SPIRITS CALL TO ME

The spirits of the past call to me often. Usually, they sing to me late in the darkness of night. Mostly their songs are the sweet songs of a mother’s or grandmother’s love, long gone but not forgotten. Their songs of “tough love” don’t come to me as readily as their “sweet love.” Stroking a fevered brow, mayonnaise and onion sandwiches, the sound of a hoe contacting a rock followed by the thud it makes when it is thrown out. A broad smile on a freckled face because of something I did right for a change, birthday cakes, Christmas ambrosia and Missouri cookies. Breaking beans on a front porch in the August heat…. Strange the ways you knew you were loved.

I only had my mother for a short time. She left me when I was a half year past my eighteenth birthday. Left me, my brother and my father. For much of the previous five years she battled ALS until the battle was lost in early January of 1969. I strain to remember her…racking my brain. My memories are fuzzy and I hate that. I have pictures to remind me of her. Her red hair and freckles. The alabaster skin under her freckles turning lobster red after five minutes in the summer sun. A big smile and bigger laugh. A bit of shyness. Readying herself for work…draw in treads draped around her neck like a lei necklace. I wonder what happened to her reed hooks? They were always in her apron…I wonder where they are?

Mother’s Day is not a day of celebration for me, not a day of joy. It is memories of granite memorials in a small, country graveyard. Memories of funerals and pain. It is a day of questions. A day of “what ifs?” She never met my Linda Gail, she never met her grandchild.

Tomorrow will come and go…and with it’s leaving the return of sweet songs from the past…and a brightening I hope. Momma and Nannie…I miss you both every day but more so on this day…Mother’s Day. Rarely is there a day that goes by that something doesn’t remind me of you. Mostly I smile…except when I don’t…but mostly I smile.

Visit Don’s author’s page at https://goo.gl/pL9bpP or pick up a copy or download his new book, Musings of a Mad Southerner, at https://goo.gl/zxZHWO.

A PLAYER…ALL GROWN UP

For a guy who coached high school baseball for over thirty years, I don’t go to many high school baseball games. Just four this season. I feel a little guilty about not going but have found if I haven’t invested in the kids playing, I’m just as happy to catch a few innings of a collegiate or a pro game on the tube while relaxing on my recliner. Maybe I’m just being lazy.

Today was different. Instead of being lazy, I sat on the first base fence line watching a former player, Tim Perry, coach his high school team in our state high school playoffs. I might have been the only spectator who was more focused on the third base coaching box than the actual field of play.

The site of the game was a field where, in a past lifetime, I had wandered from the dugout to the third base coaching box and back again just like my former player was doing. I felt a certain kinship with him and understood the emotions he was possibly feeling. I watched him cheering, clapping, offering up nuggets of baseball knowledge and teaching the game. Picking his players up after an error or a strike out…no visible berating although I don’t know for sure what went on inside of the dugout…no berating I’m sure.

I was happy to be a spectator. The gut wrenching, acid churning and Tums gobbling days’ of “life or death” competition rest squarely on his much younger, broader shoulders and are, thankfully, in my rear-view mirror. I’d rather just cheer for him.

There is a comradery among coaches, even rival coaches, and these two knew each other well, having competed against each other since their little league playing days. After losing the second game, the district final, I wondered if they were still friends? Knowing Tim’s personality, I would guess yes.

When I first met Tim, he was a freckled faced ninth grader. He had one of those angelic faces that lit up the world when he smiled. Angelic face but full of “snips and snails, and puppy dog tails.” Short and just a few pounds past “stocky,” he resembled a “pleasingly plump” Alfalfa of Our Gang fame or maybe Howdy Doody of Buffalo Bob renown. If you look at him just right today, you can still see it.

Tim was trying out for our junior varsity team and had all the correct mechanics and moves, learned from hours of baseball camps and honed on hundreds of diamonds around the South, if not the nation. He looked good doing whatever he was doing. The problem was he looked good swinging through a lot of pitches, having a ball roll between his legs or having to line him up with a fence post to see if he was actually moving when he ran. I cut him. Doing so might, I say might, have been a mistake.

