Thursday, November 18, 2010


One of my very favorite childhood memories is of Aunt Lou's store---the flappy-screen door with the faded Nehi sign, mistily visible after the thousands of hands opening and slamming to the tinkle of the tiny bell above. The foot-faded old green linoleum, the big shining glass cases of candy
and notions:

and everything from #1.25 eyeglasses to single, unwrapped nipples with little side-flaps to fit onto a Coke bottle for those babies whose families' sparse income was doled out for flour and lard and beans.
And the BEANS---OH, how I LOVED the beans. All the cases were to your right as you entered the door, forming a second, enticing wall in front of the ceiling-high shelves of other goods, with just enough of a passageway for Aunt Lu or Uncle Jake to wedge their spare forms behind, reaching high with what I still think of as the "grabber" to bring down a can of this, a box of that.
But in FRONT of the cases were the bolted-on half-barrels of beans. That row of about six immense tubs hung at a kid's temptation level, filled with the several kinds of dried beans and peas which made up such a staple of the local diet. Each big wooden tub was white-painted, and held a huge silvery scoop for filling bags and pokes of the beans---from pintos to Northerns to navies to reds to black-eyes.

And each scoop, two-hands-heavy, held all the allure of a new train set or a baby doll with that enchanting, suck-your-lungs-full, new-doll smell, like not being able to chew that first taste of Fleer's s-l-o-w-l-y, for the avid mouth-running gulps of the sweetness were irrestible.

The days before Legos were ripe for small things to stir and run your fingers through, and nobody ever seemed to mind that every kid in town had probably touched their dinner at one time or another. It was so lovely to reach FARfar into the cool depths of the bean-tubs, digging for treasure, hoping for reward---the entire reward being the DOING of the thing. We entertained ourselves endlessly, blocking passage of the customers entering and leaving, hampering commerce, I'm sure, for the aisles of that place were cramped even to a child, with the great heaps and variety of the merchandise.
Just pouring out scoop after scoop, hearing the little glisssss of the falling beans, like water upon rocks, was a wonderful thing. And the colors and shapes were so hypnotic, as the cascade descended time after time, to be enveloped back into the whole the way fudge leaves the spoon when it's almost done. Perhaps the entire allowing of the thing hinged on the fact that we DID adhere to the one unbreakable Rule, heard on every entering of the store. We expected it like Pavlov's dogs, immediately after the jingling of the bell: Uncle Jake's DEEP, stern voice, in its everyday sepulchral tones would rumble up from somewhere to the side or front of the store, admonishing for the thousandth time: DON'T MIX THE BEANS. And we never did.
We'd eaten quite a few of all kinds, already as children---they were an absolute staple in that part of the South, and though we had lots of fresh peas and beans from our own gardens, even in Summer the bowls of Pintos, filled with the good pink hunks of ham, or Northerns, with a little hand of fatback, or navies, with a bit of bell pepper and a lot of onion cooked in, were on every table. And in Winter---almost every house had the scent of long-cooking beans on the stove, especially on Washday---Monday---much like the Red-Beans-And-Rice traditions of New Orleans.

And we like them still. They are our Christmas Eve Supper, from I can't remember when---many years now, a simple, humble supper with cornbread and slaw, for they are such a contrast to all the traditional dressing and turkey and sides the next day.We just had a good pot the other night, made with the last of the Halloween Hambone. I hadn't even thought of it when I was uploading the pictures, but I was having a little bowl of leftover beans, with a good shake of L&P and even heartier shake of Louisiana Hot Sauce. Nice lunch on a cool day, with lots to do.

Directions for cooking on Lawn Tea. Hope you enjoy some soon!

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Floy Whitten is the town’s other writer for the County Paper; her Floy’s Flittings has its own little lattice-roses-bordered corner on the inside back page, and her regularly-printed poetry rhymes “hand” with “time” and the meter changes line to line, stanza to stanza. She leans toward flowers and trees and old times, and mostly Christian topics.

Miss Floy is newly retired from the county Welfare Department, where she worked for thirty-something years. She’s still known as the “spare-made” lady amongst the clients who came into the office, in contrast to the abundantly-contoured Mrs. Waddell, who lives way out in the country over at Expedia.

Miss Floy wears her hip-length graying hair in a beautiful upsweep reminiscent of a Gibson Girl, the soft roundness of it like a shining brioche, and the effect completed by the little round bun atop. When she works in her garden, it’s as if a beautifully-coifed woman from the Gay Nineties has suddenly donned saggy-butt jeans and an old shirt, picked up a hoe, and landed for a time amongst the bean-rows, with the sun glinting from that glorious hair.

She calls people for news from their section of the county, and will sit there with the phone tucked aside her cheek, writing down the names and places they’ve been, and if there’s been a party---she’ll put down every detail, including tablecloths and menu and the honorees’ attire.

If they haven’t been anywhere special or if they’ve just had their in-laws over for supper, she’s happy to jot down the recipes for the pot roast and Bundt cake, and print that---sitting there as serious as scripture, getting every word, every step, taking down Cream a’ Mushroom like it’s foie gras, and asking “Now do you cream the Parkay first?”

She also writes little vignettes of local interest for the REA newsletter, published every month by the Power Company, and has quite a following amongst the rural set. Her piece on the Civil War autograph book, amazingly carried by Mr. Morris Steele's great-grandfather from his injury at Shiloh all the way through incarceration at Ft. Warren, Mass., collecting autographs and messages on every page, from Generals to guards to doctors to fellow prisoners, was picked up by the Commercial Appeal and printed almost word-for-word, though they DID send their own photographer to make the pictures.

