Our family gathered last Saturday at a restaurant at the edge of Birmingham to celebrate our oldest brother Ron’s 70th birthday. As special as that was, it was made more wonderful by the fact that our parents attended. Mom and Dad are now 89 and 93 and working on their 72nd year of marriage. Their other five children–Glenn, Patricia, Joe, Carolyn, and Charlie–made them promise not to show partiality, that, since you attended Ron’s 70th birthday party, you have to do it for the rest of us. Mom said this might have to be a “one for all” type thing.
To those who asked, somewhat facetiously I expect, whether Mom and Dad gave the birthday boy his birthday money, the answer is yes. Although they long since graduated beyond the dollar-per-year category. It’s been a hundred dollars per birthday for some time now. With six children, that’s not an insignificant thing. They have however quit putting money under our pillows when we lose a tooth. Some of my siblings have gone the dentures route, and Dad says it could break the bank overnight.
Among the presents we all brought Ronnie were bananas. I brought three, my sisters brought at least a dozen each. Ronnie needs lots of bananas. Here’s the tale.
It was 1948 and we lived atop a mountain in a coal mining camp named Affinity, some six miles out from Beckley, West Virginia. That August, Ron would have been 13, and that makes Glenn 12, Patricia 10, me 8, Carolyn 6, and Charlie whom we called “Tog” 4. It was summertime and Mom was in the hospital in Beckley near death.
She’d had a hysterectomy and needed blood. Mom and my sisters have a rare blood type and the hospital could not find any. They put out an emergency plea on local radio and two brothers from Ohio, traveling through by car, heard the announcement and showed up to donate blood. Our family is forever grateful to two men we never had the privilege of meeting. As you might expect, this made dedicated blood donors out of some of us for the rest of our lives.
To get into the hospital to see Mom, Dad had to walk a mile to the highway and catch a bus for the brief ride into Beckley. Each night, he tried to take a different child with him.
That Saturday, Dad had shopped for groceries at the company store down in the hollow. Then, he chose Glenn to make the trip with him to see Mom. When he returned, he promised to make a banana pudding for us. That was the one culinary achievement where Dad was competent. We were delighted; we loved banana pudding.
A couple of hours later, on his return, an angry father called for the five children who had stayed behind. Someone had taken the dozen bananas he had bought that morning. There would be no banana pudding, and someone was in a lot of trouble. The thief was to ‘fess up.
Most of us kids had not even seen a banana that day, and we certainly had not eaten twelve and hid the evidence. Common sense says the six year old and the four year old were not guilty of anything. However, Dad was upset and logic was not his forte at the moment.
“If no one owns up to it,” he said, “I’m going to whip all of you.” That’s when the little ones started crying and the rest of us began whimpering. Dad’s whippings were something to behold. People who study these things will tell you that adults who overly discipline were themselves victims of the same in childhood. Our Grandmother McKeever was known to give whippings to live in memory forever. Yes, this is the saintly grandmother whose beatific photograph graces my study at home. Our family has lots of wonderful contradictions.
Every coal miner wore a belt around his middle while working in the mines. These were thick bands of leather perhaps four inches wide on which he would hang the paraphernalia needed on his job. This is the instrument with which Dad disciplined his children.
We all got whippings that day. Let’s just say that and be done with it. But we never forgot.
At various times over the years as we grew up, we discussed those bananas and wondered aloud who had been the culprit. Then one day, Ronnie confessed. We all must have been in our twenties or early thirties by then. I suppose he thought it was safe to admit what he had done. He and a friend had come into the house that Saturday morning, he said, and had seen the bananas and decided to take one. And another. And another. Soon they had eaten the entire dozen, and decided to bury the peelings.
No one believes this, but Ron declares to this day he had every intention of admitting that he had eaten the bananas–until he saw how angry Pop was. “Better to spread the anger out among all the family that to take the full punishment upon myself,” he reasoned. It goes without saying that none of us agree with that twisted philosophy.
In those days, Dad would not get into a discussion with us about what he had done. We have told him that these days he could be jailed for what he had done to his children. He knows this, and has shown a thousand ways his love for each of us, and to my knowledge not one of the six children harbors any ill feeling toward him. Toward Ron is a different story.
It may have a little to do with Ron’s being a preacher. There’s something about a guy standing behind the sacred desk reading the Holy Writ, and you knowing all the while what a dirty rotten bum he is, bless his heart. (Southerners: take a moment and explain to outsiders that by adding “bless his heart,” we are allowed to speak as disparagingly about someone as we please without giving offense.) I mean, this is the oldest brother, the one who bossed us in Dad’s absence. When we were children and a favorite uncle visited and gave each of us a nickel, by nightfall Ronnie would have everybody’s nickel. We owe him from way back.
This is the brother who probably suffered from short-person’s-complex much of his earlier life, particularly since Glenn, the brother born almost exactly one year after he, was taller and more athletic and handsomer, too, if you ask me, but who’s asking. I still remember being bullied by Ronnie when I was maybe six and complaining to Mom about it. I am 65 years old and I can still hear her saying, “Well, pick up a piece of stove wood (we called it sto-wood) and hit him.” She declared later she never said such a thing, but I know what I heard, and I now had a get-out-of-jail-card, a license to kill. The next time he taunted me, which was probably the same day as he had made a career of it, I reached for the piece of wood and slammed it into the side of his head and knocked him cold. Did that ever feel good. At the inquest, Mom said, “Son, you could have killed him.” I had thought that was the general idea.
You can see by all this that each of the five of us siblings feel we have a debt to pay to our big brother. Whom we actually love very much. The rascal. The bum. Bless his heart.
I once told the banana story in chapel at our seminary here in New Orleans to make a point about liberals and conservatives. A liberal, I said, would rather let five guilty people go free than punish one innocent person. A conservative, on the other hand, would rather punish five innocents than let one guilty go free. Understand that fine distinction and you’ve gone a long way to figuring out the two major parties in American political life. My Dad, a labor union diehard from way back and a Liberal in his politics is nothing if not a deadset Conservative in his personal life. I said we were contradictions, you remember.
Saturday, we gave Ron his presents and some cards and did a lot of reminiscing, even shedding tears a couple of times. And we gave him bananas. Carolyn even gave him the makings for banana pudding so he can make up for what we missed out on over half a century ago. Then she did something else. She handed two bananas to each of the remaining siblings. “Because you didn’t get yours the first time,” she said.
Now for the first time since the fateful event in the summer of ’48, our Dad decided to explain himself. “The reason I did that,” he began, “is that the mines had cut back to just three days a week, and times were hard. My wife was possibly dying in the hospital, and I was looking after all six of you. I made breakfast in the morning and cleaned house and washed clothes, and tried to take one of you to the hospital every night. So when the bananas came up missing, I just lost it.”
Take that as an apology, rest of the family. It’s as close as you will ever get. And frankly, it was good to hear it from him, although I doubt if any of us needed it. Pop lives with black lung, the coal miner’s silicosis, which makes it hard to get his breath. He was once discovered to have broken his back in the mines and to have gone on without medical attention, at a time when he was doubling back and working two eight-hour shifts a day, trying to provide for a large family. Underneath the thin skin of his hands, you can see ancient residue from his thirty-four years inside the mines, a tiny piece of metal or maybe a sliver of coal. He carries scars in his hands from old bruises and accidents. No one asks ths man if he loves his family. He has proved his devotion to us every one of his 93 years.
Toward the end, Ronnie stood up. What will he say, we wondered. It would be completely out of character for him to get serious here and admit to anything, or even more unlikely, ask us to forgive him. Ah, he was true to character.
“I want you to know,” he began, “I don’t regret eating those bananas. They were great. And if I had it to do over, I’d do it again. And just in case you’re wondering, I don’t mind that you got those whippings. Because if you didn’t deserve it that time, you probably didn’t get some you deserved, so consider this as balancing the ledger.” He was flashing that patented smile with the deep dimples that makes it hard to take him seriously or to take offense. Since we have known him all our lives, we knew what he was doing. He was just baiting us. Teasing. Trying to get us riled. But it didn’t work. We love him and he loves us and we know it. So we did what any healthy family would have done. We laughed and kidded him back and laughed some more.
I had to speak at a local church’s men’s breakfast in New Orleans the next morning at seven o’clock, so I was the first to leave the birthday lunch. Along about Laurel, Mississippi, I decided to stop for a bite of supper. Then I remembered those two bananas Carolyn had given me. They made a perfect snack, and enabled me to save some time and get on down the road to home.