When a young kid gets cut he has a couple of options. He can allow it to ruin his athletic career, just quit and feel sorry for himself, or he can work harder and try again. I imagine you might guess which Tim did. It didn’t hurt he had a growing spurt over that next year, as in about six inches, a foot? No not that much but he was six foot plus by the time graduated. He turned into a good player, the ace of my pitching staff and good enough to play college ball. Yeah, maybe I made a mistake. I cherish the picture of us made when he signed his letter of intent to play for my old alma mater.

More importantly, and more to the point, he’s turned into a good man with a beautiful family. I watched a three-year-old boy run around and play as the game went on. He is Tim made over, a freckled faced little imp. The little boy’s mother and sister are pretty, brunette images of each other, thank goodness. I’m not sure how much Tim’s wife actually got to watch the game while keeping up with two fireballs. I know I never saw her sit down. Tim’s parents were there too, aging but still pulling for their son, always his biggest cheerleaders…and greatest teachers. How much support does someone deserve…a lot in Tim’s case.

I would guess it was heaven ordained Tim would become a baseball coach. He was already a coach when he played for me. Tim loved the game too much not to pursue that vocation along with a career in teaching despite a short tenure in the “real world,” the non-teaching world.

I’ve found there are two kinds of men who coach baseball…at least at the high school level. Those who coach the game for the game, and those who coach the kids. Over the years, I’ve found I don’t have much use for the men who coach the game just for the sake of winning championships…and I know, we’re all in it to win or you don’t stay in it very long. Observing Tim, I saw a coach who was coaching baseball but more importantly he was coaching kids and having fun doing it…and they were having fun too.

Tim, I’m glad you were mine for a brief period and happy you have turned into the man you’ve turned into. I hope you know how lucky you are to be that man. Maybe next year Coach…and I’m really sorry I made that mistake.

Don Miller writes “memories.” If you enjoyed this short essay, more may be purchased or downloaded at https://goo.gl/pL9bpP

Natty Old Tees

How many tee shirts are too many? I dare say I have collected enough to wear a different tee daily for a year without repeating once. Since I have retired, tee shirts and jeans seem to be the attire of choice, unless it’s summer and then it’s tees and shorts…except on Sunday. I do wear dress shirts to church…with dress jeans of course. My father is rolling in his grave.

While I no longer exercise in cotton tees, the new technical fabrics are lighter and wick perspiration better, I do love the feel of freshly laundered cotton against my skin. It reminds me of freshly laundered and blued linens, line dried in the fresh air and sunshine…memories having nothing to do with tee shirts.

I’m attempting to sort through my collection of tee shirts and make some decisions. Good ones to wear out on the town in one pile, not so good ones, frayed or forever soiled with chicken grease or pizza sauce, banished to the work tee shirt pile. Worn out tees exiled or repurposed to be used as cleaning rags or to tie up tomatoes on their stakes. I hesitate to throw them away because of the memories surrounding some of them.

Forty years ago, Champion made the best athletic tees, heavy and meant to last. I know this to be a fact. I still have a now yellowed one with the orange lettering, “I Believe.” Worn to death, it is much too fragile to wear now, it turned forty this past fall. A friend and mentor, now gone almost as long as the tee shirt is old, presented it to me and some fifty other coaches and players before the first game of a memorable season. No, I need to put it back right where I found it, tucked away with all its memories from one sparkling season.

Another specimen is a plain, royal blue with more holes than fabric and needs to be thrown away but I can’t. I wore it during a state championship campaign after giving up my number twenty-three jersey to a younger player so he could dress with the team. I keep hoping the tee has a little bit of good luck left in it. After losing a fight with my chainsaw three decades ago, I wear it whenever I am using rotating equipment in hopes it will keep me from losing a body part. So far it has.

A light blue tee with “North-South All-stars” screen printed on the front is displayed in a fading picture made during the after-game celebration. Tim Bright, Anthony Fairchild and Chris Bates are smiling with me and reminding me of better days, “Brighter” days. The actual tee has been worn little since the picture was made and will be stored away with its bitter-sweet memories.

Off-white by design rather than age, I have a heavy-weight tee with a New Zealand logo. I found it on my desk at the close of school one year, a parting gift from New Zealander and exchange student, “Hobby” Hobson. I never got the chance to thank him and wonder often what he might be up to in one of those “lands down under.” How, in the name of all things holy, did it get a hole in the back? No matter, it will stay in the “memorable” pile and be worn with pride, hole and all.

