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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
September 25, 2017

7/13/2017 10:28:00 AM
Pulley bone's power goes only so far
By GREGG BONELLI
For the Daily News

Once a year, at the first full moon after the summer solstice, my mother's family got together for a big dinner.  They were scattered throughout the greater western part of the country, but the elder lived in Oklahoma, so we went to his place.

It was up in the hills on a dirt road where some of the family had lived since the Indian Territory had been made the national reservation for all tribes that we knew of. This had not been popular with anyone so far as I could tell, and there was always a great deal of talk about which of the young men had married a Choctaw girl or what girl had married some Seminole.

It was an odd event as the boys would play tag and crack the whip outdoors while the girls would jump rope or swing until they were old enough to help with the food.  They looked forward to it, apparently, as there was some talk about the rite of passage and the new status it gave them. 

We all had some chance to show ourselves responsible.  Girls shucked corn or snapped beans and the strongest of the boys got to crank the ice-cream freezer.  You couldn't let it stop or it would lock up, so there was some effort made to get the hardest freeze by having a left-handed cranker replace a right-handed one and never being the one to quit because your arm hurt.  It was here that I learned to be ambidextrous and thereby always able to fill the seat when the time came.  Ice and salt had to be replenished throughout the process and when it was done, a braided rag rug was thrown over it and we were called in for dinner.

The timing was worked out by someone who knew their job. Once back inside the large serving bowls of steaming food were put on the sideboard.  Fried chicken, corn on the cob, batter fried okra, green beans, potatoes of several varieties, and homemade rolls were all arranged in some secret way that could not be altered.  Little kids ate in the kitchen and had to wait to be served by the women who seemed official somehow in their duties to parse out the fare.  Here and there someone would bring an unpopular dish, like stewed tomatoes or something, but I noticed they did not reappear the next year. 

All the plates were stacked up in front of the elder, who had the ham and chicken heaped up before him. There was no beef.  A prayer was said and after the "Amen," Uncle Bill, who had lost all his toes in the Battle Of The Bulge and was a bit off about how to act in public, would add his "Good food, good meat, good Lord, let's eat!" joke and we would laugh - some because they hadn't heard it before, some because they had heard it before but just now got it, and others just because they could.

Then the elder would set the pulley bone aside for himself to eat and start dealing out plates by name to their intended recipients, some with white meat, some with dark.  Some got only ham while others got only chicken. There were no vegetarians in the tribe that was gathered, and while it all began with some decorum, soon enough it was "Pass me the okra before it's all gone..." and "Could I have some of Aunt Opal's mashed potatoes, please?"  Those were the voices of adults, who had some say about what they got on their plate. 

Children were confined to what they were given by their parents and no, you could not ask for more of something, you had to wait to be asked.  Children, after all, were to be seen and not heard.  It seemed a harsh rule, and I bucked it a good bit, which usually earned me a pinch on the leg under the table from some nearby adult. It takes a village to raise a child properly.

No one left the table hungry, and the last thing done while we were all there was the elder calling one of the children out of the kitchen, usually the best behaved of the youngest, and letting them pull the other side of the pulley bone with him to see who got their wish. 

Since I was never especially well-behaved I never expected to have a turn, but finally one year, when I was finally too big to eat with the children in the kitchen any more, he noticed that I had never had a turn and called me up. I went around and stood beside him as we went through the little ceremony.  Put your thumb up on the top part opposing his thumb and then pull slowly after making a wish.  Be sure not to tell anyone what you wished for afterward if you win or it won't come true.  The idea was to participate properly so that fate would decide, not some trick of your own, who would be blessed with their wish being granted.

Then it was back outside to run and chase your cousins and watch the men play horseshoes or pitch washers until it was too dark to see.  Unseen as well were the women inside doing the cleanup chores and deciding who got what of any leftovers. 

There was a long ride in the car afterward, very long in our case, and the talk up front was of this one and that one and what they had heard said or said back as the case may be. Money was not mentioned much. In terms of cash we were probably poor.  We had enough and we had each other, so we didn't care that there were others who had finer things or maybe didn't

No one had health insurance, and my grandfather would die of lung cancer from working as a welder in an oil refinery without clean air within 100 miles. Wars came and went, as did the young men.  The girls were married off to who knew where, and soon enough the little gathering shrank to only a handful and not always the same ones. 

Someone decided that the Fourth of July was close enough to the day we used to do it, and the date was moved to accommodate everyone's day off from work.  An electric ice-cream freezer was bought and the kids went to watching TV and then their devices. Drive by chicken replaced the mess made in the kitchen and okra was forgotten entirely. (Fried food is bad for you anyway). Now we don't bother and just tweet our "love ya" at each other to assuage the guilt and obligation we used to feel about our extended family.

We're better off now anyway, right? Still, I'd wish that things could always be that way, and even though the big end of the pulley bone came to me, it didn't happen. Sadly, I'd bet there are people reading this who didn't even know there was a pulley bone. Oh well, it was the last week for the lottery here anyway, so that wish ain't comin' true, either. 

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.







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