SOUTHERN CHARM AND A GLASS OF ICE TEA
BY: DEBBIE RUSSELL
As early as I can remember, Mama always served glasses of iced tea underneath the shade of that old Magnolia tree. Why, the limbs seem to stretch as far up to heaven as the clouds and the blossoms where as big as old Pappy’s head. There were all natures of critters living in and around that old tree. I remember one time Mama was trying to impress the new Preacher man who come to town and was serving her famous (in our county any way) ice tea underneath that majestic tree when out of nowhere came this screeching like I had never heard.
And just about the time that new Preacher man looked up to see what the commotion was about, a somewhat agitated Mississippi squirrel pounced right on top of his now exposed bald head. I was laughing so hard that my side was about to burst. Bubba and Annie were rolling on the ground with laughter. Mama was trying to hold onto the pitcher of ice tea and the Preacher man was jumping and turning in circles but that old squirrel was holding on.
Now old Pappy just sat there looking, spat his tobaccy on the ground and cheered that old squirrel on much to mama’s horror. When the squirrel finally jumped off and everyone regained their posture, there was Mama’s famous ice tea spilled all on the ground, the Preacher man looked as though he had been through that old wringer washer that sat on the back porch. Mama apologized profusely to the Preacher. No sir, I aint never laughed so hard in all my natural born life as I did that day. Every time I see a Magnolia tree now, I think of the day that Mama welcomed the new Preacher to town.
Now, there were times when that old Magnolia tree and the taste of the cool ice tea on a hot summer day was as smooth as the silk hairs on Homer the pig’s ears. We couldn’t wait till Sunday to get here so we could just relax underneath the branches of that tree and sip sassafras tea and listen to Pappy whistle out a tune on his harmonica. Life sure was slow and easy back then, well on Sundays anyway.
Pappy always said, even God rested one day, so we might as well take heed to that and just do nothing. The only problem was that Pappy took heed every day and Mama never took kindly to slackers. No sir, we all had to pitch in and get things done around there. It was my job to make sure the chickens were fed and watered and securely in their pens so the fox or coyotes didn’t get in and get them during the night. Well, I got to coming up with names for the old hens and roosters and one in particular I named Zacchaeus because he stayed up in a tree all the time.
I got old Zacchaeus to where he would come peck on the door to get a bite of corn muffin that I sneaked away from the table. Zacchaeus got so fat he had to walk with his feet spread out and just waddle across the barn yard. Well, I was too young to understand that Zacchaeus being fat was not a good thing. The day came that Pappy was out in the barn yard looking for fine rooster to have for Sunday dinner seeing that the new Preacher man was giving Mama a chance to redeem herself. Well, when I finally figured out that old Pappy had his eyes on my prize rooster, the war was on.
I think Zacchaeus knew what was coming too. I started hollering and flinging my arms like a wild banshee and shooing old Zacchaeus away. Old Pappy was running round the barn yard with an axe in his hand cursing the day that old Zacchaeus was ever hatched. Now Mama heard all the commotion so her and Bubba and Annie came running out to see what was creating such a noise. I was screaming and shooing the rooster, Pappy was in behind me trying to get me out of the way when Zacchaeus flew up into that old Magnolia tree.
Bubba and Annie was squealing with delight that Pappy hadn’t caught the old rooster. Mama was trying hard not to laugh in fear of aggravating Pappy’s anger further. I was crying and begging Pappy not to kill my friend and Mama couldn’t hold back any longer, she let out a belly laugh that shook the ground. She laughed so hard and so long that she was on the ground with her new apron getting all dirty. By the time she could compose herself and get up, Pappy was madder than an old wet hen. Well, Zacchaeus stayed in that old Magnolia long past Sunday dinner and Mama and Pappy reconciled to the fact that a good laugh never hurt anybody. Preacher was content to eat squirrel dumplings even though he aint never had none before then. The squirrel was so distracted by Zacchaeus that when he came running down the trunk of that big old tree, Pappy whacked him a good one. Yes a squirrel's life was lost but Zacchaeus lived to be a ripe old age and lived his life out in the Magnolia tree coming down to eat corn bread muffins and to strut back and forth while Pappy was in the yard.
Just thinking about that Old Magnolia tree and Mama’s ice tea brings a peace to my soul and a smile to my heart. Mama always said that true Southern women knew how to do three things: take care of their man, speak with a certain air of charm and they knew how to make the best ice tea this side of the Mason Dixon. I remember Mama teaching us kids how to make biscuits and cornbread in the cast iron skillet and how to brew the perfect ice tea. The biscuits and cornbread were easy, but the way my Mama brewed that tea was never perfected by any of us kids. Mama would take them tea bags and put them in a big empty gallon pickle jar and fill it up with water and ice cubes and then sit it out in the boiling sun all day. It sounds quite simple, but try as I may, I could never achieve the same flavor. She would put just enough sugar and she always had fresh lemons sliced to put in the glass before pouring the tea. Now, sassafras tea was a whole different story. I never could figure out why you would want to drink the juice that come from boiling a root off of a tree, but needless to say, folks would just drop by on them lazy Sunday days to sit neath the old Magnolia tree and sip tea.
I still remember the day that the state folks come by and told Pappy that they was going to widen the black top road that ran in front of our farm which meant that the grand old Magnolia would have to come down. My Lord, I aint never heard such words that come from Pappy’s mouth in all my days on earth. He started hollering for Mama to come out to the road. All of us kids took in behind her. When Mama heard what the state folks had to say, I won’t ever forget the words that came from her mouth all the way up from her very soul. She wiped her hands on her apron, wiped her brow and began to tell them the story of the old Majestic Magnolia tree. I don’t know how much was true , and what was made up, but I do know that there weren’t a dry eye left. Mama then turned around, walked back up to the house as if she had just been elected President of the United States. Well, the road was widened, but the Magnolia is still standing, the state crew working on that road sipped ice tea underneath the shade of that old Magnolia as often as they could.
We always said Mama should run for some kind of office, she just had a way with folk and knew how to turn on that Southern charm and more importantly, how to brew the perfect pitcher of ice tea.
A lot of years have passed and a lot of family events have taken place underneath those branches of the old Magnolia. There have been weddings, birthday parties, there have been more laughs and tears than I could ever pen on paper. To hear Pappy tell it, aint no story worth telling unless something good come from it or it made you stronger in character. Well, the stories that originated around that old tree has done both.
Now, back to the barn yard animals and chores. It was Bubba’s job to tend to the goats out in the pasture. Bubba took pride in the fact that the goats didn’t need much tending to and he would find him a good spot and just sit and day dream and most days, he would end up napping.
We had to tend to the animals before we went to school and then again when we got home that afternoon. So when Bubba would get off the bus, he would run out into the pasture and just find him a spot to nap. Pappy knew what Bubba had been doing so he decided to play a prank on him. Pappy hid and waited for Bubba to drift off to sleep. As soon as he heard Bubba snoring, Pappy eased up and sprinkled apple peeling all around where Bubba was napping. He made a trail of apple peelings down the path to where the goats were grazing. As soon as the goats started eating the apple peelings, they followed the trail up to where Bubba was.
Pappy had placed apple peelings on Bubba’s pants legs and the Old Male goat was the first to nibble at the apple peelings, the only thing was that the goat grabbed Bubba’s leg in the process. Bubba woke up and that old goat was determined not to let go of that apple peeling that happened to be attached to Bubba’s leg. Around and around they went, the goat holding on and butting Bubba and Bubba hollering and the only thing he could do was drop his pants and run. I thought Pappy was going to burst wide open from laughing. Till this very day, Bubba won’t eat apples if there are any goats around.
I remember the first really bad storm we had. It had been a cloudy morning, but nothing to indicate the weather that we were about to endure. Mama had been working in the garden and Pappy was out on the tractor in the pasture. Us kids were out in the yard playing with old Duke, when we heard Pappy hollering and running toward us. It was then that we looked up and saw the blackest sky I had ever seen. Mama came running from the garden and screamed at us to get to the house, but here was no time, the twisting turning cloud was coming across the field. It seemed as if it were a mile wide, sucking up everything in it's path.
Pappy hollered for us all to run to the old Magnolia tree. We all got there underneath those big branches and huddled together. Pappy put his arms around us as much as he could. We could hear the animals inside the old tree screeching and old Duke was a barking. We huddled there and we could hear the roaring sound like a freight train coming fast. That old Magnolia’s branches blew and bent until we thought it would break them all for sure. But when it was all over, we were all safe and except for a few small limbs on the ground, the tree and all its inhabitants were safe. Mama was glad she had spoken her peace about them state folks cutting down that Majestic old tree that had most certainly earned its keep byjust now saving her family.
The years seem to go by so fast, before I knew what was happening, Pappy and Mama were talking about me going off to college and how proud they were of me and didn’t know what they would do missing me so after I was gone. Looking back, that seemed like the saddest day of my life. I won’t ever forget the look on their face as I pulled out from the bus station, headed for Oxford to begin my life away from everything and everyone I had known and loved. Pappy tried hard not to make a big deal, he said he was glad for the peace and quiet and was going to turn my room into a guest room and rent it to borders. I knew he was just trying to be strong for Mama. She had started crying before I ever got finished with high school. She would be making tea and just burst out crying at the thought of it. She would disappear for hours and we would find her sitting under that old Magnolia talking to it, sharing memories as if it somehow knew what she was saying and could ease her pain.
