Tomatoes ©Averyell A. KesslerEarly Saturday morning, an unexpected item popped up on my laptop. Not an unusual phenomenon, but this one was different. It came from a New England travel site and featured an article titled, “The Tomato Sandwich-A New England Sumer Treat.” What the heck? Each word slapped me in the face, and I finally understood the definition of cultural appropriation. “No, no, darlin’. That’s ours.” I said aloud as I starred at six red ripe Smith County beauties from Brenda’s Produce at the old farmers’ market. (I bought lady peas also, but that’s another matter). The article went further, proclaiming that the tomato sandwich was one of six traditional New England sandwiches beloved by everyone.This is not a simple transgression, like sending a late birthday card or forgetting the name of your seventh-grade science teacher. This is a biggie. This is wearing an Alabama tee shirt to an LSU football game or the Clarion Ledger confusing Mississippi State and Ole Miss in a banner headline. This is adding a handful of kale to the biscuit dough. This is treason! I re-checked the origins of the tomato sandwich by leafing through a reliable source, The White Trash Cookbook, Ernest Matthew Mickler’s comedic cookbook printed in the late 1980’s. In addition to All-American Slum-Gullion and Jail House Chili, it contains a plethora of authentic old-time southern recipes. I found Kitchen Sink Tomato Sandwich on page 74. It includes brief instructions as well as “commence to eat over the kitchen sink while the juice runs down your elbows.” Thank you, Mr. Mickler, how well I know. As a secondary source, I looked in Mama’s 1951 Joy of Cooking and found the tea party version of tomato sandwiches. Still good.So, what to do with my tomatoes? I’ve joyfully said goodbye to pale, hot house grocery store tomatoes as hard and juiceless as tennis balls. The real thing is resting on my cutting board waiting me to pierce its shimmering skin and release an explosion of juice and seeds. After that, anything is possible – tomato jam, creole okra and tomatoes, tomato pickles, and stuffed tomatoes overflowing with shrimp salad, sauces for boundless pastas and lastly, one of my favorites, tomato soup. Simple, delicious and not requiring instructions from Julia Child.To me, tomatoes tastes like summer, a picnic at the beach, Sunday lunch feast at Aunt Allie’s overloaded table. It’s knowing where the tomatoes came from and who tilled the soil. It’s a neighbor knocking on my door with a sack full of backyard bounty. “Here’s a few more,” she says. “I put in some green ones in case you need’em.” It’s buying another jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise in case kin folks surprise you or an emergency late night snack is required.I’ve always wondered why southern food has such a mystique. It’s not complicated, doesn’t require exotic ingredients and is easily learned in grandmama’s kitchen. We don’t need faddish cooking equipment because our aged skillets are pure gold and the old beaten-up roasting pan is a family treasure. Sometimes our food requires a fishing pole, a crawfish net, or a hunting license. Maybe it’s just knowing which store offers the best yard birds, who smokes fall-off-the-bone ribs, or where to find homemade blueberry jam or bread and butter pickles. It’s also realizing that nobody wants broccoli tacos or tofu pie on their Thanksgiving table.So, New Englanders and other folks who wander by, you may sample out goodies. You’re allowed to slice juicy tomatoes and place them end to end on white bread. Be sure to slather on the mayonnaise. You can fry up a mess of Delta Pride catfish and dip the crisp ends in homemade tartar sauce. But remember, we’re saving the bream for ourselves. We’ll explain the difference between field peas, purple hull peas and crowder peas, and tell you how to season them or add snap beans to the pot. Listen carefully when a southern cook says, “I don’t measure anything, but I know when its right.” If you’re lucky, we’ll show you how to fill a black iron skillet with silver queen corn and fry it in bacon grease until it is sweet as apple pie. In return, I promise we will not have a clam bake on the beach in Biloxi or attempt to replicate a fresh lobster roll from a chewy frozen lobster tail. We will not tap a scraggly pecan tree and try to produce knock-off maple syrup. So, don’t worry, we like Mississippi mud pie a lot better that Boston cream pie. And if you want a real tomato sandwich, come on down.