She has a happy little dog named Sarge, taken in a year ago when her sister at Moon Lake fell heir to her elderly neighbor's three Pee-kanese. The old lady hadn't been able to care for the dogs very well in her last days, and the two females cost Sis ninety dollars apiece at the vet just to have that long, clotty hair got back in order. Miss Floy took one look at that miserable, tangled mass of long blonde hair on the little boy dog and had him clipped, high and tight. Even his long flowing silky ears are squared off at the bottom like the little Dutch-Boy on the paint can, and his muscular little body, clipped close to show his stance, looks so much more like Pug than Peke, it led to her nephew's calling him a Puke. He doesn't seem to mind, and seems to REALLY like the freedom of his haircut.

Miss Floy will also shell your bushel of beans or peas and pick out your pecans, and keeps her flour and sugar and coffee in a Camistry Set.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I think today should hold a lot of House-Righting and Dish-Washing and Clothes-Folding, for I’ve sadly neglected all three this week. It’s a sort of jumbled chaos downstairs, with so many things out of place, and so I’m headed off to a big I-Tunes Fest of Sense and Sensibility to entertain as I work.

Perhaps when things are a bit more serene and livable, some time out in an arbor chair, with the overhanging limbs and the hot breeze giving the proper reverence and setting to Faulkner---he’s always a Summer read, I think. You get the tastes and the sweat and the sheer overlying weight of the weather to set the stage, as well as the theme.

I may continue reading As I Lay Dying, swapping the genteel pomp of the Dashwoods, with their soft intrigues and misunderstandings and loves lost and honor-well-served, for the grim, homemade-coffin trek to bury Addie Bundren amongst her Own People.

And it's not a sad book, as you'd think---it's just a well-told journey, seen by six different sets of eyes. It’s tiny glimpses of each family member as they gather for their Mother’s last days, as they take her home to her family graveyard, told in small moments of their thoughts---tiny half-page blips, sometimes, like the eye of a camera panning a crowd and snapping this one and that for that one brief moment.

I've known ALL these people, especially in my childhood, when the old times still lingered and the old ways were still the norm---the sitting-up-all-night, the wakes and the singing, the gathering of the men in the stomped-down yard, passing bottles and time with a quick wrist-swipe at each, whilst the women tended to things in the house.

I can remember four all-night-sit-up-with-the-deads in my own home of my childhood---the shining metal caskets were wheeled in through the front door, through the vestibule arch, and parked square-ways right in front of the big double-windows of the living room like a new piano. Quiet voices, bowls of potato salad set down on the kitchen counter by kind neighbors, the scent of bouquets of garden-cut blooms set head and foot of the casket, the pile of hats on the hall bench, as the men removed them to honor the house and the dead, passing by on the way to the kitchen for a cold drink. For the first time, I was allowed to click the lock on my bathroom door for my bedtime bath, and I wore the new nylon robe from two Christmases ago, for the five steps to my room.

Even the names in the book are notional and obscurely odd: Anse, the shirking, whining father, and Cash who builds the coffin in full view and sound of his Mother’s bedroom window, and Jewel-who’s-a-man and Dewey Dell the only daughter, and Darl and small Vardaman, whose name is at least recognizable as a small town in my state.

They are of their age, of the wagon-and-horse, of the overalls-and-sweat and dipper-and-bucket age, pondering or mutely accepting or cursing the fate which set them in such a hard place, in such times.

And I’ll go out into the quiet breeze, sitting with a pitcher of well-iced tea, reading in the afternoon, knowing these grim, enduring people, smelling the scents of their journey and their trials---remembering it, being FROM it, but not OF it. Not any more.

Monday, August 2, 2010


It’s an old Southern custom for folks of younger generations to address their elders by their first names, with Miss and Mr. appended, no matter what their marital status.

Miss Laura Beth Upchurch (mid-sixties, widowed in her forties) drives over to Miss Ardyth May Jessup’s (mid-eighties, also widowed, just in the last few years) house every Wednesday. She “takes care of” Miss Ardyth May two other days during the week---Mondays, when she changes the linens and gets her into the tub on that big white chair, as well as doing the week’s other laundry, dusting and righting the area around her big auto-chair in the den, with its surroundings of uplifting books, pens, newspapers, spare eyeglasses, big-drink thermos mug (filled with ice water and emptied three times every day), Tums, a box of Kleenex and the big roll of Charmin set on the lid of the adjacent potty-chair. There's also the days-of-the-week-sectioned box of carefully-counted-out medicines which goes with Miss Ardyth everywhere---even to the bathroom, whether she is to take a pill or not. It rides in a little cushioned basket inside the basket of her walker.

Fridays, Miss Laura Beth gives Miss Ardyth another good tub bath, and washes her little dandelion fluff of sparse white hair, getting ready for the weekend and church-if-she-can-make-it.

But Wednesdays---Wednesdays are the days that Miss Laura Beth and Miss Ardyth May drive to The Walmart. It’s THE DAY. They would not miss it, and have driven over through rainstorms, a very alarming water-over-the-road moment once last year, and even an unprecedented ice storm, in which the roads were almost impassable, and the few customers in the store were waited on by the manager and his wife when nobody else could get to work. Worse than the trip through the slick roads, however, was the absence of Miss Ardyth's customary Corn Dog---SHE got there; why would an 18-Wheeler have trouble?

The two ladies sometimes also take a short stroll through Goodwill, for it’s on their way, and Wednesdays flaunt the fading, flappy banner: SENIOR DAY WEDNESDAYS 30% OFF. They go there first, for what if there were something really good and they MISSED it?

They make their way up and down the aisles---Miss Laura Beth at a pretty good clip toward the “Plus Boutique” to finger the poly-pants and floral blouses, flipping them out neatly like small bedsheets against her bosom and hips in front to check for size. Miss Ardyth May clops her walker through the purses and craft items, looking for gifts for her grown children---mostly picture frames, for those catch her eye every time, and she already has two boxes of them in the guest room closet, sandwiched like books between single-torn sheets of Bounty. The two dozen purses ranged above, each noosed around a coathanger, hang like tiny sides of beef in their cool gloom, awaiting a holiday.

