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.

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

AN OLD FIG TREE

Twenty-five years ago I took a cutting from the old fig tree gracing my aunt’s and grandmother’s backyard. It is a “common” fig which needs no male plant to pollinate and for some reason sounds lonely to me. Later I planted another “younger” tree, grown from a cutting from my original tree, which makes it a grandchild of sorts. I seem to be rambling and a bit morose. I should reframe from drinking another adult beverage until I finish this.

My fig trees haven’t done well unless you consider having JUST survived to be doing well. It’s my home’s location and the weather’s timing. Sitting in the foothills of the Blue Ridge I live in the area known both as the “Dark Corner” and the “Thermal Belt.” The name Dark Corner has no bearing upon my fig trees but the Thermal Belt does. Generally, our weather is not as cool as the surrounding areas…except when it is. Every year the weather seems to throw us a curve just after my fig trees have put out their leaves and first fruit. The threat of frost or freezing temperatures sends fruit growers, along with me, into a frenzy of activity and prayer while we attempt to save our plants. Many years my fig trees have been killed all the way back to the roots. Weeks would pass as I checked them daily hoping to see a bit of green after calling family members to ask if they had grown a tree from the original’s cuttings. No one has an original fig tree “relative” but so far my figs have rewarded me with new growth from the roots every time they were killed back despite looking to be in sad shape.

In many ways my fig trees remind me of my grandmother as she battled through the gray months of winter. She only slightly tolerated the winter and only those days she could get outside. My “younger” grandmother attempted to find ways to stay busy on overly cold and gloomy days which were any day she could not get outside. On those sunless and dismal days, Nannie would write her thoughts on spiral bound notebooks and stare out her window or sew. Patchwork quilts seemed to be her preference although she would sometimes use a pattern and create dresses from repurposed “feed sacks.” To the untrained eye the prized cloth scraps making up her quilt seemed to be laid out in a disordered clutter. This was despite her having studied over the bright and irregular patches for hours before placing them just right…the way she wanted them. Many of those oddly matched patches were memories; a part of an old shirt Paw Paw had worn, a favorite dress, or possibly something worn by a child or a grandchild. I wish I had asked her about their meaning but stupid me I never did. In the late winter she would begin to perk up when the mail brought an almanac or a seed catalogue. At least she was planning for the spring.

Later in her life Nannie took up painting. Quite well I might add. A kind of Grandmother Moses, she painted fishing lakes, barns, landscapes, churches and flowers. Knowing my grandmother this choice of subject was not a surprise. Nannie found her new talent by completing a painting my mother had begun before she lost the ability to sit up and hold on to her brushes. In my family a supreme being seems to decree that if we have any talent it will not manifest itself until the “autumn years” of our life. As Nannie went into her winter years’ poor eyesight and arthritis made it harder for her to bounce back but bounce back she did. Just like my fig trees and her spring flowers Nannie always came alive in the spring…until she didn’t at the age of ninety-eight. She died in the cold of February, just short of spring.

I find myself saying things my grandmother might have said and doing things she might have done. These days I don’t tolerate winter any better than she did or my fig trees do. I have taken up writing but I am not sure it is a talent or a curse, especially for those who choose to read my stories. I spent this past winter suffering through sore knees and a bad back to the point of giving up running for nearly four months until spring came with its annual rebirth. It’s now late May and I am running slowly again; answering a Siren’s call I can’t quite ignore. I feel my spirits rising while my fig puts out new growth from its roots reminding me of my grandmother pulling weeds, hoeing between her rows of beans or fishing. Maybe I can keep winter from lasting quite as long or at least protect my fig trees from that last cold snap during early spring. I will also never complain about the heat and humidity of summer again and hope Indian Summer holds on even longer.

More nonfiction by Don Miller is available at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

LITTLE PIECE OF HEAVEN

Paradise was once found on the banks of the Catawba River. It had to be the Garden of Eden. Some three miles by crooked road from the river was my home. I still walk and run the old river road today, although only in my memories and my dreams. In between the river and my home were nearly seven hundred acres of heaven. Seven hundred acres of pastures, forests, fields and ten “fishin’” lakes, one a five-acre “pond” we called the “Pettus Pond” where I caught the biggest blue gill of my life, another, twenty acres of water called the “Bowers Big Lake” where I caught the nearly nine-pound largemouth still adorning the wall in my study. Seven hundred acres of playground nirvana.

