Early Spring?

My Scots Broom is blooming giving me hope…and activating my allergies.  I’ll take the allergies.  Spring is right around the corner…a blind corner.  Approach with caution! I don’t know what might be waiting for me on the other side, what cruel trick might be played by Mother Nature.  I don’t care, I have a wonderful and sunny seventy-degree day waiting for me in my little piece of heaven. 

Crocus and daffodils are waking from their winter nap, pushing toward the sun and the red tail hawks that circle above.  Two mating pairs climb in the thermals, whistling to each other in a language only they understand.  Are they as happy as I am to feel the warm sun? 

These are sure signs of spring as are the gold and purple finches putting on their spring colors.  Nests are being built awaiting tiny eggs that will help continue the species. Their yearly mating ritual has begun. Mother Nature renewing herself despite all of our efforts to destroy her.

It has been a hard winter…in a lifetime of hard winters, I guess.  I planned to do much.  Unless I am mistaken, I have accomplished nothing except staying clear of Covid and getting my vaccinations.  Isolation has not helped my melancholia.  When I did have a flush of adrenaline my sciatica grabbed, flushing my rush down the toilet, adding more fuel to my winter depression.

I am reminding myself of my Grandmother.  My Nannie would disappear into the depths of depression as the days shortened, robbing her of available sunlight and keeping her from the outdoors she loved.  The short, cold winter days left her peering out of her window at the world.  She described her malaise as “feeling a bit blue.”

Her rock garden lay darkened and wilted, as dark as I’m sure her thoughts were, and had her thumbing through her seed catalogues and the almanac.  I no longer wonder about her effort to be functional.  I wonder why I even get out of bed somedays. Functionality is sometimes evasive. I plod on doing nothing.

Not today, or even yesterday…or the day before.  Three days in a row in late February to die for as I write this.  Deep blue, cloudless skies.  After crisp mornings, sunny days and seventy degrees.  I went forth and was productive.   

It is gray this morning, with impending rain forecast for the next few days. The price you pay for three days of celebration. The price is much like the hangover you might expect from too many shots of Jack Daniels as your merrymaking runs off the rails. I was able to walk despite my metaphorical hangover and late arriving rain. As I looked into the gray sky a red tail flew by and lit in a nearby tree making me smile.

I have made a small dent in my yard work, but every trek begins with a step…or with the swing of a machete.  It has left me with hope to battle my depressing hangover. Hope that I might bloom with the spring flowers.

A roadside that I wish was mine. https://www.diynetwork.com/

My bride likened my grandmother to the spring flowers.  Late in her life we wondered if she would survive the winter and then like the daffodils or crocus, she would burst from her depression as they burst from the ground.  I hope I am like my grandmother although I wonder what flower I might be.  I’m sure the flower that is me has thorns and few blooms.

Here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge we have bipolar seasons.  Short fall seasons, some years summer jumping straight into winter.  On the other side of the equinox, our brief springs are dotted with spring flowers, sometimes pushing out of March sleet and two-inch snowstorms.   Many days we have all four seasons rolled into a twenty-four-hour period.  Polar wear in the morning, flip flops and tank tops in the afternoon.

Crocus | LoveToKnow

The breezes of April will quickly roar into the simmering heat and humidity, thunderstorms and tornadoes, yellow jackets, and clouds of mosquitoes.  Something to gripe about other than the cold winds of winter.  I’ll take the heat because with it comes those long days of sunshine. No more seed catalogues, actual seeds going into the ground. Sunflowers reaching for the sun.

So, I’ll cherish these three perfect days of early spring.  There are more crystal blue skies coming…sandwiched between the gray, cool, wet skies of the fading winter and the anvil topped thunderheads to come.  Such is life, I guess.  I will long for the perfect days of an early spring and celebrate when they arrive.

Featured image from https://www.thelocal.de/20190222/early-spring-to-continue-in-germany-over-weekend/

Don Miller’s authors page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2JKFOIkUMkr7DDTIGejQCNCoz-GdyUSmvDXYWfNYk8mV4O3sVbxPB8JFY

Of Birds, Grandmothers, and Eisenhower Republicans

Continuing to write chapters in my head from the unwritten book entitled Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes, I find myself meandering along a twisting path and disappearing into Alice’s rabbit hole, again. Maybe I’ll encounter a hookah smoking caterpillar. The Mad Hatter has already taken up residence in my head.  A bit of hashish might calm him.

It is a dark, raw, and dreary day here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  It is the kind of day rabbits and wild pigs should be tucked safely in their burrows, huddled together for warmth.  I am warm, sitting in front of a fire, watching my birds gorge themselves on sunflower seeds and suet. You can add a squirrel or five and an occasional “Chester”, a name my wife has given to the ground squirrels that seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate.  All are eating me out of house and home.

I’m drawn to thoughts and mental photos of my Grandmother’s bird feeders.  I don’t remember squirrels in attendance but there were plenty of little chipmunks around. 

My grandmother would be proud of my collection of avian acrobats.  Cardinals, woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, and sparrows have been joined by gold and purple finches, their spring mating colors beginning to show. Cardinals are pretty but they are mean.  They take nothing off anyone, not even the squirrels.

Below the feeders, towhees, robins, doves, and a brown thrasher dig, waiting on “manna” from heaven to fall from the feeders.  Same with two chipmunks.  Where are the mockingbirds and catbirds?  I really must get a platform feeder with some fruit offerings.

On clear days my Red Tails cavort, riding the thermals and gleefully whistling to each other. But it is not a clear day.

Yeah, Nannie would be proud…until the impeachment trial lit up on my TV screen.  I doubt she would have any pride in anything I watched and I should have stayed tuned into the chipmunks.

My grandmother was an Eisenhower Republican.   Maybe I am too…or a Kennedy Democrat.  I know that Eisenhower nor Kennedy would recognize their respective parties today.  I also know the transition didn’t occur over night. It has been a treacherous highway we have traveled and appear to continue to travel.

