We began changing the dining hall from a reception room into one you could eat dinner in. The green punch and candy mints were mercifully put away and the ham and turkey, potato salad, deviled eggs, 14 different casseroles, and six different jello something-or-others took their places. People were still signing in; Mary Agnes was chewing out her six-year-old for smacking my sister’s four-year-old in the mouth; there were as many women in the kitchen trying to help out as there were in the dining hall trying not to; and my Uncle Bill was standing in the hall doorway smoking a cigarette.

Of all the people in that room, I thought no one had changed less than Bill Keeton. Having just celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary, he looked about the same to me as he had looked when I was nine and he caught Dick and me out behind their garage gawking at a men’s magazine we had found. I don’t know what he said to Dick after I left, but he asked me if I didn’t think it would be a good idea to tell my father about it. Actually, I thought that was the second worst idea I could think of — the worst being to tell Uncle Bill what I thought of his idea — but I sat there in the dirt nodding my head up and down, like one of those plastic dolls you put in your car’s rear window, in vigorous agreement of the suggestion. I told my father about it the next day, thinking that surely Uncle Bill would ask him if I had, and, of course, Bill never mentioned it at all.

Twenty-three years had passed since that time, and yet the man seemed unchanged and unmoved by the passing. He had the same full white mane, and the same hard-bitten look in the same leathery face. I thought as I watched him talking to someone I didn’t know that the reason I had always been in awe of him, if not plain terrified of him, was that he spoke in a low, rumbling undertone, and never seemed to change his seemingly indifferent expression, so that I never had a hint as to what he was really thinking. Being hard of hearing and a dependent lip reader, I never actually heard him say anything at all except when he raised his voice to Dick and me after Dick had gotten us into trouble.

The reason Dick got us into trouble so constantly was that, though I had a vivid imagination, mine wasn’t nearly as wild or as non-stop as his, and everything he suggested that didn’t risk my life sounded like too much fun to pass up. Whenever I spent the night with him, it was with a sense of nervous anticipation, wondering whether or not we could get away with whatever it was we were going to think up to do. Sometimes we’d make it almost until dawn before yielding to our fetal urges and sneaking out of the house at 4:00 in the morning to take a long walk down the drainage ditch or along the railroad tracks. Unfortunately, we didn’t get around to sneaking back into the house until after his father was up, looking for us. I was 22 years old before I heard Bill Keeton say anything other than “What do you boys think you’re doing?” I never did have trouble hearing that.



There didn’t seem to be anyone new coming into the dining hall. Apparently, The Family had filled itself up, at least for this evening, and so with no one else to nod my head at or to talk football with, I slipped away for a walk through the church of my childhood. Ambling down the hallway out of the light into the darkness, out of the noise into silence, I found that I was escaping into myself — into my past and my present.

I walked down the stairs to what used to be the dining hall but was now children’s classrooms, and sauntered up the stairs to other frozen memories. The hallways we once chased through after pot-luck suppers were not the endless tunnels I remembered. At the end of one of them, I wandered into the session room. It looked like any other church’s board-meeting room, with its intersecting T-shaped table and velvet chairs. I had never been in it before, so it held no special significance for me.

But then I noticed the picture of Marion hanging on the wall. Why we called her Aunt Mae when she had such a lovely name as Marion is something I never thought of before, but which now distressed me. I thought, as I stared at the photo of her in a familiar blue dress and hat, that I would have liked to have called her by her name. I thought also that few Southern Presbyterian churches would have a picture of a woman hanging on the session-room wall, and I stood there and applauded them for it.

Aunt Mae never married, and if I have nothing else in common with her, at least I have that. She started working in her daddy’s grocery store when she was 17, and was still working in a frame shop when she died at 76. She lived with my grandmother after my grandfather died and took over all the duties he would have performed. My grandmother cooked, sewed, and ran the house, and Aunt Mae drove the car, brought home the bacon, fixed the plumbing, and ran the church. She wielded a hammer and a wrench as deftly as she thumbed through her Bible.

Though she was a charter member of her church, Aunt Mae was not one of those black-veiled matriarchs who sit in the prominent pew, critically appraising the preacher and long-windedly carrying on about the church’s history and tradition, making certain that everybody knew of their families’ importance to it. She was more of a worker than a voice, which is another irony about her photo being in the session room. She simply gave herself tirelessly to whatever task needed doing, and proved almost indispensable in certain areas. She wrote the history of the church, grew and arranged the flowers for every Sunday morning service, and she and my grandmother prepared communion and washed the glasses in their own kitchen.

Having her picture hanging on the session room wall may not seem that almighty of a compliment, but in the perspective of the all-male sessions dictated in those days, it ranks nobler than any other tribute I could think of.

Thinking of her, I thought of her nephew Dick. Aunt Mae and Dick had a relationship which only in retrospect did I recognize as being special. Dick was two years older than I, but was what I termed “slow.” The word “retarded” did not enter my consciousness until long after we had moved away from each other, because it was a concept that my young mind could not hold — certainly not in association with someone as vibrant and alive as Dick.

I don’t know why Aunt Mae took a special interest in Dick. Maybe it was because she didn’t have any children of her own and the Keeton family just adopted her. Maybe she was as close to all the Keetons as she was to Dick, but since he needed it more, he got most of her attention.

Whatever the reason, Aunt Mae seemed to look out for Dick more than for any of the rest of us. She didn’t dote on him the way her sisters doted on their grandchildren. She was tough on him when she needed to be, but patient with him always. “You chillun get down from that roof this minute or I’ll wear you out” was about as strong as she got. More than anything else though, my impression was that Aunt Mae taught Dick about things. She was, if anything, a realist. She viewed the world by what needed doing in it, and I think she wanted Dick to learn, if nothing else, what he could do in it.

When Marion Fondren died, her church lost a valuable servant, my grandmother lost her right arm and lifelong companion, The Family lost perhaps its noblest member; but Dick, possibly more than anyone else, lost his dearest friend.



With my hands draped around the steering wheel and my chin resting on my hands, I drove back to Memphis on a balmy, moonless, but star-filled night. Just when I felt I was beginning to understand what it meant to be there, it had been time to go, for I had a long drive ahead of me, and I still had to study the lesson I was teaching in Sunday school the next day.

I had eventually arrived at a table where my cousins Rob and Doug sat with their wives, and I settled among them and talked with them. It was as if we were meeting each other for the first time, which, of course, we were — as adults. And when each unit of the family stood before the group and introduced their brand new selves, and when my grandmother and her sisters stood together for a picture (as Buster hollered, “Show us a little leg, ladies!”), there were moments that burst with newness and rebirth.

I began to realize that it was not reunions in and of themselves that make us approach them waveringly, but the way we think them to be. That we convince ourselves of how they will be before we even get there renders us incapable of reacting to the moments presented to us or of grabbing the Bill Keetons and the Wixes to uncover the mysteries.

Before leaving, I had spent some time sitting down in the middle of the sanctuary, in darkness punctuated only by the hall light shimmering through in the greens and maroons of the stained-glass windows. I had listened to the children playing chase in that long, endless tunnel behind me and thought of the differences between being six years old in that place and being 32 years old there. The walls of the sanctuary had said, “You will never be six again, or 18 or 29. You will never be this age or this person or this body again from the moment you leave this darkened sanctuary and return to the light of the world.” And that was neither a cause for rejoicing nor for bereavement; it was only a cause for fine tuning.

Driving back to Memphis, sipping on a beer and listening to Merle Haggard on the radio, I realized that I had not seen so many stars out in a long, long time. I guessed that I just hadn’t been away from the city at night where I could see the glory of a clear, well-lit universe. Pulling into a restroom-less rest area, I got out of the car and leaned against its side, looking about me. A night like that is awesome in its magnificence, and I marveled at the power and the amazing artfullness of a God who would create something as breathtaking as this universe. And I marveled also at the love, patience, and grace of the same God who allows us to become human in it.

The next time The Family gathers, I will be there. But I will go early and stay late, because just having met these people, I would like to spend some time getting to know them and letting them know me, whoever I’ll be at the time. Next time there will be no lost moments. There will be instead wine and dance, and Napoleon brandy and wee morning hours.

I raised a beer in holy toast to The Family and to the God who had been there all along, got back in the car, and drove toward tomorrow. □