Talking Honey©Averyell A. KesslerAs the child of midwestern parents, I was not taught the language of the south. Instead of Ohio, Daddy said Ahiya. Mama attended Northwestern in Chicaga and rode the “L” – whatever that was. My conversion happened by osmosis, as gentle expressions and soft southern words covered me like a fine mist. Unspoken lessons came from my backyard playmates who explained what an ice box was and insisted on drinking coke, not pop. I also learned to say Biloxi, not Bulocksee, and that it was ok to omit a syllable or two from the name of my home state. My Baptist friends explained that up yonder meant heaven and the minister was really the preacher. Also, that a revival could occur in a tent, a baptism might take place in a cattle pond, or a burial in the middle of a pasture.My only relatives lived far away in Columbus Ohio, a foreign land. They rooted for Ohio state (treason), grew unfamiliar vegetables such as swiss chard and wax beans, and ate food that even the most incompetent southern cook would have tossed out immediately. They spoke in squawks and beeps that sounded like a jackhammer on pavement. Thankfully, I only saw them once a year, but when that time arrived, I braced for the onslaught. My youngest cousin, Sue, always welcomed me with the same greeting “Eeew, you talk funny.” I tried not to say y’all, but it slipped out every so often and she laughed.“You-all havin’ fun up nawth,” Sue teased.“Y’all is plural,” I replied. “It’s a lot better that you guys.”I was suspicious when my aunt and cousin invited me out for a special lunch in downtown Columbus, a ladies’ only affair. My mother and I put on Sunday School dresses and met them at the Lazarus, a massive department store big enough to swallow Jackson’s Kennington’s in one gulp. It boasted gleaming escalators, sold everything from clarinets to canaries, and was taller than the First National Bank building. An elegant lunchroom was on the second floor.“Guess what?” Sue announced as we were seated by a long wall of windows with a panoramic view of downtown Columbus. “We’re going to be on the radio.”I smiled but said nothing.“It’s the Lunch on the Town Show with Robbie Robertson,” my aunt continued.“Who? Mama asked, rolling her eyes. Certainly, this was not Farmer Jim Neal or Woodie Assaf.“He interviews people having lunch here every Friday. I thought it would be fun. I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you and Averyell.”“Oh no,” I thought. “Here it comes. More teasing.”As I nibbled my way around the edges of a chicken sandwich, I tried to make myself small by an exercise of will. It didn’t work. When Robbie entered the room, he headed straight for our table like a streaking arrow. The next moment he lifted his microphone close to my lips and said, “I understand we have some folks from Mississippi here today.”“Yes, sir,” I answered. His eyes blinked once, twice. “What a polite young lady,” he said. The interview continued for ten eternal minutes as he asked benign questions about life in Mississippi, nodding and urging me on when I fell silent.Suddenly, Cousin Sue interrupted, “Don’t you think she talks funny?”Robbie turned and leveled Sue with searchlight eyes. “Sweetheart,” he answered. “I was born and raised in Memphis,Tennessee. She sounds like honey to me.”Sue shrank in her seat, her face flamed red. No one mentioned my accent again. I left the lunchroom with a bouquet of roses and a $100 gift certificate from Lazarus. Sue left with a sullen face, and tight, pressed together lips. It was a small but gratifying triumph.So, what exactly is a honey voice. For starters, it neither black nor white, young or old, or solely in the possession of women. It’s the gentle tone of home. I hear it when a childhood friend calls to invite me to lunch, or the grocery guy says, “You need a hand with that ma’am?” It’s a grandmother singing into a baby’s ear, or a little boy licking his thumb and asking, “when are we gonna cut that pie?” I recognize it when a gospel choir stands for Just a Closer Walk with Thee and tender harmony flows like sweet cream. A honey voice whispers softly like wind sweeping through pine trees and gives respite from the constant noise of electronic clatter. It speaks with a rhythm that can’t be duplicated and tells a tale like nobody’s business.A small caveat – a honey voice can raise a ruckus when needed. I remember an irritated Delta lady shrieking “Hush your mouth! You’re as drunk as Cooter Brown.” It’s an SEC coach taunting his opponent with “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch.” It was the growling curses of my grandfather when a cadre of squirrels attacked his fig trees. “Get outta here, you $#+&% varmits!” Thankfully, honey voices are still around, despite the efforts of some to neutralize deep south culture and transform us into a vanilla society. I’m not buying it.. Speaking honey is a trademark of my state and a warm greeting that never fails, especially when I’ve traveled far from home. It’s our southern identity, our poetry, and the quiet trademark of our way of life, slow, open, and welcoming. We may disagree, but we still share a cup of coffee on the front porch. Of course, there are rotten eggs, always have been, always will be, but if enough of us speak honey, we’ll drown them out. My remedy may seem simplistic, but it’s a start. “Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”*Proverbs 16:24