As I researched “Ike’s” childhood and early life, I realized how similar my grandparent’s forefathers and mothers resembled the President’s.  Their forbearers, German, Scot, Irish and English, probably arrived in the New World via Pennsylvania like my forbearers.  My forefathers and mothers headed South through Virginia, North Carolina, to finally South Carolina and a hard scrabble existence as farmers, drummers, and cabinet makers. There might have been a huckster or two among them.

President Eisenhower’s forbearers headed to Virginia and then west to Kansas, south to Texas and then back to Kansas.  His family lived in poverty as hard times struck the mid-west.  Ike worked on a dairy along with his brother, helping his mechanic and dairy farming father scratch out a living.  There are a lot of similarities when faced with a hard scrabble life.

When I was a child, my grandmother forced me to read.  My grandmother’s tutelage was fully supported and enforced by my parents.  Sometimes quite painfully enforced. During summer vacations I would be led to meet the county bookmobile and forced to pick books to read.  It was decided I would pick three, all to be completed before the ancient, converted school bus returned two weeks later. Over time I found myself picking four or five books on my own.

I remember one choice chronicled Eisenhower’s early life.  How he almost lost his leg to a freak football injury.  Refusing an amputation, he somehow survived and grew up to be General Eisenhower of WW II fame and the Thirty-Fourth President of the United States.

He was a heroic figure and, despite the warts we all have, I understand my grandmother’s adulation. He certainly wasn’t perfect, and with twenty-twenty hindsight, it is easy to see missteps as he dealt with the recovery from WW II, the escalating Cold War, and building Civil Rights movement.   It should also be easy to see his positives. Despite not being able to stop nuclear proliferation, it was one of the most prosperous times both economically, scientifically, and artistically.  In some ways it might have spoiled us.

The first election I remember was the 1956 election, Eisenhower running for a second term against Adlai Stevenson.  It had no significance for a six year old. I was still playing cowboys and outlaws. I remember it because my grandmother seemed to be concerned.  She left her radio on all night awaiting the election news.  From my bed in the corner of her room I remember her whispered prayers. She shouldn’t have been worried.  It was a landslide for Eisenhower.

Despite the duck and cover drills in case of nuclear attack I experienced as a child, I can’t help but wish an Eisenhower incarnation had been elected to deal with Covid-19 and the social unrest we are experiencing.  I liked his attitude of diplomacy first. I know today’s responses would have been different and so would the outcomes. 

I remember or studied later his responses to Polio and the Salk vaccine, Sputnik, McCarthy, fireworks in the Middle East and Asia, carrying out Truman’s executive orders desegregating the military, an interstate system…even if was built to move the military rapidly from one place to another.  A response might have been the wrong one in hindsight, but there was a response, usually with diplomacy first. There was no inactivity. 

Then maybe I’m deluding myself.  Is it the differences in Presidents or the differences in Americans? 

I still think I’ll characterize myself as an Eisenhower Republican…or a Kennedy Democrat.  I just heard a squirrel land on my bird feeder…or was it my grandmother spinning in her grave.  She was not a Kennedy fan, at least at first. He was a rich, Massachusetts’s Catholic after all.  Unlike Eisenhower, my grandmother grew up in a world so different from Kennedy’s it might well have been another planet. I doubt she was a Nixon fan either as history played out.

Oh well. The rain has slacked off and my bird feeders need to be refilled. It is another day and there will be no trial coverage. Since there is a chance of winter weather on Tuesday my grandmother would agree that I need to make sure my wood stores are replenished. “Yes ma’am, I’ll get those bird feeders first.”

For more pig trails and rabbit holes https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3oAjNYooKiVzCcXTBVNofhw-T3ZwvoWeD90Y-Uv_KI1Y8lpyLBOC-HK2M

The image of Eisenhower is from Wardlaw Museum, University of St. Andrews.

Looking Toward Spring

 

As I reached an age of wonder, I often wondered what my grandmother was looking toward as she gazed out of her window at her world.  During the gray days of winter, once her chores were completed, she often sat by the window in her bedroom looking out over her rock garden.  The garden was gray and brown…and bare.  No hollyhocks, iris or lilies…no butterflies.  Just the remnants of last year’s spring, summer, and fall.  Like her plants, my grandmother seemed to wilt and turn gray herself in the winter only to be reborn again in the spring.

Many winter afternoons were spent with a patchwork quilt, sewing quietly with WBT AM playing softly in the background…until some thought of spring crossed her mind and, once again, she would peer out of her window. Other days she might sit with her Bible, a crossword puzzle or the latest Readers Digest condensed anthology.  She would read, gaze out, read some more and repeat like the seasons.  Nannie would begin her rebirth as soon as the seed catalogs began to arrive RFD.

Later in life, she sat with her easel in a sunroom that had become her bedroom, surrounded by her plants and books, and would apply acrylic paint to a canvas board.   She created colorful remembrances based on memories of springs and summers past.  Flowers and birds were favorites…as were the ponds and lakes she fished in.

I understand why she looked toward spring.  I look toward spring myself when the blues and purples of crocus, periwinkle, and violets add color to the browns of winter.  Their blues and purples replacing the blues and purples clouding my own mind.

Looking toward spring until the reddish blossoms of a redbud tree and the pinks, oranges, and reds of azaleas replace bareness, brown and gray.  Till the yellows of buttercups and forsythia mimic the brightness of the sun.  Till the dogwood celebrates the blessings of Easter.  I look toward spring.

The birds bring color too.  Redbirds and woodpeckers have been active all winter as have robins and tanagers, battling the squirrels for the sunflower seeds I put out. They’ve been joined by gold and purple finches.  Their colors growing bolder as the days grow longer and their need to mate becomes stronger.

A pair of nuthatches are working hard to hatch their clutch and they wait, upside down, as I load the feeder near the house I fashioned for them from a hollow log.  I didn’t know I was fashioning it for them but they have taken it over for the past few years.  Returning like the spring.

