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Oh, the stories they tell

We meet at the Nashville airport -- Mama, my sister Kim and myself -- then drive a rental car to Clarksville for Uncle Frank's 80th birthday and the Morrison family reunion. Out on the highway, we know we are home.

This is home on a cellular level. It is not the towns themselves that beckon us. They have grown into barely distinguishable suburban enclaves, surrounded by four-lane and six-lane thoroughfares lined with fast-food joints and Wal-Marts and Big K's and Home Depots.

Home comes back to us first from the curve and rise of a road, tall forest right up to the shoulder, roller coaster hills. From the bottom dip, we can't see what's over the next rise. Finally we reach a high point, a summit or a bridge, and what lies spread out before us in the last weekend of September is an autumn-tinged quilt, raised up and just released, undulating softly.

Home is in the voices of our relatives, storytellers gathered around the kitchen table well past midnight. Uncle Frank tells the story of great-uncle Dick, back in the 1920s. He worked for the railroad, building the line through Clarksville, and lived in a row of one-room shacks heated by wood stoves. Somebody kept stealing firewood from Uncle Dick's stack, so one day he bored out the center of a log and stuck in a stick of dynamite. That night, an explosion from inside one of the other shacks set it on fire. The poor man who lit the stick of dynamite stood outside shivering in his long underwear.

"Here come Uncle Dick," howls Uncle Frank, "shaking his fist, yellin' 'so you're the son of a bitch that's been stealin' my firewood!" We laugh and tears leak out of our eyes, a Morrison family characteristic.

This is a story we haven't heard before. It delights us, but so do the old stories that we've heard over and over and always ask Uncle Frank to tell again, like the time he and Uncle Glenn set the barn on fire searching for kittens with lit matches. Uncle Glenn got the whipping of his life while Uncle Frank hid under the bed. By the time his parents found him, they were so relieved that he hadn't burned up in the barn, they didn't even punish him.

We laugh again and wipe our eyes, then my mother and Frank look down at their hands, remembering their brother Glenn, dead now from cancer and a lifetime of smoking and drinking.

Home is in the names of our people -- Lula, Uncle Bailey, Charlie May, Willie May -- and in the long line of dishes piled on the table at the family reunion. Aunt Bernice, who watches her diet fiercely now and never indulges in sweets but is the best baker in the county, makes Seven-Up Cake with coconut and pineapple icing and homemade sourdough bread. At home, she has a buttermilk pie waiting for her son Maurice, who will come down from Nashville tomorrow for the birthday celebration. Uncle Frank's wife Jan brings a pot of her home-canned flat green beans and a huge platter of hickory-smoked, chopped pork barbecue from the Excel Grocery, the best in Clarksville, everyone agrees, even since the business was turned over to a Korean family from the old man who ran it for years.

We don't know most of the folks at the reunion, but they look vaguely like us. Inside the fellowship hall of the Louise Church at Gum Springs, long tables with bench seats are filled with Morrisons.

"I didn't have directions how to get here," a wrinkled man in overalls says loudly to the men at his table. "I just stopped and asked two old bootleggers down the road."

The next day, Uncle Frank jokes that he knows how Jesus felt facing the crucifixion as he bleaches his fingernails, dresses in a suit and drives with Jan across town to his 80th birthday party. Stories flow all afternoon, camera flashes wink and Jan looks on proudly as Frank has a good time, surprised that more than 100 people showed up in his honor.

Back home that night we have leftover barbecue and potato salad and lemon meringue pies, Jan's chess pie and Aunt Bernice's coconut cake to nibble on as we sit around the table again until midnight. Outside the tall forest rings with the chirp and shriek of cicadas, crickets and tree frogs.

We sleep in the fond embrace of home, our cells adjusting backward to the place we know well, deep within our bones.

--kathryn@csindy.com

  • Oh, the stories they tell

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