When I was little the biggest “tradition” I remember is our pretty much whole extended family going to my grandparents every Sunday for dinner. Now it may not have been EVERY Sunday but it seems like that is what I remember it being. From as far back as I can remember until I was at least a teenager.
My aunts and uncles and cousins (on my dad’s side) would all end up at Big Mama and Grandaddy’s house (the Old Home Place). I remember running through the fields and picking fruit from the trees (sometimes for the express purpose of throwing at each other). There were Granny Smith and crabapple, mulberry, persimmon, peach, cherry and walnut trees. Those crab apples and walnuts made some nasty welts when thrown hard enough. There were grape vines heavy with purple grapes. There were also Chest nut trees and chinkapins if not in the yard then in the nearby fields.
I also remember raiding the garden for fresh produce and sometimes even getting tricked by my siblings and older cousins to try this or that raw fruit straight from the garden that was in their words delicious but in reality was either so hot your mouth would burn for hours or so sour that you felt your mouth was literally turning inside out! There were also the “fruits of the vines” that were delicious straight off the vine. There’s nothing better than grabbing a nice warm ripe tomato straight off the vine and wiping the dirt on your shirt or pants and biting into that warm acidic flesh. I used to love sneaking the salt shaker out of the house in my pocket and just standing there in the garden eating warm fresh tomatoes and cucumbers until my full little belly couldn’t hold another bite! When it wasn’t summer and there was no produce to pick I remember being sent down to the dreaded “cellar” to get canned veggies for Big Mama to fix. I’m not talking canned like in tin cans you buy at the store. I’m talking veggies she canned herself in mason jars sitting on the shelf.
The cellar had a dirt floor and rock walls (the foundation of the house) and wooden boards lined the walls as shelves. I don’t remember it being very deep or I just never went back that far in it because it always scared the beejesus out of me. I know that in actuality there is a set of stairs underneath the stairs at the entrance of the house that I was always told led to the cellar but I don’t ever remember the door to those stairs ever being opened or anyone ever using them. We were always made to walk outside via the back porch and around to the side of the house to enter that way. Or she’d just yell out the back door to whatever grandchild was nearest to bring in whatever it was she wanted.
Theoretically there must have been a set of stairs from within the cellar (more like a dungeon is how I viewed it as a child) that led up to that door but as many times as I ended up running down there from the side yard to retrieve “canned” goods for Big Mama, I never ever saw those stairs. That’s why I say I must never have ventured far enough back. I always remember cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and walls and I always remembered my older cousins telling tales of giant man eating snakes (and in reality I know that area is rife with copperheads and rattlesnakes even if they aren’t man eaters) in there so I stayed in the middle of the dirt path that led between the stocked shelves until I got to whatever jar that Big Mama asked us to retrieve and I grabbed it and ran as fast as my bony little legs would take me back up those jagged rock stairs and didn’t stop until I was halfway back to the back porch because I was always afraid if I turned around there would be a HUGE ass snake or spider nipping at my heels.
I know my grandmother would always tell us to take from the back of the shelf and push the ones in front back but I never did. I didn’t take the time to do that. The snakes would get me if I hesitated long enough for that! If the snakes didn’t the black widow spiders that I knew had to be as big as my head would. I do remember there were rows and rows and shelves and shelves of succotash, green beans (some with potatoes and some without), tomatoes, butterbeans and pickles and they all came from their garden. I never appreciated growing up how lucky I was to have that kind of food sustain us.
They had a tool shed that had a grinding tool to grind flour and grits and whatever else although the only thing I can clearly remember grinding out there with my granddaddy was corn. I don’t remember much else other than remembering putting those hard kernels from the dried shucked corn into the top and watching them go round and round into the grinder while my granddaddy held me up so I could see. And of course I remember him telling me to never ever ever stick my fingers or hands inside that contraption.
I also remember going out to the henhouse with Big Mama and gathering the eggs. I can still smell that odor even now in my memory. I remember that sometimes you’d have to nudge a particularly stubborn hen off her nest to try to get the egg out from under her. There was always plenty of fresh eggs and even today, my cousin who lives at the bottom of the hill closest to my mom and dad still raises her own laying hens and always has fresh eggs. My mom rarely has to buy eggs from the store unless we’re all there. They have literally farm fresh eggs for breakfast almost daily.