Madam Editor©Averyell A. Kessler In the olden, golden days at Murrah High School, I was editor of our newspaper, Hoofbeat, during my senior year. Sadly, I was forced to choose between prancing across the football field in a short white skirt, boots, and cowboy hat and editing the school newspaper. Words won, as they always do with me. So, my dreams of Murrah Miss glory vanished in the foggy mist of halftime and I learned to love ink on my fingers, the five W’s, and basic headline writing.The toughest part of the job was coming up with an editorial for each edition. Looking back, most were a mediocre combination of simpler times, ruthless faculty supervision, and teenage idiocy. Sneaking a cigarette in the upstairs bathroom was a serious crime, as was a speeding ticket resulting from the after school drag race on Riverside Drive. Graffiti was an unknown concept. I was once called to the principal’s office when a photo of a misplaced Budweiser can appeared on page 3. My bad! Thankfully, the business of uprooting history and parsing pronouns had not yet come along.I’ve often wondered what I’d say now with years under my belt and a bit of life experience. Instead of addressing the debacle at the debate team’s concession stand, maybe I should have said….Do not wear a black dress to the homecoming dance. Coco Channel was a genius and her little black dress looked great on Audrey Hepburn, but its hard to be sophisticated at sixteen. And a low neckline may cause trouble.Algebra and Geometry are critical components on a college application, but you’ll not use them in the vegetable section of the grocery store. The words protractor and compass may appear in the Sunday crossword puzzle, but they won’t be must-haves in your office. No one will ask you “If a train departs Jackson for a 185-mile trip to New Orleans at 45 MPH, and a second train leaves New Orleans traveling to Jackson……………..” You know the drill.Be careful in the backseat of anybody’s car.Congrats to those of you in typing class. You will not be taking dictation in the boss’s office or chained to a Remington Rand as big as a sea turtle. In the future, the typewriter will be a white elephant relic, but you will be a wiz on something called a laptop.Do not allow lipstick to melt in an evening purse, sit idly by when a coach tries to produce chlorine gas in chemistry class, or allow your eyeglasses to drop into a toilet. (You know who you are!)Take you gym clothes home to be washed at least every six weeks or you can just wait until they become gray, stiff and smell like sour milk.Be wary of eating a mustard drenched pronto pup at the fair before riding the ferris wheel.The assassination of JFK was a life changing, “where were you when” event that never goes away. Unfortunately, it will be the first of many. Buckle up.Our teachers are just as anxious as we are for summer vacation. They are happy when we do well, and unhappy when we do not. Only the worst of them don’t care. Step around those as you would a foaming puddle of sludge.High school has a lot in common with Wordsworth’s There was a Little Girl. When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid. High school years are a time in life when we know everything and nothing. The horrid part is short. It will end. The good part lasts forever.Some friends last for a lifetime, but not many. Choose carefully.Find you passion. Kiss it, rock it like a newborn, and hold it in your heart. Some dreams are not fulfilled until later in life. Much later.As Shakespeare said love all, trust few, do wrong to no one.

Kate Strikes Out©Averyell A. KesslerKate Beacham was still fuming. Her untimely exit from the horse show party at our house was a hot topic for weeks. Belhaven gossips worked overtime. Sadly, no photo existed of me modeling Kate’s rubberized girdle and heavily decorated brassier, but the scene was still as vivid in everyone’s mind. My mother was ecstatic. Kate, fully aware that achieving social status in Jackson was now impossible, purchased a pair of binoculars, a Smith and Wesson 32, and three cartons of Pall Mall. She spent days shadowing my grandfather WG until she learned his routine.During the week, he stayed at the Robert E. Lee Hotel because it was close to his business; weekends were spent in his small cottage in Avery Gardens, located on a two-lane gravel road north of Jackson known as County Line Road. He’d almost forgotten about Kate when he arrived home late on a Friday afternoon. The October sun was almost down. The day edged to darkness as WG pulled inside his gate, hoping for a quiet weekend. It had been a long, brutal week, and he was exhausted. He parked in front of his house, tossed his cigar into the bushes, and gathered up a 1000-piece jigsaw he planned to attack on Saturday. Ping! He stopped. What the #%@$##? A pinecone falling onto his hood? A squirrel scampering across the roof? He saw nothing. A single Jay fluttered into a giant camelia near the driveway, but the air was still and twilight quiet.Ping. He heard it again. He knelt by his new baby, a black Lincoln Continental Mark II, and inspected the tires, running his fingers over the treads and checking the hubcaps. Nothing. Then he saw it, a small indentation in his left front fender. It looked like….. holy #$%$#! A bullet hole! Crouching low, he dashed into the house, locked the door, and telephoned his pal, Robert Stockett. “Get out here quick, Stockett,” he screamed. “Some son of a bitch is shooting at me.”