H.L. Bowers, my Uncle Hugh Wilson’s former carpenter’s helper and true American success story, had purchased or as the locals said, “bought up” nearly seven hundred acres of forest and pasture land sitting on the east bank of the Catawba. Farther east, the border of his land stopped just short of Highway 521. The reason it stopped short was a cluster of small farm houses, fields, pastures and forest owned collectively by my parents, my grandfather and grandmother along with my grandfather’s brother’s family and their sister and her husband. There were other land owners as well but the main dirt road leading to the old Collins’s house that Bower’s would eventually convert into a lodge ran right through the middle of our property. The Bowers’ “land” and the road to it was where I fell in love for the very first time.

My grandmother taught me to fish, the nuances of tying on a gold number six hook, treading on a wiggling red worm, where to look for fish on the bed and what the signs were. “Can’t you smell ‘um?” “See those pot holes?” “Make sure you keep the tip of your hook covered!” “Look at your shadow! If you can see your shadow so can the fish.” “Keep your pole tip high!” One of her fishing buddies, Miss Maggie Cureton, would say, “She sho’ nuff’ can smell deem fishes.” She also thought Nannie might have sold her soul to the devil or practiced West African Vodun because she fished according to the signs of the moon, wind direction and weather forecast. “East is when fish bite least, west is when fish bite the best, north neither man nor beast go forth, and south blows the worm into the fishes’ mouth.” No it didn’t quite rhyme but a 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.

We began to fish the Pettus Pond in the late Fifties or early Sixties. Named for our Aunt Bess’s family, it sat on land purchased from them. We were blessed to fish there. Mr. Bower’s was being neighborly but he was not neighborly to everyone. NO TRESPASSING signs were posted but those signs did nothing to deter the locals who succumbed to the siren’s call of water filled with fat blue gills, large-mouth bass and catfish. Large fines or being escorted off his land at the wrong end of a double barreled shotgun did not seem very neighborly. I heard many people refer to Mr. Bowers in less than glowing terms due to his reluctance to allow fishing on his land. It took me until adulthood to realize why he might not want his ponds over fished and I assure you they would have been.

My grandmother was in hot demand as a fishing partner. Friends from all around called to set up “fishing dates” even though she was careful not to fish the Pettus Pond all of the time. She did not want to “over stay her welcome” so to speak and only trusted partners got to go to the Pettus Pond…and her “fishing crazy” grandson. It wasn’t where she fished, it was how she fished. Rarely did the fish avoid her hook and her “luck” seemed to transfer to those who fished with her regardless of the water she put her hook in.

Nannie was a traditionalist. Cane pole, heavy line, a number six gold hook with a split shot sinker she crimped onto the line. A paper bag inside of a vegetable basket held her fishing gear along with a can of hand dug red worms, a canning jar of water and a handful of individually wrapped hard candy mints that had softened in the afternoon summer sun. Most of the time she chose to fish without a bobber and simply kept her bait moving until something hit it. I remember her battling a seven pounder into submission. Send it to a taxidermist? You must be joking. Weigh it but then filet it, bread it in cornmeal and put it into a cast iron skillet with a half inch of melted lard or Crisco. Fry until crispy and then eat. True to her poor farming background, nothing was too big to eat nor too small to keep. Pan fish deemed too small for the pan were never-the-less hauled home and incorporated into the garden providing nitrogen to help produce her sweet corn and tomatoes. “Waste not, want not.”

We were happy as larks to fish the Pettus Pond until the Bowers Big Lake was built. Situated below the Pettus Pond, looking at it from a distance was like placing fudge brownies in front of a food-a-holic handcuffed to his chair. Despite the big bluegills and largemouth bass we were catching, in my youthful mind, “The River Stix” had to be just below the Pettus dam. Somehow I got into my head, the bigger the water, the bigger the fish. In this case I was correct but as I get older I find I miss the smaller confines of the Pettus Pond or maybe I just miss my grandmother.