Mourning doves coo softly and despite their name, I smile, not finding their call to be sad at all.  They are waiting until I leave before feeding on the seeds that have fallen upon the ground.

It won’t be long before the coos, chirps, and calls will be joined nightly by the lament of the whippoorwill or the “hoot, hoot, hoot” of owls on the far hillside.  They add their own color to the darkest night.

It was still cool this morning as I walked my familiar route.  The signs of spring were everywhere…yellow pollen fell from the trees onto the greening grass and swirled in the light breeze.  I worried about my bear friend I sometimes see on this rarely traveled road.  He’s more scared of me than I am of him…right?

A single turkey flushed from a thicket, climbed high, higher, highest to the crest of a hill.  Later, on the way back, a blue heron wading in the nearby the stream took to the air.  So sorry, I wouldn’t dare hurt you.  Huge wings gaining altitude into a cobalt blue sky.  The majestic bird only visits in the spring, so spring must really be here.

Soon butterflies will add their color to the wildflowers and plants I put out.  Yellow, red or blue and black wings will light upon blues, pinks, and whites as the season of rebirth moves on to the season of growth.

I know what my grandmother was looking toward and my heart smiles.  I am glad spring is here and the memories of her it brings.

Visit Don Miller’s author’s page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

“Warm Biscuits on a Sunday….”

 

I absolutely love Kelly Clarkson, her voice, her sass, and her sense of humor.  If I were younger…and unmarried, I’d go to Nashville and camp out on her front doorstep…wait, she’s married?  To Reba McEntire’s son, you say?  Well, I’m not going to break up her marriage over something she said.

Southern and brazen,  with a voice as rich as Tennessee whiskey and biting as corn likker, Kelly likened a singer’s voice to “warm biscuits on a Sunday with butter drizzlin’ off of em’?”  How Southern is that!

An inner voice asked, “What does it mean?”

Another inner voice attempted to clarify, “Well…I guess…um…well…butter my butt and call me a biscuit, I don’t have a clue.”

I never heard that exclamation of surprise until I was an adult and I am not sure how authentic it is.  It does sound Southern.  “Buttah mah butt and call me ah biscuit.”  Yeah, rolls off of the tongue Southern but why would you wish your biscuit to fall out of your mouth?  That question came from the crazier of the voices in my head.  It does get crowded in there but never boring.

I’m not totally sure what Kelly meant.  I think it probably means “damn good” because biscuits drizzled in butter on a Sunday are “damn good” and, at least for me, a little bit poignant.

I love homemade biscuits and can’t think of anything better than a buttered, homemade biscuit on a Sunday…or any other day of the week for that matter.  Light, flaky, golden brown on the outside, light and soft on the inside.  Runnin’ in REAL butter, not the oleo stuff.  Just add a side of eggs for breakfast.  Slathered in King Syrup or honey for a dessert.  Stuffed with a slab of Neese’s liver mush for lunch.  Smothered with sawmill gravy for…heaven on a plate.  I assure you, biscuits and sawmill gravy are a heavenly meal unto themselves.  Never allow anyone to try and convince you otherwise.

We have several sayings from below the Mason Dixon involving biscuits…unless we stole em’ from somebody above it.  “A cat can have kittens in an oven, but that don’t make ‘em biscuits.”  Yankees may understand a derivation, “Just because you live in a garage, don’t make you a car.”  Here in the South, it might mean, just cause you’ve lived here for five generations and say Y’all don’t make you Southern.

We even express our undying affection with affirmations of love such as, “I could put you on a plate and sop you up with a biscuit.”  This is making me hungry and missin’ my grand momma.

I associate biscuits and love to my grandmother. Nannie was a somewhat stoic woman who had trouble overtly expressing her love.  I’m not sure I remember a time when I got an “I love you,” from my Nannie.  I was much more likely to get a whack on the ass than a pat on the back.  She did not abide foolishness.

I knew she loved me and the rest of the grandkids.  I knew it as well as I knew Nannie’s biscuits would be light and flaky.  Love was displayed by example, not expression.  Examples like buttered biscuits on a Wednesday…for lunch.  Her greatest expression of love was, “Donnie you’ve been a good boy, want another biscuit?”  This also explains why I have fought a war with my weight for most of my life…food was the language of love and of positive reinforcement.  She was the same with her peanut butter cookies…I loved them too.

As a small child, I remember watching her as she went about making her biscuits in the tiny kitchen of her home.  Standing in front of her window to the world, watching the birds in their domain,  she made her biscuits.  With me playing on the linoleum floor, she would be cutting in the lard and adding buttermilk to give it a bit of a tang.  She was careful not to overwork the dough to keep it light and flaky, before rolling it out and cutting rounds with her red handled biscuit cutter.  Rolling up the scraps into mini-biscuits, nothing was wasted, before painting the tops with melted butter.  She only glanced at her efforts and relied on feel as she watched “her” birds cavorting around her bird feeder.

Late in her life, I asked about her recipe.  She didn’t have one.  It was a little of this and a lot of that until it all came together, nothing exact.  You learn to make biscuits by making biscuits.  I must not make them enough.  Mine are not light and flaky, some so hard the puppies won’t eat them.  As I said in another essay, maybe it’s the lard…or the love.

Thank you, Kelly, for sending me down a lovely rabbit hole.

Coming soon “Cornfields and Cow Patties.”  Until then, check out Don at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Steak Chips….

 

I never know what will trigger a memory.  They just occur…a benefit from age?  Great, I’m glad there is one benefit from age…wisdom certainly isn’t.

Recently it was an unlikely trigger…Dr. Oz of daytime tv fame.  I walked in to find him prancing from my tv screen discussing how to make hamburgers moist despite overcooking…as in cooking to well done.  Well done and then some…something my grandmother would have done to hamburger or steak.  The young man being interviewed was using a “panade.”  Being as country as a fresh cow patty I looked the word up. Suddenly I was back in a small kitchen watching her making her most special, well done, yet moist hamburgers.