Soiled and stained there is the technical tee from the first 5K run after my heart attack, another from my first half marathon, and an unused one from the last half I didn’t get to run due to an injury. I couldn’t really repurpose those, could I? Maybe the one I didn’t get to run.

There are so many others. A blue Jocassee Bait Shop tee, a gift from a favorite player. The much too small white one covered in pink flamingoes. A gift from a teaching friend who shares my love for the odd looking, yet beautiful birds. My prized Buffett concert tee featuring colorful parrots drinking from margarita glasses along with mermaids swimming about. What to do, what to do? Nothing I guess…simply wear them and remember their meanings for as long as I can see and feel them.

Visit Don’s author’s page at https://goo.gl/pL9bp or pick up a copy or download his new book, Musings of a Mad Southerner, at https://goo.gl/zxZHWO.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY…TO ME

I used to get excited…not so much anymore. The road “past” is much longer than the road “future” and when dealing with my own life, I try to stay “in the now.” At my unstated age, I find it more comfortable remembering the past rather than pondering the future. People much brighter than me have suggested that “you can’t live in the past.” I agree but would suggest, “I can remember the past and wonder”…just don’t live there…too much. Which brings me to today, the day before the anniversary of my birth.

It was an Easter Sunday with all the jokes about the Easter Bunny delivering me to my parents rather than the traditional stork. Bright blue skies and crisp I was told. My father had revolted at the idea of rising early for the traditional Sunrise Service. I understand he was forced to get up even earlier than he would have wished.

A colorized picture of a one year old. A tow-headed child gazing sweetly into a camera makes me wonder why the blond hair turned brown before turning gray. Unfortunately, it has also turned loose. At some point I wonder if my sink will have more hair in it than my head has on it…or already does. I also wonder what kind of cake was smeared all over my smooth baby face, a face I no longer recognize in the mirror…with or without cake.

Somewhere in the past, a fourteen-year-old with darker blond hair, got excited about his birthday until he was presented with a brand new red Toro lawnmower instead of the red Mustang convertible he was wishing for. My dad, always the practical one…but then I was only fourteen. The mower wasn’t even a rider or self-propelled. I didn’t get the Mustang at age sixteen or eighteen either. I did get a green Mustang for my beloved when I was forty-six…I don’t even like green and it wasn’t for me…or my birthday.

I remember a “sweet sixteen” birthday party, painstakingly planned by my mother and held at the fire house just down the road from our house. All my friends and classmates were there dancing to forty-fives, eating cake and drinking punch. I never told her how embarrassed I was for all the commotion…and for the fact I was “sweet sixteen and had never been kissed” before the party…or for a while after it.

For some reason, there are no outstanding birthday memories from sixteen to fifty…or I need something to trigger the memory I’m not having. A gathering at a local restaurant on my fiftieth netted me a four-disc boxed set of Jimmy Buffet’s greatest hits, from a friend I daily worry about. Because my six-disc changer is loaded with all four of my Buffet disc’s, there is a great chance I’m going to be reminded of my friend anytime I get into my car. I am also reminded of the battle I fear he is losing to his addiction. I think I’m going to call him on my birthday and remind him of the joy he brought me.

On my fifty-sixth we gathered with family at the same restaurant as my fiftieth, this time after church on a bright and warm Sunday afternoon. I had a great time but felt physically ill as I drove the winding road home. Queasy, I contributed it to the garlicy pasta I had consumed along with the copious amounts of birthday cheer in the form of birthday cake. It wasn’t until I got home that I considered a heart attack. The elephant suddenly sitting on my chest fueled my suspicion.

The attack may have been the greatest gift I could have ever received…even better than a red Mustang convertible. I survived and became a better steward of the health my creator granted me. Eleven more years with my beloved, seeing my daughter graduate from college, marry and start a family of her own…beginning her THIRD vocation while seven month’s pregnant. Miller Kate and Nolan the grandbabies. An epic Sixtieth in Atlanta with “too good” a friends attending a James Taylor concert. Front row seats within touching distance and a limo ride to and from. Madeline Roo and Matilda Sue, two Australian blue heelers who have made us their own, worming their way into my heart for the past twelve years.

