Every. Single. Year. Grandma was firm on one rule. Not that she didn’t have many, but this particular one was like angering fate itself. As if it tipped the scales of all bad luck and curses. It was that serious. As if somewhere within’ her Blackwell roots, all tangled up there, written in the blood of her ancestors upon the stone of all stones…
On New Years Day, you better cook and eat Black-eyed Peas, Cabbage and Pork. If you don’t, you won’t have good luck, wealth and health in the coming year.
Grandma would even make phone calls a day or so ahead of time reminding us all not to forget. And if you pulled some nonsense like, “Grandma, I don’t have time to cook that.” Then she’d reach through that phone snatchin’ you up by the nape of your neck with a death grip of a tone, a forewarnin’, and say, “Then you better come by my house and get some before its too late!”
Grandma’s dead and I seriously doubt she is gonna make a phone call to my house on New Years Day. Although I really wish she could. I can promise you, though, on my stove, every year the menu is the same….
Black-Eyed Peas, Cabbage, Pork and, oh yeah, Greens. I picked the Greens up from my time in North Carolina. I love em, so it’s easy to slip one more good luck charm in on the menu.
Even for a time, my own Mother would cook them on New Years Day. Maybe it was to avoid Grandma from kickin’ down the door and burnin’ her butt up with a switch if she didn’t. Maybe for one small period of time, my Mother actually had some sort of nostalgia for the past, Grandma’s traditions and all those who came before her. Maybe.
Still, till this day, I have one Aunt who still cooks these things on New Years Day. She even gives me a yell, making sure I am doing it too just like Grandma once did. We catch snark from certain cousins, in-laws and family members for upholdin’ Grandma’s stern rule. Or, at least I do.
They scoff and say, “I make my own luck.I don’t need no make-believe tradition!” Or they say, “God takes care of me. That’s offensive to him.” They say other things but as we get older, we learn to tune people out.
For me and my Aunt, we don’t actually believe cooking these things will make or break us for the following year. We do it because its a tradition that my Grandma took literally. Grandma learned it from her Mother and Father. They learned it from theirs. Maybe none of them believed in it, maybe they did, but you can bet their bottom dollar that they did it regardless all because it was, as I said, a Tradition. It was passed down through their family and bloodline. It survived hard times, bad weather, no money, low supplies, sickness, death, and despair. It survived because they survived.
I cook these things on New Years Day because it meant something to my Grandma. All day, I end up thinking about her. Not the things that drove me nuts or put a wedge between us. I think about the good things, the few times I saw her smile, this meal being one of the few things that made her smile.
My kids learn or re-learn about where they come from. We’re mountain people. We have Roots here. Our kin spread far and wide. Some made and ran Moonshine. Some were Farmers. Some were Preachers. Some actually carved out a place for themselves when these mountains were no more than a wilderness, a hope for a good life to come, filled with dangers and hardships. They lived off the plants and wildlife. They gave birth and buried their dead in the soils and rocks we see now as nothin’ more than dirt and toe-stubbers.
I show my kids pictures of the Blackwell Clan, with the Blueridge Mountains behind them. All mostly dark-haired, wavy and thick. I try to give them a sense of placement. A sense of pride. A sense of beginning. I want them to know that they come from somewhere. And while the women could be mean, that’s what gave them the strength to fight their way through this world when the world owed them no favors.
I show them pictures of the Clarks and tell them the history of that name. Then, thanks to the books and pictures my Aunt Wanda gave me, I show them the little truths of their journey throughout the Ages, their place in many unfortunate wars including the historic battles they survived, even though their minds were never quite the same again.
Through these pictures, you could see my Grandfather, healthy when he just signed up for Service. Not fat, but meaty enough to be called a man. Proudly smiling in his uniform. Someone who was about to make something of himself. Then I show them the picture of him after Pearl Harbor and all that came in its aftermath. A shadow of himself, thin was drinking. He’d spend the rest of his life tryin’ to chase away the demons that war put in his head. The last years I saw him, in a wheel chair, half paralyzed from a stroke, unable to speak words clearly….shaking one fist at the TV shouting something incomprehensible in anger. All because a movie of Pearl Harbor was on. And oh yeah, the time Jacob’s Ladder played and his blood pressure went through the roof.
These Southern Traditions that most of you find pointless and funny are more than what they appear to be on the outside. We honour them because it brings to life our people who are not dead and gone. We remember them. And as long as we remember them, they live with us in our hearts, spirit and mind. What’s more depressing? Dying or realizing when you’re dead, it will be as if you never existed at all because no one remembers you. You passed nothing on. You left no mark upon this world. No imprint. Nothing of importance.
My Grandma’s tradition may not heal Cancer, but it is important. She bestowed unto me a sense of pride, worth, and the knowing that I come from a long line of women who suffered much but overcame even more. Women who were the heartbeats of their home. Women who knew how to survive even things like men and others, like, The Depression.
I think the problem with the world today is that we’ve been made to feel ashamed of who we are and where we come from, or what collar we wear. Traditions are no longer taught or passed down. Our children are no longer taught the basics or skills. No one takes pride in where they come from and we no longer have a sense of placement, which means we no longer have a sense of worth. We have no more pride in ourselves than we do of anyone else because we no longer teach the next generation of what they gain to lose or what our ancesters faught to have.
We each have heritage and we are in danger of losing it. These traditions help me hold onto that. They help me hold onto Grandma, keep me grounded, and they help my children know a woman who is no longer here to drive them up a wall. As long as I uphold these things, as long as I instil these precious pieces into them, then they will always know they come from somewhere and those that came before them didn’t live and die as if they never lived or existed at all. And we become the stronger for it. And besides, I happen to love eating Black-Eyed Peas, Cabbage, Greens and Pork. So that helps. winks