My grandmother grew up in a time when meat was slaughtered and processed on the farm…in not the most sterile conditions.  There was a disease, trichinosis, caused by a roundworm that could be transferred from undercooked meat to humans.  This led me to believe that all steaks were…well…cracker like…dry and tending to make snapping sounds when cut…like a potato chip.

Now, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea.  We weren’t eating premium cuts of meat either.  We were the ones who made “eating high on the hog” or in this case, cow, possible.  Generally, we ate variations of round steak, cubed and then turned into a cracker, may be covered in a milk gravy or covered in a beading and then turned into a cracker before being covered in a milk gravy.  Yes, she overcooked them and taught my mother to overcook them as well.

I didn’t know any better until I went off to college.  I didn’t know steak came anyway other than chip like…and cubed.  A young lady I was dating suggested that I might want to try my filet mignon cooked less than well done.  During those days if a young lady I was dating had suggested I might try a dead cow’s hoof raw, I probably would have eaten it with a smile on my face.  The things you might do for love I guess…or lust.  Despite thinking it was just heated past raw, I found it to be moist, tender, quite tasty and not the least bit cracker-like.  I also didn’t pronounce it correctly either, “fill-it-mig-non.”

As bad as Nannie’s steaks were, her hamburgers were heavenly…despite having every bit of pink cooked right out of them.  They were moist because she added her own version of a “panade.”  A French word, it is a paste made from stale bread and milk or a word that means, “A state or experience of misery or poverty.”  I know my grandmother and grandfather experienced poverty, even before the Great Depression.  Just not sure about the misery but I doubt it.  Gee, the things you learn if you just pay attention.

She didn’t use bread as I remember, she used oatmeal or crushed up crackers.  Nannie also added sautéed onions and used a spice list I’ve never been able to recreate.  I’ve tried, repeatedly with different variations, and have only created my own version of a fried meatloaf…not bad, but not the same at all.  Boo, hoo, hoo.

My grandmother was a good cook, but it usually involved chicken, fried or in a pot pie.  Maybe wildlife like cooter soup or squirrel dumplings and for clarification, in those days a cooter was a turtle.  I know today’s word usage might cast some shade on that dish, but turtle soup was quite tasty…much tastier than her steak chips.

Thank you, Dr. Oz.  You have reinvigorated my efforts and brought back memories of the sound of beef patties landing in a greased, hot cast iron pan, moist and tasty hamburgers on white bread, a small kitchen and the woman who toiled there.  Ummmm, ummmm…wait, you mean I’ll probably use ground turkey instead of beef?  Roasted not fried?  No lard?  Oh well, thanks for the memories anyway.

Don Miller’s writer’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

LIVER MUSH

I absolutely despise calves’ liver. My grandmother would cook it, sometimes my mother would, even my beloved Linda Gail has attempted it. Smothered in onions and gravy, I would carefully scrape the onions and gravy off the liver, push the liver as far away as the plate would allow and then spoon the gravy and onions onto big ole cathead biscuits. I am sure this practice, as well as applying sausage gravy to big ole cathead biscuits, was a primary reason for my heart attack due to clogged arteries in the mid-2000s.

It’s not the taste of calves’ liver, it’s the consistency. Stringy and tough. I once was served liver nips and feel I must pause to point out, liver does not have nipples. It’s liver dumplins’ made with calves’ liver cooked before being ground with savory spices. It is a South Carolina “Dutch Fork” recipe and yes, I know dumplins’ should be spelled dumplings but it’s just the way we say it…dumplin’ not dumplinnnnnggggg! The dish was quite good, delish in fact, regardless of how you say it.

My dislike for calves’ liver might have been the cooks. My grandmother and mother were not known for their culinary abilities and my beloved was a great coach. It would be during my college days before I knew you could order steak any way other than crisp and brittle. My mother and grandmother did well with fried chicken, biscuits and certain “exotic” dishes like “cooter” soup or catfish stew, “victory” burgers and chicken pot pie. Steak and liver just weren’t their best efforts. My grandmother’s creamed corn was to die for, due in part I think, to the sweat of her brow dripping into it, or the fried fatback it was cooked in. Mom’s butter scotch pie…sorry, I’m having a moment… maybe they were better cooks than I give them credit for. I should also say when my beloved wishes to be, she is a great cook. The last time she wished to be………?

As much as I hate calves’ liver, I like chicken livers…love chicken livers. Fried or marinated and grilled. They just aren’t very good for a heart attack survivor who is trying to remain a survivor. I once tried to make a “poor man’s” chicken liver pate’ stuffed mushroom. I guess there is a reason duck pate’ is expensive and there is probably more to liver pate’ than just ground up liver. My beloved tried one and wasn’t impressed. The puppy dogs ate the mushrooms and left the liver. Not a glowing recommendation.

Which brings me, on a roundabout path, to the point of this story…Liver mush. I am guessing many people are not familiar with liver mush. It is a Southern “thang” made from ground pork liver and hog head parts mixed with cornmeal and spices like sage and pepper. I know the head parts have a few of you scratching your head part, but when a hog is processed, very little is wasted. I should have mentioned souse meat, pickled pig’s feet or pig’s knuckles first. It makes head parts sound a mite bit more palatable. My grandmother would mix the concoction together and form the liver mush into blocks, wrap it in wax paper and refrigerate. I’m sure some of you folks from above the Mason-Dixon line are thinking liver pudding and you would be close. Liver mush is a bit courser. My grandmother would slice it and fry it with onions…I don’t guess “milk and honey” from Heaven could have been any better.

Unfortunately, liver mush is no better for me than fried chicken liver but it wasn’t long ago I had a powerful hankering, which is Southern for an almost uncontrollable desire and in my case, it was not almost. I wanted fried liver mush and onions something awful. I remembered when we ran out of the homemade product we bought Jenkins’s Liver Mush at Pettus’s Store just down the road from the house. That is exactly what I decided to do…except I couldn’t find Jenkin’s in my part of the world and Pettus’s Store no longer exists. I had to settle for Neese’s Liver Pudding, damn Yankee infiltration. It was great, almost as good as I remembered. Then I made the mistake of reading the list of ingredients. You think head parts were bad? Liver and corn meal were listed third and fourth, the first ingredient was the farthest point on the front of a hog’s head. I’m not even going to tell you what the second ingredient was but I know we didn’t put that particular organ in our liver mush.

