Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Summers in the Country"

Though it was only 2 weeks at a time or maybe a weekend here and there so many of my memories revolve around the summers in the country. As soon as we pulled onto the road with dust and rocks I knew that we were almost there. It won't be long now. As we identified each relative, each neighbor and each place where uncle so and so use to live I knew it wouldn't be long. And then I could see it. The long ranch style cinder block home that would shape so many memories of my childhood. As we pulled into the drive there they were each time just the way I pictured they would be. Granddaddy would clap those hands from back to front ending in a pointing wave and a possible "hot dog" under his breath and Grandmother would bend at the waist patting the tops of her jeans as she awaited the embrace that she had been counting down for weeks. But she wasn't the only one who had been counting. The kisses and hugs were exchanged and all the luggage arranged in their regular places and then the tour. We had to see how much the place had changed or not at all. Walks through the greenhouses with the smell of fertilizer, potting soil and every plant imaginable, all the while being careful to watch for snakes taking a respite from the heat. These walks began the "piles of summer" of the things we would take home to provide life on our porches and decks and one summer helped a little girl in pigtails start a door to door plant sale from her wagon when she returned home. Next we checked the chickens always aware that we could get mites, but never did. There were laying hens where we gathered eggs and as we gathered we would begin to scout out supper.We had to pick just the right chicken. When the right one had been picked Grandmother would corner him, swing him around until his neck broke and flop him into a bath of hot water so we could "dress" him. However, I never understood this term as it always seemed we were undressing him instead. She was my hero. I was in awe. How did she know how to catch him, kill him, dress him and cook him? Eating him was my favorite part, but the cooking was actually Granddaddy's job. He was the chicken fryer. But that comes later. Cooking only commenced once the heat died down since their was no air in the house. Well, that's not true. There were two window units. One in the den that we were allowed to use after the sun fell behind the rat proof crib, which I always wondered if it really was. The air was on just long enough for the sweat that dripped down your back to dry. 100 + degrees in the deep south filled with humidity and unless we were there the big box in the window was never turned on. The second unit was in the dining room.
Each night before dinner, all the doors to the dining room would be closed allowing the room to cool off just enough for the nausea to subside so that we could all enjoy dinner. The table was long enough for the whole family, but the coveted seat was the one where the air blew so cold that your chicken was chilled before it reached your mouth. But you didn't mind because you knew the cold was only momentary and soon the air would be off and the meal that you had waited on for weeks would be over. Fried chicken made in the cast iron skillet, creamed corn seasoned with black pepper and stirred just so by Granddaddy's sun aged hands, zipper peas picked fresh that morning, biscuits patted out by Grandmother, made in the biscuit bowl and placed in circles on the cast iron biscuit pan, homemade jelly spread across each biscuit and a bowl full of homemade mashed potatoes which someone probably scratched up that morning from the potato patch.We lived off the land. Almost everything we needed was produced or grown their on the home front as were we and the generations before us. We knew it was bedtime when Wheel Of Fortune went off, even though it was still light outside. I was to use the bathroom with the red carpet. It smelled of Coast soap, Listerine, Ben-gay and Old Spice. As we bathed and slipped into the thinnest gowns or pj's we could find, we knew the sheets would stick to our skin by morning and we hoped and prayed that an escapee from the local prison would not come peaking in the open windows that produced a warm breeze which allowed slumber to be possible. In the event of an intruder we had mapped out a plan weeks before. The closets that connected the two rooms would be our hideout or so it was in the minds of me and my brother. Not only was this closet a cool hide out but made for a fun playhouse during the hours we felt like living in a make believe world. My head would rest near Grandmother's as I slept in the twin bed that made a 90 degree angle with hers. She would tell me stories from her childhood and my mind would take me to a place where lunches were carried in pails and little girls wore long dresses year round. Not sure if my imagination was true to the times, but in my mind Grandmother became friends with Laura Ingalls. I was full of questions and some answers proved to be misunderstandings...I asked about monsters in the house and Grandmother assured me there was some in the refrigerator and we