Sometimes I remember it as the Christmas of Muscadine Jelly, but this really isn’t true. Maybe I just like the way it sounds. It could be called the Christmas of Ritz Cracker Casseroles, but where is the poetry in that? And besides that isn’t true either. What I do remember is this: We drive from Los Angeles to Nashville with our three kids in order to give them a southern Christmas with my husband’s family, but what I’m struggling to write about takes place just after New Year’s in early 2005. I don’t know why the supper in Memphis is what I remember most, but it’s the memory that keeps returning, and since this month’s suggested topics are about writing struggles and/or setting, I thought I would somehow try to write about both.
On the way back to California, we have a post-New Year’s supper in Memphis at the home of my husband’s sister. The supper consists of Ritz cracker casseroles – green beans and cream-of-mushroom soup on a bed of Ritz crackers and sprinkled with dried onions and a broccoli noodle casserole adorned with Ritz Crackers. I’m relieved to have Christmas over, so this dinner is beautiful to me. We dish up cafeteria style, and I’d like to think there is an apple pie topped with Ritz Crackers too, but that is pushing it.
My sister-in-law who serves this meal is bossy, sophisticated, and has an answer for everything. After a trip to California when she was fourteen, she could dance the jitterbug to perfection across the living room floor. I don’t associate her with Ritz cracker dishes. As a child, I compulsively read cereal boxes, but when I came across a box of Ritz crackers and studied the different recipes for pies and casseroles I was amazed that a box of crackers could do so many things. Who knew? In my house of standard meatloaf and Hamburger Helper dinners, Ritz crackers were served strictly with cheese.
A salty ham also sits on the table in Memphis next to the casseroles along with red wine. I’m sure there is also either coleslaw or potato salad or deviled eggs, too. It feels slightly romantic to have supper in Memphis with my sister-in-law, a nonstop talker, where conversation is easy because nothing is expected but vague attention. An evening walk would not be noticed or remarked upon so long as somebody is there to catch the avalanche of words, and I begin to look outside with longing. I’m facing three more days in the car with kids, and it’s a balmy Memphis night in January, no sign of winter anywhere except for the way the naked branches of the oak trees claw the sky. I want to pretend that this is a regular Sunday, and that maybe we are lost characters from a Peter Taylor short story having Sunday dinner in Memphis with the relatives.
My sister-in-law describes the politics of Memphis and some of the underhanded ways of the city and says, “A lot of people in Memphis have three jobs: politician, appraiser, and preacher.” When I laugh she fires back, “That is not funny!” I grow tired. Okay, it’s not funny. I am blending times and dates and years of conversation, but it’s always the same or a very similar conversation, and I have to remember to be bland, to say nothing, to be quiet, to smile only slightly, maybe. I’m her brother’s wife who writes but that is never mentioned. Writing is suspect. It has always been suspect. Writing is not steady. Writing is not something to consider seriously. Writing is okay for some people but it’s better to be a lawyer or a doctor with health insurance than to gamble with something so risky as a writing career. I don’t mention that I have a book coming out the following March, but the subject never comes up.
I am also worried about our teenage daughter, Lucy, who is on crutches due to a holiday accident in a crowded Nashville living room at her grandmother’s after a meal of Turkducken (Chicken inside a duck inside a turkey), having stepped on a ball and wrenching her ankle. I am terrified it is broken, but she’s an athlete and elastic and our HMO isn’t in Tennessee, so we ice it up and hope for the best, which is dumb, but who wants to find a doctor in Nashville on New Year’s Eve when it is time to drive back across the country to California. I have visions of gangrene setting in, but I am morbid. There is a spare set of crutches in the basement garage, and of course, we absolutely will take her to the doctor when we get home, which, by my estimation is approximately five days. Will Kaiser call Child Services on us for not flying out into the night to seek immediate treatment? Could we fudge on the days it would take to drive from Nashville to Los Angeles? If this were a Peter Taylor story, the visiting relatives would go to the family doctor in town and there would be no charge.
Back in Nashville before the supper in Memphis when Lucy does whatever she does to her ankle, her cousins bow over her like concerned tulips but her grandmother, my mother-in-law, makes it clear that she does not want her granddaughter to convalesce with her and then fly home to California, and honestly, who could blame her? Eight of her thirteen children have gathered for the holidays, and it is day ten of celebrating. We are all about to implode from Christmas.
And so I pretend I am a Peter Taylor character visiting a sister-in-law in Memphis at the tail end of a Christmas holiday with my children. After the salty Memphis supper, I walk toward the railroad tracks, happy to leave the talk behind. I think about my sister-in-law who is divorced with adult children and a boyfriend - a kind man with a vast knowledge of the Blues in Memphis. He is Jewish, and my sister-in-law once talked about learning to sit shiva for his mother. (She will later sit shiva for this good man but we don’t know this yet.) The walk to the railroad tracks makes me think of my other Memphis friend, an actress and comedian, who sells Jewish cemetery plots in California. She is Catholic but has had to learn to sit shiva too, and thinks it’s a tradition the Catholics would do well to learn a thing or two about. She believes people of the Jewish faith are more evolved when it comes to death and funerals.
My Catholic friend who sells Jewish cemetery plots once said, “With the Catholics, the family of the deceased has to parade down the church aisle crying and carrying on in front of everybody, but the Jewish family in mourning sits there and lets everybody else walk by them. Highly evolved people.”
My sister-in-law has never married her Jewish boyfriend, and on this January night in 2005, I wonder why. Her own ex-husband has long been remarried. Clearly the boyfriend is kind and devoted and loving, but these are questions not to be asked except maybe to the ghost of Peter Taylor. Where had he lost that poor girl from THE OLD FOREST? In the story, a boy was engaged to the right kind of girl but had a car wreck with the wrong kind of girl who then disappeared. Where in Memphis had this happened? And part of me just wants to keep walking the Memphis streets and disappear into his Collected Stories and maybe I’ll see this girl walking through a park or a maybe I’ll find a young couple having a fight upon leaving the movie theatre or maybe see a woman in a camel hair coat smoking a cigarette.
But eventually, I go back to the house, the lonesome sound of Memphis trains steady and sonorous. And to make conversation, I tell my sister-in-law that we want to bring simple little gifts to our friends in California – something from the South that they couldn’t easily find out west, and she says, “Oh muscadine jelly. Everybody loves muscadine jelly.” And so it becomes a mission to find muscadine jelly. She knows that muscadine jelly is the right thing to bring west, and we will make this happen. I am grateful to her for this idea.
After we say good-bye the next day, we find some muscadine jelly in Ozark, Arkansas at one of the wineries. At a gas station, a man says, “California? Wow. How did y’all find Ozark? But I’m not surprised. Everybody’s been coming here lately. Did y’all come all this way to see where they filmed ‘The Simple Life’ with Paris Hilton? It’s just right up the road where they shot it.”
I grit my teeth. Paris Hilton? Paris Hilton does not belong in my story of muscadine jelly and Peter Taylor and my sister-in-law with her Ritz Cracker casseroles. Paris Hilton is an interloper and she has nothing to do with any of this, but there she is anyway in a black and white photo above the cash register.
I tell him, “No. We’ve come to Ozark to find muscadine jelly.”
He directs us to a few wineries, and eventually we find dusty jars of it on the shelves. It’s also known as scuppernog jelly, another delicious word. We buy ten jars and do a wine tasting. Our kids look at us like we will become drunk before their eyes. Then we stop to eat barbecue at a place that is packed on Saturday night before the long drive back to California. We buy a coffee cup with a pig on it, and the kids love it. And on those long winter days driving back west we listen to Blues CDs from my sister-in-law and her boyfriend, who give us music for the road. I try to decide which friends will want a jar of this sweet southern spread. Our daughter’s ankle heals a little more each day. We see moose in the Grand Canyon. Our teenage son films everything, even his sister sleeping, which infuriates her. Our youngest wants a dream-catcher at the Continental Divide to keep away the bad dreams.
And that was the Christmas of muscadine jelly before my children grew up.
- Kerry Madden is the author of six books including: OFFSIDES, WRITING SMARTS, GENTLE'S HOLLER, LOUISIANA'S SONG, JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, and UP CLOSE HARPER LEE. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham and divides her time between Los Angeles and Alabama. www.kerrymadden.com