Just to be clear, Linda Gail has already stated, “We are not going to celebrate your birthday on this Sunday.” Superstitious or just not willing to tempt fate? I had not thought about it…guess she does love me just a little. Well…Happy Birthday to me.

Visit Don’s author’s page at https://goo.gl/pL9bp or pick up a copy or download his new book, Musings of a Mad Southerner, at https://goo.gl/zxZHWO.

Old Hardwood Floors

I never know what will trigger a memory. My memories seem to be attached to certain senses. A scent of perfume or the aroma of food. The clink of a stone against the iron blade of a hoe. Something silky to the touch…. Yesterday it was a splash of dropped coffee on our pecan floors. As I knelt to clean my mess I was transported to other hardwood floors and déjà vu moments.

When I first walked into to the original school building at Tamassee-Salem I had a déjà vu moment. The long hallway, with its darkly yellowed hardwood floor, led me back to my old home school circa 1961 or ‘62 when I transitioned to Indian Land Junior High School. It was an easy physical transition, just walk up a short flight of stairs from the elementary school. Both, along with the high school, were all contained in the same building.

I remember long, darkly yellowed hardwood floors and the tap, tap, tap sound my shoes made. The floor shined “tritely” with the gloss of the often-mentioned “fresh penny.” I might have shaken with the fear and apprehension I felt on the first day, both as a student and later as a teacher. There was an excitement and anticipation to go with the fear.

It was a beautiful hardwood floor…before receiving thousands of scuffs and marks from hundreds of children traveling to and fro, reminding me of me in 1962, new and not yet beaten down from memorizing multiplication tables, diagraming sentences and writing out research papers, or an older me in 2001 with a metaphorical new coat of lacquer to hide the scuff marks of my life as I began a new chapter.

There is something beautiful about old hardwood floors, especially the ones in my memory. My mother was almost anally paranoid about her floors, especially those in her small living room and dining room. “Make sure you take your shoes off and do not run in here!” I found out why you didn’t run on waxed hardwood floors, especially in a shoeless, socked feet state. There was a wild collision with a small table, feet, legs and arms flailing wildly as I attempted to avoid a fate worse than death. Time slowed as I watched the globe lamp displaced by my wild slide, teeter back and forth before laying over on its side. A valiant dive to catch the globe ended inches short, or a foot, again due to the inability of socked feet to gain purchase. I watched in slow motion horror as the beautifully painted globe exploded into hundreds of glass shards.

I learned several life lessons on this day, the greatest being you don’t get praised for valiant efforts, you get your behind “tanned”…especially since I was doing what I had been instructed not to do. “Son this is going to hurt me more than you.” Right. It hurt me badly but not as badly as the sorrow in my mother’s eyes as she cleaned up my mess.

The seasonal waxing, even though very few people had ventured into the living room since the last seasonal waxing, became my duty. At a certain, now forgotten age, my mother decided “idle hands (were) the devil’s workshop” and my hands were forced to apply Johnson’s Floor Wax and buff it out, all done by the sweat of my brow. Later I would have visions of a younger me on hands and knees as Daniel LaRusso in “The Karate Kid” was instructed, “Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off.” Thank you Mr. Miyagi.

The smells of freshly lacquered floors are still prominent in the memory portion of my brain. There was a bitter, acrid smell to the oily sawdust used to dry mop the school floor. I can conger the sharp scent from the memories held in my mind. It’s not a bad odor, just the biting aroma of a time gone by.

None of the hardwood floors of my past exist any longer other than my memory. Carted off to some landfill to make room for progress. Replaced by bland, off-white tile with no scuffs or gouges to help tell their story or, as my Mother’s floors, replaced by a retirement village along with the building which surrounded them.

Happily, they exist every time I hear the tap, tap, tap of footfalls in the hallways of my mind.

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

A POWERFUL HANKERIN’

Just say the word DIET and it triggers a Pavlovian response of Biblical proportions. I don’t really have to be on a diet when the word diet is used to trigger the response… a stupid comment, I’ve been on an eleven-year diet. On April 8, 2006, the day before my birthday, I stepped on my scales and they lied! My mind said, “There was no way I weigh in at two hundred and thirty-two pounds”, and then my mind realized I was leaning forward so I could see the scales. I was leaning forward to see over my belly. On April 9, 2006, I received a birthday present, a heart attack. A heart attack will get your attention.