“Stay inside,” Robert growled. “I’m on the way.”The third ping hit hard, shattering the rear windshield, and sending a shower of broken glass onto the driveway. All he could do was watch as a small man in a leather bomber jacket and plaid pants oozed from behind a spreading yew tree near his car. A brown fedora concealed his face and he held what appeared to be a police revolver as well as shiny Louisville slugger. Ping, ping. In an instant his two front tires hissed and went flat. Then mystery man waved his bat.“Where the heck are you, Stockett?” WG screamed, as he watched in despair as his front windshield crumbled into a spider web of cracks. The next moment, sirens wailed in the distance, and Robert and the Hinds County Sheriff screeched into the driveway. The attacker dropped his bat and fled into the bushes. WG dashed out of his house, waving his arms and yelling, “That way! He ran towards the pond.”An intense foot chase ensued, with all three men searching under azaleas, slogging through day lily beds, and galloping around pine trees like skiers on a downhill run. They found the culprit almost half a mile away when the sheriff spotted a pair of skinny legs dangling from a low hanging branch.“Get down outta that tree,” the sheriff shouted, raising a Remington 12 gauge. “You’re under arrest for destruction of private property, attempted murder, assault and battery, kidnapping, perjury, grand larceny and whatever the hell else I can think of.” He fired a thunderous blast into the clouds; the tree branches rattled like skeletons in the wind.“WG Avery’s not worth that air he breaths,” mystery man yelled. “He’s a no-good skunk, as useless as tits on a bull.”“Last warning,” the sheriff yelled. “Next one’s going between your eyes.”Mystery man dropped from his hideout and fell on the ground in a heap of misery. “Stand up, “the sheriff ordered. “Who are you?”When he stood, the fedora fell off exposing a tumble of raven hair and flaming brown eyes. The leather jacket opened, revealing Kate Beacham’s lush figure.“It’s a woman,” Robert yelled. “Dadgummit, the guy’s a woman!”“Don’t care if she is,” the sheriff shouted. “She’s going to jail.” The next moment, Kate was in handcuffs.“You can’t arrest me,” Kate yelled. “I’m a friend of WG’s. I was just jokin’.”“Had me fooled,” Robert said.“Mr. Avery, do you know this woman?” the sheriff asked.WG rubbed his chin and inspected Kate’s face. Her eyes were saucers. “No,” he replied. “Can’t say as I do.”“How dare you,” Kate screamed. “You know me as well as the back of your hand.”“What about you, Mr. Stockett? You know her?”“Nope,” Robert said. “Never seen her before. Could be a gypsy.”“A gypsy?” Kate hissed. “I swear to God I’ll make you pay!” Her cheeks were scarlet, her lips sputtered like an outboard motor. She was still screaming when the sheriff loaded her into his car, cuffed her to the door handle, and turned towards town.“Hell hath no fury,” WG said as the sheriff drove away. “I must have scorned her pretty bad.”“What are you planning to do?” Robert asked.“I’ll bail her out in the morning.” WG answered.In the end, my grandfather agreed not to press charges. Kate promised not to contact him again. She returned to the coast, opened Kate’s Cut and Curl, and married a shrimper from Moss Point. WG settled with the Great Peril Insurance Company, repaired his car, and decided to stay away from flamboyant women with raven hair. At least, for a few months.


A Southern Christmas ©We are without snow, but not without joy,It’s too hot for a fire, but we possess abundant warmth,When our pennies are tight, we remember the source of true wealth.When our wallets are full, we celebrate the gift of sharing.Maybe we can’t carry a tune, but we sing anyway.We smile when presents arrive from Ohio containing slippers that don’t fit and we wouldn’t wear anyway.We read Mr. Dickens, Clement Moore and watch Ralphie appear in bright pink pajamas.Our family hops in the car for a tour of the Christmas lights.We help little fingers write letters to Santa and don’t give up the truth unless we are forced.There’s no such thing as waking too early on Christmas morning when joyous children race downstairs before sunrise.We possess a treasure of memories which do not fade. Faces we no longer see are never forgotten. Sadness dissolves because we are not alone.We celebrate new memories, and the joy of making them.There’s a good chance the quail on our table came from a delta hunting camp, the biscuit technique from generations back, and the sweet potatoes from outside Vardaman. We’ve nibbled on a fat MSU cheese, scooped out Aunt Lila’s fig preserves, and remember the aroma our grandmother’s pecan pie when she lifted it from the oven.Mistletoe brings kisses…. laughter too.We set out a plate of cookies for Santa and find crumbs the morning.Forty people are not too many for a celebratory Christmas lunch because we have enough to feed a horde of hungry Marines and still send everybody home with leftovers.Our Christmas stockings are probably handmade. Their colors are faded and a stich or two is missing, but they’re ours. They always have been.We sit still when someone says, “And It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The words are carved in our hearts, but we listen anyway.We know what Christmas really means; also, what it does not.Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king.

The Ugliest Tree in Town©Averyell A. KesslerMy Mother had a custom of giving me a Christmas book every year. She always dated it and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Towards the end of her life, she chose Hans Christian Anderson’s The Fir Tree. Here’s what she wrote. “This book proves my theory about Christmas trees. I’m glad we always selected a tree cut down for Christmas, but not chosen. I gave it a shining star.” Her remarks were my inspiration for the following story.I recognized it immediately, a small scrap of a tree, minus a few branches, a host of needles and leaning left as if it had grown sideways on a steep, mud-caked hill. When I came home from school, it was standing in our den, a bleak, second tier companion to the fragrant Avery Garden’s cedar in our living room. But that would change. My mother bought it, as she always did, from the few remaining Christmas trees available at the Belhaven Jitney. She did it every year. I suppose the conversation went something like this.“Are you sure you want this tree, Lady?” the clerk asked. “It’s kinda skimpy. We got better one’s in back.”“No,” Mama replied. “I want this one. It wants me too.”“Load it into your car?” he asked, quite sure he was staring at a loony bird.“Yes. Absolutely.”My mother was a Christmas person. The moment leftover turkey bones were tossed into a bubbling soup pot and our sumptuous pan of cornbread dressing had been scrapped dry, she began. It was as if an internal Santa-like voice shouted in her ear. “One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go,go,go.” In an instant, she became a scampering elf, a flying reindeer, and a woman who could put Mrs. Santa Claus to shame.Our annual ugly tree was an important part of Mama’s Christmas tradition. She spent hours decking it with ropes of silver garlands, sparking bubble lights, shiny glass balls, and a flock of red cardinal ornaments, until it glowed like a fairy princess. After a few days, a dose of water in the tree stand made our crippled tree stand upright again, and no one noticed that a few critical branches were missing. As Christmas approached, it was just as merry as the fat cedar in the living room.During her last years, the ugly tree tradition continued, even after she moved into to my home in Fondren. One day, during our morning walk, we found a graceful branch lying by the curb on Oakridge Drive. “That’s it,” Mama said, pointing to a castoff limb waiting for garbage pickup. We took it home, set it in a tree stand, and welcomed a stark, leafless tree limb left for dead. When we’d covered it with white lights, red balls and her traditional flock of cardinals, it became a beautiful addition to our decorations.“How unusual,” my friends mumbled, as they inspected our lovely branch. “I thought it might be a sculpture.” Mama smiled, because she’d done it again.My mother’s ugly tree was an eye opener. Every year, I watched as she searched for an unwanted, bedraggled tree, brought it home and treated it with all the love in the world. Suddenly, a transformation. Our tree wasn’t ugly at all. Loving the unlovable can produce unexpected results.Perhaps the best Christmas gifts are not tangible, but things we experience. Perhaps they are lessons of love that soak into our hearts and remain there, strong aromas of the past that linger in our memories, like fresh cut cedar and gingerbread. They are the echo of long-ago laughter, and absent voices ringing like harness bells. New voices too; the giggles of a two-year-old or a fifth-grade choir singing Away in the Manger. The best gifts wrap us in warm coats of joy, keeping us snug all year long. Perhaps, they even give an unwanted tree a second chance.Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight – Clement Moore

Why I Don’t Eat Mincemeat Pie ©Averyell A. KesslerThanksgiving Day began early at our house. 4:00 AM to be exact. Any later and the turkey wouldn’t be done in time for lunch. An enormous Chambers gas stove stood ready in the kitchen, but it had only one oven and there was no way to cook big bird, dressing, sweet potatoes, vegetables, rolls, and pies all at the same time. Mama called this inconvenient phenomenon, the Thanksgiving Squeeze. The turkey was first priority. Long before dawn, she stumbled out of bed, snapped on a blinding kitchen light, and wrestled a 15-pound Butter Ball out of the fridge. Because she’d previously reaped a whirlwind of disaster by filling an unroasted turkey with uncooked dressing, she chose simplicity, giving our current turkey a Wesson Oil rub down and popping a Vidalia onion or two into the cavity before placing it in the oven. No harm, no foul. (Make that- no harm, no fowl). When I walked into the kitchen, she was already singing “Over the river and through the woods.” Because we lived in Mississippi, there would be no “Horse who knew the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.”* She sang anyway and the turkey was well on its way to a Norman Rockwell finish.The turkey giblets were reserved in a separate pan, and I stayed as far away as possible. They looked like relics from Dracula’s latest victim and smelled bad. The neck reminded me of the villian in Vincent Price’s famous film, The Tingler. My grandfather, WG, was a big fan of the gizzard, and it took several years of his teasing before I realized that I did not have a gizzard alsoIn the fridge, a “dinner on the grounds” size pan of cornbread dressing waited its turn. Made from an old-time southern recipe provided by an old-time southern lady, it was my favorite. Thankfully, it matched left-over turkey day for day as we stuffed it into sandwiches or ate it cold from the fridge. There were also sweet potatoes (Mama let me put marshmallows on top), butter beans, corn pudding and a newly discovered Mississippi delight, collard greens. The Campbell Soup Company had just announced the green bean casserole and we weren’t into it yet.Back in the glory days, just about everybody in Jackson bought Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. Few ate it. But it was decorative and easy, just open it, slide the contents into a relish tray, and voila, the exact replica of a tin can, a shimmering cranberry colored mini sculpture right in the middle of the table. A few stylish souls sliced it into matching rounds and fanned it out in an artistic display. In texture, it matched the pineapple, lime and cream cheese concealed salad also waiting in the fridge.Best of all, dessert. Our never fail family standards were pumpkin and mincemeat pie served with heavy cream whipped up in the beater. Mama loved mincemeat pie and always made it, if only for herself. The rest of us had been chased away by WG’s unsavory tale of the Pokeberry Bottom mincemeat barrel. He told this story every year, so we knew it was coming. When Mama brought the pies to the table, he folded his napkin, leaned back, and spoke the familiar words, “Did I ever tell you about the time…………..” Mama’s eyes shot darts, but she didn’t say anything. It was useless.“There was an ole country store about a mile away from my house in Pokeberry Bottom,” he said. “They had two big barrels right by the front door. One of’em had dill pickles and the other mincemeat.” “There were screens on the windows, but the front door was wide open,” he continued, “and a lot of flies buzzed around outside. They had a screen lid over the pickle barrel, but the mincemeat didn’t need one……….” he paused to let the full horror sink in. “If one of the flies fell in, they just stirred it up and nobody knew the difference.” As a result, the pumpkin pie disappeared in a flash and my mother ate the only slice of mincemeat pie.A story-telling relative is a blessing, no matter how insufferable. They are as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey and dressing. Even though young people roll their eyes in dismay, storytellers steer us away from the carnage of a rip snorting political argument, petty religious disputes, and whatever conflicts arise when their guys go nose to nose over the whose quarterback throws the best Hail Mary. How else can we discover that Aunt Bertha, long gone to glory, smuggled a silver coffee pot out of Galatoires in a D.H. Holmes shopping bag, or that her husband, Bertram, polished off a bag or Oreo’s and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every afternoon before sunset. Without them, we would never know why Biloxi Police handcuffed Cousin Hiram after an altercation at Gus Stevens Supper Club. Without them, we wouldn’t remember ancient family recipes, who married who way back when, or the romantic story of great grandpa’s elopement. We might not know what belonged on our Thanksgiving table, what should be forgotten, or why we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. We are richer for their presence. A family story teller is a treasure; listen hard and wish them well. Better yet, hand them a piece of mincemeat pie.*Thanksgiving Poem by Lydia Maria Child.

