A family reunion and a platter of corn on the cob earned me a reputation as a terrible dinner guest. Maybe I was, but in my defense I was only three or four years old at the time and my social graces were limited. Nevertheless, you would have thought I’d managed to violate every code of Southern honor and Emily Post rule of etiquette that ever existed. But maybe I’d better tell you what happened.
It was bound to go all wrong because I had to wear one of those fancy Sunday-go-to-meeting dresses with the itchy crinoline petticoats. And of course it had to be starched within an inch of its life. I was warned to keep my socks pulled up and sit like a lady, and these two responsibilities were heavy on my mind.
It was a beautiful reunion dinner. A long table had been set up with fine, snow-white damask tablecloths and everybody’s finest silverware. I still remember how it gleamed. I doubt there was any bleach or silver polish left in town.
I don’t remember much else before dinner except a forest of legs in their best hosiery or, in the men’s cases, in their best suits. And everybody smelled so good – Bay Rum, Evening in Paris, Avon….
My grandmother fussed with my dress, arranged my ruffles just so, and put a white napkin in my lap. “Now don’t let it fall off,” she cautioned.
Okay. Socks pulled up, sit just so, and now this–a napkin to reckoned with. Three things to remember.
Then came dinner – heaping platters of chicken and rice, smothered chicken, and fried chicken. If you liked chicken, you had come to the right reunion. The mashed potatoes were heavy on the cream and butter and piping hot.
With my grandmother sitting at my right and a small distant cousin with a mischievous glint on my left, it never occurred to me anything could go wrong. All I had to do was keep up with the socks, the way I sat, and that napkin. But when I glanced across the table to look at my grandfather, my eyes fell on a huge platter of corn on the cob.
I was in ecstasy. For a moment I was insulted – why hadn’t I been served any of this? At that age you don’t how much trouble corn on the cob can cause. The treachery of it is beyond an innocent child’s understanding.
I tried to get my grandmother’s attention because I knew I was supposed to ask politely for anything I needed; those were the rules. But she was talking to one of her sisters. I just couldn’t take my eyes off that corn.
It was at that moment that the trouble began. My little pudgy hand reached out and grabbed one of those golden treasures. Unfortunately it had just come out of the pot and was so hot that I couldn’t hold onto it. And even if it hadn’t been so hot, I would’ve dropped it anyway – about a pound of butter drizzled on it made it slippery as all get-out. I reached out with the other hand, too, but that didn’t help. My little cousin tried to solve the problem, dragging his suit sleeve through the mashed potatoes in the process. By then we had lost all control of that piece of corn. It flipped into the air and came down right on the edge of my plate, sending it into the air and landing with the whole mess upside down in my lap.
I thought for a moment that I would get into trouble, but to my great astonishment no one had noticed.
“We’re in trouble,” my little cousin said. “Maybe we need to go hide.”
I couldn’t see the problem. Everyone around me was so absorbed in their conversation that I thought we were home free.
“Come on,” he said and pulled at my satin ribbon belt, transferring a goodly amount of butter to it in the process. “We’ll just get under the table and eat on the floor. Nobody’ll notice us. They’re all yammering about something or other anyway.” He was right. So far we were undetected.
We crawled under the table with our plates, decided that down here no one could see whether or not we were using a fork, and enjoyed a wonderful, messy meal.
Then came the moment of reckoning, as it does to every sinner. I’ve blocked out most of the consequences. All I recall is the white edge of the tablecloth being twitched up, my grandmother’s startled face, a hue and cry rising above me, and all sorts of murmurs of dismay about the dress, my table manners, and what was I doing corrupting my little cousin anyway?
Frankly, I still didn’t see the problem. My socks were pulled up – albeit covered in gravy – and I was sitting like a perfect little lady. The napkin was the only sticking point, and it was around there somewhere.
My mother, who had stayed behind because of a heavy cold, met us at the door.
“What on earth –” she began as my grandfather bent over in the glow of the porch light. He intended to pick me up and carry me directly to the bathroom so I wouldn’t leave a trail of mashed potatoes and corn kernels. But as he bent over, his tie swung out in front of him. I had always loved his amethyst stick pin, and I instinctively reached up for it.
But as I did, that swinging tie became just too much temptation. I grabbed it, cried “Wheeeee!” and was off,swinging to and fro from the neck of my grandfather, planting my little feet on his chest to push off again.They tell me he was turning a little blue and clutching his throat.
It took both women to free my grandfather from his Tarzan granddaughter.
That’s all I recall about the incident. But in all my years I’ve never lived it down. And neither did my mother. Bless her heart, she went down in family lore as being the only mother in history who had not specifically taught her daughter that swinging on a man’s tie is just not done.
Poor Mother. I felt sorry for her later, but I have to admit it: I had a wonderful time at the family reunion.
The story you have read is true. None of the names have been changed because I’m smart enough not to give any. And as for protecting the innocent – I was very, very guilty.
©Jill Teresa Farmer 2015