I had battled my weight most of my life but now I was in a full-fledged war. Six months later I weighed one hundred and sixty-two pounds…and looked like a refugee from a famine. I immediately ate myself up to a healthier looking one hundred seventy-two. That’s the last time I was unconcerned about my weight…until just before Thanksgiving of this year when I decided not to worry about it until the first of the year. I weighed one hundred and eighty-five by January 1st. I had to think of that word again. Slobber, slobber, drool, drool.

The word causes me to feel hungry, 24/7/365. Before a meal, after a meal, in the dark hours of the night. The word “diet” gives me powerful hankerins’ for just about anything. Presently my hankerins’ is seafood. Not a McFish Sandwich kind of seafood, real live coastal seafood. The very thought takes me on a mental trip reminiscent of a storm-tossed sailboat without its rudder. You know you’re going somewhere, it’s going to be a wild ride and the outcome may include crashing against rocks.

Sara J’s seafood platter in Garden City, the Captain’s House oyster and artichoke stew at Myrtle Beach, Calabash shrimp anywhere in Calabash, North Carolina. Crabs at Hudson’s on Hilton Head, a brunch involving oysters and Bloody Marys at Shem Creek, shrimp and grits at the River Room in Georgetown along with anything fried at Aunny’s. I am racked with sorrow as I remember Oliver’s Lodge at Merrill’s Inlet will never serve me again because it’s now a private residence. Would they be upset if I just showed up at their door?

As my mental sailboat eased its meandering path with sleep, I found myself dreaming of an old college friend and a roadtrip to his Charleston home during a long college weekend. Bob Lemaster was better known as Renegade during his college days. He earned his nickname honestly with his dark Native-American appearance. Bob reminded me of the now socially unacceptable cartoon character “Injun Joe” in looks and a renegade in actions. Like most of us he matured, found the woman of his dreams, settling down to a normal life…and dropped Renegade for his given name, Bob. This trip occurred during his Renegade days.

The dream took me on a short drive down a long dirt road somewhere on Folly’s Island. Palmetto and scrub pine trees lining the road flew past the windows of Bob’s car like pickets on a fence. Once we arrived, I wondered about the hurry we had been in. Our destination was an old fishing shack or wreck of a house, take your pick, and for the life of me I can’t remember its name. I remember a small, sagging, wrap-around front porch and white paint so old it had grayed into a patina of sorts. I didn’t look for a health department grade and in the early Seventies it may not have been required…I doubt the fish shack would have been serving food had the health department gotten involved.

What the old shack did have was ambience. The wreck sat on a low hill close enough to the ocean for the sound of rollers crashing, the briny smell of the ocean and the touch of salt air, all to reach us and beguile our senses. An almost full moon rising above the horizon only added to the enchantment.

Seating was outside under patched funeral home canopies, on roughhewn picnic tables featuring a large hole in the center. There were no utensils or plates, just newspapers to cover the table and a roll of cheap paper towels. Menu choices were simple. Boiled shrimp, raw or smoked oysters and…well that was it. A short and stocky man with a swarthy complexion brought our choices of food to the table in large aluminum boiler pots and unceremoniously dumped them onto the newspaper covered table. “Bon appe’tit y’all.” Condiments included cocktail and tarter sauces in squirt bottles, a bottle of hot sauce, lemon wedges along with salt and pepper. Beverages choices were sweet tea or PBRs. Shrimp and oyster shells went through the hole in the table and into the trashcan underneath while our conversation drifted quietly with the breeze.

Simple food from the sea…and drinks from grain and hops. Quality seafood smells and taste like the sea and doesn’t have to be battered, seasoned or fried to be great, something the memory of this trip from long ago reminded me of. It also reminded me of a friend from long ago who is no longer with us.

Bob and I, along with several other college friends kept in touch until the early Eighties when a negative change in my marital and job status, along with the depths of clinical depression, made me reassess my life. I made a bad decision to cut people out of my life because they reminded me of the bad times they had no part in. Since Bob’s death I have reconnected with the old crew, Joe, Tim, and before his death, Tom. Bob’s passing persuaded me to reconnect, I’m just sorry I didn’t come to my realization before he died.

