The Grapevine Art Salon
Charles Knottis retired from careers in teaching and psychotherapy. He lives in Palmetto, Georgia, in a house built in l863, where his parents lived for 35 years and where ancestral voices furnish ample material for his memoirs.
Sunday Dinner: A Reminiscence
When I was five years old, my mother and father and I lived briefly in the part of Atlanta called West End in an apartment of the huge house owned by my grandfather, who was known in the family as Hi-Paw. The woman who was his wife and my grandmother, known as Mam-Maw, also lived in the house, as did my Aunt Evelyn and her husband, whom I called Uncle Pudding, and she called "Pudding," or simply "Pud."
What I'm remembering now is the family's mid-day meal each Sunday known as Sunday Dinner, which for us was an occasion of major importance. From my point of view, the actual beginning of Sunday Dinner was Saturday when Old Mary showed up. She was the ancient black lady who was hired to help Mam-Maw. No one knew how old she was--even she did not know--but I imagined that she was about as old as anybody could ever be. Her arrival meant it was time for me to go into the backyard and catch a chicken, which I would then bring to her. Catching the chicken on Saturday was my job because I was the one in the family nimble enough, and undignified and unimportant enough, to go scrambling around the back yard for such a purpose. This was the first job life had asked me to perform, and I didn't like it.
With one hand, Old Mary would grasp my chicken's neck and wind it up, like she was cranking a Model T Ford. The action produced terminal stress on the chicken's neck and separated the head and neck from the rest of the body. The head stayed in Old Mary's hand while the chicken's headless body would hit the ground running at amazing speeds, with blood spurting and wings flapping. Mary and I would solemnly watch this spectacle until the running dead creature's movements subsided. I would look at the head that remained in her hand, and marvel that the chicken's eyes were awake and alive, the eyelids from time to time calmly blinking. I always wondered how the headless body could be so agitated while the bodiless head was so serene.
One of the hens found a hole in the fence and escaped the yard several Saturdays in a row, each time causing me to select another hen instead. After her alternate had been slaughtered, I would have to chase the escaped hen around the neighborhood and bring her back to the yard. She would stay in the yard peacefully feeding throughout the week until the following Saturday, when she would sense that Sunday Dinner preparations were being set into motion, and she would escape again.
I got tired of chasing her around the neighborhood, and I plugged the hole in the fence with a board. The following Saturday I caught her as she pushed against the board trying to make her usual escape. Young as I was, I was aware that I held the power of life and death over these creatures. More than once, this one had been picked by me to make the ultimate sacrifice; in each case, she had cheated by escaping. In that sense, she had outlived herself at the expense of others. I felt a grim sense of justice served as I gave her to Old Mary for execution, yet the mantle of Minister of Justice, so to speak, did not rest comfortably on my shoulders.
After being wound up by Mary, the hen's headless body hit the ground running, as expected, but, to my amazement, she then went back to the very hole that I had plugged! How did her body find it with not only no eyes, but no head? I could not believe my own eyes!
I slept on this mystery and felt the next day that I needed proof of what I had seen. For verification, I checked the board and found that, sure enough, the board had been marked with her life's blood. This gave me irrefutable proof that what I had seen had actually happened. The markings left on the board provided physical evidence that even without her head, she had run away from me and Old Mary and had retained and tried to use the same knowledge that had worked for her on previous Saturdays when she still had her head!
I pondered the following questions, in a rudimentary form, of course: (1) Was there a fundamental disconnection between body and head even before they were physically separated, so that separation did not change behavior? (2) Did the body run because it was scared? That would mean the body had emotions even without a head. (3) How could the head be so calm? That would mean that the emotional concerns of the body were irrelevant to the head. (4) How did the headless body keep its balance long enough to make any progress around the yard? (5) And, why would a body that had already lost its head still seek safety? How would it define safety at this point, and which part of the body would do the defining? Most mysteriously, (7) how could a headless body, after being whirled in the air and dropped to the ground, get oriented to direction and accurately locate a particular spot in the fence? Was the knowledge of the location of the hole in the fence contained in the chicken's feet? Or, (8) were its eyes now in telepathic communication with the disconnected body and so able to direct it? Finally (9), just before execution, the hen had seen that the hole was now plugged. If she had learned earlier that the hole meant escape, had she not also learned today, before decapitation, that escape was no longer possible? How was it that, after decapitation, she could retain old knowledge about previous successful escapes, but could not retain new knowledge about new barriers?
