During the 1950s, young Jessica – Southern born but “being Yankee raised” -- spends Christmas in the small town of Galilee, Georgia, in the company of her Great-Aunt Kate, two other aunts, and a cousin. During this relatively brief visit, Jessica is subjected to full “Southernization” by the entire family.
As one means of teaching Jessica “who she is,” they tell her the family story of the J.P. Stevens Percale sheet, a singular present that has circulated back and forth between Great-Aunt Kate and her late husband’s Aunt Frances in Dallas for over forty years. The story of how that tradition began and why it continued for so long provides Jessica with her greatest lesson in the crash-course of Southern culture and manners. Conversely, she is also initiated into the brutal burden of Southern history.
Of all the family, only Aunt Cana, an African-American woman who has “been with” the family for as long as anyone can remember (and whose church-going, God-fearing Mama named her in honor of Christ’s miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee), knows the real secret behind the story of the cyclic gift. Of all the women who try to influence Jessica, Cana is the one who finally leads the child into an acceptance and then a somewhat reluctant celebration of Family -- “no matter how crazy it is!”
A light-hearted story on the surface, Gifts also portrays the full range of that era’s Southern history and culture: rigid racial and social stratification, a veritable worship of the past, an eternal honoring of Ancestors, an iron-clad adherence to good manners, and most of all, the restructuring of memory – the art of making a good story even better.
Everything got started that Christmas because of “Aunt” Grace, who wasn’t even an aunt at all—only Uncle Martin’s second wife.
Great-Aunt Kate said it was bad enough when Uncle Martin took that new job way up in Ohio and moved Aunt Nonny and Jessica up there—so far away from all Aunt Nonny’s family in Georgia—and then Aunt Nonny getting that terrible, swift cancer no one could do anything about and passing on, leaving that sweet little girl without a Mama at all.
We hoped he’d move back to Georgia then, so at least Jessica could have her Mama’s family to help take care of her, but he didn’t. And only a year or so later, we found out he had started keeping company with a woman, and Great-Aunt Kate said that was just terrible because she was sure to be a Yankee. She said Uncle Martin must still be purely out of his mind with grief to get mixed up with one of them.
Then he went and married her.
When Great-Aunt Kate was able to speak about it, she issued a hoarse edict: we mustn’t call Grace a Yankee anymore, because it wasn’t nice to say such things about family, and we all must try very hard to call her “aunt,” out of courtesy.
But none of us ever really thought of Grace as being family. Not really.
The next Christmas Jessica finally did come to stay with us, for a little while. Because Grace had to go all the way to California, to be with her own daughter whose baby came early. Aunt Neal said that’s what happens when a man turns a fool and marries a woman so much older than himself.
It must have been right after Uncle Martin took Grace to the airport that he called Great-Aunt Kate and told her that Christmas was only three days away, and he just couldn’t bear spending it alone. That’s what he said, although he certainly wouldn’t have been alone, not when he had Jessica. But of course, Great-Aunt Kate didn’t say anything about that but invited them to come right on down to spend Christmas with us.
“Nonny would have liked that,” Great-Aunt Kate added.
But then Uncle Martin hemmed and hawed around a little bit and finally said that what with him still missing Aunt Nonny so much, and Grace so far away, he really thought the only thing that would make him feel better was if he played in some big golf tournament down at St. Simon’s Island, and could he stop by and drop Jessica off with us? Because the town we lived in—Galilee, Georgia—would be right on his way to St. Simon’s.
“What could I say?” Great-Aunt Kate asked us when she got off the phone. “I couldn’t very well tell him how wrong it is for him to go off and leave Jessica at Christmastime. Leave our Nonny’s very own dear child!”
“No ma’am,” we all agreed. “You couldn’t say that.”
She started rubbing her chin—she has the Barksdale chin, a sharp, pointy little thing that can jut out a considerable distance when she gets her mind set on figuring out family lines or something important like that.
“If Nonny had lived…” Great-Aunt Kate’s voice caught, and she shook her head and cleared her throat. “If Nonny had lived, she’d have taught her daughter what she needs to know. But that…Northern…woman certainly can’t. So maybe it’s time we got ahold of that child and taught her who she is. Especially if she’s going to be living up North.”
“Oh, Lordy!” Aunt Freida snorted, but Aunt Neal and I looked at each other and understood. Because “who Jessica was” was a Southerner, by birth and by blood on her Mama’s side, but she was being just ruined because she was being raised up there and by a Yankee.
“Oh, Lordy!” Aunt Freida repeated, throwing up her hands, but we ignored her, of course. Because Great-Aunt Kate always said that “something or other must have happened to Freida somewhere along the line”—but only when Aunt Freida couldn’t hear her.
“I declare,” she said a long time ago. “Cana must have dropped Freida right smack on her head when she was a little baby and never told a soul what she’d done.”
Cana had been with us as long as I could remember and almost as long as Great-Aunt Kate could remember, and whenever we especially wanted to please her, we called her “Cana of Galilee.” Because she was born right there in our little town a long time ago, and her Mama—a good, Bible-reading, church-going Christian—had a special liking for the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Said Jesus turned the water into wine just to please His Mama, and that made it a very special miracle.
That’s how come she gave Cana her name. Said that when anybody ever asked her who she was, she could say “Cana of Galilee” and remind everyone of how good Jesus was to His Mama.
So I was pretty sure that Cana hadn’t done anything to let Aunt Freida get hurt, but because Cana knew everything in this world there was to know about anything that had ever happened to anybody in our family, I decided to ask her about Aunt Freida.
But I sure wasn’t about to ask if she’d dropped Aunt Freida on her head.
So, “How come Aunt Freida acts like she does?” I asked one day.