Speaking of fresh… we would usually have fried chicken for Sunday dinner. Usually my big Mama would go out to the back yard with her ax in one hand and whatever chicken happened to not be fast enough that day would be the one we’d eat for dinner! She’d bend over and grab the chicken by its legs, wrangle it down to where she was holding it by its feet and carry it over to this huge wooden stump (which also doubled as the chopping block for chopping wood for the stoves) that sat out under the crab apple tree and in one quick and fluid motion she’d throw the chicken across the block while at the same time swinging that ax in a high arc over her head and bring it down with a thunk. I can still hear that thunk in my head.
Let me tell you that I learned very early in my childhood from firsthand experience where the expression “running around like a chicken with their head cut off” came from. I know this because I can’t begin to tell you how many times I watched her as that ax came down and you’d see the chicken’s head plop to the ground and she’d let go and the headless chicken would literally run around the yard for what seemed like an eternity to me but I’m sure was less than a minute, like it was searching for its head. Then as my Big Mama explained to me, as soon as all the blood ran its course through the headless chicken she’d walk over to wherever it fell and pick it up and hold it upside down to make sure all the blood was out of it. You see you’d have to let it go because if you didn’t, it would flap around while you were still holding it and you’d be wearing the blood rather than it being on the ground. Sometimes she’d repeat the process two or three times in the same day depending on how many relatives that she thought might show up that particular day.
She’d then take the carcasses into the kitchen where she’d dunk the chickens into a huge pot of boiling water she’d have on the stove to “loosen the feathers” and then carry them back outside where we would proceed to pluck out the feathers so that she could disembowel them and cut them up for frying or chicken and dumplings or whatever she was cooking that Sunday. If you’ve never been privy to plucking a chicken, let me assure you that is another smell that you do not forget. It’s also a nasty nasty chore and you end up with chicken feathers in places you never knew they could reach when you’re fully clothed!
She always chose a nice plump frying hen. I can only remember her slaughtering a rooster once and I think she blamed me for having to put him down until the day she died! She told me every chance she got afterwards that he was her best stud rooster although I had no idea what that meant. I was probably only about 5 or 6 years old and I’m not sure why this particular rooster chose me to attack but I was standing in the yard minding my own business (or as best as I can remember that’s all I was doing) when this rooster came squawking up to me and literally jumped up on my shoulders behind my head and started pecking me on the top of my head like that was his job. Since it was behind my head I couldn’t reach it and I remember running around the yard screaming at the top of my lungs doing this manic pantomime. Truth be known… that’s probably when and where “the chicken dance” was invented!
I can imagine what Big Mama must have thought when she came out to investigate what all the commotion was that was going on in her back yard and found her granddaughter flailing about the back yard like she’d stuck her finger in an electrical socket and screaming help at the top of her lungs with a rooster on her head. I do remember that sucker drew blood and it hurt like heck. I still to this day don’t know what I did to provoke that rooster but he got me good. Big Mama grabbed her ax, strode purposefully over to where I was maniacally stomping about the yard (Scenes from Flash Dance and “She’s a Maniac” come to mind) trying to fling the rooster off my head, grabbed the rooster, flung him over the chopping block and away with his head. Best fried chicken of my life!
As I got older my chores in the kitchen got less and less. Or maybe it was that I was an ungrateful teenager who preferred to spend her time riding motorcycles through the fields with her cousins or having our uncle teach us how to drive in his dune buggy. Whatever pulled me away from those chores, I wish I had paid more attention. I wish I had spent more time at my grandmother’s knee, shelling peas, shucking corn and snapping beans and learning all the secrets to life that made these strong resilient country women the matriarchs that they were. My grandmother was an amazing woman and I never took the time to appreciate her like I should have when she was alive. I regret that because there were a lot of family secrets and traditions that she probably took to her grave that we will never learn because we didn’t take the time to really listen. But they are family times that I will always cherish. Growing up country is a rare privilege and we should all be so lucky.
This post was brought to you by Sprite’s Keeper and The Spin Cycle.