And then they go to The Walmart, making their way in past the Greeter, checking the buggies for a full-plastic flap on the baby-seat and four good wheels. Those things MATTER.They stop immediately in the Ladies Room, where Miss Laura helps Miss Ardyth in and out and helps her freshen up after.

They stroll a bit, looking for the perky yellow face, checking out ranks of shampoos, over-the-counter medications, the nine TV screens all blaring Price Is Right---the varying quality and reception causing Bob Barker’s tan to range from George Hamilton to Boo Radley.

They shop a bit, pick up the things on their list, then head for the Garden Department, where they seat themselves in the comfortable chairs ringed round a wrought-iron patio table. They have quite a few sets to choose from, but these chairs are THEIRS--the chairs are a taupey-beige woven sling with black wrought iron---very elegant and strong. It’s where they sit every week, whilst customers pass by and speak and perhaps stop for a hug or a chat.

Miss Ardyth Mae is a retired music teacher, and her pupils some of the most faithful admirers one could wish---every Walmart visit is occasion of bright, happy exclamations of “Miss ARDYTH MAAAAY!! Is that YOU, you Sweet Thing? I’m so glad to SEEEEE you!” as she smiles from her nylon-webbing throne, receiving her subjects in the most regal manner.

Along about noon, Miss Laura is dispatched to the snack bar. She orders Miss Ardyth’s customary Corn Dog and Diet Coke and her own small cheese pizza, no sauce---a nod to her own IBS. They set out their lunch and eat daintily, still keeping watch for approaching friends and visitors. Every passerby is greeted, either with fond recognition, a friendly “Hello,” or a cool nod, for they know everyone in town.

Occasionally other ladies in their age ranges will join them, setting up shop for a long afternoon of conversation and banter; the news of the county is thoroughly sifted and discussed, as are church happenings, Club bulletins, social occasions and thorough reviews of newcomers and gossip and the latest family news.

They're an odd little bunch, these Ladies of Wednesday, these merchandise-squatters with big purses and slow, graceful speech; it's as if they have no homes, or are exceedingly wealthy, having rented out an entire floor for their private party. And the store manager would no more mention it to them, or worse---their children---than he would fly.

With the makeup of the group, there are fits and starts to the conversations, as first one then another has to be excused to the Ladies, and then she has to be "caught up" on what she missed.

Around four, they all start gathering up their things to head home. They’ve gone out for the day, lunched with friends, swapped recipes, gossip and crochet patterns, and have had quite as good a time as a much-younger martini-lunch crowd in Manolos. They all head home, refreshed and fulfilled, replete with a week's shopping and social obligations and need-to-know all at once.

Wednesdays at The Walmart Social Club---there’s one near you.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


It’s a Southern thing, I suppose, of my generation, that we just naturally learned how to plant, harvest, cook and serve almost anything that went onto our tables, and our cuisine is of the homey sort, mostly---pots set to simmer early in the day, to avoid the heat of those sun-blasted afternoons. Baking was done early or late---way late, in the furtive hours when the house was silent and the air conditioning pouring out cold air to combat the oven’s Vulcanic glow.
We’ve also branched out, a bit, from the little church cookbooks and the Campbell’s casseroles, delightedly devouring plates of kibbeh and dolmas and mole at the various little family restaurants which sprang up in our small towns. We eagerly awaited the Tamale Man’s bell, as he strode the streets and favored certain corners with his fragrant cart. He dispensed who-knows-what in those rustly shucks of masa and mysterious tomato-tinted middles, and we scarfed them up as eagerly as kids and candy.
And there was more than one of him, with the Saturday route delineated and adhered to like the Blue Line---ours was a big, bustly guy, past middle age, whose as-white-as-Clorox-could-make-it-between-spills chef’s jacket and glistening ebony cheeks were a welcome sight as he hauled tins and boxes and coffee cans and trays out of the depths of that white steamer. We embraced the exotic and the spicy and the new, adopting the latugie and ravioli of our Italian neighbors, and The Good Church Ladies vying with each other to follow Mrs. Kowalski’s recipe perfectly and set down the most beautiful golden varnishes onto the table at Second Saturday Church Suppers.
And the little Chinese places---Oh, Those!!! We eagerly gobbled all sorts of wonderful new flavors---soy and sesame and anise and all the crisp delights of bamboo shoots and water chestnuts and bean sprouts, as well as the glories of "our" little flappy-screen cafe's General's Chicken and the most sublime Fried Rice in the history of Time. We always said that if we ever struck our fortune, we'd just build the famly a house beside us, support them all their days, and get them to cook for us every day.
But of our own recipes, aside from fried chicken and perhaps the shrimp-and-grits flurry of several years ago, there's still a whole big world out there, uneducated and unenlightened to the sumptuous dishes of the Southern Table. There are palates which never tasted hushpuppies straight from the big black fishcamp pot, eyes which never beheld a Red Velvet cake or a golden-meringue-topped ‘nanner puddin straight from the oven in its oblong Pyrex, vanilla wafers standing proudly like soldiers against the sides. There is somewhere, I'm sure, a dear soul deprived of the tongue-curling scent of REAL barbecue, the smoke rising from the crusty rungs of that pit like praise to Heaven.

