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 catalogues. No not Spiegel’s or Fredrick’s of Hollywood, online seed catalogues. Burpee’s, Gurney’s and Park’s seed catalogues 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 catalogues 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

“ADDIE” OAKLEY In honor of my Grandmother’s 115th. birthday

Being a Southern male I do hate to have to admit that when it comes to “shootin’” I can’t hit a “bull in the butt with a banjo…or a bass fiddle.” Because of my inability to draw a bead on the proverbial “broadside of the barn,” I choose to exercise my “God given” right to follow the second amendment using a double-barreled shotgun that sports the shortest legal barrel I can own. Loaded with bird shot, it will shred a mosquito at twenty feet. Loaded with buck shot it will blow a six-inch hole in a door at ten feet…not that I have done either. Man, I feel so manly just talking about it. When it comes to shooting my thirty-eight magnum handgun, you are as safe as a baby in its crib if I am aiming at you. I cannot guarantee your safety if you are standing behind me however. No matter how manly I sound or how Southern I am, I do hate guns. I shouldn’t.

Having a gun is a Southern rite of passage and, although we weren’t hunters, I grew up around my dad’s and grandmother’s twenty-twos and my grandfather’s hammered 12-gauge. That old-fashioned gun was a beauty with a thirty-six inch barrel. I remember him using it only once because, like me, he left the shooting up to his wife. That statement has to do more with my “rifle-toting” grannie, who could shoot the eye out of a varmint at one hundred yards, than with my wife, who has given up hunting due to my dislike of sitting in dark, cold and damp treestands. “Addie” Oakley, “Dead-Eye” Addie or “Sure Shot” Addie…you can take your pick of monikers because they all fit. I don’t know who taught her to shoot but she had a keen eye and a steady grip despite her odd way of holding her twenty-two rifle. Instead of jamming the butt of the rifle against her shoulder, she laid the stock on top of her shoulder turning the rifle to the side. Whatever worked I guess.

Some of my earliest memories of my grandmother include her twenty-two. She carried it everywhere not knowing when she might need it. Whether it was rats at the barn, snakes or a varmint attacking the livestock, she was going to be ready. I once witnessed her shoot a stray dog that was attacking our milk cow on a distant hill inside of our pasture. She yelled trying to “Shoo it off” but when the dog continued its attack, she calmly put a round through its eye while it was on the move…at one hundred yards if it was a foot. Nannie had tears in her eyes as she buried the old mongrel but she had saved the cow.

With her love for birds, snakes were fair game, but she did draw a line at cats. There was no such thing as a good snake and don’t try to explain to her that rat snakes eat rats. They also eat chicken eggs and birds and that was enough for her. King snakes were tolerated because they killed other bird predators so I was taught at an early age how to recognize them. I once saw her put sixteen rounds into a black rat snake that was attacking a nest. Every time she hit it, the snake would wrap itself more tightly around the limb until it moved enough for her to get a head shot. It was shot full of holes. Once returning from her garden through a tangled archway of out-of-control privet, she stopped and “shushed me” while placing the butt of her rifle on her shoulder. In the middle of a patch of iris under her bedroom window, I saw a snake. It was reared up, mocking a cobra without the cowl, its head moving side to side like a periscope. Nannie’s little twenty-two cracked causing me to jump and the snake fell from view. This she did despite it being silhouetted against her bedroom window. No broken glass but when we got there, no snake either. I remember saying in an accusatory voice, “Ya missed!” She pointed at a leaf and said no I didn’t. There was a small spot of blood on the leaf but I’m not sure I believed her until the next morning. As we made our morning trek to the garden, we found a dead coachwhip snake with a bullet wound under its jaw. It had hung itself on a privet root. Don’t mess with “Dead-Eye” Addie or accuse her of missing!

One of the oddest rituals involving Nannie’s rifle was the making of meals. It wasn’t a utensil but the kitchen windows gave her a view of a big cedar tree which had become a feeding station for her birds. Washing dishes or creating the best biscuits known to man, her vision was always focused on those feeders. Periodically, she would stop, wipe off her hands, pick up her rifle and fire a round through the window screen. She would try to fire through previously made holes but that was somewhat impossible and her screen had several twenty-two-sized holes. There would be a “bang” and then she would tell me that a copperhead or sick sparrow had gone to its maker. Nannie would then go back to her biscuit making waiting to move the body later.

So how bad is my marksmanship? As good as she was, I am that bad. Once I went squirrel hunting with a 12-gauge and the squirrel and dumplings ended up being filled with birdshot. Another time early in our marriage when Linda still had ideas about hunting, we were disturbed by what we thought was an intruder. It wasn’t; more than likely it was just one of our ghosts that traipses through the hallways of our old farmhouse late at night. Linda grabbed her Browning 243 while I picked up my baseball bat. Neither had to be used. That is a good thing because…come to think of it, I was never a great hitter either.

For more Southern rural humor by Don Miller click on http://goo.gl/lomuQf