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  • Writer's pictureShauntee Joseph

Setting the Table

A Christmas Story


When I was a young girl, the holidays were a huge deal. The holidays were the one time a year my big loud black family got together in one place. We'd usually and joyfully congregate at my "rich aunts" house in the El Cerrito Hills but, once in a while, my big loud black family would make the 3-hour trek north of The Bay to my home in Red Bluff, California.*note: At the 2010 census Red Bluff recorded 14,076 people. 0.9% of the said population was African American. Imagine if you will Red Bluff Ca circa 1989-1997, yeah. Oof! Familial holiday visits solidified my black being, fed my soul and my belly, and reminded me I wasn't alone in the world.

The Happiest holidays

The youngest girl of 13 grandchildren, my cousins were the professors of all cultural things and the dopest teenagers I knew. My oldest cousin Philip who we affectionately call Snooky, ran track and was so fine he had at least 3 or 4 different honeys a week knocking down his door, or so he claimed. Snooky was also brilliant, but in the '90's it was much cooler to be a Casanova. Erica (my sister) and my cousins Joan, Jason, and Vince were within a few years of one another. Joan had a beautiful singing voice and was into musical theater. Vince and Jason loved music and always put us up the hottest music out discreetly. We were hardcore Christian, and no secular music was allowed in the house. We used to pass cassette tapes and CDs around like we were in the prohibition era. My sister Erica loved dance and fashion and stayed on-trend acid dying jeans for the boys or bedazzling something for us girls. Her secret wish was to become a Fly Girl on In Living Color.

Erica, Joan Jason, and Vince would put on full productions, dancing, lip-syncing, costumes the whole nine yards for my family, and without fail, a dance party with a Soul Train line would break out. My older brother Nick and my cousin Kristin are two and a half years older than me would happily pose as backup dancers or make cameo appearances. My cousin Joshua (who was, born on Christmas Day) is three years younger than me and the "Baby". I spent most of my time trying to keep up with Nick and Kristin as they usually flew under the radar and would get into all kinds of things they had no business doing. It was these two bandits that taught me how to smoke cigarettes. 9-year-old Shauntee was done with them after that and started spending more time in the slow lane with Joshua and, we became more like siblings than cousins.

Anyway, during these boisterous holidays, I found myself almost floating amidst the ever swirling liveliness. I'd weave my way through our 3200 sq ft house amidst a barrage of hugs and kisses. I'd stop for the occasional "How you doin' Shauny? from one of my 3 Uncle Roberts. I became an observer absorbing the blackness, the brilliance, the beginnings of excellence that I now know as my family. While my five aunties, my mom, and my Nana committed themselves early in the day to outcooking one another in our double-doored kitchen, I'd sneak in quietly and watch, sweating from the heat in silence as they announced and prepared their recipes. When I was around 9 or 10, they let me help, by grating the cheese or peeling the sweet potatoes or some other task I couldn't mess up. I'd listen to stories and cackle along with them, learning that in me were brazen tendencies, not passed down from my joyous yet docile mother but from my most brazen aunty, Debra, who stole a new outfit from the department store on her way to school at least three times a week so that her classmates would think she was rich. I sat mouth agape as she told us about a time in her early 20's she put on a Mumu and a girdle to steal a turkey from the grocery store and walked out the front door looking like a pregnant woman. I learned to embody patience, grace, and kindness from my Aunty Phyliss, who could bake a cake that I imagine pure happiness tastes like. I learned that food should be beautiful, as well as delicious, from my Aunty Way. I learned that "I'm the right one", and "you got the WRONG one" are synonymous. I also learned sharp and terrifying threats like "Try me." "I'm your huckleberry" and "Oh, I can make you famous" from my Aunty Mary, who cooked in all of her gorgeous jewelry. And of course, my love of the '80s and Michael Jackson's entire catalog, as well as the need to dance while cooking from my mother's youngest sister Robin. To this day, I don't know how my Nana and Grandpa raised these five wild (and one docile) daughters in a two-bedroom house on Vallejo Street.

Late in the day, the time would come for mother and me to set the table. Setting the table was my mother's joy and, she loves hosting parties and always included me in this task. My mother has the gift of making all things beautiful. She can turn a sow's ear into silk. Our dining room tables were always so beautiful, but of course, I was never able to sit at any of them as we had a "kids table" in the kitchen. But at the table is where we'd commune drinking- in each other's others' company, stuffing our faces, and laughing out loud with full mouths and even fuller bellies. We'd desperately try to save a sliver of room for Debra's pies or Mary's cookies or slices of Waynettes bougie cakes or Aunty Robins tender German Chocolate cake. The aunties' fighting over who's dessert was the best, would solicit even my humble opinion "Shauntee, did you taste Auntys cake? No? Let me get you some sweetie" "Shauny-Rae taste that. What do you taste? Yes, that's right, it's ginger, good for your health too" "Shauny likes pie, don't you bae? Come get a slice of pie and leave that ol' dry cake for somebody else."

This holiday season is different from those of my childhood. My cousins are almost all married with children of their own with commitments to spend time with their spouses and families in faraway places. My sister moved away from The Bay and is, spending Christmas in Hawaii with her daughter. My brother lives in Las Vegas with his wife and children spending his first Holiday as a grandpa this year. I don't know if my aunts will get together to outcook one another. I do know I won't be there to grate the cheese or listen to stories about how my mom's former high school boyfriend Rex confessed his undying love at the window for a full half-hour. But in my home, my little family of 5 will be happy, cozy and, warm. There will be laughter and music and maybe a tiny soul train line. I'll take my memories and bake them into every pie, every cake and hope my family is fed and filled, with the love I gave and received. I will teach my daughter to set the table. I may even let her grate the cheese.

I hope you all have the happiest holidays.

All my love,

Shaunteé and Family

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