Mae Jones

Next Sunday, as we have done every Labor Day weekend since 1932, the descendants of Silas Hudson will meet for a potluck lunch in the village of New Columbus to reminisce. Not that anyone alive can remember Old Silas. He died in 1907. Although we’ve heard plenty of stories about his preaching and lawyering, his sixteen children were his most remarkable accomplishments in our opinion. With an admirable sense of fairness, he fathered eight with his first wife, Polina, and eight with his second, Zorelda.

Of course, we don’t remember his children either. The last one died in 1945. All of his grandchildren are dead too. Their stories live on, however, in the scrapbook of photographs, newspaper clippings and reunion minutes we’ve updated annually for the past eighty-three years.

When we hit the 80th milestone, we got a little uppity, and thought we might be the oldest family reunion in Kentucky. But now here comes the Mercer County-Owen County Carr family who claims to have met last month for their 117
th. The Shropshires over in Paris say they just celebrated their 100th reunion, and in Frankfort the Cardwells recently held their 87th.

I could say, “Show me the proof!” But then the Hudsons have never been confrontational people. No, we’re agreeable sorts - at least in public - which brings me to the story of why our gathering is called The Hudson-Jones Reunion.

The way my grandfather told it, we could blame my grandmother's best friend, Cousin Mae Jones, for confusing the issue of who we are. Now you need to understand that we loved Mae in spite of this
faux pas. She was, we reminded ourselves, raised up in Canada. Before that, her people had weathered life in Iceland, whereas we’d had the advantage of Kentucky’s warmer winters for two hundred years. Maybe those frozen people of the far north were bred to speak first and think later, whereas we ambled toward the truth of a matter at an Emily Dickenson slant.

Yes, we loved our Canadian cousin-by-marriage. Her stories about her “best friend,” afforded me glimpses of the deceased grandmother I never met. Perhaps Mae acted on Grandmother’s behalf when she applauded any small success I had and celebrated my existence on earth. Had I been attentive, she would have taught me many things my grandmother may have hoped I’d learn.

She decorated her house, for example, with a sophisticated flair that eluded her neighbors, and shaped an ordinary yard into a trellised garden. A Julia Child in the kitchen before Julia even discovered butter, Cousin Mae was one of the finest cooks to ever stir a pot in Owen County. And always ready for unexpected guests, she set her abundant table with an elegance that would have made the Queen of England smile had she dropped by Mae’s at mealtime.

Although she excelled at all things domestic, her early ambition had been to become an opera singer. Not at the Nashville Opry we heard on the radio, but the real one we knew little about. She’d been classically trained in voice in her Canadian youth before Cousin Amos discovered her when he was working in Detroit. Love had led her back to his family’s Kentucky tobacco farm where he was happiest. Now, she stood not on a stage, but beside the tin-tuned piano at our country church on Sunday mornings. She sang when we were buried. She sang at our weddings. She sang at mine. We appreciated her talent, but not enough.

She would live to be ninety-one, and until the end of her long life, I realize now, she remained a transplanted northerner, always affable and trying to fit in, but not quite in tune with our southern Kentucky ways. Too often she was unable to hear what we were not saying.

Thus, at the first official business meeting of Silas Hudson’s descendants in 1932, Cousin Mae Jones stood up – pretty, blonde and rouged -- and made a motion to name our group “The Hudson-Jones Reunion.” Now this was not quite as outlandish as it might sound because many of Silas Hudson’s children, especially those born to his first wife Polina, had married into the neighboring Jones family.

As far as I know, the two halves of the clan were congenial. Yet, in 1932 there lingered a polite divide between Polina’s offspring and Zorelda’s.

Perhaps Mae’s intention was to bridge this gap. Nevertheless, she shocked Silas Hudson’s talkative descendants into an uncommon silence. Those named Jones, possibly embarrassed, said nothing. Those named Hudson, definitely irked, said nothing either. And so her outrageous motion carried without any discussion or a single nay.

To oppose it publicly, with both Polina and Zorelda’s grandchildren sitting right there eating fried chicken together, would not have been well-mannered, you see. That’s not our way.

No, for the sake of politeness and accord that afternoon, my grandfather preferred to fume about Mae’s motion until the end of his life, twenty-three years later. I never heard him call our gathering anything other than “The Hudson Reunion” because, as he would explain, he didn’t have a drop of Jones blood in him. It wasn’t that he didn’t admire the accomplishments of “those Joneses” – his half-cousins who became preachers and teachers and successful farmers and business people. “It was the principle that mattered!” he would remind us. I’m not quite sure what the principle was, but think it may have had something to do with DNA which had not yet been discovered.

After his death, my mother took up his grudge, as any good Kentucky clanswoman would do. “People are getting confused about who we descend from!” she would fret until the end of her life. By then seventy-five years had passed since Cousin Mae thrust a hyphen onto Silas Hudson’s descendants.

Last year, no one who attended our reunion was named either Hudson or Jones. Is that karma I wonder or only irony?

Copyright © September 2015 Georgia Green Stamper