These mysteries have haunted me regularly for the past 60 years, and I have asked many people how the bird's behavior was possible. No one has given a credible explanation. The first person I asked was Old Mary herself, whom I imagined to be an expert--but she showed no interest. In fact, she acted exactly as if I had not asked a question and as if, momentarily, I did not even exist. I often got that response from adults.
When the wings of the Sunday Dinner chicken had flapped their last flap, and the feet had stopped running and were not even kicking, Old Mary would gather up the carcass, and, holding it by the legs and allowing it to dangle by her side, she would take it to a large wash tub on the back porch that Mam-Maw had filled with hot water, submerge it, and begin plucking away the feathers. My work in furthering this brutal, bizarre and mysterious business was now complete, and I was dismissed to go and play.
I would have preferred to subsist on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and keep the chickens as pets. Of course, nobody consulted my preferences any more than they answered my questions.
On Sunday mornings, we would have a light breakfast so as to keep strong appetites for Dinner. The big kitchen in which Dinner was prepared soon came alive as my mother and Aunt Evelyn and Mam-Maw worked en rapport to create a fabulous meal. I could never understand why the work made them so happy. I would listen to their conversation and find the content to be totally nondescript. That's why I cannot replicate any of it here. When I try to recall anything they said, the memories disappear, as insubstantial as smoke. They did not even talk about the tasks they were performing, except occasionally to say perhaps that the biscuits must be "just about done," or some such remark.
Nevertheless, their voices were resonant--almost, at times, jubilant--and their emotions flooded the kitchen. It was easy for me to be carried along by cheerfulness and laughter, even though they were laughing at things that did not seem funny to me. At the very least, I was glad they were happy. Five-year-old children need happy adults and these adults created an atmosphere that I now imagine honored and delighted Hestia, the Greek Goddess of the Hearth and Larder. They elevated the occasion of fixing Sunday Dinner to the point that our kitchen was, quite simply, the center of the universe. That, too, was good for a five-year-old.
Preparations took forever. I would attempt to procure for myself a piece of yesterday's leftover pecan pie to staunch the emptiness and hunger I felt as I waited, but I was usually given a piece of celery instead, so as not to "ruin your appetite." But it was my appetite that was calling for pecan pie. How is it you ruin an appetite by satisfying it? My questions and objections were waved away by the irrepressible, steamroller energy of the women.
But something more interesting than the preparation of the meal, and more interesting than the meal itself, and certainly as interesting as even the lives and deaths of the helpless birds that made the meal possible, was the performance put on by Hi-Paw at the dinner table. Unlike the rest of us, who were quite casual and even careless about the way we dressed for Sunday Dinner, he came to the table fully dressed in elegant, creased pants, a white shirt, a necktie and blazer, and his ultimate Sunday dress-up trademark, a white boutonniere in his lapel.
Now--I should explain that I was always scared of Hi-Paw, not because he ever said an unkind word to me or did an unkind thing-because he did not; in fact, he was consistently kind to me--but simply because he was so remote, so tall, and so deep-voiced. He had a large, curved, beak-like nose, and when he worked around the house, he moved heavy objects. Once I saw him drown a fierce wharf rat captured in a cage under the house. No one else in this family could have done that. He had the eye of a whale, with a distant, far-roaming gaze that always looked at you, but also looked at something a thousand miles on the other side of you. What seas had he traveled, so to speak, and what did he know of other worlds? I realized I would someday have to travel as far as he had, or perhaps farther, if that were possible. For me, the future was so far away. I knew someday I would be grown up, but could I be fearless like Hi-Paw? I imagined he was a man who would back down from nothing on this earth.
I did not ask Hi-Paw directly what his intentions were in coming to the Dinner table arrayed in sartorial splendor. I felt far too much awe to ask him directly. Instead, I would ask my mother or Aunt Evelyn, "Is he going to church?" For an answer I got suppressive, glaring looks from the ladies. Then conversation among them would continue almost as if they were still in the kitchen, except there was a slight guardedness, a reduction of their warmth and buoyancy.