Bob, until the day I die, I will remember the no-named shanty, the food we ate and the stories we told. I’m sorry a powerful hankerin’ didn’t occur before you left us.

Just so you know, I weighed one seventy-three this morning and the severe diet is now over although the battle will never end. I think I’m going to get a couple of pounds of shrimp, boil them up in beer and Old Bay before serving them on my picnic table. Probably not going to drink PBRs. The sea and salt air won’t be felt but I can always pretend. Maybe Linda Gail will join me for a dance and I can tell her about one memorable night, an old friend and my powerful hankerin’.

POSTSCRIPT

It turns out my old buddy had us all buffaloed and despite his nickname and appearance, was not of Native American. It’s okay. I am imagining his deep laugh in the rainstorm thundering outside as I write this. Anyway, it’s my story and I’m going to stick to it. Thanks Bob.

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

OLD MULES AND SUCH

On a stop at a nearby organic farm to grab some local honey I noticed a mule standing forlornly at the fence that prevented him from joining me at the produce stand. It was quite apparent that had he been allowed, the mule would have been standing next to me as I looked for local, wildflower honey. He was the first mule I had seen in…well…since Methuselah was a mere slip of a child. He was a beauty…for a mule. A dark reddish brown color that lightened from the backbone down his body until you got to his legs which were almost black. Huge dark brown ears twisted and turned until I addressed him, “Hey Buddy!” His ears focused intently on me. He was not the only livestock contained within the small pasture, there were free range chickens, ducks, goats and even a couple of burros so at least he wasn’t lonely. I can’t remember the last time I saw a mule harnessed to a plow. Once again, a random thought sparks random memories.

When I was like young Methuselah, a mere slip of a child and later as a young man, I rode a mule. My Uncle Bill and my Cousin Buck kept horses and a mule. I was not sure why they kept the mule. Their horses were used for riding not plowing. Uncle Bill’s huge, to me at least, Farmall Super C was used for plowing. The mule just stood around a lot until I was deemed old enough to go riding with the cousins. “Low man on the totem pole” which I have found to be historically incorrect, the saying should have been “high man on the totem pole” …anyway I was the youngest of four cousins therefore I got to ride the mule.

Mules are different from horses despite being the offspring of a horse and a donkey. The first difference I noticed was in the saddle Buck put on “Jack.” It was a US Army saddle purchased as surplus and dated from before World War Two. I was young, not stupid, and noticed the saddle was made in two distinct parts with a gap in the middle. “Buck, why is my saddle different?” The answer was, “You’ll find out.” I did. Mules have very prominent backbones. The gap in the saddle allowed your “danglies” to ride comfortably over their backbone’s ridge. Comfortably is a subjective term, especially when riding a mule.

A dissimilarity between a horse and a mule is the way they walk and run. Mules have slender legs and small hooves compared to a horse and after saying “Giddy-up” I wondered if their knees were on backwards. They walked with a stiff-legged gate. When urged into a gallop, oh my, I thought my back was going to break. There was no becoming “one with the mule” and my “danglies?” Ohhhhhhhhhh, mules run stiff-legged too!

Having researched “stubborn as a mule”, I have found mules are anything but stubborn. In fact, they have been found to be much more adaptive and intelligent than the sum of their parts, horses and donkeys. Well…Jack must have been “special” or at the very least, contrary. Jack once tried to drown me as I allowed him to drink from a pond. Another time Jack decided he was going to go back to the barn despite my best efforts to turn him. Lastly, being a hybrid and unable to reproduce did not stop him from mounting Buck’s Paint …with Buck still in the saddle. “Love will find a way” I guess.

As I admired the mule, its owner came over and we reminisced about my riding and his plowing with mules. He told a story about the last time he had seen a mule being plowed. Turns out he had converted to mechanical plowing like the rest of the world.
On a lonely river bottom road, he paused his pickup truck to watch an old man plowing behind a big brown “Missouri” mule. He noticed the man stop, walk up behind the mule and run his finger up under the mule’s tail before rubbing his finger across his lips. My new friend did not believe what he had seen until the old man did it again.