Will I eat it again? Despite the list of ingredients more than likely. I am pragmatic enough to realize if it tastes good it really doesn’t matter what the ingredients are. I’m also a realist and must admit, fried liver mush is not very good for me so I won’t eat it often. The reason I will eat it occasionally is because it reminds me of people now gone and sometimes warm feelings are worth the risk.

Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

LOVE IN A BASKET OF ZUCCHINI

It is February 1st. and I am looking at online catalogs. No not Spiegel’s or Fredrick’s of Hollywood, online seed catalogs. Burpee’s, Gurney’s and Park’s seed catalogs are the main ones but there are others. I remember my grandmother poring over her print and paper versions this time of year…along with the almanac…got to get those planting dates right. Like fishing by the moon and wind direction, she planted by the dates in the almanac and the moon. I’m not that scientific…is it scientific to plant by the almanac? Except for the cold resistant plants, I just plant after the last frost date for our area which is April 15. Well, I might fudge just a bit. I can’t wait to eat my first tomato sandwich and that translates to I can’t wait to get my first tomato plant or six into the ground knowing I might have to protect them during an early spring cold snap.

I flipped through the pages of my electronic catalogs comparing prices and I admit it’s not as much fun as flipping through real pages but everything I plant was there. As I compared prices one of the many voices in my head asked “Do you really believe you raise more produce than you could buy for the cost of seeds, fertilizer and other chemicals?” I answered, “I don’t know, maybe.” Another pointed out, “Don’t you remember the sweat running off your nose while you were picking bean beetles off your green beans and butter peas? You can buy beans you know.” “Yes, I remember but I don’t want to buy them.” To myself, with my real voice, I added, “And those f#$%ing squash bugs.”

What my voices are forgetting is the love that goes into it. Except for the zucchinis. I maybe the only person in the world who can’t figure out zucchini squash. People around me grow one hill of zucchini and have enough for the season and feed half of the population of China with leftovers. I’ve tried it all…well except chemicals like Sevin Dust…well maybe a little. I try to be “organic” and use “organic” chemicals and some of the chemicals work, but not on zucchini. One year it was squash vine borers, I fixed that with my wife’s old panty hose. “Now Linda Gail why would I know what happened to your pantyhose?” Maybe they weren’t so old. Another year its blossom end rot, or squash beetles or the plant itself just wilts away. I’ve asked everyone about squash bugs. Their answer is, “I don’t have squash bugs.” I know you don’t, their all on my zucchinis. I put good organic fertilizer in the hill, added some calcium or Epsom salts or both, never watering in the evening and then wait for the squash bugs to attack and start hand picking them off…after my soap spray fails to stop them. Well back to love.

My garden is bigger than I need because I like to give love in the form of fresh veggies. I also like the look on people’s faces when I present them with “care packages.” My wife, neighbors, my mother in law and her family, my daughter and her family and anyone else who happens by. I like to give away the love. I don’t give love to my brother because he raises his own and because…well he’s my brother. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, squash, peppers…that reminds me. Charlie likes hot peppers. I’m going to show him some love and order Scotch Bonnets. I just don’t give away much zucchini because I never have much. Just some for my mother in law who returns the love in the form of zucchini bread. Whatever love I have left I can or freeze.

My grandmother did the same thing. Grew it, canned it and gave it away…except for zucchini. I don’t remember her growing much zucchini. Maybe I have the “I can’t grow zucchini” gene. Well, just remember, if you get a basket of zucchini from me, I must love you a lot.

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

TRANSITION OF POWER

This is the day that power is transferred from one President to another, something which has taken place since George Washington turned the keys to the office over to John Adams in 1797. Interestingly, inaugurations were held on March 4 during those days rather than January 20…well maybe not that interestingly. I pray that despite all the indications to the contrary, this too will be a peaceful transition of power.

The first election and inauguration I remember was in 1956 and I remember it well because of my grandmother’s interest and concern. My grandmother was a Republican and seemed to be quite worried that a mid-western Democrat might somehow steal the election from the incumbent Republican. With 2017 twenty-twenty hindsight, I wonder why she was a republican, living in the South in 1956. At the time, I didn’t understand what it meant to be a member of the party of Lincoln in the South, or on this day sixty-one years ago, the party of Eisenhower. With 2017 hindsight, I doubt Lincoln, Eisenhower or my grandmother would even recognize the Republican Party of today.

She had great regard for Dwight Eisenhower, a well-deserved regard I would guess. Most of the people had high regard for Eisenhower because he defeated Adlai Stevenson quite handily…twice, after having defeating the Nazis, once, during old WW II. The anomaly of course was a South that normally voted Democrat during those days and this year it did again. The only break in rank was Texas and Louisiana. South Carolina’s eight electoral votes went to Stevenson who captured seventy-three total electoral votes, most from the deep South. Eisenhower garnered four hundred and fifty-seven. That Mr. Trump is a landslide.

I have snatches of memories from those early years, one IS the Election of 1956. During those days, my little brother and I stayed with my grandparents at night because of my parent’s shift work at Springs. My grandmother’s bed in one corner of the bedroom, mine in the other and my little brother’s crib in between. On the opposite side of the room from our beds was a woodstove, allowed to die during the winter night and then resurrected in the morning. This night the old RCA radio had been added, pushed in next to my grandmother’s bed. This so my grandmother could keep up with the election results during the pre-computer days of hand counted ballots and a media that didn’t include internet or satellites.

The election process and its “the peaceful transition of power” were a big deal for my grandmother. She had participated in the very first election that allowed women to vote in 1922 and would continue to exercise her hard won right until she died in 1999.