Welcome November©Averyell A. KesslerIt’s November in Mississippi. The last remnants of summer are fading fast, and fall is tapping me on the shoulder. I am pleased that the South’s frying pan summer has been scrubbed, rinsed, and placed on a high shelf. The evidence is clear. The sun shines at a different angle, August’s steam bath air is drifting away. The abundant caladiums in my yard are taking a last gasp. My puff ball hydrangeas have dropped their leaves before the first frost arrives. It’s not sweater cold yet, but it’s coming. I have no scientific background or meteorological expertise, so I’ll use neophyte words. Fall is here. I can smell it, touch it, and hear it crackle as I rake up a mound of crisp oak leaves and desiccated pinecones the squirrels have nibbled into nothing. “Get ready,” it says. “Pull out your old blue turtleneck, a pair of thick socks, warm pants, and that pea coat hiding in your closet.”Because of Jackson’s mercurial weather, my midwestern parents had difficulty determining exactly when fall arrived. Even after the Labor Day gong sounded, it was still as hot as a biscuit oven. Things changed without warning. One day, a cool breeze swooped through Belhaven shaking tree limbs and covering the lawn with spiny gum balls. The next day, Mama was happy she hadn’t packed away my sandals and shorts because my hopscotch squares were still pulling me outside. Finally, I learned Mama’s never fail sign that fall had arrived, the appearance of oatmeal on our breakfast table.Goodbye, Sugar Smacks and Frosty O’s. So long, snap, crackle, and pop. Even our humble box of unpretentious Corn Flakes went into temporary hibernation. Hello, rosy cheeked Quaker man with fluffy white hair and a broad black hat. Although Mama did her best, sprinkling on a thick coating of sugar and cinnamon, I considered oatmeal close kin to Elmer’s paste or freshly poured concrete. It was filing, nothing more.It was also a season of change at Power School. The steamy, unairconditioned classrooms were no longer intolerable. Miss Williams moved her heroic oscillating fan into storage, and fourth graders dashed across the playground without working up a sweat. Even the hot, golden rolls in the cafeteria tasted better. I also learned a magical phrase that would be repeated many times. Tommy Edelman said it first, soon after the morning bell rung. “It’s snowing in Vicksburg,” he whispered. “It’ll be here soon.” His words spread around my classroom like a California wildfire.My mouth fell open. “Snow?” I gasped. I looked outside and saw a clear blue sky.“Yeah” he answered. “I heard it on the radio on the way to school.”The classroom erupted in giddy excitement. Miss William wasted a good ten minutes calming us down, carefully explaining that barring a drastic change in the weather, snow was impossible. Even on a crisp November day.I remained hopeful and spent most of the afternoon watching a bright sky from my classroom window. Finally, just before the final bell rang, it happened. A low hanging cluster of grey clouds crept in from the west.“How far is Vicksburg?” I asked Tommy.“Not far,” he smiled. “Told ya.”At 2:30, I dashed away from school and hopped in the front seat of Mama’s turquoise Chevy Bel Air. “It’s snowing in Vicksburg!” I shouted.“It can’t be,” she answered. “It’s not cold enough.”“But look at the sky,” I pleaded.“We’ll watch Bob Neblett tonight and see what he says.” A sensible compromise.After sampling an umm umm good bowl of Seale Lily peach ice cream, Bob shattered my dreams. “Lotsa rain tomorrow folks. Too bad it’s not cold enough to snow.” Mama was relieved; I hung on hopefully and prayed that somehow God would intervene. Granted he’d never transformed a misspelled Anartica into Antarctica or made 8×7 equal 57, but weather seemed to be one of his specialties. Just before dawn, I heard pounding rain. and prepared for a damp day at Power School when we’d have square dancing lessons on the auditorium stage instead of outside games. My head hung low, but I buckled up for a do-si-do and allemande left!Midmorning, a miracle occurred. I saw it coming when Miss Williams stopped talking about the capital of Peru and put on her sweater. The wind fell away and a soft silence replaced the patter of raindrops. Fingers of frigid air touched the windows, glazing them with frost. Something was happening, everyone felt it. We watched mesmerized, as blue grey clouds covered the school like a patchwork quilt. Finally, our teacher said, “If you’ll all be quiet, we’ll move over to the windows. I think it’s snowing.” We were out of our desks in a flash, watching like hypnotized rabbits as tiny snowflakes began to fall, floating like feathers through the tall pine trees bordering out playground. No one spoke. Finally, our wonderful Miss Williams said, “Get your coats from the cloakroom, we’re going outside.It was a magical day. Even though there wasn’t much snow, we whirled and danced. Tommy and his pals managed to toss a few snowballs. I simply held out my hands and let snowflakes touch my fingers. When the clouds parted, the sun came out and our snow day was over in an instant. We returned to our classroom, wet but happy. That day personified autumn in Mississippi, short, sweet, and gone in a flash. It’s a welcome respite from the dregs of summer and a reminder that there really are four seasons, even in the south. It won’t last long, so let’s dance while the dancin’s good, enjoy the crunch, crunch of falling leaves, and celebrate the blessing of crisp, cool air – if only for a moment.