could have it at lunch. Mustard was what she heard and the misunderstanding was quickly cleared up after the tears were silenced and I was safe in her arms. The mornings came too early, yet not quick enough. I would stumble from my bed knowing that the adults had me beat by hours. Still in my gown, I would slip on my rubber boots and trudge through the fields in search of the harvesters. Where did they say they would be? Butter beans or zipper peas. Maybe they were in the corn field today. As I approached the fields I would give the call...yoo hoo...and when I heard Grandmother yoo hoo back I knew that I was close. Buckets of peas and beans, barrels of tomatoes and cucumbers, carts of corn and okra, baskets of squash and peppers of all kinds. I knew what the rest of the day would hold. After scratching for a few potatoes myself and filling my fingernails with the richness of earth I would head to the house for that small cup of orange juice that was sipped as I sat upon Grandmother's lap. We would soon eat sausage and biscuits with a little "monsters" of course, maybe a fried egg or two and then the work began. Shelling peas on the porch where the boxed fans blew. Slicing and blanching squash. Pickling cucumbers. Cutting and freezing okra. Shucking corn and freezing some on its cob and some that had been cut off the cob into that big bucket by that knife that I still can picture vividly. I can smell the peas as they blanched. I smell the sweet smell of plums as they boil and get ready to be jelly. I can hear the bubbling, sloshing and clanking of the cans as tomatoes and soups were being sealed for winter. So much to do and so much reward to be reaped year round. I'm sure these were not all accomplished in the same day, just as I am sure I did not do much of the work, but as one memory wove into the next the memories became cohesive. The only time of the day that rest was acceptable was the noon hour as potted meat sandwiches and Pringles were made and quiet came over the home just in time for "Grandmother's Program." I'm sure Hope and Bo are as happy today as they were back then and though time seems to stand still for them, The Days Of Our Lives continued and we had only One Life To Live. We had work to do and only 2 weeks to continue making memories. Once all the cartons were stacked in the 5 freezers that stood tall in the utility room and all the jars were lined on the shelves in the dining room, we knew it was time for another walk. This time it began at the edge of the property. Before we ventured off the property we had to see if this would be the year we could make it up the tree. The tree that held the rope swing and slanted down the drive. The tree that generations before me had also tried to "run up", others had climb and others had played under making mud pies and pea soup from unidentified leaves in the yard. We would take turns running with all of our might just hoping that we could "run up" the tree. Never succeeding, but always trying and hoping. We would catch up to the others at the scuppernong vines or maybe they were muscadines. I never really knew the difference. I only knew that while others ate the inside and spit out the hull...I liked them whole. Once our tummies were full and we were assured that we would have a stomach ache, we would continue down the dirt road always aware and looking for snakes, but never finding one.
We would graze the blackberries along the way and finally make it to the pond. Would the water be high or low? Would we get to fish this trip or was there too much work to do? We always managed to find the time. We would use those worms from the freezer that grew on those trees. You know the ones I could never pronounce. Now I know they are catawba worms. I preferred those to the "stink bait" which did. I loved the pull of the line, the bouncing of the bobber, but not the cleaning. I learned that even though we skin and filet them it is NOT ok to poke their eyeballs out with a stick. This is considered inhumane. Every 9 year old should learn this lesson. The walk would continue and I re-lived where my Mother had been carried away by a spooked horse and how her dress was torn as they reached to grab her. Just steps away was the destination we set out for...the family cemetery. Cemeteries are suppose to be sad and yet I loved the visits. The answers to each question of who was she and how she died. Sweeping the leaved from each grave, but never allowed to walk on them or sit on the tombstones. All of these things were signs of disrespect. We would linger and see the mourning in her eyes as she carefully set the flowers back up on Mommer and Popper's graves. Arm in arm they would take the dirt road back and we would hop the fence and run through the field to see who would be home first. Sometimes before we journeyed home we would venture farther and go to the old home place. The foundation still remained and we could see where each room was and imagined how Grandmother was as a child and where she slept and ate. The memories are still so vivid. Once back at the home place we would occasionally rummage through the rat proof crib or walk into the barn to find Mama cat and her new litter.
