I never cared for oysters. Boiled, baked, fried, or raw, it makes no difference to me. I’m not eating them. Yet, oysters and my family have a history. Inexplicably, they appear at special occasions, twice on Christmas alone. While most families feast on pancakes or cinnamon buns to celebrate the birth of Christ, my family has oyster stew for breakfast. And let me tell you, those disgusting grey blobs floating in milk can kill a Santa buzz in no-time flat. To add insult to injury, the foul little creatures insinuate themselves into dishes throughout the day: oysters baked in stuffing, fried on a plate, or slippery raw with a shot of hot sauce before dinner.
I’m not saying my family has an oyster fetish (though in nearly a decade of weddings, birthdays, Easters and graduation parties with my husband’s family, I have yet to see an oyster). Bivalve molluscs just have a way of ending up on the menu whenever my family gathers. It probably has something to do with the fact that the land-locked inhabitants of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where all four of my grandparents reside, reserve oyster eating for special occasions. And since moving north, I typically return to the area in times of celebration, which means oysters, oysters, and more oysters.
Though my parents raised me in such far-flung places as Roanoke and Richmond, Virginia, the farmlands between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains are where I “come from,” genetically speaking. Generations of my mother’s family have been christened, married, and put to rest in a tiny, tucked-away church that stands beyond the relative bustle of a two-stoplight town called Bridgewater, off single-lane roads bearing the names of the families who once lived there and some who live there still.
I first visited Beaver Creek Church as a toddler to attend my great-grandmother’s wake in the basement fellowship hall. I have no recollection of Granny Jordan, but my earliest memory of childhood is twirling across the church basement in my fancy dress, unable to comprehend why no one would dance with me.
In twenty-five years, the church hasn’t changed much. The pew cushions are the same scratchy, maroon fabric and the windows still overlook the well-kept graveyard where Granny is buried. And without fail, each Lenten season the oyster supper draws a crowd eager to commit gluttony on sacred ground before the food runs out at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
During my last visit to Beaver Creek Church, I waited two hours in the sanctuary for my family’s turn to gorge at the Lenten Oyster Supper. Given the historic popularity of the event, we arrived before four in the afternoon to take a number and wait until the meal began. We waited as the first diners, who I assume arrived immediately after lunch, feasted. Once a group relinquished its table, those with the next lowest ticket numbers would be called to pile their Styrofoam plates high with a lard-fried version of the creature. I would say that this was nothing out of the ordinary, but everything about this particular trip to Virginia felt strange.
My extended family had converged on the Shenandoah Valley from a scattering of places to visit my grandfather, who had recently become blind. One by one, my aunts, uncles, and cousins from places as near as Bridgewater and as far away as California squeezed into the first two pews, talking over one another and laughing loud enough to catch the attention of the more demure families waiting for oysters. We had journeyed as a collective to offer “moral support,” yet I imagine some had the same need I had: to confirm with their own eyes that Pop Pop could no longer see through his. Despite what the doctors had said, what family living in the area had seconded, the disbelief that someone as vibrant as my grandfather could go blind in a matter of days lingered with me.
Pop Pop’s blindness came suddenly as a result of misdiagnosed temporal arteritis, an easily controlled condition with limited side effects, if detected early. By the time he finally began steroid treatments to reduce the swelling in the blood vessels bringing oxygen to his eyes, the damage was severe and irreversible. Still, he spoke cheerfully on the phone whenever I called from South Jersey, bragging about each new task he’d mastered sightless and his heightened sense of taste. Since he had gone blind just after Christmas, he was particularly excited to re-experience oysters for the first time at the Lenten Supper.
After the initial shock of seeing my ninety-pound Nana navigate her six-foot-tall husband through the same sanctuary where he usually led her, his hand reassuringly on the small of her back, I began to marvel at how well Pop Pop had adapted. He seemed to accept blindness as just another challenge in life, like driving an egg truck at fourteen to help his family survive the Great Depression or serving in World War II.
