As we slowly descend the back side of summertime, it may be time to reflect upon the official “reunion season” that generally accompanies the flies, gnats and yellow jackets that always find their way to the picnic tables during summer. As long as the flying varmints stay away from the potato salad and the dumplings, I can deal with them, but I must insist that at least those two food staples be completely covered over. After all, no family reunion can be properly classified as such if there is no potato salad or dumplings. In fact, maybe legislation should be introduced addressing this serious matter. Perhaps one of our House of Delegate members can introduce a bill making it a $50 fine to leave these two items uncovered during family reunions. I mean, heck, we are talking about super foods at a reunion, right?
Family reunions and what are called “meetings on the grounds” have long been an Appalachian tradition. Although most family reunions are held at various state parks, the other gatherings are usually held in rural areas near family cemeteries. This tradition was the true beginning of family get togethers in these parts. Preaching and/or singing often accompany these traditional events. Growing up, I many times heard someone ask another, “Are you and your youngins’ going to the “meetin’ on the grounds” this year?”
Of course summer also means high school reunions; they often are accompanied by picnics in the park, or elsewhere. But, it has been my observance that you just do not get the same type of food at these reunions as one finds where grandmas, aunts and other relatives have done the down- to- earth cooking or baking. I’ve also found you just can’t count on the younger generation for good chicken and dumplings.
For me, there is more to a family reunion than just the delicious food that accompanies the get together. Seeing family you do not get to see very often and reminiscing about days gone by when life was much simpler are important aspects of any reunion. It is also a time to reflect upon and honor those family members and friends who have died; even some who may have attended the previous year’s event. Still, the playful ways of the children on these special days helps ease the grief a family member may feel about one who has come and gone from this earthly domain.
Our family reunion is slated for Saturday, September 12 at Chief Logan State Park, and I look forward to it—that is, if there is sure to be dumplings and potato salad. But for now, allow me to relate a few happenings from last year’s get together. First, there is my Aunt Lois June Bowers, my dad’s sister. I remember the first time I met Lois was when she and her husband Henry brought their clan to Logan County from a coal mining area in Norton, Va., or Harlan, Ky.; I believe they lived in both places. We were at my grandparents’ home at Verdunville and I was very young. Lois’ first words to me, as she ran her hand through my then blondish hair, were: “Oh, you’ve got that kind hair, don’t you?” Bewildered, I must have given her an odd look as she completed her thought: “You know— that kind that grows on a dog’s hind end.” It is this same Aunt Lois who still today never forgets my birthday and never forgets to call me on that particular day.
So, I suppose it was to be expected when last year at the reunion she called me aside, took out a piece of paper from her pocket to remind herself, and then asked me the following: “Did you hear about the couple that was visiting the Holy Land?” I said I did not hear about it, and Lois continued in her usual low-toned voice, “Well, there were this man and his nagging wife vacationing in the Holy Land, when his wife had a heart attack and died. It was going to cost the man $5,000 to have her body shipped back to the United States. Feeling sorry for the gentleman, local officials told the man he could have his wife buried there in the Holy Land,” Lois explained. “After just a couple of seconds of thought, the man answered: ‘Thanks anyway. I happen to know about the guy who was buried here once, and he came back to life after just three days. And I don’t want to take that chance.” Thanks Lois for those trinkets of wisdom.
From other relatives, I learned a lot. For instance, my Uncle Rudy, my dad’s youngest brother, himself a veteran of Vietnam, was surprised that I did not know that my father fought in every major battlefield front and was awarded five medals during World War II. My dad, Carlos Williamson, never spoke of the war to his immediate family, so we had no idea what he had gone through in serving his country. Dad told my uncle some horrifying stories about the war.
Then, there is the story about my grandfather, Amos Williamson. It was not unusual for families to raise hogs back in the day. I remember my grandpa and his brother Albert raising hogs on the side of the school house road at Verdunville. After fattening them up all summer, the hogs would meet their fate in colder weather. The meat was shared by different families in the coal camp neighborhood. In this same neighborhood was a young boy who constantly was sucking his thumb. I guess nobody knew what a pacifier was back then. The boy was approaching teenager hood, and there were those who thought it time for him to break the thumb-sucking habit.
So one day when my grandpa and others were at the hog pen site, one of the men yelled for the boy (who shall remain unnamed) to come assist them. The boy climbed the hill to the smelly site. “We’ve got to measure this hog’s tail; so hold his tail up with your left hand and let me have the other one,” grandpa said. Quickly, the boy’s thumb was jammed into the hog’s rectum. And just as quickly, the boy automatically—out of nervous habit— inserted the same thumb into his own mouth. I was told it solved the young man’s thumb sucking problem for good.
Amidst the sounds of the clanging of horseshoes against the metal pegs, more stories emerge. From one cousin reminding me of some Halloween pranks we used to pull off, to another cousin (Carlson Bowers) reminding me that nobody could stop the quarterback-receiver football combination we made in coal camp football games. Yes, the memories keep flowing, as my Uncle Willard Burton, now in his 90’s, has given prayer for the blessing of the food, and it reminds me that he drove the church bus that hauled me to Sunday school each week for several years when I was yet a boy. There are present his sons, Marvin and Phillip, their sister, Beverly, and their offspring. Marvin never used a foul word in his life and was a fantastic athlete, while Phillip, well, let’s just say, he hung around with the rest of us guys a bit too much, but he turned out just fine.
Ah, the memories and stories from family and friends that grew up in and around the coal camps—there simply are too many to relate in my ramblings, but they are cherished in the hearts and minds of many who attend reunions. One such story I must end this writing with is again concerning my grandfather. It seems as a stout teenager and eager worker; he worked regularly in Wayne County for a man named Thomas Moore, who had fathered nine daughters and one son. Grandpa plowed fields, cut timber and did many other chores for Mr. Moore for an extensive time. One day, Mr. Moore, who also was a salesman for Tri-State Wholesale of Kenova for many years, took “Poppy”, (as many of us grandkids like to call him) aside. “Amos, you’re a fine worker and a good young man; so, you can have your pick of my daughters,” said Moore. Stunned, grandpa made his choice by pointing at the one named Lillie.
“Oh no, Amos, that’s my youngest one, and she’s not nearly old enough for marriage,” Mr. Moore explained. “Well, I’ll just wait,” was my patient grandpa’s reply. Sometime thereafter, the two married and together they raised nine children; one of them, of course, was my dad.
The Williamson clan, some of which go by the name of Williams, but all have the same blood, are descendants of Alden Williamson, the first white settler in the area of Pigeon Creek near Lenore in Mingo County, which was at the time a part of Virginia. All of this family can trace its roots back to the Indian captivity of Jenny (Sellards) Wiley, whose daughter Jane “Jenny” Wiley married Richard Williamson, who was born in 1786. One can find descendants of these and other related Williamsons throughout eastern Kentucky, and in counties like Wayne, Lincoln, Cabell, Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties.
Likewise, there are many family members of different names spread throughout the country. Of course, that is what family reunions are for: to reunite and reminisce. Just make certain that there is plenty of chicken and dumplings, and don’t forget the potato salad—the mustard kind, of course.
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.