Well into the meal, Sunday Dinner was suddenly over. As he would get to the end of his meal, Hi-Paw's voice would abruptly shake the foundations of the house as he said something very cross to Mam-Maw. And he didn't call her "Mam-Maw." He was the only one in the family who called her by her real name, which was Mary Ola. Like unexpected thunder, a rumbling criticism of the meal would emanate from his chest and throat. He did not like, perhaps, his iced tea. It was too sweet. Or his cornbread was almost burned. Or there was not enough salt in the casserole. Once the complaint had been formally registered, it was followed by a brief, powerful diatribe. His speech would go something like this--slow and deliberate:
"I'm tellin' you what's the God's truth, I'm tired of never having a decent meal in this house! I work all the damned week long and then I can't even get nobody to take a interest in doing nothing right, no sir, not no damned way a'tall. I'm damned fed up with it, do you hear me?"
I sensed that his rage was theatrical and that there was no physical danger.
What does this have to do with chickens? Well, you see, there was this huge rooster that used to flail me when I went into the backyard alone. I was no match for him. He was too big, too fast, too unreasoning. His rage came from nowhere. It was senseless. But he was boss of the backyard (when Mary wasn't there), much as Hi-Paw was boss of the household. Like Hi-Paw, his fierce, masculine authority emanated from a source that was beyond my understanding. I was tiny, vulnerable, awed and, quite truthfully, envious. Where did such passion and power come from? Would I ever lose my timidity and gain my own thunder? I knew someday I would grow up, but my own adulthood seemed thousands of years away. Waiting for Sunday Dinner was onerous, but waiting to grow up was interminable.
What eventually happened was that I ran to my father and complained of the rooster's flailing. I needed some help making peace with the bird. I hoped my father would pen him up, or at least walk in front of me when I had to go into the yard on non-Saturdays when Mary was not there to protect me. I knew the rooster and I would have come to terms, but it would take time. As for now, I needed him to be corralled while I worked out novel ways to approach him and win him over.
Instead of taking such effective action as I wanted him to take, my father located one of those little wooden spars that used to go into the bottoms of window shades. This he gave to me, telling me to use it to defend myself against the rooster. I didn't think this was a good idea, but that's the kind of help I got from my father, help that proved time and again to be ill-conceived. Eventually, I stopped asking him for help and considered myself lucky when he did not know of my troubles.
But that day I was still young and gullible, so I made the best of what I was given in strategies, tactical imperatives and weapons: I found a weed patch away from the chickens and practiced hacking at the weeds with my wooden sword. When I became secure in the knowledge of my weapon's accuracy and power, I entered the chicken yard armed and braced for an attack. The attack came and I struck a flinching, blind, panicky blow at the rooster. I did not see where, or even if, I hit my target. I noticed that the attack stopped, however.
The following day the fearsome rooster did not flail me when I went into the yard armed, emotionally pumped, and ready for another round of combat. I saw that my enemy was dispirited, pecking lamely at his food which he was unable to eat, and, a moment later, I saw he was unable to drink water from his bowl. Looking closer, I discovered I had broken his beak. I was terribly upset and everybody in the family knew it; for once, they noticed me and sympathized with me.
The following Saturday, I was excused from chicken-catching. In my childish way, I thought nothing of it. At Sunday Dinner I remarked that I had been outside and noticed that the rooster was not tending his flock as usual. My family nodded grimly towards the big platter that today held an unusually fine bird. Overwhelmed by my thoughts and feelings, I had to leave the table and sort myself out.
Regularly on Sundays, after delivering his theatrical invective, Hi-Paw would throw his thick, clean and carefully ironed white linen napkin on the table in disgust and storm out of the room and out of the house, slamming the front door behind him. He had feigned disappointment in the meal and interpreted that fictitious disappointment to the family group as betrayal by Mam-Maw! He actually pretended that she had not made a good enough meal and that this family gathering, this whole effort known as Sunday Dinner, had failed in such a disgusting manner that his eyes could no longer look upon it, leaving him no choice but to part company with us in disgust. No further discussion. Case closed. And he was out of the room and then out of the house. No one challenged him, and no one got between him and the door.
Mam-Maw-who a few minutes earlier had been a cheerful, round, elfin grandmother, moving swiftly and effortlessly about the kitchen on her tiny feet, and skillfully manipulating her pots and pans with her little plump fingers while singing her joyful songs and praises to Hestia (speaking figuratively, of course), would now wilt and take on the demeanor of a chastened and humiliated child who was even younger, more helpless and more vulnerable than me. I would want to befriend her, to ask her if she'd like to come outside with me and play with my toys. My mother and Aunt Evelyn would avoid eye contact with everyone and grimly finish their food in silence, without appetite. My father and Uncle Pudding would exchange glances, smile a scant, knowing smile, and shrug their shoulders. They knew something--but what? I was a small boy, but what I had seen was no small matter.
Intriguingly, everyone at the Dinner table felt Hi-Paw's masculine ascendancy in the family as a fact, just as surely as the hens in the backyard had felt, and did not question, the rooster's masculine ascendancy over them. As in the backyard with the flailing rooster, so at the Dinner table with the raging grandfather: I had witnessed an irresistible energy--in this case, an energy that had turned upside down a roomful of people upon whom I could make no impression. Hi-Paw, like the rooster, got respect from his group and controlled them to some extent--that same group of people who rolled over me without even slowing down. Thankfully, Hi-Paw showed me respect and affection when he was aware of me at all, but he had little time for me.
One Sunday I left the table immediately after Hi-Paw did and watched him from the living room window. He moved briskly down the concrete steps of our long, terraced front yard to the sidewalk. When he got there, he looked sharply to his left, established his direction, and walked away swiftly, like a man with a strong and youthful purpose. He did not walk like a man who was upset with his family; rather, he walked like a man with no thoughts of family at all. How did he clear his mind so quickly and efficiently of the train wreck he had constellated and presided over at the Dinner table just moments ago?
Years later I learned from Aunt Evelyn that Hi-Paw performed this ritual rage and departure action each Sunday so that he could have the afternoons free to visit lady friends. It was his track-clearing engine of sexual desire that shoved us all aside--once he had finished his fine chicken dinner--and opened his life up to sexual conquest while the rest of us males lay around the house purposeless, torpid, and satiated. Frankly, I had wanted to leave the table and go with him, even though I did not know where he was going, and I feared he was walking so fast I could not have kept up. Eventually, he stopped returning, but that is another chapter.
Hi-Paw's death occurred some years later when I was 18. The funeral was held in Newnan, Georgia, and it was quite an event. To our amazement, at least 75 people were present, far more than would have come to bury anyone else in this family. They were mostly farming families who had grown old and retired. They were all very interested to meet me and the rest of us--they had heard about us, they said, from Homer (Hi-Paw, to you and me). Several of them said they had heard him preach at different churches around Newnan many times. This was news to us. Apparently there was some Sunday afternoon religion practiced by the old rascal. I suspected he ingratiated himself with the ladies of the congregation more than he pursued metaphysical issues from the pulpit--but, who knows? Perhaps he carried an inner Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards that he only showed when he was in the Newnan area. Why, for that matter, should he limit his dramatic outbursts to the dinner table when pulpits and congregations welcomed him?
Aunt Evelyn cried at the funeral. I was touched by the love she felt for her father--her loyalty to him had never wavered despite all the strife he had caused the family--and by the fact that she was beautiful when she cried. Mam-Maw had discreetly and silently excused herself from the event; she simply refused to leave the house. Aunt Evelyn was also loyal to her to the very end. They lived happily together until Mam-Maw died at a very advanced age. Aunt Evelyn was crushed by her death and died prematurely herself a few years later.
On the day of Hi-Paw's funeral, I walked across a long room toward his body. As I approached, the first feature I made out above the side of the casket was his beak-like nose. Then I peered over into his coffin and saw my first dead man.The funeral staff had done an excellent job, making him look handsome and serene. They had managed to shape a tranquil, Buddha-like smile onto his face, a smile that blotted out his rascality and his courage, leaving only kindness. This struck me as wrong. Then I sensed an untoward drabness in his wardrobe. Something was missing. I broke a white carnation from among the huge bank of flowers around the coffin and fitted it into Hi-Paw's lapel. It seemed to me that his demeanor brightened at once. Now he could enter heaven with his customary Sunday afternoon jauntiness. Now he could walk the streets of gold with the same youthful purpose I had seen that day he left the house and bounded up Holderness Street like a young lion in pursuit of his mate.
Then I said a silent prayer to notify heaven that our Hi-Paw, inimitable and by God indomitable husband, father, grandfather, preacher and lover, was on his way.
"Charlotte" Photograph by Cleo Hudson
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