Today it is late April and two days past the full moon. It would seem we have had our three days of spring and summer is now upon us despite the early date. I’m probably going fishing tomorrow evening provided I get my honey do list completed. I don’t have the passion for fishing that I used to have and haven’t since 1999 when my favorite fishing partner left this world. Don’t get me wrong. I still fish but it might be for the same reason I have for my much too large garden. I know I could buy more food with what it cost me to raise mine but the food is sweeter because of the memories. I have the same sweet memories when I fish.

Don Miller has also written three books which may be purchased or downloaded at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

WASTE NOT

Excerpt from the book PATHWAYS which will be released through Amazon in late November.

When did we become such a disposable society? I wish people would quit disposing in my front yard. When did planned obsolescence become…planned? I remember ranting to a science class about wasting resources before I even knew what planned obsolescence meant. Does that make me clairvoyant? No, it probably makes me Clarabelle the Clown. Just because we can throw away a plastic bottle should we? Why do we change fashions every season? Hems go down, go up, then go down again while ties get wide then narrow then wide again. How many of you actually wear something until it wears out? Blue jeans maybe. How many of you really drive a car until the wheels metaphorically fall off. I’ve tried often. Linda and I bought an ’86 T-Bird with sixteen miles on it. It was a beauty. Two hundred and sixteen thousand miles later, thinking we had “licked all of the red off the candy” we traded it for a Mustang. A local teenage boy bought it…and the now father of three is still driving it. Presently I am actually attempting to see who can hit a quarter million first – me or my ’97 Cherokee “Bessie Mae.” We just cracked one hundred and ninety thousand on the “Bessie Mae” but I may be slightly ahead. Am I the only one to name his cars?

My grandparent’s generation were the ultimate recyclers and repurposers. My grandmother was also huge on sayings, “Early to bed, early to rise”, “a fool and his money” and one that I heard maybe daily was “Waste not, want not.” She lived it. Old plastic Clorox bottles were carefully cleaned, holes punched in the bottom and a hole cut about a third of the way up from the bottom. Why? It would become a martin house that would join a colony of Clorox bottles suspended over the garden providing homes for birds that became part of Nannie’s insect control. Buttons were cutoff of unrepairable clothing that would be later repurposed into patchwork quilts with matching pillow covers. The buttons themselves were put into an old Quaker Oats container for future repurposing when I didn’t play with them. My first set of drums were old Quaker Oats boxes and a really magical “comeback” toy. Shoes were “half-soled” repeatedly, old overalls that had finally given up the ghost were cut into patches to extend the lives of this generation’s overalls and blue jeans.

Fall would herald another type of recycling. Dried corn and beans were gathered, the best put into burlap cloth sacks and suspended from the high rafters of the crib. There they would wait until the spring to be shelled out and replanted to provide the next year’s bounty. Potatoes were spread and separated from each other on old newspapers in the darkest corner of the crib waiting to be made into chowders, salads and mashed potatoes. Those that survived the winter were cut, dividing the eyes, and replanted in the spring to start the cycle of life all over again.

Late in the fall an odd-looking truck would show up. It was the miller’s truck, not to be confused with the Miller’s truck. This was cutting edge technology for the period. Instead of taking your grain to be ground up, the truck showed up to grind your grain. This would be preceded by a flurry of activity as corn was shelled from the cob, dang that really hurts your fingers. Corn was ground into cornmeal and grits and no I had never heard of polenta. Even the cobs were ground into a fine powder that was mixed with water to be fed to our hogs. None of this could be done until my grandmother had chosen her feed sacks. This was the ultimate repurposing. She would use the emptied feed sacks to make “sack” dresses that she sewed on her foot-operated Singer treadle sewing machine. Rarely, until later in life, did my grandmother wear anything other than homemade dresses, many made from old feed sacks. Later they would be repurposed into cleaning rags or tie ups for the tomatoes. If they were a particular favorite they would be put into her scrap bag to become a part of a quilt. I am lucky to have several.

FISHIN’

FISHIN’ is an excerpt from the upcoming book Pathways
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 “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 can clearly hear the “clinking” sound of her hoe making contact with 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 also 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 nearly 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 produce from the money I spend on seed that 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.