Unable to contain himself, he approached the farmer and after introducing himself, admitted to confusion over what the old farmer had done.

The old farmer explained simply, “Chapped lips.”

Still confused my new friend queried, “Mule poo helps with chapped lips?”

The old gentleman clarified saying, “Nah, just keeps me from lickin’ em.”

Got me! Just like riding old Jack down memory lane.

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

BE SURE YOUR SINS WILL FIND YOU OUT

“Be sure your sins will find you out.” As a young man, I heard this every time I left the house it would seem…especially if a young lady was the reason for my leaving. “Be on your best behavior. Be sure your sins will find you out.” “You be careful now. Be sure your sins will find you out.” Another way of saying “If you get that girl pregnant your sins WILL find you out.” My grandmother had moved in with us after my mother had been diagnosed with ALS. Dad needed the help and I needed to know my sins would find me out. Invariably my sins did find me out as her warnings predicted. I wasn’t expecting them to find me out today nearly twenty years after her death and another twenty since I heard her utter her warning.

I discovered a message on my land line phone’s answering machine, the land line I use only to provide me with slow internet service. I live so far “back in the sticks” internet service must be piped to me…I know…I have a satellite dish and if I can get satellite TV, I should be able to get satellite internet…but it would provide one less thing to gripe about.

The message was from an aged cousin from far, far in my past. Euleen, pronounced You-Lean, Uncle Hugh and Aunt Eula’s girl, grew up next to my mother. She and Euleen had been childhood playmates, attended high school together and had remained close friends until my mother’s death. Ninety-six and as sharp as a tack, I found out she is still quite mobile, has a strong voice and better hearing than I possess. When she got to the point of her phone call I found out her eyesight was as sharp as her hearing…as was her belief in how people should speak about each other.

“Donnie, I’ve read two of your books and I really enjoyed them. I like the way you tell a story and the way your stories are short.” I told her I didn’t intend them to be that way, short, I just had a limited attention span. She thought my quip was hilarious and then things turned serious. I was about to find my sins had, once again, found me out.

“Now Donnie, I really loved them…but…did you have to use some of the language you used? You called that man an…asshole. That was a bit rude.” When she said asshole, it was said quickly and in a whisper, as if she might be hoping the resonance of the word would dissipate enough not to make it to God on high.

“Yes Ma’am I’m not sure who you are speaking of, but since I described him that way, he must have been one.”

“I know, I’m sure he was, but Eldora and Miss Addie didn’t teach you to talk like that.” Eldora is my mother and Miss Addie is my grandmother and Euleen was correct, they didn’t. Somewhere in the back of my head I heard a chorus, led by my mother and grandmother, echoing the sentiment I had heard so often, “Be sure your sins will find you out.” They had and I found myself apologizing to my ninety-six-year-old cousin because of it and promising to do better. I’m glad she was a hundred miles away and not standing next to me with a bar of soap in her hand. Just so you know, she has forgiven me but not before suggesting I might ask for forgiveness elsewhere.

Euleen said goodbye but not before causing me to envision my own death and its aftermath. After finding my way to heaven, I find myself having to explain myself, not only to Saint Peter, but also to my mother and grandmother. Maybe that would be finding my way to hell come to think of it if. How am I going to explain how I came to write a book about men and their pursuit of women called “Floppy Parts.” I am so screwed. Saying screwed in this context is okay, isn’t it?

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

AN OLD FARMHOUSE PORCH

I was looking through old photographs from my youth when I realized I don’t have any photographs of my grandparent’s old home place. It also registered, I really don’t need the photographs. Their home, and memories of the man and woman who resided there, are forever etched in my mind.

I can see the house sitting on top of a hill, flanked by an old pecan tree meant for climbing and a tall pine tree meant for little except surviving nature’s many lightning strikes. The building itself was not special or unusual, just a white clapboard structure with ugly hip roofs…and lightning rods on every corner with a matching weather vane in the center. Like dozens of other farm houses found in the area and thousands in the South, it was just a square farmhouse with a kitchen and dining room attached away from the main living area as if by afterthought…or to keep the stove from heating up the rest of the house during this non-air conditioned period. The high ceilings held thousands of memories, especially in the kitchen and dining area, where everyone seemed to congregate when not congregating on the front porch.

