Published 3:43 pm Thursday, October 12, 2023
By Janet Morris Belvin
In the middle of a grove of pine trees in Gates County sits a simple white frame church. Along each side of the tall one-story building are five exquisite stained glass windows, which catch the rays of sun on hot summer mornings and display them like jewels.
The church is Middle Swamp Baptist and it is sited squarely in the middle of pastureland and fields. I remember going to revival meetings there on hot nights before the arrival of air conditioning. Those glorious stained glass windows would be propped up with sticks of wood in the empty hope of capturing whatever breeze was near. On such nights, the preacher’s sermons would be punctuated by the lowing of cattle from the surrounding fields and the rhythmic motions of mothers in cotton dresses fanning their sleeping children with funeral home fans.
It was to this church that my family returned each year for a ritual without which no summer would be complete. (Well, not exactly to this building as the original building, built in 1874, burned to the ground in January 2004 as it was being renovated.) However, such was the devotion to the old building that its members rebuilt the church to look almost exactly like the original.
Every year on the fourth Sunday in August, the Morris clan gathered in the old meetinghouse to renew old ties. It was a longstanding tradition that we came to cherish.
In the summer of 1956, I was eight years-old living with my father, mother and three sisters in the sultry town of Savannah. My father was minister of a large Baptist church there, but he’d never lost his love for his home state of North Carolina. So in the summer of that year, he decided from hundreds of miles away to organize a family reunion in his native county.
It was held that first summer in the front yard of the two-story white frame house of my father’s grandfather Ephraim Morris. The house and its outbuildings have since been demolished, its land now a part of the Merchant’s Millpond State Park.
Grainy black and white photos of the first event show crowds of people standing around tables of rough planed boards set upon sawhorses and covered with white linen cloths. My twin sister and I are dressed exactly alike in sleeveless white print dresses with white shoes and socks, posing awkwardly for the camera. We are standing on almost the exact spot where nearly fifty years before, my great grandmother Sallie Mary sat for a photograph with three of her seven living children. Looking at that photo, I have the feeling that there is an invisible cord that binds Sallie Mary to me.
It was to that old farmhouse that we gathered, bringing baskets chockfull of the stuff dreams are made of – fried chicken so flaky and light that it almost floated from the basket, cakes so rich and damp they seemed almost sinful, ambrosia so delectable it was like nectar for the bees.
After lunch there was always an inspirational speaker, a reading from the Bible, and a retelling of the Morris family history. Sometime after the first year, the site of the reunion was moved to the church. Because Morrises had been members there for well over 100 years, it seemed the logical spot for a permanent location. So every year, for over fifty years, we gathered in the old church to marvel at the heartstring connection that joined people from all over the eastern seaboard of the United States.
The format changed little over the ensuing years. We’d gather first in the fellowship hall in the rear of the church. There long tables, joined end to end, were covered with plate after plate of toothsome delights. First were the meats – fried chicken was king. Golden brown legs and chicken breasts peeped teasingly from beneath paper towel covers. Next came meat loaves, some with ketchup, and some with bacon. Of course if chicken was king, country ham was emperor. Rarely in life are such hams found but every year at least one platter filled with the paper-thin slices showed up on the table. We also had the odd dish – Aunt Thelma always brought a plate of “dandoodle” to the delight of her brothers, one of whom was my father. If you don’t know what a dandoodle is, don’t ask. Suffice it to say it’s a “specialty” part of the hog.
Next on the table were vegetables of every description, but always present were “Irish potatoes” swimming in pot liquor and the tiniest butter beans, both sprinkled heavily with pepper. With the supreme culinary gift that matched her name, cousin Grace brought turnip greens, turning the ordinary turnip with her kitchen alchemy into an aristocrat. Salads were next – anything from freshly chopped coleslaw to gelatin salads shimmering, fruit-laden and quivering to the touch. My mother’s green salad was always my favorite. She picked the recipe out of a Southern Living magazine and soon made it a regular on our Sunday and holiday tables. Now just looking at the recipe card, written in Mama’s delicate script, calls to mind countless dinners at her table. I make it sometimes when I get homesick.
Mixed in somewhere among the salads are pickles, relishes and deviled eggs. No Morris reunion was complete without them. Usually sprinkled with paprika, the best eggs had fillings stuffed with tiny chips of sweet pickles, not the kind from the grocery store, but the kind your grandmother put up on hot August days when the garden out back was overrun with cucumbers.
Breads at our reunions were always unpretentious. One year as a newlywed, I brought a braided loaf of homemade bread. It was, I felt, a work of art. But at the end of the day it was barely touched. Cousin Portia’s biscuits had been eaten, though, everyone. It seemed that Morrises preferred simple breads, just for contrast to the richness of the other offerings. So Aunt Thelma’s cornbread, to go along with my grandmother’s fried herring and tomato pudding, were always hits, reminding us of home, of childhood, of warmth and security, of mother’s love.
At long last, there were the desserts. Held in such high regard in our family, they were placed in a separate location, an old table at the side of the room. The delicacies sitting side by side always included a fresh coconut cake, usually four layers tall, and a pecan pie, its sticky sweetness a fitting end to the day’s feast. Young mothers usually remembered to bring cupcakes and brownies for their children. But those of us who’d seen a few more reunions always opted for the old fashioned desserts like Aunt Thelma’s Dump Cake or Grandmama’s Applesauce cake or, Lord help us, Aunt Ella’s Rotten Cake.
After the desserts, we always adjourned to the sanctuary for the afternoon program. Afterwards, we trudged slowly to our cars, parked under the trees. But there, by the church’s back door, was Uncle Thurman’s pickup truck with a wash tub in the bed filled with Coca Colas in green glass bottles nestled in ice. Though we’d had too much to eat, the drinks were too hard to resist. Because, like the rest of the food at our family reunion, the little green bottles covered with ice chips were a symbol of our family. They said tradition, and communion and love.
The last Morris reunion, sparsely attended, was held in 2013. We decided reluctantly that it was time to retire our get-together. Now all we have are our memories, but, like Grandmama’s Applesauce cake, they are very sweet, indeed.