Whole nations go through life without biscuits and molasses, or a glimpse of that crusty-topped baked corn coming steaming out of the oven in its own black skillet, the same skillet which every day turns out fried chicken and okra and catfish to make an emperor swoon. Lives are lived, inventions patented, work done, educations sought and achieved, music composed and books written, all by people whose own lives would be changed and enhanced by mere introduction to the wonderful, rich heritage which is the Southern Kitchen.
Our Southern roots are ingrained, but we are more and more every day being inundated and saturated with all the wonderful cuisines from all around the world, the sushi and the greens and wok-cooking and tagine-cooking and so many luscious amalgams and mixtures and spices and grains---it seems selfish not to share and keep sharing the glorious table spread by Southern cooks, no matter what their locale.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Miss Lucy is a Louisiana institution, like the powdered sugar on your shoes at Café du Monde and the century-simmered LSU/Ole Miss rivalry. She was raised in the good ole Cajun Cookin’ tradition, with homage paid to the Kitchen Trinity in every dish save that Strawberry Thing.

She’s a petite woman, looking much like a cross between Diane Keeton and Loretta Lynn, and quite attractive behind those 80’s glasses, which she pushes up almost as often as she stirs a pot. And stir, she does!!! I’m USED to Southern Cookin’ and except for the great wonderment at all the carbs and grease, the only thing which perturbs me about her cooking is the way she shows off her wonderful non-stick cookware, then drowns out her dialogue with loud, metal-utensil skritches and scrapes of the pot through every recipe.

I used to watch her on RFD TV, somewhere between the cattle auctions and the HeeHaw re-runs, and stepping into her kitchen, across the counter from those pots and pans redolent of simmering peppers and onions and seafood and lots of seasonings, is a step into another kind of cuisine entirely. She is so welcoming and homey, you’re time-transported to childhood and feel as if you’re sitting there watching your favorite aunt cook supper for the family---you wanna get up and start setting the table and pouring the tea.

I cook with butter; my many recipes involving Philly caused me to be christened Goddess of Lily-Gilding on a very well-known cooking website, and Heaven help me---I’ve put a can of Campbell’s Cream Of into more casseroles and gravies than you can shake a spoon at, but Oh, My!!!

The constitution of those dishes on her dashing red stove must be that of wall-spackle; by the third ingredient, that big spoon just stands there upright until she returns with yet another richly-thick item to add.

I’ve looked up her Crawfish Etouffee recipe, and the one online is not QUITE the recipe I watched her make one cold evening several years ago (before we got this new-fangled TV system which looks DOWN on country matters like the folks in 5-7-9 look at me). That pot grew and grew, from the two sticks of melted oleo to saute the peppers and onions, and start the “light roux” with some flour, to the can of Campbell’s, the blocks of Philly (scritch becoming scrape as she tried to incorporate all that paste) and then the seasonings and a coupla pounds of picked-out crawfish tails.

And she’s no wilting lily, herself---she goes out to those big metal buildings on the ponds--- those gifts to the local economy and lots of rural families; she walks in where those ladies are picking that meat, puts on her own apron and hairnet, and sits right down. You can tell a cook who knows her ingredients---and knows where they come from. She’d no more quail at dressing game or gutting a fish than she would at putting on those waist-waders and manning the nets.

I like her; I wish I could still get her program---I’ve poked fun and shown her to the family and we’ve laughed at all the folderol, but good cookin’ comes out of that kitchen, and that’s what counts. And if you broke your leg, she’d be at your door with a 9x13 of Shrimp and Cornbread Dressin’ before the plaster cast had set.

I’d love to taste some of the food which comes from her cheery red kitchen; I know it would taste good. And rich. And spicy. I’ve just wondered if maybe instead of headin’ down there to try, it might save time to just throw some creamcheese, Campbell’s and a pound of butter in the blender, and just mainline the calories.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


A remembrance not my own, just written down from memories of long talks over coffee with an Aunt in Alabama.

I’ve known only two people in my life who didn’t like chocolate. One was a bit strange in other ways, as well, and the other came by her dislike honestly.

One of the Aunts on Chris’ side married very young---she was fifteen and her husband nineteen when they ran away and got hitched---they had been forbidden to see each other until she was sixteen, and it finally got the best of them. So, when all the younguns got all dressed up in sheets and charcoal-smudge whiskers and GrandDad’s oldest clothes on that still-warm Halloween night, they dressed up, too. She had worn clothes-under-clothes for several days, sneaking them out into the barn and stashing a couple of outfits and her best dress and shoes in a pillowcase beneath some old stuff stored out there.

On Halloween, she put on a long gingham skirt and and one of her Daddy’s old shirts over a dress, crammed her stockings and her Bible into her purse, and then “went walking” with the rest of the young people of the community. They were, indeed, of the soap-your-windows era, along with the tip-the-outhouse and some skylarking young gents were known to have opened the front door of a rival’s house and turned two pigs and a turkey in on his Mama’s best India rug.

Aunt Birdie Mae met her sweetheart down the road and they set out on his horse for the next county where he had kin, and where they had visited the church, and knew the preacher. So they were married the next day, staying with his kinfolks for a while, then coming home to a very cold reception from her family.

One of his married brothers had just finished building a new little house for himself and his own bride, and they asked the newlyweds if they’d like to stay with them for a bit until things cooled down. And they did, with nothing but his steady job and the clothes she had carried from home, and apparently they lived on there for quite a little time, for the main part of the story occurred on over in the hot Summer down there in Grand Bay.

The two young women got along pretty well, with the division of labor around the house and yard and milking-barn divided about 70/30, Aunt B said, in favor of the hostess. Aunt B did most of the cooking, all of the kitchen work, a lot of the animal-tending and the milking, whilst her sister-in-law quilted and tatted and made clothes all the Winter through.

Then, in the Spring, the menfolks plowed up the garden plot, and Aunt B. planted and hoed it, then canned everything that wasn’t needed for the three-meals-a-day for the four of them. It got hotter and hotter, she said (and I believe her, for we’ve lived in southern Alabama, too) and the canning seemed to stretch on forever.

