Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

March 29, 2009


Family gatherings were important when I was a boy


          Family gatherings were important when I was growing up.  There was usually a crowd, and all were my mother’s relatives. My father had moved from Florida to Alabama shortly after his marriage to my mother. His parents were dead and his siblings seldom visited our family.

 Caroline, my mother, was the oldest child of Seth and Neva Johnson. Born in Newnan, Georgia, in 1902, she grew up in Montgomery. Her father built a large, majestic home south of the Atlanta Highway in the eastern part of Montgomery. It sat on a knoll west of what is now the Eastern Bypass. My mother had nine brothers and four sisters. All of them called her “Sister.”

Our modest home in Elmore County was comfortable but nothing compared to the stately home of my grandparents. Its massive front porch with white columns offered an impressive view of the large cotton fields on both sides of the dirt road leading to the house from the Atlanta Highway.

The grand old home had quite a history. Built in 1838, and expanded in 1860, it sat proudly amidst towering Oak trees for 128 years. Having served its purpose the splendid structure was finally torn down in the mid-1960s, giving way to progress and the homes which now constitute the Carol Villa subdivision.  Change takes its toll.

The large Johnson plantation enabled my grandparents to raise a large family and have a good if not affluent life. Thirteen children grew to adulthood. They produced more than 50 grandchildren of whom I was the oldest. The number attending annual family reunions grew dramatically during my childhood. My sisters and my brother have good memories of those family gatherings.

          .  The most important annual gathering was usually the Saturday nearest the fourth of July. Hot weather was no problem since we had never heard about air conditioning. High ceilings in the old home place did assuage the effect of the heat, as did several big ceiling fans. When the temperature seemed unbearable we could always begin stirring the air with one of the old funeral home fans.

I never knew my paternal grandfather. He died years before I was born. Since my mother’s family was close-knit I did get to know her parents well. Her mother was “Grandmama.” Her father was “Papa.” Grandmama took care of the home; Papa handled the farm. Like many cattlemen he grew a lot of cotton and corn as well as the hay needed for the cows.  

Papa’s pump house was one of my favorite spots. It was in the back yard, not far from the steps leading up to the kitchen. I loved to go inside the pump house and listen to the old water pump wheezing, coughing, and sputtering as it struggled to pull cold water out of a deep well. I think it was powered by a gasoline engine.

It was always fun to play with my cousins, especially Mickey, Buddy, Billy Randall, and Seth Arthur. We shared many adventures during those daylong reunions. One of our favorite sports was to find a yellow jacket nest, disturb those stinging devils, and run for our lives. The slowest ones occasionally got stung. Our uncles, older and wiser, always lectured us about upsetting wasps and yellow jackets.  Then they would treat our stings with wet tobacco from a cigarette or a cigar. We were proud of those stings. They were our badges of courage. We figured our bravery impressed the girls.

Every reunion was an occasion to romp and play in the hay barn. Behind the barn we found a good place to hide and smoke rabbit tobacco. That was exciting until that sad July day when carelessly we burned down one of the barns.  

None of us ever owned up to being the guilty party. I reckon we were all at fault. Our parents thought so because we all got a whipping that left us crying like we were dying. My dad blamed me more than anyone since I was the oldest. I was never as sure about that as he was.  

One of the problems of growing up in a big family like ours was the teasing our uncles imposed on us. Like it or not we had to learn how to deal with friendly ridicule and sarcasm. They taught us many lessons, often through the use of embarrassment. If we were too loud, or impolite, or unwilling to wait our turn, we were sure to get a stern reprimand. No sin was left unnoticed or unpunished.

In my late teens I brought my girl friend to the family gatherings. Having grown up in a small, quiet family with one sister and no brothers, Dean was shocked by my loud, boisterous family. She blushed in utter humiliation when Uncle Philip said, “Walter Junior, your girl friend is cute. Where did a country boy like you find her? Has she let you kiss her yet?”  Both of us blushed as everyone laughed.  

Grandmama more than made up for the teasing we endured.  She made Dean feel welcome in her home. The two of them developed a special relationship that lasted until Grandmama died of cancer not long before we were married. Dean admired the quiet strength and strong faith of this courageous woman who faced her impending death without whimpering.  Grandmama showed us how to face the harshness of life without losing faith in the love of God.

Every family brought loads of food to each gathering. It was like dinner on the grounds at a country church.  Desserts were as plentiful as meats and vegetables but the main dessert was homemade ice cream. Even warm banana pudding was no match for the ice cream.

When my cousins and I were old enough, it was our job to turn the cranks on the ice cream freezers. Our uncles saw to it that we turned those cranks as long as we could. Then one of them would turn the crank a few more times to show us how weak we were.

There is value in looking back at “the good old days.” It is good for the soul. Reminiscing can help us identify the lessons of the past, lessons that can help us better live the days ahead. + + +