When I was a little girl, Mama cleaned house by first opening all the windows to “air things out and let the sunshine in.” Then, she put a Broadway soundtrack on the record player.
I was of the age that chores were fun and helping Mama made me feel accomplished. She taught me how to starch and iron the dishcloths and pillowcases. Sometimes, she would let me wash the hairbrushes. I remember only bits and pieces of those days: how water would flick up into my face when I washed her round brown hairbrush or Daddy’s turquoise one with salt-and-pepper bristles, how the hot soapy water made the kitchen smell, the squeak of the bathroom mirror as I wiped it clean with newspaper wet with vinegar and water. I remember curtains catching a breeze and billowing out into the room.
The best part was when Mama would sing along with the record on the record player. We listened to soundtracks from “Sound of Music” (Mary Martin, not Julie Andrews) and “South Pacific.” Mama’s favorite though was “Fiddler on the Roof,” the original Broadway recording starring Zero Mostel as Tevye.
Mama explained as much as a little red-haired, freckled, Presbyterian in South Georgia needed to know about the anti-Jewish pogroms of the early 20th century. So, I could just be enthralled by the music. Before I was six years old, I knew all the words to “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sabbath Prayer.” I listened to “Tevye’s Dream” over and over laughing at how clever Tevye was to manipulate the engagement of his eldest daughter, Tzeitel, to Motel the poor tailor she loved, instead of the match her mother Golde preferred – the much older and wealthy butcher, Lazar Wolf.
Ever theatrical, I pulled the discarded white polyester curtain sheer that Mama let me have for my dress-up box over my head as a veil to re-enact Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding and sing the bittersweet “Sunrise, Sunset” while Mama hung sheets on the clothesline to dry. They sleep better when they smell like sunshine, says she.
“Tradition” though– that song was our jam. On cleaning days, Mama wore a babushka over her hair and when we danced, the back of the babushka kept time with the music. I remember Mama’s hands were thin and red from hot water as she would fling them in the air, twisting her wrists and snapping her fingers with me as we danced around the kitchen table, singing.
Mama says in a past life she must have been Jewish. The music and stories, prayers, and rituals all pull at something deep inside her. She has always believed understanding and appreciating Judaism made for thoughtful Christians. We were in middle school when she brought home a menorah one Christmas and talked with us about what it meant and why it was important. She has always encouraged her girls to have “chutzpah” (Yiddish for our southern gumption) and encouraged us to learn about Judaism independently so that we understand the connection to our own Christianity. “It just makes so much sense,” she says.
Tradition – the holidays are chock full. When I was growing up, we went to Frisco City, Alabama every Thanksgiving to celebrate with Mama’s parents. We watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the morning while the turkey browned, and the grownups drank coffee. Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if Mama didn’t say as a high school marching band from some southern town prances down the street, “Look at that, would ya? All the way from Tupelo, Mississippi, girls. Their Mama’s had to make lots of spaghetti suppers to get them to New York, I’d bet. Go, go, go, Mississippi!!”
Gaga, my grandmother, made turkey and cornbread dressing with giblet gravy every year. If we were lucky, there was a quart jar of tomato gravy, too. When the seal on the jar of tomato gravy popped, you could smell Alabama summer sunshine inside.
If we were lucky and Uncle Spot and Aunt Kate came from Pensacola, that meant he would bring clam dip and put it out to nosh on before lunch. “Elizabeth, if you eat one more scoop of that dip, you’re gonna make yourself sick,” Gaga would say. Uncle Jere the confirmed bachelor, and retired high school principal, always contributed a relish tray with pimento cheese spread on celery sticks, white pickled cocktail onions, cold asparagus out of a jar, and pickled okra.
The grownups ate in the dining room and my cousins and I ate at the kitchen table together. Dessert was a pound cake, sometimes a pecan pie or maybe apple with thin slices of cheddar cheese melted on top.
Thanksgiving’s coming meant Christmas wasn’t far behind. On our drive back home to Elmodel, through towns with funny names: Opp, Andalusia, and Evergreen, we talked about the prospect of Santa Claus or the search for our family Christmas tree between verses of “Sarasponda” or “Barbara Allen” or after games like “I Spy” or “My Ship Came Sailing In.”
Daddy always cut our Christmas trees; I never remember buying one. It was a cedar tree that never had the traditional Christmas tree shape because it came from the farm. It had to be small enough for our house, but big enough for our ornaments. Two weeks or so before Christmas, Daddy would chop it down with the ax and bring it home to put in a five-gallon bucket full of sand. Then, we wrapped the bucket in an old, clean, white sheet and rotated the bucket around until the only the good side showed.
Although we’ve added mightily to the ornament box over the years, our childhood ornaments still make a yearly appearance: the wooden locomotive, a little white mouse with a red Christmas cap smiles as he leans out a little silver thimble, a Hallmark ornament with women in hats and muffs that skate on the ornament’s mirrored rotating bottom. Ginny and I have our own ornament, too. Small and etched in thin brass, Ginny’s is a smiling, barefooted, little girl angel holding a tiny bell up high in her right hand. Mine is etched brass too and is a little girl with pigtails, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrates on tying a bow around the present she is wrapping. Mama said our ornaments were very much like our personalities. Of course, Ginny is the angel.
There are a handful of the ceramic ornaments that Mama painted the first year she and Daddy were married: a Christmas wreath, a stocking, a star. The ornament Miss Judy Newberry made me can be found, too: a small needlepoint of a red-haired girl in a green dress wearing brown boots with “Lishus” needle pointed at the top because that’s what her daughter, my childhood friend Nancy, called me when she was too little to say Elizabeth. Our tree had no theme or big bows. We weren’t tinsel people. One year, Mama let us string popcorn and cranberries for it. It was just a family tree, a happy tree. Still is.
Traditions are those things we do because they bring some comfort and security, a preserving of the way things used to be or always have been. Southerners have lots of traditions, but it’s the family traditions that mean the most to me: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television while grown-up voices hum in the background, relish trays that include pickled okra, cedar trees cut with an ax from a southwest Georgia farm.
Whatever your traditions are this holiday season, may this excerpt of Golde and Tevye’s “Sabbath Prayer” for their daughters cover us all:
May the Lord protect and defend you,
May He always shield you from shame,
May you be deserving of praise,
May the Lord preserve you from pain and
May God bless you and grant you long lives.
Favor [us], Oh Lord, with happiness and peace.