The BIL and SIL would go to town almost every Saturday afternoon from the farm, getting the week’s staples such as coffee and sugar and tea, and perhaps some fabric for a new dress, and they’d spend the time visiting up and down the streets with friends and shopkeepers, always stopping at the drugstore, where they’d have a cold Cherry Phospate, sitting on those high fountain-stools and crunching that real cracked ice til the last sliver was gone.

Aunt B., seldom invited on these trips, would stay home on the place, week after week. And every Saturday, she’d pray for the couple to just get gone for a little while, just a breather from the constant companionship, so she could wash her hair and dry it in the sunshine of the yard, and sit in the swing in the shade a bit without a pan of peas to shell in her lap. The noon dinner dishes done, the floor swept, the shoes polished for church in the morning, and a bit of respite in sight, she hoped.

BIL would pull the buggy up to the yard, while SIL checked her hat in the mirror, then she’d walk out onto the porch. Aunt B. would watch her go, relief almost overtaking the fervent prayer that she’d just GO, and then it would come:

Every week without fail, SIL would stop on the porch and turn, or she’d get all the way up the step into the buggy, settle onto the seat, turn to Aunt B., tuck her head coyly, and say, "Chock-littt CAAAAAAKE, Birrrrdie,” in the most annoying voice in the universe. She’d blink her eyelashes beseechingly, with a little smile that knew she couldn’t be refused, since they were so beholden to her and her husband for the roof over their heads.

And so, Aunt B. would plod into the kitchen, get out the bowls and the spoons and the sugar and the Hershey’s can, throw some more wood into that already-glowing woodstove, and start mixing batter and frosting. I can only imagine that sometimes she didn’t plod. I like to think that some days she'd bang things around some---stove-lids and sifters, or yell out what she REALLY wanted to say in the stillness of that empty hot kitchen, or even have to go all the way out in the yard to get those cakepans and spoons from where she’d hurled them.

But she made that cake, every blessed Saturday that they lived there. She worked in that stifling kitchen every week, baking the layers and cooling and frosting, heating the whole house past bearing in that Summer sun, doing her part to help with their upkeep.

And I never DID see Aunt B. eat chocolate---not once.

Friday, April 30, 2010


Image from the Internet

My childhood friend Gloria lived in a creaky-board old house, around-a-block-and-down-the-block from Mammaw’s house---in exactly the same place on that block. But it could have been in another town or another country, compared to Mammaw’s neat yard full of flowers and brick edgings and that huge, bountiful garden out back which supplied three families’ freezers.

Gloria’s house was a ratty old thing, much bigger than Mammaw’s---good thing, for Mammaw’s three-room shotgun did well to house the four of them (and I STILL don’t know where they all slept). And Gloria had five brothers, to whom could have been laid the broken windows, the hangy-down screendoors, the screens like rump-sprung skirts, flappy-cornered on the big three-sides porch, and the absolutely naked yard all around---foot-stomped and body-slammed every day of the week.

In the Summer, the boys all slept on pallets on that porch, under those huge old trees for the cool of the night, and I don’t know how they lived through it---the screens were dark-rust blankety things, so stretched and so clogged with grime that they sucked in and out like old curtains whenever the wind blew. They were certainly not attached to the rims in enough places to foil the hordes of mosquitoes which inhabited that yard from dusk til dawn.

They lived just down the street from the “flowin’ well” and we loved to go down there and let the coldcold water run over our bare feet after we’d sorta rinsed our hands enough to cup them full of that wonderful water and get a good long drink. The “well” was an artesian flow, from a big curved red pipe, gushing out onto an area of flat pavers laid so you could walk up and fill a jug or a bucket. And in my childhood, quite a few people still did “go get water” every morning and night, up to and including for dishwashing and their baths.

The flat stones were slick and mossy in places, with the onslaught of the water making the little growth of green wave and sway like the face-fur of a dog in a car window. I’d sit on the low brick wall, watching the hypnotic dance of the green stuff, thinking how it looked like the seaweed in movies we’d seen, trancing myself into being underwater, swimming down deep.

We’d dare each other to walk the bricks, clinging tight with our toes to the slick surfaces, trying to make it past the slippery outskirts, treacherous with moss, to take one quick leap without our feet sliding out from under us, and to land in the drier grass past the ledge.

One year Gloria had a party on her birthday. I was nine, and the day is marked for me, for I never knew her to have one before, and I was the only guest. I was at Mammaw’s for the weekend, having arrived on Friday after school, and she came over and invited me on Saturday morning. Like a kid, I thought nothing of the short notice, and Mammaw got out her pocketbook and gave me a little money out of her old black snap-top change-purse.. My heart lifted when she pulled several dollars out of that tiny stronghold, but she fished around down in there and handed me four quarters, one by one.

I went to Aunt Lou’s store and pondered my choices; socks were a possibility, as were underwear in those days---we thought nothing of wrapping up a pretty pair of panties for a girlfriend’s present, and since the boxes almost always looked the same as handkerchief boxes, a discreet word to the honoree, and she’d hold up the box, say who it was from with a smile, and to the laughter of all boys present, and then slide the unopened box under her chair.

A little glass bottle, much like those in the big grocery spice-racks today, with a foil-wrapped stick of Zia cologne inside was a popular gift---I can still smell the acrid-sweet of those, as well as hear the little muffled cloomp as you shook the bottle in your hand. There was also the choice of a nylon “neck-scarf”—a foot-square scrap of nylon, mostly solid, but sometimes in checks; we all had several colors, and wore them tied off to the side of our necks, kinda like cowboys, but WAY chic.

I finally settled on a little year-diary with a tiny lock and a poodle-charm on the keychain. I appeared at the appointed time, expecting to see a table with the crinkly white paper tablecloth with HAPPY BIRTHDAY around the edges, and a balloon or two flanking the cake-with-pink-roses, which was all I had ever seen for a girl’s birthday. (Except, of course, for the cakes made and decorated at home with a set of grocery-store letters in those hanging packages, those squeezed-out-tiny-points of rock-hard icing, spelling out Happy Birthday, with a few matching candle-holders which didn’t fit any candle known to man). Those were mostly for boys, in awful color combinations like yellow and brown, and featuring rocket ships or lassos.

The cake sat on the same old bird-spattered, faded-to-gray wood picnic table we sat at most afternoons (well-scrubbed and hosed down earlier, with the dirt still damp beneath our feet). It was a “bought cake” all right, but it was an odd little thing.

Aunt Lou’s shelves always held a half-dozen or so of those---white cake, which you could plainly see through the cellophane, for they were like you’d made a LONG loaf cake,with frosting between the two layers and all around top and sides, and cut it into six-inch sections, with two cut sides naked.

There were no games or contests, unless you counted her brothers’ whooping dashes around the yard, or their swinging all up into the trees, or wrestling each other in that damp dirt.We just talked for a while at the table, sitting on those splintery planks attached to the X of the table-legs. There were no candles, but we sang, and then she took the cellophane off the cake, cut it lengthwise in half, and those each into four slices. She deftly placed the slices on eight plates, DARED her brothers to touch them, and opened the two little square cartons of “ice milk” with their dark green cardboard sides. It was fifteen cents a carton, I remember, for Mammaw might send me around the block for one now and then, to divide amongst us three for an after-supper treat.

She cut the cartons open, then sliced each little block into four. When she’d placed the first block on a plate, she directed one of the boys to “take that to Mama,” and he disappeared into the house with it. We all then ate our cake and ice cream and talked a bit around the table before the boys dived back into yelling fists-and-elbows action, I suppose showing off for the party guest.

I remember every moment of that party, as if it’s a movie I’ve watched so many times I can repeat the dialogue. My most vivid memory of it, though, is when Gloria’s Mama finally came outside; she’d stood holding the screendoor open for a moment, just framed there in her faded loose dress, then came gingerly down the steps toward us.

She collapsed into the big faded-red lawn chair, and said she hoped I’d enjoyed Gloria’s party. I said I really had, and was glad I was there that weekend. She sat, feet outstretched, regarding her immensely-swollen feet and ankles, and said, “
She just told me about it this mornin’ and I wish she’d have give me more notice. I coulda cooked up some chicken-backs or somethin’.”

The simple resignation and acceptance and open-handed generosity in those words have haunted me for decades.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Carlisle Emerson wrote for the paper. It defined her. She walked with a different walk than she would have if she’d just been Jimmy Frank’s wife, or Breedlove’s mother.

She was presumed to know more than she did, to have inside info on things that had happened or things that were gonna happen. She was thought of in a special way, somehow, for her inside track on social doin’s, on who just got out of the hospital or who had walked quietly out of jail on the hushhush on account of their friendship with Sheriff Cope Samuels.

And she was given a lot of credit for talents and knowledge she didn’t possess---her being able to put verb to subject and name twelve kinds of wedding-dress lace and nine ways to describe the same old church altar with the same old brass “accoutrements”---well, those just gave her a bit too much credit in other areas, such as life. But still, somehow, people looked up to her, just for her tiny bit of local fame---she got calls all the time, requesting a recipe, help with wording a letter, asking etiquette and even travel questions, because, you know, "She writes for the PAPER."

She was a quite attractive woman, with a short, shiny Hamillbob, WAY after Hamill had retired hers. Carlisle’s wonderful laugh, the not-obnoxious way she chewed her Doublemint, the way her two eyeteeth sat just a LITTLE way sidewise to her cuspids, giving her smile just enough of that charming little oddity which renders certain people almost magnetic---these all added to the charm of her presence.

She had a way of pausing in mid-snap, grinning in the levity of the moment, gleaming at you with an open-faced acceptance and eager look, giving you her full attention.

She wore pastels---pretty pantsuits from Goldsmith’s with pale, matching shells and her gold chain of 10 mm. gold balls, which Jimmy Frank always remembered to add to on special holidays and anniversaries, and her scent was always of mint, good shampoo, and just the teensiest hint of Royal Secret. She could be seen often in her garden, crisp-ironed shirt tucked into even crisper-creased shorts, hoeing and tending her roses just as she looked after the butterbeans and cucumber vines. She had calluses on her palms from gardenwork, and the beginnings of tiny fingerpad ones from typing on the same old Olivetti which she had lugged off to Ole Miss the day she left home for Freshman Rush.

Her Mama was in Golden Years, on the second floor---the one with keys for the elevator and windows with little grates on them; old Mrs. Breedlove thought she was nine again, and regularly tried to scoot out her window at night, to head for the long-demolished treehouse where she and her friends used to sneak off to polish their nails, tell long, complicated love stories featuring themselves and whichever movie star caught their fancy of the moment, and pretend to smoke, finger-waving Leo sticks and blowing airily skyward as their Mamas did. Once in a while one of the girls would sneak a cig from her Mama’s flip-up case, and they’d pass it around unlit, sucking in the acrid dry brown taste of a Kent or the cool throat-tingle of a Salem.

Mrs. B. had loved nicotine, any kind, any form, from the first drag on the first ratty old Camel she’d had the nerve to filch from her Grandpa’s couch-stash. She smoked, she put a little dip of Garrett between cheek and gum, and in her Grandpa's last days, long after she'd married and had Carlisle and her two sisters, she'd join Grandpa in a chaw of Red-Man now and then, after his emphysema got so bad he had to quit the Camels. She DID draw the line at spitting into the coffeecan, though---she wouldn't even touch it. She’d get up from talking to him, go into the bathroom, spit, flush, wash her hands, and return.