Mama cat lived for years though each time we visited she was a different color. Now I realized that Mama was not her name, but was an adjective used describe her condition. There were always cats. Lots of cats. Some were tame. Some were scared. Some had tails and others we called tom. The kittens were friendly and had way too much hugging and loving and were forced by little hands to climb trees. Once a little black kitten found his way back home with us as she traveled tucked under my arm. We always seemed to bring lots of the country home with us. The ice chests were full and so was the trunk. Enough vegetables and jellies, pickles and plants to stock the freezers and shelves for the year. And each family member that made these same memories received the love in these tangible containers. Some evenings when all canning and freezing were done we would sit in the sewing room. It was an add on room and it was cool and comfortable. The quilting loom was suspended from the roof and each time a different design hung above our heads. When time would allow Grandmother would lower the loom and stitch and work and today all those she loved bundle up with the fruits of her labor always remembering the love that was stitched into each square. It was there I learned to thread a machine, to sew on a button, to make small pillows and learned the meaning of words like bobbin and seam ripper. She was a woman of many talents and she had strength, stamina and love. Her hair was my favorite. It hung so far past her waist that she would sit on it if it had not been twisted and wrapped and tucked up in such a neat bun. Jet black underneath, but gray on the top. Defining who she was. Still young and strong and able to accomplish any task yet old in age and experienced and over worked by life. There was no dishwasher, no central heat and air. She did things the hard way yet to her it was the only way.
Grandaddy worked just as hard and just as long. He could never sit still and I can hear the slamming of the screen door as he would come and go all day. Trips to the store with Granddaddy always proved interesting. Donuts and ice cream were always involved and cokes in glass bottles were a must. Enough to drink and line the dividing wall from kitchen to den. Never saying no to his grandchildren and shocking all the other adults in the amount of caffeine that we were allowed to consume. We learned that it is not ok for someone to "rob you without a gun" by charging high prices for pie. We learned that truck stops and diners have the best food and that it is ok to use your horn when angry or when saying hello to a friend. He drove like the road belonged to him and as we curved around the dirt road we prayed that the neighbors dogs would not come running. Granddaddy said he didn't mind hitting them, though he never did, but in our minds we begged them to stay under the porch so that Granddaddy would not yell at them and call them what "they were" or tell them "where to go." He always made sure we left with an envelope of money, enough to buy school clothes and he kept the desk drawer filled with Freshen-Up. You know the gum that squirts when you chew it. He was one of the best chefs I know and I try to replicate his culinary skills as best I can. He kept gas in the mini-bike and would let us ride through the field that were not planted. He solved each Wheel of Fortune puzzle on the edge of his seat and he had no problems going to bed when it was still light out since he would arise when it was dark. The prison through the woods never scared him. He was a guard there for many years and he knew exactly which shelf he needed to reach in order to protect his family from an intruder. My favorite adventures with Granddaddy were the guinea adventures. We would walk through the woods looking for guinea eggs. The secret to gathering was using a long tool for picking up eggs. If they ever got a scent of the humans the hunt would start again and though I didn't mind Granddaddy liked knowing right where they were. The memories are engraved deep and are not only memories but have become a legacy. They made me who I am. I try each year to dredge them up through sights and smells and sounds. The smell of the plums boiling as they prep for jelly, the clicking of the cans as I put up tomatoes and peppers, shelling, blanching and freezing peas, threading bobbins, the sound of the sewing machine and the smell of the needle's friction all take me back to my childhood. I leave the chickens to Tyson and the thermostat stays on 73. I am not as strong, as talented, nor do I have the stamina that they did, but LOVE. I have the love and I give it freely. A legacy of love. I wish my children could have the memories that I have, but they are mine and they will have their own...each one unique and each one associated with a smell or sound that one day will take them back to today. These memories may not be exactly how each visit was scripted, but this is how I remember it in the novel of my heart and I love to remember and relive it, especially in the summer. I miss my "summers in the country."