The Folklore Project
Powder Springs, Georgia
From a Carport in Georgia
By Beth Ward
The food is the memory – spread out for what seemed like miles on a long picnic table inside Nanny and Papa’s cacophonous carport.
Jiggling casseroles and cobblers, perched and bubbling in pretty Pyrex dishes. Perfectly matched Tupperware, or converted Country Crock bowls if you were from the poorer side. All of it resting on potholders atop a plastic red and white checkered tablecloth.
Ward family reunions were common for me as a kid. Sometimes they’d take place at Nanny’s house, other times the Wards would come from miles around to the rec center at the park directly across the street from the house and pasture. Wards first owned that parkland, but the city of Powder Springs bought it, naming the rec center after my great-grandfather, Boots. Family legend has it that Boots spent his days growing and pulling potatoes on that land. I choose to believe that’s true, because it helps explain a seemingly genetic reverence for hard work and heavy starches.
I didn’t know many of the people who came to these reunions. They were giants to me, towering figures with my dad’s features — trembling hands, brown eyes like tar pools, index and middle fingers slightly indented at the top knuckle from years of long drags off of cheap smokes. They would lumber above me, stopping every now and then to pat me on the head and tell me how much I’d grown since the last time they saw me, which was always sometime during infancy.
Between forkfuls of collards and bites of deviled eggs, aunts and uncles and third cousins would chat in rocking chairs overlooking the pasture and the park beyond, chewing over the way things used to be, when the days passed slower. I’d shuffle in and out of conversations like those, spoken in the alienating language of adulthood — ones that at 8, 9, or 10 years old, I just couldn’t understand.
As time began its selfish collapsing, though, I did understand. The trembling in my dad’s hands got worse, his tolerance for cheap whiskey got better. His heart would stop, or his blood sugar would plummet, and ambulances began to replace giants and picnic tables and casserole dishes in the carport. Nanny stopped matching her Tupperware lids, and took to hiding in her bathroom to smoke cigarettes out the window, disposing of the butts in old Diet Dr. Pepper cans.
A few weeks after an ambulance came and took my dad away for the final time, Nanny had a garage sale for all his things. She lined up his books and clothing out on the long picnic table in the carport, and put price stickers on everything, incentivizing strangers to come pick through the bones of his life.
This left me to claw for any piece of him that she might have left. I’d find old business cards or notebooks, scraps of paper he’d written on, and run my fingers over the letters, shocked by the electricity of grief. I’d convince myself he could feel me touching his fingertips through the ink, that I could feel the indention on his knuckle where he put the cigarette down to pick up a pen.
I still think about the reunions, I guess. I think about Nanny swinging with me on that same front porch. I see myself, sitting on Papa’s knee as he pulls out the last Werther’s Originals from his faded flannel shirt pocket and hands it over.
And I think about my dad.
The name Ward means different things to me now than it did when there were 50 or 60 of us standing around a long picnic table sharing our food and stories. Now it means loss. It means too much whiskey. It means gravestones on gravel at the Presbyterian church.
But it’s hard to bite into a deviled egg or pull a cobbler out of the oven, and not be slung backward in time to that carport.
Tables lined with checkered cloth.
Staring up at the giants of my history.