And her attempts on the window of her room had nothing to do with real escape or even her Alzheimer’s. When she was nine, she’d SMOKED, and she STILL wanted one, Dammit. And the wanting did not wane; her greedy-need sent her to that window in her gown every night, knowing that her friends were out there in the tree already, but there was no escape from either the craving or the Home.
She'd forgotten a lot of things: her preacher, her neighbors, quite a few relatives, her address. But she NEVER forgot Nicotine---she had gobbled it in every form for a great percentage of her life---great hungry drags on Camels, Kents, Marlboros; the trusty-dust of that capillary hit from the snuff in her cheek, the urge to swallow the addictive, copious juice of the hunk of RedMan in her mouth. She'd had the dubious reputation in high school of being the only girl who could inhale the smoke from a cigar, and if she could have made a pot of tea out of tobacco, she'd have drunk it right down.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Photos from the Internet

There's just something about this time of year that says "Eggs." Not just EGG-eggs, but fancy, gussied-up ones, with scenes and little woodland creatures and bunnies with MORE eggs featured prominently upon them. And Debra Lee Flowers used to make these eggs.
A bowl of sugar, a little food color in a bit of water, dribbled in and stirred vigorously just to dampen and tint the sugar all through, then the stuff was packed firmly into the halves of the plastic egg molds.
Wilton did a thriving business in all sizes of plastic ovals, and on several occasions, the beautiful little tableaux had humble beginnings in leftover L'eggs packages. A flat planing of the top to make the finished product fit together perfectly, a quick ploooomp out onto a cookie sheet, with half an hour in a low-low oven, and the rock-hard pieces could be cooled and put together with Royal Icing.
(Also purchased in powdered form from the ever-estimable Wilton Company, purveyor of such niceties as baking pans of every imaginable shape, paste color of uncountable rainbows, impossibly-cantilevered stands for soaring creations, and tiny staircases for marching wee bridesmaids up the sides of a wedding cake).


She made quite a few of the fancy eggs, and if she took them out when they were just SO from the oven, just at that perfect moment when the shells were hardened, and the centers still a bit damp, she could scrape out the middles and make the most enchanting little vignettes inside, like if Willy Wonka and Faberge' got drunk together one night on chocolate vodka.

And Humpty Dumpty---he was an experiment one year, for her own Easter centerpiece, and he turned out quite well, she thought. He was an ostrich-sized egg, a bright yellow, his bottom cut very flat, and had cute little ruffly arms and legs piped of frosting, just like the clowns on page 89 of the Spring book.

And the wall---oh, the wall. She had SO much patience then, and so many ideas---she later harbored the wish that she'd not squandered so much of it on geegaws like little villages and baseball diamonds, all made of sugar. If only she'd saved half of each for her later years, when patience wears thin and clever is hard to come by.

The wall, she thought, would be best constructed of cardboard---the bottom of a CornFlakes box seemed about right for forming the first one. She cut it about five inches from the bottom with an x-acto knife, flipping it upside down and making a perfect little perch for His Eggness. Then came the bricking.

A lot of frosting-smearing and smoothing later, she had successfully frosted the outside of the cardboard. A quick sprinkling all over with a good coating of red-tinted sugar, and the fun began: do you have any idea how crosseyed you can get, and how sticky, and how much you begin to HATE sugar, on a midnight when you've stood there making little skewer-tracks through frosting and RED sugar, marking off brick-shapes, even and squared and stacked as they should be?

But was at last done, and the setting-on of Humpty and the piping of his little arms and legs and facial features the last part---he wore a tiny Pilgrimish hat, of black construction paper, and a big smile, apparently not knowing of the crash to come.
And people saw it, and wanted one like it---she must have made about a dozen that year, and put the pictures into her album for future customers.

One year, the request changed a little---he was to be caught in actual FALL on a birthday cake. She worked out a way of tipping him backward and putting his little legs askew in the air, for the Birthday Boy, age four, had specified that he wanted him tumped over. And he wanted to supply the horses himself---with no mention at all of King's Men.

Debra Lee dutifully delivered the cake, only to watch the kid bring out about a dozen small green plastic cowboys-on-horses, a rearing stallion or two, several of his Weeblish farm-scene steeds, now missing legs or ears, and two of his sister's Little Ponies, one pink, one purple, and shorn bald of their girly manes and tails.

He went wild on that cake, on the smooth green icing with the neat "stone" path up to the wall, digging in those tiny hooves, those small chubby babyhood horses, those dainty little pony-feet. He scattered equine shapes with abandon and joy, making the little lawn into a hoof-scarred morass like Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs.

The chaos on that cake would have put Wilton slap out of business, she thought as she drove away---a whole barnyard of mismatched horses plowing up great holes in the green turf, a Humpty-Dumpty with his butt in the air, and two embarrassed, naked Little Ponies sorta huddling shamefully in a corner, listing a bit to starboard.

There was way more decor than actual cake, but the Birthday Boy seemed smugly satisfied with the wreckage, though Debra Lee heard later at BTU that he'd gotten a day-after spanking for climbing up to the What-Not shelf where his Mama had preserved Humpty and the wall, and gnawing all the Royal Icing off the entire piece.

And Debra Lee swore off eggs forever, giving all the molds to her daughters for their sandbox.
And the little boy now works at PIXAR.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Harliss MacIntyre had a bad reputation. She’d been known to steal boyfriends, flirt with other girls’ dates, and in later years, it was rumored that she’d met a husband or two at that little motel way up 61, being sure to get a room in the back section where their cars wouldn't be seen from the road. The old ladies gave her those up-and-down lorgnette looks, even at church, for the very air around her seemed tainted, somehow, as if she’d rubbed Sin on her skin instead of Jergens.