I can’t help but wonder what she would think of “the peaceful transfer” in 2017. I have an idea she would be stoic…suffering in silence as she did when a Yankee, Roman Catholic, Democrat won in 1960. She was always big on being stoic…”it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you a fool than to open it and remove all doubt” unless my brother or I screwed up, then she wasn’t too stoic and we would find ourselves doing the suffering, not her. My guess is she would have said “this too shall pass” which is the philosophy I shall take. I’m just not sure about keeping my mouth shut.

For more of Don Miller’s unique (odd? bizarre?) views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

MAW

We had played together every Monday for the previous two years…that is, every Monday when the sun was shining…regardless of temperature, since we had turned four. A lot of my memories have become muddled with the passage of time or the fact that I was just four or five, but there are bits and pieces I grab on to and, if I hold on tightly enough, they will turn into memories. My recollections of Maw are quite clear. Mondays were Nannie’s wash days and she still held on enough to the old ways that she did her wash outside even though a wringer washing machine had replaced her washboard and tin wash tub. There wasn’t enough room inside the house for the washer, especially after an indoor bathroom had been added to what was once a back porch. The new washer sat on what was left of the back porch. Water was boiled on the old gas range and carried outside to the washer. After the clothes were washed or sometimes “blued” in the old, claw foot style bathtub, they were hand cranked through two rollers called a wringer, an act that scared me to death. I was always fearful a body part might get caught up in it. The clothes were then hung out to air-dry or freeze if the temperature was too low. On days, it was not in use, the washer became my personal spacecraft or tank and, despite my fear, possessed a hand-cranked machine gun or pulsar cannon.

Miss Maggie Cureton was Nannie’s wash woman and friend even though during those days saying that your friend was a “colored” wash woman was not something a white woman could admit. After Paw Paw died and Nannie moved in next door with my parents and their new washing machine and dryer, Miss Maggie became obsolete but was not replaced. Miss Maggie just became Nannie’s fishing buddy. I’m not sure a woman would like to be described as “thin and wiry” but that is the description that I must use. Miss Maggie looked to be as tough as harness leather with strong muscles roping her thin arms. She was also as black as the end of a burned stick and always wore a kerchief around her head, unless she donned a huge straw hat given to her by my grandmother. While small, she could pull her weight and then some when lugging around baskets of water-soaked sheets or stringers loaded with fish. My fondest remembrance of her was the way she addressed me as “Honey Chile.” Her endearment was a little more loving than being referred to as one of the “you chaps” that was as close to an affectionate utterance that I would ever get from my grandmother.

During harvest season, Mondays were also “get ready to go to the cannery day.” The cannery was open at the local school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Garden bounties had been picked Friday through Monday so there was a lot of bounty to be cleaned, shelled and readied to be canned the next day. My grandmother’s front porch became a gathering place for a, impromptu and less than static, soiree that that included family and friends. This “shelling party” ran well into the evening. Beans were snapped and shelled, tomatoes peeled and cored and corn creamed in the cool breeze created from the evening shade on that porch. There were also stories to be told, maybe just a bit of juicy gossip to be imparted and a lot of laughter to be heard. Some days there would be a mix that included corn, okra and tomatoes which would become the base for my favorite dish, Nannie’s soup. Because the cannery was for “Whites Only” Maggie could not go but was always sent home late in the day with a part of that bounty and would later be given cans of veggies. The cost of the whole operation was an expensive penny per can to process.

One Monday morning Miss Maggie did not come alone but brought Maw and his two-year-old sister Bessy along with her. Maw’s mother, Maggie’s daughter, had found work at a church in Lancaster and would later marry the minister. Maw and Bessy were Miss Maggie’s grandchildren. While Maggie was ebony, Maw and Bessy were not. They were more the shade of the rich Luzianne coffee and cream that my grandmother drank. Their skin was shiny and seemed to glow in the morning light which accented their reddish hue. I heard them later referred to as “redbone” and was too young to understand the dynamics of someone who was bi-racial. The shine of their skin was due to the perspiration caused by their already hot and humid walk across the wide, sometimes cotton and sometimes hay, field that separated their home from ours. Maw was my age, a few months older, and stood with his right foot planted firmly on the ground with his left nervously tucked, toes curled, under his instep. Both he and his sister were barefooted and dressed in hand-me-downs as was I, but I had not had to navigate the stubble and briars that had been left behind from the last hay cutting. While only slightly older, Maw was already a half-head taller and several pounds heavier. Not intending to be stereotypical, Maw was the athlete that I wished I could have been.

After our introductions, we spent a few minutes nervously looking at our feet until the contemplation of new adventures came to mind and someone broke the silence. With sixty acres of fields and woods to play in there were plenty of adventures to be shared. My grandmother’s driveway and the “river road” formed a natural triangle that included trees for shade or for climbing. There was a ditch that naturally filled with sand to be moved with toy trucks and cars or to form a battle field where wars could be fought with little green soldiers armed with their guns. This became our play area because it was close enough to the washing area so that our grandparents could keep an eye on us. We suddenly found our voices and for one day a week became fast friends. I remember asking him what kind of name “Maw” was. I was informed that it was short for “Maw-Reese.” Later, as we got older, we graduated to exploring the barn and its loft which could be a castle keep or the bridge of a pirate ship or the high ground for a rousing and, sometimes painful, corncob fight. On occasions, we would simply run amok in the woods that bordered the fields and pasture. As Bessy got older she joined in with the adventures and I found her to be just as athletic as Maw. Lunches of sometimes fried bologna sandwiches were always accompanied by raucous laughter that often-included fresh milk squirting out of our noses. My grandmother referred to us as “being louder than a dozen blue jays.”

