Imagine rounding a bend in the road, looking off a short distance and seeing a long driveway situated between two rows of trees. At the end of the drive, there's an old rustic cabin that looks like it's been there for centuries, nestled just in front of a forest of trees. This description may sound like it comes from a book but it is indeed a real place. My family's place. Jessie and Callie's Cabin to be exact. It's funny--well sad, really--how you can have something in your family for what feels like your whole life, possibly even see it every day, and not truly appreciate it.
The way the story was told to me was that for years my family would gather for dinner once a month and on holidays, usually at my Great Aunt Millie's (one of my grandma Thelma's 6 sisters) house. Over the years as the family grew, space began to shrink so in 1991 a few of my great aunts and uncles found an old, 100-year-old cabin in Tennessee. They purchased it, took it apart piece-by-piece and traveled back to Alabama where they re-constructed the old structure on a lot of land owned by Aunt Millie's sister, Mildred and her husband, uncle Bill. Over the years additions have been made to the original structure of the cabin. When I lived there (or possibly shortly before I moved there), a long dining room/fellowship hall was added and a gorgeous fireplace was built by my uncle Bill. After moving away, another wing was added and a beautiful wrap around porch that spans the back of the cabin was also constructed.
If walls could talk, the cabin's walls would tell stories of family weddings, baby showers, holiday celebrations, times of mourning, welcome home parties, lots of laughter and fun, tears and hugs. The family has a potluck dinner the first Saturday of every month and that has been a tradition that goes back as far as I can remember. The 4th of July is a big bash that used to involve a several-day-prepping pig roast finished off with homemade ice-cream and an evening of fireworks over the pond behind the cabin. Christmas was always special and so absolutely beautiful with wreaths made from real fruit and strands of popcorn garland decorating the tree. When I lived there, my brother and I would spend summers playing in the creek that runs behind that old place. We would fish with cane poles in the pond and spend the night upstairs in the cabin. When it would rain, I'd never get sleep because of how loud it was beating against the metal roof. But oh the memories! My brother and I would run around in the yard with our cousins, and I remember at least one fall (autumn), we had a blast jumping from one bale of hay to another that had been neatly bound. And that's just our family memories.
Since I moved away so many years ago, the cabin has been a staple in the Kitchens Mill community of Lawrence County, Alabama. People rent it out for their family gatherings, church Christmas parties, and the list goes on and on. I can't help but get misty-eyed thinking of how ridiculously proud I am to say that that old cabin is part of me and how I was brought up. Unfortunately, I moved away when I was 13 and don't have near the memories that my cousins have who were born and raised there but now that I'm an adult, I'm making every effort possible to be part of at least some of the family traditions again.
One of my favorites is the annual stew. This Brunswick Stew tradition started back with my great grandparents, Jessie and Callie Russell and for as long as I can remember, it's always been the last Saturday of October, every single year. The night before the stew, a bunch of the lady cousins get together, bowl and peeler in hand, and they peel pounds upon pounds of potatoes. I remember growing up, I wanted to help so bad and I finally got my chance last year but that was a total fail. I was wearing CC, it was her bedtime, and she was not cooperating so I gave up after a while and walked away, trying to hold back tears and failing at that too, miserably (lol! I know, I can be sensitive sometimes but I try not to show it). It may sound silly but for me it was a special moment that I had looked forward to for so long, being one of the long lost cousins who finally found her way back to the fold but at the same time, feeling so beyond out of my element and like I didn't fit into my own family. It was a very sad feeling but I brushed it off.
The next day, Saturday, is an all day affair with cooking the Brunswick Stew. The day starts early in the morning with three huge, black, cast iron stew pots. Lord knows how long those things have been in our family! The fires are started under each one and the aunts get all of the ingredients together in them. I've never actually witnessed this being done but I just know that it's the same thing every year. Last year was Rob's first stew so him being him, he fit right in, he even got to stir the stew with the huge wooden paddle (again, Heaven only know how long that thing has been around in the Russell family). I guess he's a keeper since he jumped head first, right into one of my most favorite family traditions and was able to be a stirrer, whereas I've been in the family 30+ years and that's never happened. :)
As a kid, I remember a senator coming one year to the stew--there's really no telling who will show up to any of the family functions. My great aunts have been the backbone to our family and have also always been so giving of the community. For the stew, anyone is welcome to come and enjoy as many bowls as they'd like and then at the end of the afternoon, they pour whatever is remaining into huge pickle jars and sell them. They also give jars to the elderly neighbors and friends who may be homebound. They do this with every event I've ever remembered having at the cabin.
I've always been a deep thinker and have had a sensitive heart, thinking of others and trying to see the good in people but unfortunately I've also taken people for granted and my great aunts are some of those dear people that I've missed over the years. They are in a way, my grandma Thelma, whom I've never met because she passed away before I was born. One of the sisters, Aunt Jean, passed away a week after Bo was born and it was such a heartbreak not being able to travel down to be with the family during that first big loss since I've been alive. I know it killed my mom not to be able to be there too since she was here in New York with me.
My great aunts have created something amazing with that old cabin; it's not just a structure, it is a rare gem that not many (if any) families have today. A common dwelling to be part of, to experience the ups and downs of life in. I guess if I really think about it, a safe haven. It's so much more than a venue to me, it's almost like a member of the family, as if it had arms and legs and could talk. It has changed so much but one thing remains the same and that's the sense of belonging when I walk into that old place and breathe in the smell that floods my mind with so many memories. Whether I'm a million miles away or a mile up the road, Jessie and Callie's Cabin will always hold a special place in my heart.