Harliss hit her forties with hairstyle wider than her skinny hips; she toddled through life in three-inch heels below her tiny Chic jeans, leaving Shalimar and whispers in her wake. And one of the wonders of a small town is that she just went where she pleased, and hardly anyone really ostracized her ---life went on for Harliss despite her inglorious reputation. She played bridge, she attended Sunday School and Training Union, she was On The Board of Homeroom Mothers at the Private School. A few eschewed her company, and those were either wives wronged by her or another like her, or their Mamas, whose grudges would outlast Time itself.

She’d grown up with the same crowd all of her years---most of her high school classes consisted of people she’d started Kindergarten with, and if she’d been in the backseat with almost every senior boy---well, that’s just how she WAS. There was no need to make a big public THING of it, unless you considered the boy YOURS. And, it emerged, there were more of those than met the eye for a long time.

When she herself married, she made eleven trips to Memphis and Jackson and two to New Orleans, to find just the perfect wedding dress. It was taste and not tact which caused her to choose an ivory gown rather than white---it fit her like a glove---indeed like a SURGEON’S glove, clinging to her small frame and accenting her already-enhanced bosoms like a Barbie dress. Harliss had
had work.
Perhaps that’s where the idea started. Perhaps there was never an idea at all. But when some of her longtime friends invited her to a “Nostalgia Tea” and a lot of the décor was from their childhoods, a joke---human or cosmic---came into being and resounded for counties around.

Nobody ever claimed the incident, though it was whispered far and wide; nobody admitted to choosing the party favors or setting the tables. Nobody took credit for the concept or the crime; it just WAS, and as appropriate a gesture of contempt as it was occasion of immediate titters and then parking-lot and ladies’ room guffaws, with eye-wipings and nose-blowings and other unseemly doings which accompany a good hearty hang-onto-each-other laugh.

Why, Alida Jameson and Charlotte Ann Armstrong both squeezed into one stall in the ladies' room, whooping and hollering, and Alida's Mama's Lilly Dache' hat from her honeymoon fell right into the toilet---it being lidless and all. Those hundred silk flowers (just like one worn by Miss Jennifer Jones in a movie, and from Goldsmith's) emerged dripping and draggled, and it took DAYS for it to dry so she could give it back.

This was a “wear gloves and hats” occasion, with a group of perhaps thirty ladies gathering for a lovely tea at the country club. Pastels were the order of the day, with flowers on each table-for-eight, and a silk-rose-twined lattice behind the speakers’ podium, as well as a pink ostrich plume on the registry pen.

Pastel boas draped each chair, every placecard was done in the most beautiful calligraphy, pink tablecloths abounded, and every rose-covered teapot that could be borrowed was in evidence.

But the pieces de resistance were the beautifully-dressed Barbie dolls, fondly remembered by one and all. They sat saucily on each plate, atop the folded napkin, and, as is the nature of the Mattel line, they sat flatly, with their feet outstretched in front of them for balance. They wore costumes from all decades---capris and ball gowns and swimsuits and cocktail dresses, and much OHHH and AHHH was heard throughout the room.

At Harliss’ table, the one nearest the entrance, with her place and her place-card prominent to view as each guest entered to find her own place---at that particular place setting, Barbie wore a cute, flippy mini-dress---quite stylish and attractive.

EXCEPT, somehow of them all, Harliss’ Barbie had lost her balance, and had toppled backward---so that when the ladies arrived, there sprawled Harliss’ Barbie on her back with her legs in the air like a goalpost in pumps. And she was wearing a thong---an item, I am sure, which has not appeared in any fancybox doll wardrobe meant for children.

How one would go about making a thong out of embroidery floss, as I later heard that it was, is beyond me. But somebody had, and that's the only thing which seems to take the occurrence from accident to planned.

But someone, or something greater than them all, had played the perfect joke on Harliss, who laughed as loud as anybody.

Monday, February 1, 2010


I’ve been humming “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” this morning, since I sang a few lines to our Baby Girl as we were playing earlier. Later when she was being entertained by the good offices and characters of Sesame Street, I did a bit of folksong research and found that the original thought is credited to a song in Scotland in the 1540’s. “The frog rode up to the myl dur.” I have no idea what business a frog would have at a mill, unless perhaps he had a taste for some nice weevil stew, but a myl dur certainly would open to reveal lots of Mousies, both ladies and gents, as they lived and nibbled and gnawed at all the wonderful grain in the mill.

The song was embellished to tell the tale of the unlikely courtship in 1611 English balladry, and it made its way to America with the pilgrims, spreading to the far corners of the country by settlers, pioneers, miners and explorers. It took hold as mainly a Southern song, and is still sung around Scout campfires and in silly church-party skits and at all sorts of children’s gatherings.

We’ve sung it on long road trips and at weenie roasts, and one night, with voices bellowing the words, the energetic gestures of several little boys threatened to fling the blazing marshmallows right off their sticks. Cub Scouts especially love belting it out (for the umpteenth time) whilst sardined into a station-wagon with a harried driver.

My favorite memory of the song is from a Delta wedding I attended many years ago. The groom was a talented musician and a member of a popular quartet at college, and the four guys secretly did a wonderful arrangement of the song as a surprise for the bride at the reception.

They sang one beautiful number as the bride sat and blushed and smiled, and after the applause, they began the Froggy song a capella, and sang about twelve verses, some of which I’d never even heard. The story took on the charm of Cinderella’s being dressed by little birds, as a happy moth tended the tablecloth and a ladybug served whiskey in a water jug, and went on from there, including the Wedding Supper of “Three green flies and a blackeyed pea.”

The four splendid voices modulated to a new key between several of the verses, swinging WAY up in runs and scales, and everyone was just captivated by the charming concert. I’ll always think of my friend’s lovely wedding surprise whenever I hear that wonderful old “Southern” song.