He has always believed in soldiering up, getting the job done, and above all else, not complaining. And though his authoritative nature sometimes borders on dictatorial, he’s the type of man who dresses sharply out of respect for others, inscribing the purchase date on the soles of his shoes with a permanent marker to ensure they are replaced before looking too worn. For the oyster supper he had donned a pressed shirt and sweater vest. Each strand of his thinning white hair was meticulously slicked down.
Before Pop Pop lost his sight, he would have walked to each pew in the packed church, drawing person after person into conversation until the entire room buzzed. A few minutes into our two-hour wait, I was relieved to see that his aisle seat had become the magnetic center of the sanctuary. The conversation inside Beaver Creek swelled to a pleasant roar as people filed by one at a time to speak with him. Pop Pop’s pale blue eyes stared vacantly ahead as he chatted with each visitor, yet somehow he was the only one looking directly at the camera in every snapshot. (My family’s obsession with oysters can only be rivaled by an unabashed need to capture each moment on multiple cameras, from multiple angles.)
“Make sure to take pictures with my camera,” Pop Pop commanded.
The unease that everyone had tried so hard to conceal in his presence surfaced as half the group looked in vain for his camera while the other half, who knew that no one had thought to bring a blind man’s camera to a church oyster supper, just looked guilty. Finally, Nana confessed to Pop Pop that, for the first time in his life, he was attending a social function sans camera.
“Then make me copies from the others,” he huffed.
A half-dozen flashes ignited in reply.
Compounding the already surreal nature of the trip was the fact that I had traveled south without my husband, Jeff, who would have taken one look at the crowd waiting for oysters and turned heels, vowing to go hungry rather than idle so long on a packed church pew. Having grown up in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, he was unaccustomed to the thrill of simply sitting still for a while. After a half hour passed and the sanctuary became uncomfortably warm, I began to feel relieved that he was with a group of other dentists learning about dental implants rather than sitting beside me, shaking the entire pew with his impatient leg jiggling.
I did, however, miss his running commentary of the event. Over the years, I had come to enjoy his outsider’s perspective of my family and our traditions. His questions about the food: “Is there anything that isn’t fried or covered in mayonnaise?” His wonder at all things Protestant: “Well that was nice, but it felt more like a Broadway show than Easter Sunday.” His amused smirk the first time he saw a business in the front, party in the back haircut: “I counted five mullets,” he once whispered at a cousin’s wedding. “Five!” The first few times Jeff pointed out the oddities of my world, I defended my culture as any well-brought-up Southerner would. So what if some of my kin were a bit outdated? They were at least polite enough not to smirk in public. But as I surveyed the crowded sanctuary I realized, with no small amount of horror, that I was counting mullets and smirking.
Before my husband joined the family, the closest anyone had come to fraternizing with a Yankee was when my mother married my father, a native Virginian whose parents had migrated south from the treacherous state of West Virginia. Life with Jeff had opened my eyes to an entirely different normal, one where being polite meant not wasting time with empty pleasantries and where mullets existed only as store-bought pieces to ironic Halloween costumes. Now, it seemed, I was teetering very close to becoming the dreaded Yankee bitch I’d been warned of in childhood etiquette classes and books for young ladies with titles like Pretty Me. (Of course, the classes and books referred to these women as “some people,” but we all knew who they meant.) I quickly reeled myself back from the brink and smiled warmly at no one in particular.
But as I looked around the pews again, I continued to notice differences between the people in Beaver Creek Church and my neighbors, in-laws, coworkers, and friends in New Jersey. Many of the women had an almost child-like brightness to their eyes, a soft mixture of polite interest and magnetic appeal, rarely seen elsewhere. In general, the men possessed a quieter confidence than their Northern counterparts, many keeping their hands in their pockets as they spoke. No one jabbed at the air to emphasize a particularly important piece of conversation; rather they would pause, allowing a measure of silence to captivate the listener’s attention.
I immediately became self-conscious and began to wonder what I looked like to everyone else. In Jeff’s absence, had I become the outsider? After shoving my hands onto my lap, from whence they had mysterious flown at some point during my conversation with my mother, I quickly scanned the sanctuary again and noticed more than a few questioning stares aimed in my direction. More likely than not, the curious folk were just wondering if my ticket had a lower number than theirs, but I scrunched down in my seat all the same, convinced the entire crowd was questioning how a woman with such aggressive hand gestures had discovered their oyster supper.
Truth be told, I’ve always been straight forward bordering on blunt by Southern standards. The hand gestures, which are surprisingly necessary for communicating in the North, simply add to the effect. It’s not that I set out to be rude. I simply refuse not to speak my mind, regardless of who may hear me. This egregious flaw has often mortified my mother, a woman who could muster a beaming countenance despite a foot-long run in her panty hose and a wicked case of diverticulitis. During my teenage years, when our arguments were both frequent and heated, she would pause mid-sentence and plaster on a megawatt smile whenever someone happened to step within earshot. “Why do you insist on smiling like that,” I’d hiss as the stranger passed us by. “I don’t care what they think.” My mother would wait, grin firmly in place, until we were alone again to flash me a glare that could freeze hell before turning to smile warmly at the world.
Yet despite my lack of true Southern charm, in the North I’m universally acknowledged as a sweet, capable person, even if I occasionally misplace keys and back into parked cars. I start conversations with strangers and smile at waitresses. I hold doors and write thank-you cards. I did these things in the South as well, but if living in different regions of the country has taught me anything, it’s that sweetness is relative.
When Northerners hear my slight accent, they expect me to be charming, so, inevitably, I smile wider and bring forth a repertoire of endearing phrases and thoughtful compliments designed to assure the shopkeeper or mailman or interviewer that, yes, there is something special about Southern women. My family, on the other hand, expects me to be unpleasant, so I usually roll my eyes at things they say, all the while wishing I could be as universally likable as my mother. But it’s more than mere expectations. My personality actually shifts whenever I enter the South. I feel younger somehow, as if being with my parents makes sense for the teenager I was, but not the woman I’ve become. The perils of navigating the Delaware Memorial Bridge, 95 South, and the Vortex to Hell, as my father calls the Capital Beltway, serve as a reverse rite of passage. I slide back into the headstrong, self-centered way I once muddled through life, attracting drama like fuzz to a lint roller and otherwise blundering about, aggravating everyone, myself included.
Jeff’s absence at the oyster supper seemed to exacerbate the inevitable regression to adolescence pettiness that accompanies any visit with my family. As the wait continued for food I had no intention of eating, I lost the emotional composure I had finally acquired as a twenty-seven-year-old and quickly became offended by my family’s gentle teasing of my life above the Mason-Dixon.
“I don’t suppose they have dinners like this up there,” a cousin said.
I quickly learned that up there, a catch-all phrase for anywhere farther north than Woodstock, Va., was often a euphemism for a place the speaker had never been and had no intention of going.
“We do,” I snapped. “We just don’t wait hours to eat.”
“Well, that’s nice, but I don’t see how people can live with all the snow and traffic up there.”
Within an hour, I wanted to abandon them all for a solitary meal of beef jerky and Mr. Pibb at the gas station in Bridgewater. After an hour and a half, I briefly contemplated a life of complete exile in the state my closet kin so lovingly referred to as “New Joisey,” on the rare occasion the conversation required something more specific than simply up there.
