At Ro-Ro’s|Every Sunday is like Mother’s Day

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 11, 2009

A Vicksburg woman known for cooking and hosting family gatherings — mothering to many — is a lady who has no children and has never been married.

Aunt to eight, great-aunt to 18 and great-great-aunt to three, Rosalie Thomas at 94 is still at the center of her close-knit family with her home the hub of an ever-revolving sphere of activity.

Called RoRo or Aunt RoRo, even by the friends of her teenage great-nieces, she prepares and serves the family Sunday dinner each week, frying kibbee, stuffing squash and eggplant and preparing other favorite dishes for the early-afternoon family feast.

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On a recent Sunday, some come after church, some come from home, and some from jobs or other activities. The men might congregate in the family room to watch a ball game. One teen makes a salad while another heats sweet potatoes and greenbean casserole in the microwave, moving dishes over to make room for a bottle for baby Thomas Henry Antwine.

“In my family, we always had an open house for everybody,” said RoRo. “On Sunday afternoons you could always find 25 or 30 people sitting on the front porch, visiting.”

RoRo’s father, George Thomas, was in the grocery business. He came to Vicksburg from Lebanon around 1910, then went back to marry. He and his wife, Rhoda, had a son, Miller, in Lebanon in 1912 before the family returned to Vicksburg late in 1913.

George’s sister, Rosalie’s Aunt Julia Azar, came over a year or two later. “The idea was that they could come to a place where they would be able to get some help from family and from others who had come before,” Rosalie said.

Rosalie was born in 1914 in the home her family rented on Mulberry Street. “We used to have a store across the street from where Horizon (Casino) is now,” she said. Her sister, Milady, was born in 1917, followed by brothers Johnny in 1919, Ellis in 1922 and Lee in 1926. Rosalie is the last of her siblings, but tries to carry on the closeness by keeping her home open to her nephews, nieces and their children.

“She’s very matter of fact,” said sister-in-law Frances Abraham Thomas, who owns and runs Abraham’s Department Store on Washington Street and celebrates Mother’s Day herself today with four grown Thomas children including Vicksburg real estate agent Gregory Thomas. “She always seemed to feel very responsible for the family.”

Growing up, Rosalie and her family also lived on Harrison Street, in Marcus Bottom and on Court Street before building a home on First North Street, where they lived — and practiced hospitality — for 57 years.

“During the Depression things were tough but we got through it,” RoRo said.

“You talk about your good deeds,” said longtime friend Curly Whiten, “I’ve been knowing her for 50 years or more and I never went over there but there were at least five other people there besides her and her sister. She is a sweet person.”

“People used to visit more,” said Thomas’ sister-in-law Sue Thomas. “Back when there was no TV, on Sunday afternoons people always used to drop by and visit. You didn’t even need to call first, even if you lived out of town.”

Rosalie Thomas attended St. Francis Xavier Academy and later, Carr Central High School. Over the years she worked at different stores, including Karl Jabour’s clothing store and, for 22 years, the Piggly Wiggly, where, she said, “I did everything.”

Five years ago, she and Sue left the home on First North and moved to Eisenhower Drive. They carry on the Sunday tradition there.

The cooking usually starts on Saturday, Sue Thomas said, and the two are up at 7 or 7:30 a.m. on Sunday working on preparations.

RoRo’s niece and Sue’s daughter, Rhonda Wright, said it’s important to her that the tradition be maintained as her own grandchildren grow up. “It’s a Lebanese thing,” she said. “I don’t know about the non-Lebanese, but for us, ‘family’ and ‘eating’ just always have gone together.”

“In Lebanese culture, age is greatly respected, and respect for parents is extremely valued,” writes Paula Hajar and J. Sydney Jones in their essay, “Lebanese Americans.” “Family is at the core of Lebanese social identity and loyalty to family has traditionally superseded all other allegiances.”

Hajar and Jones note that Americanization has eroded these traditional values somewhat, but not in the Thomas clan.

RoRo continues to maintain it in her own family, not through insistence, but gentle practice.

It’s just sort of tradition, the family members said. “The more the merrier, I guess,” Sue Thomas said, laughing. “Maybe that’s what it is. We just always try to make everybody feel welcome — family, friends, boyfriends, boyfriends of friends.”

Infrequent visitors are graciously forgiven for wishing a family tree could be drawn up to keep track of the players.

On that recent Sunday, four generations from 10 months to 94 years were in the house, sampling crackers and dips at the kitchen island while waiting for dinner, talking around the table or watching the Braves on TV.

Rhonda’s son, Porters Chapel baseball coach Randy Wright, visited long enough to eat, hear “Happy Birthday” sung to him and blow out the candles on his cake before leaving for afternoon coaching duties. Randy’s wife, Jessica, came in after their church service with the couple’s two children. Another son, Richard, visited with RoRo at the kitchen table, while his wife, Peggy, cleaned up dishes.

Another group of Sue’s grandchildren, three of the children of Gary and Dani Kay Thomas, teens Rachel and Ann Garrison and 11-year-old John, visited until their mother, Dani Kay, arrived for a short visit and then took John to a piano recital.

Rhonda’s daughter, Rebecca Antwine, watched as her son, Thomas, crawled around on the spotless kitchen floor or was passed from the arms of one teenager to another’s lap.

“For many people it’s a thing of the past,” said Rhonda Wright. “You just don’t see these kinds of family gatherings much anymore, week after week.”

“As a child I was raised to come here on Sundays,” said Gary’s daughter Rachel, 17, “but now that I’m older it just feels weird if I don’t come. One of my good friends usually comes here with me. I’m thankful for my family, too. During the week we are all busy — it’s nice to get together on Sunday.”


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