Early Spring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crocus | LoveToKnow

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

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

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

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

A Mess of Green Beans

 

It’s early morning and I’m bent over strong green plants, their bounty hanging from the underside of deep, green leaves.  I’m proud of my green beans.

It’s my second picking and I am getting more than from my first.  Despite the early hour, perspiration…nay sweat is trickling down my nose.  It’s not hard work, pickin’ beans, but my back is creaking and sweat is running into my underwear when I straighten it.

I’ll pick, wash and then snap before washing again.  I don’t know what I’ll do with these.  I’m still eating on my first pickin’…my first mess…from archaic French, messe, a portion of food.

It is a word I learned from my grandmother…and a process.  Nothing wasted, not even the pot liquor.  Beans are to be eaten until they are gone…or go rancid, the pot liquor sopped up with cornbread.  Just for clarification, these are not served al dente, they are cooked to death, the Southern way.

Mine are not likely to go rancid soon.  The biological process is aided by meat products and mine have none.  I’ve had to adjust my tastes since a heart attack a decade and a half ago.  No flavorful bacon grease or fried fatback will be added.  Just potatoes, onions, and a touch of salt and pepper.  They are not as flavorful as I remember my grandmother’s but my wife’s cornbread that is served with it is much better.  Sorry Nanny, your cornbread was too dry.

There was always a “mess” of beans on my grandmother’s stove.  Green beans early in the summer, butter beans later, and finally crowder peas in the early fall.  Whatever was canned found its way to the stovetop during the winter and spring.

I’ve tried to keep her schedule along with squash and tomatoes.  I wish I could figure out how to get my tomatoes to mature at the same time my beans do.  It would appear I’m still a few weeks away from my first tomato sandwich.  My garden is late this year due to April rains.

As I pick, I step back in time.  It is Monday as I write this.  A lifetime ago Mondays were days to finish gathering and prepping for Tuesdays which was, along with Thursdays, canning days at my countrified local school.  A cannery subsidized I’m sure by that Yankee ‘gubment’ in Washington or the nearby state one in Columbia. It was cheap, a penny a can, it had to be subsidized by someone.

It was a hot and humid place in the middle of hot and humid summers.  People came from all around to avail themselves.  It was a cheap way to preserve their summer bounty for the cold winter days ahead.  There was so much activity I am reminded of the story of the ant and the grasshopper.  No lazy grasshoppers here, just hard-working ants.

At my grandmothers there would be a flurry of activity on Mondays that would run well into the evening.  It would end with family from the hill above and the ‘holler’ below joining us.  Aunts, Uncles, and cousins sitting on the front porch snapping or shelling the last of the beans or prepping soup mix.  There was a good dose of gossip to go with the shelling.

A hushed voice asks, “Did you hear about so and so?”

Another query, “Didn’t she run off with….?”

A third with shaking head, “Oh my, you don’t say?  I know her momma is besides herself with worry.”

A fourth would ask, “Y’all want some sweet tea?”

The menfolk in fedoras and overalls sitting on one side of the L shaped porch, the women in feed sack dresses on the other.  I don’t really know what the menfolk discussed, what juicy details were talked about but their conversation probably revolved around work or what malady their car might be suffering.  Seemed everything revolved around scratching out a living or driving.

I remember falling asleep on the metal glider surrounded by the aromas of Prince Albert pipe tobacco and Camel or Lucky Strike unfiltered.  It was a different time and somehow, I always woke up in my bed with no memory of how I got there.

The cannery was operated by the Leapharts, my school’s home economics, and agriculture teachers and their offsprings.  They operated it but everyone shared in the responsibilities.  Communal effort is always a farming community’s way.

Sterilized cans were filled with bounty before salt and water added.  Cans ran through some sort of magical machine that steamed and sealed the cans before tops were added and another magical machine sealed them.

The finished product placed in a water bath and allowed to cool until Thursday when we picked them up.  I remember being responsible for adding the water, a steamy job in the steamy, humidity filled days of summer but one suited for a boy my age.

I’ve tried canning with varying degrees of success…the glass Ball jars and rings.  I freeze a lot but for some reason, it does not quite taste the same.  I guess it could be the absence of bacon grease or fatback, but I don’t think so.  It might have been the people and the process.

I remember phone calls to my grandmother when I left for college and later for the real world.  Summertime calls were always accompanied by a canning tally and the weather forecast, “Well I did twenty-five cans of green beans, eighteen butter beans, and a dozen of soup mix.  It has sure been hot and dry.  I can’t remember the last time it rained.”   If she’d been fishing I got that report too.

When I came home to visit from the real world, I always returned with cans of love from her pantry.  A mess of green beans and potatoes with some raw onion and a wedge of cornbread.  Good eats…good memories.

My senses are a funny thing.  Smells trigger many memories…or sweat running down my nose or a song on my playlist.  There is something about the smell of tomatoes or green beans boiling in a pot.  I go back to those days when the humidity didn’t seem so bad when there was always a pot of beans on my grandmother’s stovetop and cornbread or biscuits close by.

****

Don Miller writes on various subjects and in various genres.  His author’s page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3ISpnFiIcskj6u17soo9sN1uvFBdpA59noucO8m0LdgN9k0rhPlAxRa2g

The image is from Simple Home Preparedness at https://simplefamilypreparedness.com/home-canned-green-beans-in-3-easy-steps/

 

Steak Chips….

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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