Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

          Mealtimes with the Cox Family were, and the recollection of them still is, a continuing source of amusement for me. It was a rare meal that didn’t include a friend or relative squeezed in among the regulars, i.e., my parents, grandparents, and siblings. There was the traditional Sunday morning pancake breakfast that drew in so many of the neighborhood kids that our dining room table wasn’t big enough to hold us all and we literally had to eat in shifts while getting dressed for Sunday School and Church. There was Sunday dinner with roast beef. I can’t recall how big that roast was, but it was large enough to feed all seven kids, both parents, and whatever grandparents, friends, and relatives happened by, with enough left over for sandwiches that night. Below are my recollections of a few specific meals that I remember so often that the memories are worn.

Laviece joined the Peace Corps

          As a teenager, my older sister Laviece was filled with a burning desire to correct all the wrongs in the world and an intense respect for those who attempted to do so. While the object of her admiration tended to drift rather erratically as current events burst upon the scene, for one brief period in the early 1960's it was John Steve Wilkins, the younger brother of my sister-in-law Evelyn Wilkins. In those heady days, John Steve was desperately seeking the good life that he believed was inexorably linked with all liberal causes.

          For a couple of weeks, every meal was accompanied by at least a ten minute recitation by Laviece of the latest example of John Steve’s efforts to immerse himself in the liberal lifestyle. As Laviece’s speech was usually only one of at least three simultaneous discussions occurring at any given time, Mother and Dad could only give partial attention to any one of them. In those days, just about every correct thinking young liberal in the United States thought the Peace Corps was the greatest thing since the Marshall Plan. As befitted his ambitions, John Steve had waxed eloquent to Laviece about the virtues of joining the Peace Corps. During the course of Laviece’s dinner time explanation of John Steve’s latest plans, Mother was only tuned in to about every third word. Finally, Mother just couldn’t let Laviece’s lecture continue without an explanation and asked, “Laviece, are you joining the Peace Corps?”

          Even though Mother was probably the only person who was even partially listening to Laviece, Laviece laughed at Mother’s misunderstanding. Because no one else wanted to be left out on what may have been a good joke, we all laughed too, as if we knew what Mother and Laviece were laughing about. Mother and Laviece then explained the joke and we all laughed again.

          From that point one, the cliché our family has used to suggest that someone may have misunderstood what they heard is to say, “Laviece joined the Peace Corps.”

I dare you!”

          John N. and Mary P. Cox had four sons. Three of them, Headley, R. L., and Allen, moved to and lived their entire adult lives in Mt. Olive, NC. As a consequence, Mt. Olive was a frequent summer-time destination for countless cousins from all over the country visiting their grandparents. Once in a great while, when the planets were aligned, schedules would mesh so that several families of cousins would descend on Mt. Olive simultaneously. One of these cosmic events occurred in the Summer of 1961.

          That summer, all of Zach Cox’s, Eugenia Harris’, R. L. Cox Jr.’s, and Mary Ada Gage’s children were all in town simultaneously. For reasons that defy comprehension today, the parents jointly decided that the children would be left unsupervised for lunch at the Zach Cox home. Amid the tumult of all these children crowded around the table and talking at once, my brother Zach, Jr. (“Buddy”) and Jim still were able hear each other well enough to get into an argument.

          I have forgotten what the argument was about, but at a climatic point my brother Jim exclaimed, “If you say another word, I’m going to throw this cup of milk right into your face!” Buddy replied, “I dare you!” With those three words, the milk that launched a thousand plates was hurled into Buddy’s face. Footnote

Suspecting what was coming, Buddy had already raised his cup of milk and immediately retaliated in kind. Buddy and Jim immediately dissolved into uncontrollable laughter. Everyone else wondered why should Buddy and Jim be hogging all the fun? In an instant, milk, water, food, and paper plates were flying across the table in a scene that would have done justice to either “The Three Stooges” or “Animal House.” Being the youngest at the table, I immediately dashed for the door. My cousin Larry, unaccustomed to such goings on, sought shelter beneath the table, only to get drenched by milk leaking through the leaf joints.

          The entire food fight probably lasted less than thirty seconds, until the available supply of ammunition had been exhausted. Another couple of minutes was spent getting over laughing. Then the reality of the sorry sight we had created sunk in and we started thinking about the consequences from our parents. We all spent the next hour cleaning the dining room and kitchen so thoroughly that when Mother got home she immediately knew something had gone wrong because the house was cleaner than when she had left it.

Please Don’t Squeeze the Lemon

          Every Sunday at noon an entire horde of Cox and neighborhood children would descend on our table with thirsts so intense that it was both foolish and too expensive to try and quench them with any liquid other than ice water or ice tea. I can still remember my mother making up gallons of ice tea for Sunday dinner. Obviously, such vast quantities of tea required smaller but still substantial quantities of lemon juice. In a move that thrilled my siblings and me, my parents purchased lemon juice in a yellow plastic container shaped just like a lemon.

          This was a fine solution. Just remove the cap, aim, squeeze, and your ice tea was doused with just the right amount of juice. But regardless of the elegance of this method, times were tough, money was short, and nothing could be wasted. We would have long and involved conversations about whether the plastic lemon was empty or just clogged up with plenty of juice left in it. One Sunday, my brother Buddy confidently announced that the plastic lemon was empty and whoever was in the hoppin’ seat (the chair closest to the kitchen) should retrieve a new lemon.

          Dad was unconvinced. He demanded that the suspect lemon be surrendered to his custody for interrogation. He shook the lemon, but it didn’t reveal its secret.. He peered at the opening in the top, but again the lemon refused to confess. Finally, he decided he would squeeze the plastic lemon while holding it next to his ear so he could hear whether air was passing through the opening.

          I’m sure you can guess what happened next. But let me assure you that the sight of a hardened Marine veteran sitting in his Sunday finest in front of all seven of his children with lemon juice streaming from his ear was a sight not soon forgotten.

An Ever Flowing Spring

          As suggested in the previous yarn, Coxes generally showed up for dinner with a powerful thirst. The usual method of dispensing liquid refreshment at meals was to bring the empty glasses out on a tray, fill them from a pitcher, and pass each glasses as it was filled around the table in a clockwise manner. My traditional place at the table was to my mother’s right, meaning that I was at the end of the line when glasses of water were passed around.

          Once when I was a teenager and clearly old enough to know better, a glass of ice water reached me at exactly the same time as my mother set down an empty pitcher and picked up a full one to continue filling glasses. The table was full and everyone was buzzing with conversation about the day’s events and passing glasses of water absentmindedly from right to left.

          In a flash I realized that this was an opportunity that must be seized. I poured my full glass back into the empty pitcher and set the now empty glass next to its brothers waiting to be filled. This continued for awhile with no one the wiser until Dad smelled a rat and told me as unobtrusively as possible to “cut it out” in a futile attempt to deny me the glory that I thought such a great prank deserved.

          My grandmother Oliver disapproved of any foolishness at the dinner table and said so in so many words. Footnote

Mother’s only response was that she said it did seem like it was taking a long time to fill the glasses. However, it was one of my brother-in-law Baxter’s first visits to our home and on the strength of that one stunt, and darn little else, he has liked me ever since.