Gabriel once asked me to tell him about the best day of my life - in the nineteenth century. I never answered him, for we then moved on to other matters. But I had always meant to relate an account of one of the large family barbecues that we used to hold out at my uncle's big house in Fayetteville. The war began when I was ten. This was before we were blighted by its events, when we were all young and happy; strong and handsome. Though, as always, I say it myself. It is not a memory of one
party, but an amalgam of those perfect times.
The night before I would ride over with my uncles and Francisco, leaving the Major to drive my mama and my aunts the next day. They liked to have the house to themselves while they got ready and arranged their dresses, and they required greater refinement than we boys. And I wanted most of all to see my cousin Hub, just a year older than I and the closest I ever came to having a real brother. It was a treat to stay with him and talk in the night, anticipating food and music and activity the next day. And my Mattie, of course. I shared everything with him in those days, eager to hear and take in all of his life, and to give him my overflowing accounts and musings on my life, that we might become more truly brothers. It was important to me. We stayed up late, quiet as we could, sharing a bed because we were smallest and there were so many people who would come. Our family encouraged our friendship, and it pleased my Uncle John mightily, I know. I spoke poorly in those days, but my dear mama had insisted that no one mention it nor tease me, so that I could be confident and uninhibited as I learned.
In the morning we would wake up to breakfast trays - bacon and eggs and biscuits with butter and jam with big cups of coffee that was mostly milk. Then we would dress in our play clothes and go out to play chase and circle games with my uncles and older cousins, until my mama and papa arrived with our best clothes. We would then all dress in our finery and go out to the stables to greet the people arriving and to look at the horses. Tom was my favourite of my young uncles. He would take me out and teach me to shoot and dare me to try fancy riding tricks, almost like an elder brother too. He was older and better and though I was young and slight, he inspired me and encouraged me to attempt things beyond those I of which I knew myself capable. It was due to the long pleasant or wild hours that I spent with him that I became accustomed to being the youngest of a company. On such occasions, he would bring Hub and I tastes of liquor and let us share his cigars.
Eventually, Mattie would come, with my Uncle Robert and his family. Then, I would go to walk with her in the shade and scent of the cedars, for by that time the sun would be high and the day very hot. Sometimes Hub would join us, and we talked then, our heads close, of how life would be when we were grown, and of books we read and things we had learned. I tried to be good for my mama, but I wanted to be good for Mattie as well. She
was so good herself, and held such high opinions of everyone, seeing the very best in even the very worst of them, but I hated to think I might disappoint her. I wanted to be worthy
of her respect, and even admiration. She... shone with admiration for everything, and it made her so beautiful herself. I liked her best in white - she looked so pure and cool, but her face was so open, interested, and glad of my presence. As we walked, we could meander back occasionally for ice-cold lemonade with mint, against the heat. I was so glad to bring this to her and do small things to please her. It was so exciting and responsible at the same time. She always made me feel proud - not just of her, but of myself. She has always brought out the very best in me. Even the thought of her has always done so.
Then it would be time for the barbecue itself. In the great yard had been set the troughs and pits for the barbecue that smelt hot and thick with scorched meat, and the smoke and the vapour of the heat itself rose visible, causing everything within this area to wave and move, half-obscured. The food would be set out on rows of tables covered with white cloths, and we would line up patiently, plates in our hands, to fill high with food. There were biscuits, always my favourite, and gravy, corn and tomatoes, plates of vegetables, potatoes and salads, beef, chicken and pork. So much food. We would then go sit at the other tables, with board benches, set up casually for a picnic. My aunt's second best china was used, but it was so pleasant to have the contrast of the finely and elaborately dressed people and the deliberately rustic settings. I sat with Hub and Mattie, of course, and Tom would join us, and my Uncle William, just a little older than Tom, and George, Hub's older brother.