But even I must admit that there is some truth to the Garden State stereotypes reckoned by my family. The shock of relocating from picturesque Colonial Williamsburg, where Jeff and I met and attended college, to the gritty congestion of Newark, New Jersey, where Jeff attended dental school, nearly broke me. My first winter outside Virginia was harsh even by local standards: an entire month without seeing the ground after a marrow-numbing cold settled in February. I took solace in the fact that my new husband hated Northern New Jersey, as well, and longed for the relative warmth and calm of South Jersey. On the surface we adapted by buying waterproof boots and learning to push our way through pre-snow grocery mobs, but with the stress of dental school Jeff morphed into a nervous, introvert I aptly nicked-named “Dental School Jeff.” The changes in my personality were equally dramatic. In college I churned out short stories faster than I could proof them, but within a few months of moving to New Jersey, I stopped writing. My fiction had always been written exclusively in Southern dialect, a voice that no longer felt authentic to my life in the North. As more time passed, I convinced myself that I had forgotten how to write in a dialect that I no longer heard every day, before coming to the painful conclusion that perhaps I wasn’t really a writer, just an intrusive stenographer who spat out pieces of overhead conversation from shopping malls and dinner tables. In the struggle to comprehend the rushed speech that surrounded me in New Jersey, I was unable to retain a sense of the untold stories beneath. I had lost something of myself in the move north.
Jeff and I both freely admit that, despite ample affection for one another, the first years of our marriage were soul-sucking awful. They were also necessary. I needed to experience every terrible New Jersey stereotype firsthand so I could appreciate the way of life in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Jeff eventually joined his father’s dental practice. Slowly, without even noticing it, I began to like South Jersey: the overly zealous Eagles fans shouting “Go Birds” to one another in Target, the bizarre Mummers with their spectacularly sequined costumes strutting down every parade route they can find, the boardwalks, and beaches. I started to write again, stories without dialect, but centered in Virginia and other Southern states where I spent my vacations as a child.
But despite years of living outside the Commonwealth, I have never stopped thinking of Virginia as home. I cry every time the mountains begin to shrink in the rearview mirror and worry that I will forget how to be Southern or, worse yet, forget how to be a part of my own family. I miss the cadence of a nice country drawl. Yet after only a few years in New Jersey, I talk too fast for some members of my family to understand. I crave hushpuppies and smiling strangers. But lard now upsets my stomach and the stone-cold expression I’ve perfected for walking the streets of Camden has frightened more than one sweet soul of the South.
As we waited for oysters, I looked at each member of my family, noting the increased number of gray hairs and wrinkles that marked the passage of time since my childhood in Virginia. Overall, the people in the pews had changed about as much as the seat cushions in twenty-five years: same fabric, just a bit saggier. I wondered if my relatives reverted to an earlier version of self as well during these gatherings, their constant personalities further mitigating the subtle changes of time and exaggerating the apparent differences between us. My aunts, uncles, and cousins seemed remarkably the same, yet there was a tangible difference to this oyster supper.
I glanced again at the pew behind me where Pop Pop was seated and found an older gentleman standing in the center aisle, griping my grandfather’s shoulder. It’s a gesture common among men their age, a firm embrace of flesh less intimate than a hug, but conveying the same emotion. There was a surprising sadness in the man’s eyes as he pounded Pop Pop’s back reassuringly. I was so confused by the man’s expression, so much at odds with the general mirth, that it took me a moment to realize that my grandfather appeared to be crying.
While I watched Pop Pop’s face contort in ways I had never seen, I regressed further into my childhood and scooted closer to my mother on the pew like a frightened child. To see the patriarch of my family crumble was downright horrifying. He had fooled everyone with his optimistic phone calls and dapper sweater vests, and yet there he was, being comforted by someone I didn’t even know.
According to Nana, Pop Pop had spent one night in solitude after becoming blind, sleeping apart from her for the first time in years, but otherwise showed no signs of mourning the loss of his sight. Not that his family would have let him. Everyone was being so damn charming that he had probably felt obligated to appear upbeat. I felt ashamed that my grandfather needed the support of this man to express himself when he had every reason to be upset.
He could no longer spread his daily newspaper across the kitchen table and read it cover to cover. He could never again hop into the driver’s seat and call out a partial pre-flight sequence before putting his Chrysler in gear: “Clear,” he’d say, checking his side mirrors. “Clear,” he’d say checking the rearview. “And rolling.” Even in his eighties, he never stopped flying; he simply sailed through the streets of Staunton in a minivan when the licensing board required a full physical to renew his recreational pilot’s license. A few months before losing his sight, he had even investigated the types of light aircraft he could fly without the fuss of government papers. Now he could only be a passenger. Even worse, he would never take another photograph or see the glossy-paper faces of his loved ones smiling up at him in a captured moment.