An author I am reading, Rick Bragg, wrote, “They say the kitchen is the heart of the house, but I believe the {front}porch is its soul.” I agree and wish I had thought to say it first. This simple passage launched me down a road through fertile fields of memories as soon as I read it.

The porch of my grandparents was not screened or lighted, nor did it have a fan to blow away the heat, humidity or the mosquitos. Oddly I don’t remember the heat, humidity or mosquitos on the front porch of my youth as I do on the front porch of my adulthood. I remember July and August to be hotter than forty kinds of hell inside of the house… but for some reason…the porch was a cool oasis. Facing east toward the rising sun, the southern exposure was blocked by thick and tangled privet hedge gone wild and crepe myrtles.

I remember so much…and yet I’m sure I don’t remember enough. Watching lightning bugs in the late evenings, flashing their equivalent of “Hi, I’m a Sagittarius, what sign are you?” I remember friends and family gathering on its worn boards; sitting on metal rockers and a matching glider or leaning, elbows resting upon the plain concrete columns. They talked about their day, told stories and probably more than a few lies, their conversations punctuated by occasional outbursts of laughter.

PawPaw’s brothers and sisters came from a hill on one side and the small valley on the other, meeting in the middle on my grandparent’s front porch. For some reason the men tended to congregate to the eastern side of the porch leaving the women to “gossip” on the southern side. I remember Grandma Griffin, PawPaw’s mother, ever the lady, spitting her Peach Snuff covertly into a handkerchief rather than into the privet. My Uncle Claude, a deaf mute, sitting on the porch with hands flying, his questions answered and statements translated by my grandmother’s or mother’s flying hands. Aunt Joyce “spooning” on the front steps with soon to be Uncle Bo, their hands together with fingers intertwined. Playing two-man baseball games with Uncle Olin on the grass in front of the porch, the front steps marking first base.

Some evening gatherings combined work with pleasure. After a day gathering produce, the ladies of the homes might meet to shell butter beans or pop green beans, preparing them for their short trip to the local school and the cannery housed there. Later in my life, summer phone calls to my grandmother would include how many green beans or soup mix cans had been processed for the week. Later, as winter turned the gardens brown, my visits home would net those same cans so I might share in the previous summer’s bounty.

The porch was always a welcome place, except for the few salesmen who happened by, selling a vacuum cleaner, encyclopedias or this century’s greatest kitchen appliance. My grandmother was always courteous when she dismissed them, modelling the Golden Rule…except once. An overly pushy vacuum salesman made the mistake of following her to the door and blocking it with his foot as he completed his sale’s spill. He paid for his troubles with a face full of broom and was sent running back to the safety of his old green Chevrolet.

During the heat of the afternoons my brother and I, along with our cousins, might find a bit of a reprieve on the porch when August heat and humidity was at its highest. Make up games were our favorites, although for some reason the telling of ghost stories ranked high. The crepe myrtles might become a ship’s mast or a fort’s guard tower, while the thick privet became a jungle where we might have looked for Tarzan and Cheetah. I remember practicing my tuck and roll, jumping off the front steps and landing ala Alan Ladd in “Airborne.” We certainly had great imaginations back then. Even when the old house lay empty we used to porch as our play house until it was finally torn down, disappearing from our vision but not our memory.

I have a front porch though much smaller than the one from my youth. As my wife and I have tried to unclutter and renovate the rooms inside of our home, the porch has become more cluttered…and not with the memories I would wish. My goal for 2017 is to unclutter the clutter, replace some banisters and repaint. My biggest goal is to just sit on it and enjoy the evening cooling, watch cars passing on the road below, enjoy a cigar…if Linda’s incessant harping hasn’t caused me to quit, and of course appreciate the Jack Daniels that goes with the cigar. I would guess my biggest enjoyment will come from sitting with Gran-Momi Linda watching the grandbabies play. Watch? Not likely.

When I die, if I find my way to heaven, I hope my heaven will involve a big front porch. I would hope without the heat, humidity and mosquitos…unless I’m not in heaven. Hopefully I will find family and friends, catching up and retelling stories from long ago.

Rick Bragg, “My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South.”

If you enjoyed this story you might be interested in Don Miller’s book, PATHWAYS, or other books about life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf