People are often horrified when I explain how much a scene in the movie Deliverance, based on the James Dickey novel, reminds me of my family and fills me with such fond memories. No, not that scene, though I can’t blame anyone when the mind instantly leaps to that part. This scene occurs much later, after the pig squealin’, and the killin’ and the rapids crushin’ and the cliffs and whatnot. The remaining characters gather at a large dining room table, surrounded by a slew of mountain people, and the juxtaposition of experienced horror versus the goodness in front of him, brings Ned Beatty’s character, Bobby, to tears. In the book, Dickey writes that the house was “booming and knocking with people and light.” Further, Dickey records the following foods atop the “long, swayback pine table”: “fried chicken . . . potato salad and heavy, course biscuits and gravy and butter and collards and lima beans and big hominy and turnip greens and cherry pie.” So, it was with my extended family – plenty of people, warmth at the table, and our bellies full of good food. (I say extended family because in my own family unit, we were poor as dirt and lucky to have potato soup or cornbread and milk.)
Every so often when I was a child, my family and I traversed outside the deep holler to the homes of my grandparents or great-grandparents or great aunts & uncles, and, let me tell you, it was a large family affair. I remember those gatherings vividly and they weren’t just at holidays or reunions. My brother and I were usually in a sort of stunned, silent awe watching our cousins run wild and rambunctious throughout a house, or hearing them hootin’ and hollerin’ outside. And our eyes sparkled like rock candy in the sunlight once we saw the long dining room table overflowing with food.
When we went to my great aunt Aunt Gladys’ house, she inevitably pulled me aside, bent down to my little ear, and whispered,
“You see them pickles? They’re bread & butter pickles. I knowed you liked ‘em and I took a jar out just for you. You go own’n have some, now. But don’t tell nobody.”
And that was before supper. I felt so special each time I went there and that jar of pickles was sitting smack dab in the middle of the table just for me. I was a tiny spectator in the large world of an enveloping mountain family. Times like these enabled my mind to capture and tuck away snapshot images of my great grandfather Goodman’s smile, my great grandmother Goins’s face, my mammaw Shown’s busyness, my aunts and uncles parading or even arguing. All these visuals are encased within a buzz of hummed words I can’t recall, but the hum lingers. And anytime I want, I can pull up a memory from those gatherings and my ancestors are still here with me. Even when my sons were younger, we had our own family gatherings at my parents’ house in the holler, full to the brim with the same foods, the same special feeling, and the same rambunctious nature inside the children.
Ah, but time fades, people change, and loved ones leave. After my father passed away, it seemed like those get-togethers left with him. My mother could no longer care for the large, four-bedroom house in the holler she and my father built with their own hands (and that’s no hyperbole); so she was forced to sell it, along with the dining room table where we all sat just about every weekend for dinner or supper.
This current situation, with the pandemic all around us in every pocket of our nation and in every “corner” of the world, makes one (if a body is implementing safe social distancing, wearing masks, and staying in as much as possible) remember those old days when families gathered together eating and singing and playing and talking.
Recently, I considered how we as a nation don’t do that anymore. We don’t eat together anymore as a large family unit outside our immediate family (and sometimes not even with them). Even before the pandemic, we were all so busy zipping here, running there, fast and chaotic at all times, scarfing down whatever greasy burger slid down our gullet in the car on our way from point A to point B, and burning our candles until the ends were gone. Does anyone really remember why the candles were burning in the first place? Those times are lost opportunities to be present, to be in the moment, to be still.
But true dining instances are so impactful. They enable families to know one another, to be close to each other, even if “Old Uncle Cletus” (or the like) is drunker than a skunk and spouting off nonsense. Every member adds value and color to our families. Plus, things have a way of balancing out. If you have an Old Uncle Cletus in the family, you have a Great Aunt Gladys.
Passing food from one kin to the next is such an intimate gesture that enables us a tangible experience with an imprint of our bloodline. And think of the love that went into these homecooked meals from harvest to preparation to serving, consuming, washing, and cleaning. At the dinner table, topics along the lines of fishing, deer hunting, childrearing, or swimming holes may occur. Oral histories are told and, if we’re fortunate, our old, wise kin build upon those histories. Folklore and storytelling abound. Arguments sometimes breach the conversation, and, should a person storm out, that’s just another opportunity for reflection, understanding, or, in some cases, avoidance. Togetherness adds to the story of our history.
And, too, “family” doesn’t have to be blood kin. One can look to that old saying about family: there’s the family you’re born into and the family you choose. Sometimes, a family is comprised of both blood relatives and soul relatives.
I write all this not because I’m criticizing or harping. I write this because I’m guilty, too. Yet, the current times allow me to be more contemplative, to acknowledge regrets and missed opportunities. But I’ve also fostered a real hospitable, “as soon as” mentality. As soon as this is over, I hope to host gatherings. As soon as this is over, I want to listen to and hear people. As soon as this is over, I want to laugh next to a friend without the distress of social distancing. As soon as this is over, I’d like to hug my mother, visit my brother, hold my nieces and nephews, or kiss my son’s cheek without fear. As soon as this is over, I want to welcome my husband home from work without spraying him and all his belongings with disinfectant or alcohol (70% or greater, of course). As soon as this is over, I long to look at my fellow citizen with a smile instead of terror. As soon as this is over, maybe, just maybe, I can be some little child’s Great Aunt Gladys, too.
So, thank you, James Dickey for Deliverance. I’m sure such an author never imagined the impact just a few lines, or a simple scene, could have on a person. And, ironically, it’s not even that scene.
**Featured Image Source: Unsplash – Chetan Hireholi
Interesting and unexpected perspective. Thanks for adding some nuance to this oft-maligned and over-simplified movie and for treating us to a family portrait of the lost art of eating together.
You’re quite welcome, Jim. I agree with you – this movie has been over-simplified. When I watched Deliverance, the scene I wrote about offered so much comfort for me. And, for the viewer or reader, it is a welcomed sigh of relief after so much trauma. I love James Dickey. I love the rawness he brings to these characters and how he portrays the ugliness of the mountains, yet displays the talent, compassion, and hospitality of mountain people.
Sooo much of my memory is rooted in the food. The smells. The stories. I felt this to my soul.
I’m glad this sparked memories for you. Nothing jolts (or appeals to) the senses more, I think, than food. When I’m cooking, I often think back to those family gatherings and the warmth and love that went into such hospitality.