I glanced nervously at my mother and was more confused to see her smiling. Perhaps she was unaware of what was happening behind her, but why was everyone in Pop Pop’s pew still laughing? It didn’t make sense. Who were these cold, heartless people? We had always masked bad situations with laughter and an overabundance of celebratory oysters, but I never thought my family could cackle while one of our own cried.
I looked back at the man gripping Pop Pop’s shoulder and was startled to see that he appeared to be laughing now as well, yet the sadness never left the man’s eyes. Though I didn’t want to see it, I forced myself to look again at Pop Pop’s crumbled face. His cheeks remained dry though he appeared to be sobbing with increased force.
I wanted Jeff beside me then, shaking the pew with his impatient leg jiggling, so I could ask him what the hell was happening. I relied on his superior social skills to help me through situations like these before I snapped and shouted obscenities at my elders. Not to mention his mere presence served as a constant reminder that I was, in fact, an adult and not a hormonal teenager.
I was on the verge of screeching at my entire family to stop acting so fucking fake when Pop Pop tucked his chin and wiggled his head from side to side. It was a familiar quirk of his, something he had always done with a particularly good laugh. I stared at my grandfather’s vacant eyes and realized his cheeks were dry because he had not been crying. Rather his quiet laugh had been lost in the roaring din of the sanctuary, leaving only an expression of joy still unfamiliar to me.
The sadness in the man’s eyes may or may not have been for my grandfather, but the man’s sorrow remained hidden from Pop Pop while they chuckled. Even after the man moved away, a smile lingered on my grandfather’s face as he sat perfectly still, listening to the multitude of conversations that hummed around him. Seeing that her husband was without a visitor, Nana leaned into him and said something that made him laugh again. He patted her gently on the knee, decades of constant proximity making sight unnecessary to execute the gesture perfectly.
It would take me some time to adjust to the changes in my grandfather’s facial expressions, but as I watched him that day, I realized that though change is inevitable, it need not take the best of us. So with a deep breath, I sat taller in the pew and joined the rest of my family, laughing, and waiting for oysters.
Kathryn Hively Lane earned an MA from Rutgers University and an MFA from George Mason University. She has taught at Rowan University and is currently completing her first novel. Though a Southerner at heart, she has settled into life in South Jersey with her husband and daughter. Her fiction has recently appeared in Philadelphia Stories.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was shocked by the misinformation in family stories circulating about my grandfather. In one draft, I had a sentence about Pop Pop driving an egg truck at 13 to help his family during the Great Depression. My mom insisted he was 14. Turns out, he never drove an egg truck at all. He delivered groceries after World War II (which I’m sure included eggs), but his first job was thinning corn. The money he earned then, a whopping ten cents an hour, was his to spend on such luxuries as moon pies.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’m a fiction writer by nature and a corporate writer by profession, so I had a difficult time putting myself, honestly, in the story. I gave several drafts to my friend Erin Whitmer, whose nonfiction has left me sobbing and laughing on more occasions than I can count. She kept pushing me to be more of a presence in the narrative.
I’m a bit uncomfortable thinking about how my family will react to such a personal story, but I’m glad I followed her advice. It’s one thing to write a short story with a bickering mother-daughter duo. It’s quite another to have your mom call you in tears and say, “It’s a good thing I love you so much,” after she reads the final draft of your nonfiction piece.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Faulkner and Welty were huge influences on my work in college. More recently, I’ve fallen in love with Jhumpa Lahiri. There is a subtleness and universality to her writing that I find captivating. She can tell a story about an immigrant community in Massachusetts, and somehow I feel as if I can relate.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I’ve always needed a quiet space to write. However, as a working mother of a small child, I’ve had to find some creative places to write. I’ve been known to compose drafts or edit stories in my car during lunch breaks.