Wandering Witches©Averyell A. KesslerThis week, a good friend reminded me that the evil witch in The Wizard of Oz is terrifying. Just in time for Halloween too. I saw her first on the big screen in downtown Jackson. The Paramount maybe, or the Lamar. She was huge, a monster in a swirling in a black robe with a leering face, ski slope nose, and a pointed chin sharper than a butcher knife. Her flying monkey pals weren’t a pack of cuddly puppies either. Just the thing to help a skittish child sleep peacefully through the night. By that time, I knew a lot about witches, Snow White’s evil queen and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. Good thing I’d never heard of the Witch of Yazoo because she is buried right up the road and is able to break out of her chains without warning.My first Halloween costumes were little girl sweet – a fairy princess in blue taffeta, a ballet dancer in a pink powder puff tutu, and finally a majorette. As I approached double-digit age, a different idea took root. For my friend Martha also. We’d had it was fluff and fairy tale drama and didn’t care a whit about a rescue prince. His horse was neat, but who wants a man who saves the day at the end but won’t help you slug it out at the beginning. We decided that scary was the way to go. Both of us had already gotten a good look at waxy vampire teeth at Morgan and Lindsey, as well as false fingernails that could scratch stars out of the sky. They stocked capes too, as well as pointed black hats and toy brooms. Mama drew the line at green greasepaint. We’d use fingerpaint and lipstick instead.As Halloween approached, another idea popped into our heads, fortified by nonsensical childhood logic. Because our trick or treat route was restricted to short blocks on St. Mary and St. Ann, our treats bags weren’t bulging when we returned home. Yes, we had a lot of goodies, but just think of the possibilities if we ventured farther up the street. Who knew what delights we were missing? Maybe candy apples and homemade taffy was closer than we knew. The solution was simple. Find a way to expand our prospects without telling our parents. What fun! Belhaven was a patchwork quilt of tall trees, wide lawns, and gardens. Evasion was possible.On Halloween night, we left our houses dressed as mini witches with empty treat bags, green faces, and high hopes. In case you’re wondering, green fingerpaint doesn’t taste good, and it can drift into your eyes without encouragement. It’s also hard to shout trick or treat with a mouth full of vampire teeth, but we endured. Everything went well at first as we accumulated Tootsie Roll pops, candy corn, and multiple candy bars.As we ventured farther from home, the night grew still and silent. There were no other children around. We were on our own. Many houses were dark, except for a glowing pumpkin or a wide-eyed scarecrow in the front yard. Did he move? We weren’t sure. Martha and I held hands as we passed swaying ghost trees, their branches dancing in the shadows. Drifting clouds shrouded the moon.“Maybe we should go back,” I whispered.“Just two more houses,” Martha answered. She was older, so I listened.The last house loomed on the top of a hill. In the daylight, it was ordinary family home. At night, it became a witch’s cottage. The front walk was a treacherous strip of uneven concrete interspersed with patches of grass. A red devil, with glowing eyes, and his skeleton companion, sat on the front porch as still as stone. We knew they weren’t real, but ……We rang the doorbell with rapid breath and tingling tummies. A woman in an ancient wedding dress opened the door. Her face was green like ours and a tangle of black beads hung around her neck. Her haystack hair was covered with a lacy mantilla; her eyes were glaring smudge pots. “Welcome children,” she cackled, rubbing her hands together. Martha and I froze. Our feet were glued onto the porch stones. Our mouths hung open. Candy was the least of our worries. Then it happened. The porch skeleton stood up and tapped us on the shoulder. “Happy Halloween,” he hissed. The red devil laughed and waved.Terror is too mild a word to describe my reaction. Martha’s also. Our shrieks punctured Belhaven’s quiet serenity and set the neighborhood dogs into a barking frenzy. We dashed away from the house like Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds and rattled every magnolia leaf on St. Ann. As we flew down the hill, our fathers ran to meet us. Thankfully, they’d been watching the entire time. They gathered us up and took us home. Safe!No one in the neighborhood was happy with the vampire bride or her pals. Other children had shared our panic. We learned later that a group of teenagers created the scenario when their parents were out of town. Apologies were issued, but it was too late. I slept with a night light for over three years because the vampire bride was hiding in my closet. Red devils were waiting for me somewhere, and skeletons lurked around every corner, especially on deep, dark nights when lightening flashed and wind shook my bedroom windows. I never wanted to be a witch again.


Mr. HaloweenLong before Freddy Krueger haunted Elm Street and Leatherneck cranked up his chainsaw, another villain lurked in Belhaven. Most of my childhood monsters lived inside story books or in the imagination of Walt Disney’s illustrators. They were not my friends. Accordingly, my eyes widened whenever Rumpelstiltskin taunted the miller’s daughter, or the wicked witch tried to push Hansel into her oven. This myriad of frightening tales was a sure recipe for keeping my closet light on all night. In my opinion, the Brothers Grimm were aptly named.For me, the scariest creature of all did not appear in story books. Mr. Disney didn’t portray him in blazing color; Mama and Diddy never mentioned him at all. Instead, he emerged fully formed in whispered warnings from my friends, as well as my classmates who assured me that he was out there waiting. For what, they did not say. He was called the bogeyman. Nobody knew exactly what he looked like.Until………I was spending the night with my friend Helen. We were in the second grade. After endless games of Chinese checkers, lots of giggles, and slices of gooey strawberry pie, we were sent to bed. Soon the house was pitch black, and quiet as a country graveyard. We lay in bed talking in whispers, as a freight train passed the behind her house and rattled away into the darkness. Then silence. When heard a twig snap outside our window, sleep galloped away on a fast horse.“I wonder if it’s him?” Helen asked.“Who?” I said.“You know, the bogeyman,” she answered. “What if he jumped off the train.” I was well aware of the bogeyman’s stealth and cunning, as well as his ability to steal children during the middle of the night. We both sat bolt upright, there was nothing between us and the bogeyman except a thin window screen. Helen pulled back her curtain and peered into the backyard. It was deserted, but the soft night wind was blowing harder now, whipping up a storm.“I betcha he’s out there,” Helen said. “He wears a black cape and hat pulled down low, so you can’t see his eyes. His face is green too.”“You saw him?” I asked. My heart thundered.“No, my brother, Champ, told me.”We saw lightening flash in the distance. No rain, not yet, but a tall pine tree was swaying and sending down a shower of broken cones. I pulled a blanket over my shoulders, so I’d be safe.“What’ll we do if he comes?” I asked.“I don’t know,” Helen replied.Lightening flashed again. This time we saw him, a monstrous figure loping across the yard like the Billy Goat Gruff’s wicked troll. We screamed. The creature ran to our window, growling and raking its fingers across the screen.“I’m gonna get you,” it hissed “Grrrrr.”We screamed again.“I’m gonna take you awaaaaaay.”Our shrieks split the night apart. Helen’s father dashed into the room. He was barely awake, a semi-conscious man in baggy striped pajamas.“The bogeyman!” we both yelled. “He came to the window.”“There’s no such thing as the bogeyman,” her father said.“But I saw him.” Helen insisted. “He had huge red lips and fangs,” Long white fangs!”“Fangs?” her father asked. “Red lips?”“Yes,” Helen panted. “And a big brown hat.”“Stay here. I’m going outside. Don’t move.”We watched, frozen with fear, as he opened the back-porch door, pick up a rake, and stepped outside. Our noses were an inch from the window screen. First, he searched the azaleas bordering the patio, then the boxwood hedge outside of our window. Nothing. Finally, he drew the rake under a large camellia in the middle of the yard.“Ouch, that hurt!” We heard a familiar voice.“Come out,” Helen’s father yelled. “Now!”Slowly, Champ crawled out, a deflated figure in a superman cape and his father’s best hat. His lips were smeared with paint the town red; his face covered with green finger paint. His father yelled for a good five minutes, using words I didn’t know. Then, Champ coughed out a pair of plastic monster fangs. I couldn’t hear everything Helen’s father said, except “You’re grounded for six weeks, six long weeks.”Champ teeth were locked in a death grip when he apologized. But he had no choice. He was a slimy green mess and covered with pine needles, so that he resembled a deranged porcupine. He’d also ruined his father’s best hat. I’m sure the worst punishment was listening to Helen and me giggle as he said, “Sorry Sis.” Before he shuffled off to the shower, he looked over his shoulder and said. “That train comes by every night, ya know. Better watch out.”