The Fairchild household is in an uproar over Dabney’s marriage, but however peculiar the match, the proprieties must be observed, standards maintained, and that includes lavish decorations for rehearsal supper. At one point during the hustle and bustle the matriarch Ellen says, “I thought in the long run . . . we could just cover everything mostly with Southern smilax.”
Most of those who read Welty’s Delta Wedding probably skip over Ellen’s references to smilax without taking the time to find out what smilax is, likely thinking it a type of fabric or paper, but had they bothered to look it up, they’d have found that smilax is a coarse evergreen vine whose many varieties proliferate throughout the South in woods, fields, roadsides and back yards. Evergreen and durable, the vines have long been used for greenery in the home during festive events and holidays, and not just in the South. In the stage version of Harvey, the opening scene describes the home as being “festooned with smilax”.
Members of the enormous lily family, smilaxes are close relatives of asparagus, and they’re just as edible, just not as toothsome. In fact, before the invention of artificial flavorings, one species, Smilax ornata was used as the basis for sarsaparilla and root beer. (S. ornata was also registered in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a treatment for syphilis from 1820 to 1910.) Linnaeus named the genus Smilax after a nymph who was by reason of some divine infraction transformed into a brambly vine (her lover Croesus for the same reason was—unfairly, it seems to me—transformed into a crocus).
Indeed most smilaxes are “brambly”, profuse with thorns, a notable exception being Smilax smalii (previously lanceolata), which only has thorns around the base of the stems. Steve Bender says one name for this plant, Jackson vine, comes from ladies in Alabama who would decorate their homes with the evergreen when Stonewall Jackson came to town, but frankly I have a hard time swallowing that. Most people just call it, as Ellen Fairchild did, Southern smilax. People once often trained smilax vines around their porches for evergreen framing, but is no longer cultivated because of an undeserved reputation as invasive.
Smilax takes readily to use in wreaths, swags and garlands. Like any plant cutting, the vines last longer when kept in water, and must be discarded when dry.
Given the vast and unpredictable foibles of human nature, the genetic integrity of any bloodline can be compromised in the blink of an eye by an errant member, giving rise to such comments as, “Well, her great uncle’s hair was sort of red,” or “That’s what comes from smoking marijuana.”
Surnames, however, being legal entities, are more reliable genealogical signposts and much more easily traced. I am a Yancey. For reasons as yet undiscovered, my grandfather Jess, one of ten children, dropped the “e” in the customary spelling of his surname. What’s more perplexing is that his siblings, all nine of them, adopted the spelling, so all my nearest name relatives are Yancy. When I asked a surviving sister of his why Jess, Sr. changed the spelling, she said, “He just did!” and looked at me daring me to say something so I didn’t because I was raised right.
The Yancey family surname hails by most accounts from Wales and in this country is most often found in the southeast, where many of its most distinguished members have lived. Foremost among these is William Lowndes Yancey, U.S. Senator from Alabama, the most vociferous “fire eater” whom some credit with no less than the War Between the States itself. It just so happens that my great-great grandfather Yancey was from Alabama as well, and while my relation to the Great Secessionist is vague, Yanceys of a closer degree in relation to him joined many others who fled the despoiled post-bellum soil of the defeated Confederacy for the Amazon. Termed “confederados”, these refugees from Yankee rule settled in Brazil where they still pay a distracted homage to the Old South more for the tourist trade than any significant degree of conviction in its ideals.
Nonetheless, one of these days I’m going to hold a Yanc(e)y reunion, and I’m going to invite every damn one of them here. I can’t wait to see what kind of covered dishes they’ll bring.