When everyone had eaten to their pleasure, the tables would be cleared and dessert set out. Such an array of pies and cakes, and at the end, the miracle treat in those days before refrigeration - ice cream. It was thick with real cream and mixed with peaches that had been boiled with sugar and cooled. I loved ice cream, and I loved peaches. I still do. The peaches made me feel patriotic, and I loved them for themselves - the flavour, but also the texture of soft fuzz and the scent and firm softness resisting but inviting one's teeth as one bit into them. I like the strange wrinkles in the nut inside, and the slightly acrid but unique flavour of the tiny seed inside, when they break open. The colour is that of sunsets and of rosy cheeks... But I digress.
After the meal it was time for the girls to rest in the heat of the day, and we little boys were given to understand that we were to rest too at that time, apart from them, in order that we might be cool and alert for the evening. When the moment came, however, my mama relented, knowing how much it meant to me to spend time with Hub and to believe myself a man. We were allowed to the salon, where the men smoked their aromatic cigars and drank their strong liquor while they talked of politics and ideals and indeed sometimes recited poetry. Hub and I were very quiet and sat side by side on the smallest bench, listening and very aware of our status as children respected enough to be allowed the honour of the company of adults. Often my Uncle John, Hub's father, would sit with us at such times. He loved me like a son and would ask me brief but telling questions of my studies, thoughts and activities - not to interfere, but to keep his finger on the pulse of my growing life.
My mama sat in the shade of the yard with the older women and talked of women's matters, waving big fans to cool themselves. I knew better than to go to her there, but I looked for her when I had occasion to venture near, to admire her grace and quietness among the other women. During such events we had different activities, but sometimes I could see her looking out for me, and her eyes would meet mine with a gentle smile. If we had occasion to meet, she would smooth my clothes or run her fingers absently but fondly through my hair. All the boys respected and admired my mother. She was gentle, but so firm, always looking out for our interests, assuming we were well-intentioned, with faith in us, while wanting
us to be good.
After the afternoon period of quiet, there would be a light supper of cold meat, crystal dishes of pickles and chutneys, cold potatoes, and for desert the remaining cakes and jelly sandwiches, with milk this time, to promote our health and fortitude. Then we would play parlour games in the front yard and then hide-and-seek, when the shadows began to stretch across the grass. It was so exciting to hide, and to sneak though the concealing bushes, feeling oneself a military spy, looking for one's young relations; mere shapes in the gloaming, as one attempted to be quiet and alert and to identify them by such subtle things as the sound of their breath when one detected them crouched, waiting. Again, Hub and I would form a unit, and would pride ourselves and admire each other as we endeavoured to be the most patient and tactical, even in these small games. The others were older, but there were two of us. It was with Hub that I first learned to prize friendship above all. I was secure with our unity, and I would have done anything for him.
Finally, there would be no denying that it was late evening. Then we would be called indoors and my mama would play the piano, while my Irish Uncles played the old ballads and songs of Thomas More, and my French Uncles played the lively bright Cajun songs, and there would be dancing. I danced with Mattie, so cool and perfect. One treated ladies, and maidens, gently in those days and more was not possible, though walking we experimented, our hearts beating like drums, with the sweetest and most touching of tentative chaste children's kisses. The forms of the dances allowed me to take her hand in mine, her dear soft fingers clinging to me. Or to place my tender hand at her neat waist, held smooth and curved by her corset. Or to put my arm about her, perhaps, as we moved with the others, looking into each other's eyes, our feet in the rhythms and steps so well-known they were second nature. But sometimes Mattie had to dance with the others, because there were more boys than girls. And Hub and I would dance with each other as well, taking turns leading. And sometimes, I would dance with my mama.
Eventually, we became more and more tired and danced less and less, until the company had gone from dancing to singing and we drowsed on the couches, among the pillows. Then we would be led to bed, where we would listen briefly to the varying hum and movement of the adults downstairs before we fell asleep.
Next morning, I would bid farewell to Hub and Mattie, my Uncle John, my cousin George, and all the others. Dressed in my customary clothes, I would ride back after breakfast with Tom, William and Francisco behind, or before the wagon in which the major drove my mama and aunts home to Griffin.
That is what I would regard as a perfect day.Name: John H. Holliday, DDS.
Word Count: 1921
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Nulli Virtute Secundus