Our little idyllic existence would come to a crashing halt in the late summer of 1956 as we began preparations for school that fall. Losing our freedom for school would be bad enough but I would suddenly find out something that I had forgotten for the past two years. Maw and Bessy were not like me. I knew it but had learned, without realizing, that friendships could overcome race differences or could be destroyed by them. The dumb white boy found out that Maw and I would not be attending the same school. Instead, I would make the mile trip to my school, while Maw would have to travel the eighteen miles to his, despite a court ruling that neither one of us knew about that had put “separate but equal” to rest two years previous. I had heard comments after the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court ruling and my parents had even attended meetings to discuss “What are we going to do when ‘coloreds’ began going to school with our kids?” For some reason my five or six-year-old mind had not made the connection that Maw and Bessy were one of those “coloreds.” I remember standing at the end of my driveway with my mother awaiting my bus ride for my first day of school. Despite the expected feelings of anxious anticipation and fear, I also remember feeling a bit of sorrow in my six-year-old heart as the “colored” bus to Barr Street passed me by.
Maw and I saw each other for brief periods during the coming years but too many things got in the way and we drifted apart over time until we did not see each other at all. School, sports, band, new friends and girls all contributed to our form of segregation but I am quite sure that the attitudes of this time played the most divisive roles. “With all deliberate speed….” was more deliberate in our part of the world than speedy and all the faces in my classes looked like me. Twelve years later when I left home and went off to college it was, for the most part, much of the same. My senior year we did have the Springs children—Charles, Harvey and Leroy— who became our “tokens” when “token integration” was forced upon us by that Yankee government in Washington in 1968. They were eighth graders and my brother’s problem. I ignored them less than I ignored my brother. Despite the order for total integration in 1970 there would be no total desegregation for me until I went to work my first year as a teacher in 1973.

During my summer vacation from school in the early Seventies, my grandmother received word that Miss Maggie had passed away. It turns out that she was a good deal older than I thought, in her eighties, and the wages of a hard but well-lived life finally caught up with her. I took Nannie to the service and it would be the first time I had stepped inside of an African American Church. It would be several years later before I set foot in my first African-American home. I realize now that I had never been invited to visit at Maw’s house. I found neither the homes nor churches to be any different than what I was used to…except for the length of the church services that is. We were greeted by ladies dressed in white, given fans to fight off the summer heat, humidity and bees which made their way through the opened windows. With much pomp and circumstance, we were ushered in…all the way to the front of the church but off to the side of Maggie’s family. I was uncomfortable for many reasons other than the heat and humidity. It seemed that the attention being given to us was somehow taking away from the reason we were here – the celebration of Maggie’s “Day of Jubilee.” Despite having recently attended a James Brown concert and being a minority, I realized just how fearful an African-American might feel sitting in a sea of differently colored faces.

I grew up Methodist and, in my heart, I guess that I still am despite my public dunking into the Southern Baptist Church. This funeral service was not very Methodist-like…or Baptist-like. It was the difference between plain white grits and grits that included cheese, chives and sawmill gravy—much richer. Congregational participation seemed to be expected much more than the occasional “Amen” that was uttered by Mr. Gordon in my church. People stood, danced and waved during the many musical selections and the minister, darker and shinier than even Miss Maggie, had a rich baritone voice that was melodious whether he was leading the singing or preaching the Gospel. I was particularly moved by his version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” “Can I get an Amen?”
At the end of the service an usher moved down to us and the moment that I most feared came to fruition. “Missus Griffin, would you and your grandson like to pay your respects to the family?” I had seen Maw and Bessy come in. It had to be them. No one in the church had that “redbone” complexion. While I had topped out at five-foot-nine, Maw was well over six feet and well-put-together, but not as well-put-together as Bessy! Bessy was…was…awe-inspiring with short, afro-styled hair and dressed in a skirted suit short enough to display great legs but long enough for the funeral service. Maw was dressed in a dark suit that had a cut in tune with the times and an Afro that was blown out to Biblical proportions. As we carried on a somewhat uncomfortable conversation I found out that his mother had married a minister with money, moved to Orangeburg and, from her size, appeared to have eaten her way through most of it – money or Orangeburg. Maw was a junior at Benedict, majoring in history which was also my major and Bessy would be attending next-door Allen in the fall. Our conversation was just uncomfortable enough for me to realize that too much time had passed and that Maw and I would never be able to restart our friendship.

It would be years before I learned that I could be just as good a friend with an African-American as I could with anyone else. I am a bit bitter that Jim Crow, Dixiecrats and prejudice had deprived me of that early friendship and possibly others. As I think about it I would guess that my animosity is not nearly as acute as that of the millions who have felt and continue to feel the bite of racism and cultural or religious hatred. I also am thankful that I have most of my own prejudices with the hope that I can be forgiven for having had them.

Thank you Dr. King for helping to change the world for the millions who live in it.

Books by Don Miller may be purchased or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

FISHIN’

For some reason, I awoke from a dream about fishing. I saw an old cane pole bending from the strain of a double hand size blue gill, it’s blue, green and silver body causing the line to sing from the strain the fish was putting on it. After awakening I realize it is still cold and December, rain is pelting on the metal roof and I really don’t know why I’m dreaming about blue gills and the grandmother who taught me to catch them. I may have already shared this story but felt the need to share it again. I hope you enjoy.

My grandmother had what I would describe as a single mindedness about her work ethic. Little would get in the way of what she had scheduled to do. Monday was wash day no matter how cold it was just to get it out of the way. The only exceptions were on rainy days or during harvest season. During the late summer, Monday was also preparation day for Tuesday – CANNERY DAY. Tomatoes were peeled, okra cut, beans shelled or soup mix was readied to be canned the next day. Wednesdays and Thursdays were copies of Monday and Tuesday. One day was set aside to sweep the backyard under the privet, another to weed the rock garden and others to do what she hated most – house cleaning. Early, early mornings were spent milking the cow and some days, work was rearranged to accommodate for the churning of butter and making buttermilk. During the early summer, EVERYDAY was weed the garden and pick the “critters” that might be chewing on plants. Nothing interfered except the meal preparations and finally the harsh late afternoon midsummer sun that would drive her into the shade…of her front porch to start processing vegetables. There was no rest for the weary.