Bubba and Annie was sad but also glad that I was leaving so that they could have more room and could finally get rid of big sister. I was sad to go and couldn’t hold back the tears as the bus pulled away.
Oxford was like a whole other world to me. I had not lived away from home before and was not prepared for the adventure that lay ahead for me. My mind drifted back to the days of ice tea and roosters in the tree and the stories that were told while sitting on Pappy’s lap underneath the old Magnolia. I can almost taste the goodness of Mama’s sweet ice tea and hear her laughing at something funny we did or something Pappy said. Oh, how I long for those days even now as I write these pages. Just to feel the wind as it whipped through the branches of that old tree, to hear the chatter of endless conversation between the animals that called it home. I knew in my heart that no matter where life took me, I would always long for the Southern charm and ice tea.
As fate would have it, I fell in love with a true Southern Gentleman that swept me off my feet from the very moment I laid eyes on him across the crowded gymnasium floor. His name was James and he was Southern in every aspect. He grew up in a quiet little southern town and was brought up in the ways of southern charm. His mama made sure he learned how to be a gentleman and how to treat a Southern Lady. The first time I took him home to meet Pappy and Mama and my siblings, he fit in as if he had known them his entire life.
As we sat underneath that old Magnolia and as Mama poured ice tea, James knelt down on one knee and asked me to be his wife. I thought I would faint and Pappy and Mama were grinning from ear to ear. They had already given their blessings. Of course I said yes and I knew that one more time, I would stand beneath the outstretched branches of that Majestic Magnolia tree.
The wedding was full of Southern Charm and all the beauty that one could wish for. Mama had out done herself with decorating the yard around the Magnolia tree. There were chairs lined up with white linen backs tied with bows. There were tables arrayed with food and flowers. The cake was white with green magnolia leaves that Mama had made from scratch. As we stood underneath those branches that seemed to be stretched even further toward heaven than I remember as a child.
The same Preacher man that the squirrel once made a spectacle of stood in front of us telling about the love we shared and how he first came to know our family and that it was truly an honor to be standing there that day. Pappy was holding back the muffled cries and Mama was just beyond herself. Bubba and Annie were there with their dates. Old Duke stood as close as he was allowed to get. All was well with the world. Until, oh yea, it couldn’t be a Magnolia tree wedding without the mishaps it was famous for. The family of newly birthed squirrels was not in the mood to sit back in silence. Oh no, they had to make their presence known and make it known they did. Just as Preacher man began his reading of the vows for us to repeat, not one, but two squirrels jumped down on top of his head. As he began to holler and turn in circles, and try to get the squirrels off of his head, the guest burst into laughter. My Mama who moments had before been crying pools of tears was now laughing uncontrollably in her chair. I could not contain it, I too burst out laughing. I simply turned to Preacher and said; what a fine day for a wedding.
Finally the squirrels ran back to the safety of the tree. After a brief moment of composure, the wedding vows were completed and we were husband and wife. While others mingled, I made my way over to the familiar shade of that old tree and found my Mama waiting there with a tall glass of ice tea adorned with a fresh slice of lemon. We exchanged silence but knew what our hearts were saying. I looked up into the top of that tree and I knew that my heart would always be full of Southern Charm and Mama’s Ice Tea.
Years passed and the old Magnolia provided shade for many birthdays and two more weddings which I might add were not without their own mishaps. But I guess with all happiness, sadness has to come as well.
It was a stormy night and my mind had just wandered back to that day we all had to huddle underneath that big Magnolia for shelter and safety from the tornado. The ringing of the phone interrupted my thoughts. It was Mama, I need you to come home she said through the tears. Pappy had died in his sleep, peaceful and without any cares or regrets.
Once again, the Majestic Magnolia offered up its branches to embrace us and offer a familiar comfort. Even the animals that made their homes among the many branches made an appearance. They seemed almost in trance as they peered through the big Magnolia blossoms as if to offer up their sadness to mingle with ours. As with true Southern Charm, Mama came bearing fresh Ice tea complete with slices of lemon. As we sat under the shade, Mama poured a glass for Pappy and we once again shared stories true to fashion that would have even made Pappy proud.
My childhood is forever gone, but the memories of being brought up underneath the branches and blossoms of that old Magnolia tree will forever be etched in my heart. The old farm house is worn and tattered; Mama has since gone to meet Pappy. But one thing remains unchanged, forgotten by time.
The Majestic Magnolia remains tall and full of branches and blossoms. The animals continue to make their homes among the safety and shelter of its limbs. I often wonder if when Mama and Pappy reached that other shore, was there a Magnolia tree waiting for them to rest beneath its shade. Yes, I can almost taste the ice tea and hear the stories that made my childhood full of Southern Charm and Mama's famous Ice tea.