I can see her distinctly in my mind’s eye standing in her garden and clearly hear the “clinking” sound of her hoe contacting the few small rocks that remained in her garden. She is wearing a cotton “sack” dress handmade from last year’s feed sacks, a broad-brimmed straw hat and old lady loafers that had been slit to accommodate corns and bunions. That was pretty much all she wore as I found out one day when a hornet flew up her dress causing her to strip in the middle of the bean field. There is no modesty when being stung by a hornet but young eyes should not see these things. Her face, arms and legs were as brown as the leather harnesses that PawPaw used to hook his old horse to the wagon and the rest of her…obviously had rarely seen the light of day. I think now how old I thought she was but she was just forty-eight when I was born. I was forty-nine when she died.

There were only two things that would drive her out of her garden – rain and fishin’. Fishing was something that she discovered after PawPaw died. I do not have one memory of her going fishing prior to his death although I remember hearing stories about trips to the river, a mile or so distant as the crow flies. I don’t think this was an example of “sport” fishing but was the setting and checking of trotlines in hopes of supplementing table fare…cheaply. Pan-fried catfish and catfish stew would replace the canned salmon that we often ate in the winter. Well, she made up for lost time as she entered her “semi-retirement” after moving in with us and then later with Aunt Joyce after my Dad remarried. It also did not help keep her in her garden that H.L. Bowers built nine or ten ponds and lakes between us and the river…and gave Nannie free entry…and me with her.

I was not her only fishing partner and she would not overuse the Bower’s lakes. I think she feared that the invitation might be revoked if she caught too many fish. There were a plethora of people who would line up to go with her, many who would just call volunteering to take her to the lake of her choice. Some would call days ahead to make “reservations” to go fishing. The reason was simple. The Lord had blessed her with the ability to find and catch large quantities of fish. Miss Maggie would say, “She sho’ nuff’ can smell deem fishes.” She also thought Nannie might have sold her soul to the devil or might have practiced West African Vodun because she fished according to the signs of the moon, wind direction and weather forecast. Full moon, wind from the south or south-east with a rising barometer…time to go fishing. There were times Nannie ignored the signs and, likely as not, she would not be shutout.
Her fishin’ was fishing in its purest form. No high-dollar technology was employed. I once gave her a Zebco 33 rod and reel, maybe the all-time easiest reel to use. She never used it; instead, there would be a thin cane pole or three, all strung with heavy twenty-pound test line and a small split shot crimped a foot or more above a small gold hook. Rarely did she fish with a bobber. All of her extra gear, hooks, weights and line were carried in a paper poke. I remember when she graduated from a “croaker” sack to put her fish on to a line stringer and then finally to a metal stringer. An earthworm, cricket or a wasp larva was lightly presented to where she thought bream were bedding, allowed to sink a bit and then moved in a slow side to side arc. Wham! That strike would likely be the resulting outcome and into the croaker sack a fish would go! For those of you too young or too Yankee to know, a croaker sack was a porous burlap feed bag “repurposed” to put fish or frogs in to keep them alive or, in the gigged frog’s case, wet. The bag would be laid into the water. Frogs—croakers. Get it? Yes, frog legs do taste like chicken.

I would ask her “Nannie, how do you know where the fish are?” She would answer “Can you not smell them?” Uh, no I couldn’t but I can now and she taught me to look for the “pot holes” that the bream made when they were on the bed. That doesn’t explain how she caught fish when they weren’t on the bed. Maybe Maggie was right about the voodoo thing but I suspect it was the fact that she had studied fishing the same way she studied her Bible or the almanac.
Nothing was too big to go in her frying pan and, sometimes, nothing too small. I guess it goes back to being poor during the depression. Small fish were brought home and, if not cleaned, became a part of her garden. The two-and-a-half-pound bream or the nearly eight pound largemouth she caught did not go on her wall. No, that was pure foolishness. An eight pounder could have fed a Chinese family for a month and we were not going to waste it. Hand-sized bream were always my favorite to be pan fried in Crisco using corn meal breading…at least I think it was Crisco…it might have been lard. I’ve tried pan frying them and I just can’t seem to get it right.

There was one August afternoon that Nannie decided to take Maggie and yours truly to Bower’s Big Lake. That’s what we called it. The Big Lake was twenty-five acres of fishing heaven. Bream, catfish and largemouth bass seemed to always be hungry and this day all of the signs were in place. We walked the three-quarters of a mile to the lake, scooted under the gate that cut the River Road, and started to fish from the closest access to water. For the next two hours, we did not move and had it not been so late in the day we might not have left then. Seventy-seven double hand-sized “breeeeeems,” as Maggie called them, over filled our stringer. There had to be forty pounds of fish and, for an eight or ten-year-old boy, a near sixty-year-old grandmother and, who knows how old Maggie was, it was a tough trek back to the house…followed by a couple of hours cleaning the fish. It was worth it the next day as the smell of frying fish permeated the air.

I remember the last time I took Nannie fishing. She was in her late eighties and a bit feeble, but not much. Linda Gail and I loaded her up in my old ’72 FJ 40 Land Cruiser and took her to the dock at Bower’s Big Lake. The weather was terrible for fishing. Cloudy and windy, a gale blew from the wrong direction as the barometer plunged but she hung a couple and we have a picture of her holding a “whale” still decked out in her broad-brimmed straw hat. She had at least started to wear pants by this time and I imagine a cotton “sack” dress would have been a little cool. What I remember the most was her laughter, something that I heard so rarely. When I think about Nannie seldom do I see her smiling. This was a special day as were all of the days when we went fishin’.

I miss her terribly and just don’t seem to get the enjoyment from fishing that I did during those days. I still try to get the spark back and will continue to do so. Sometimes I think to do otherwise would somehow be letting her down. The same is true with my garden. I know I could buy more produce from the money I spend on seed and fertilizer than I actually raise. Fishing, even when they are not biting, is a little like therapy or maybe meditation. I have found it to be a pathway that leads me to memories that I sometimes didn’t even know I had.

This story came from the book PATHWAYS. It and my other books may be purchased or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf