Tuesday, August 8, 2017

BALONEY





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BACK even before my Mother and Daddy first married, she worked in a tiny small-town grocery store---Aunt Lou’s, in fact, with all the goods anybody could need save for ready-made clothes and shoes.    Aunt Lou had the only “market” in town---her store was the only one to “cut meat” for sale, and Mother learned early to break down those sides of beef and pork and cut them into steaks and roasts and ribs.     

Mother also made a small-pond name for herself at the County Fair over in another neighboring county where one of her girlfriends lived.   There were all sorts of penny-games and contests and prize pumpkins and pigs and pickles and pies. One of the contests was held by the local family who did all the meat-butchering for the area for many miles around.   You’d raise your pig or steer, take it to their farm, and they’d deliver your Winter supply of meat in neat, slick-paper packages, with the bacon and hams kept to be smoked to your order and a date projected for you to come pick them up.

As well as being prominent in church and township, they were also a local landmark, with huge cut-outs of pigs and cows and sheep attached to the top of an enormous board-fence which surrounded most of the cattle-lot.   You could give directions to your house:   Turn left at Nolan’s, and again at the Pentecostal.   Everybody knew them by name and reputation for such fine meat.

They also made your sausage---Winter or Summer style, gut-stuffed and smoked firm and lasting, or loose-pack delivered in whatever clean pan or tub you handed them when they took custody of your ill-fated pig.   And there were links---hundreds of the little pink twists---WAY before Jimmy Dean, we were all enjoying “baby-links” in our part of the country.     Even our city cousins up in Memphis had no such delicacies in their big markets, like Montesi and Seessels, and loved the little sticks of sausage when they visited us.




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Nolan’s also  advertised by product---like a Viking-hall edition of the bite-sized  store-samples today---great heaps of their Brats and Franks were cooked atop mounds and mounds of fried onions and peppers at every fair, carnival, barn-raisin’ and Camp Meetin’ for counties around---you could smell that marvelous aroma from WAY down the road, and followed your nose to the irresistible.    Literal “word of mouth” brought them a booming business in all sorts of endeavors.


Other sausages were made by their old family recipes---Bratwurst and Knockwurst and my favorite---those tee-ninecy little two-inch pink poppin’-weenies all strung together like long beads with a knot between.   Those things were the tastiest of their wares, to me, with their tight little skins giving a decided POP when you bit them, and the most delicately tender insides, fragrant with garlic and I’ve-never- figured-what-else.   Opening that big Revere–Ware skillet lid and seeing a pan of Mammaw’s homemade kraut with a big spiral of those small pearly weenies simmering atop was a Happy-Meal to our family.    I’ll bet kids today don’t feel as pleased to see their favorite pizza drive up to the door.



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But Nolan’s had a distinct product which was their biggest seller:  Baloney.  Everybody knew Nolan’s Baloney, and I don’t know HOW they made enough pounds of the stuff for all the demand.  Aunt Lou sold tons of it in her store---every single slice cut by hand---why, the town didn’t hardly “get electric” until 1940 or so.    And Mother could handle those big butcher knives as well as anybody.   She’d reach one of the long, keen blades from their side-slot, sometimes give it a little gingerly test with her thumb, slide that big knife delicately through rind and flesh, and cut you off twelve sandwich-sized slices as neat as you please---every one exactly the same thickness, one side to the other. 

And she could CUT A POUND of Baloney.  Slices or one piece---no matter, and she didn't need to keep flopping another bit onto the scale-platform.  When she laid down her knife and did that squint-squat to look at the numbers---they balanced. Every time.

She’d not had much kitchen training, save for killing and cleaning a chicken nearly every Sunday morning of her life, shelling mountains of beans and peas, and snapping all the snap beans. Her cooking mostly ran to being allowed to measure wets and drys, or stir a pot or two, besides washing up each and every dish by hand, but my Mammaw just could NOT countenance letting her loose with any kind of knife, “because of her bein' left-handed, and all.”  She just didn’t do it right, or even LOOK right doing it, according to Mammaw, and that was that.

But Mother could cut meat to the ounce, as she proved several times at the Fair and a barn-raisin or corn-shuckin' or two.   The usual prize was a whole stick of that good Nolan's baloney, and she never failed to bring home the prize.

We had it in sandwiches, in ground-up sandwich spreads, sorta pinked around the edges into little pinwheel-shapes and fried for breakfast or with a good thick slice of hoop cheese laid on to melt, and slid onto the platter with six or so mates to set down for a quick supper with jacket potatoes and dill pickles.   (Come to think of it, we had PICKLED BALONEY, as well, all cut into cubes and marinated in a good strong brine for a couple of days in the fridge).  It was a beer-lover's hors d'oeuvre, let me tell you.   A bowl of that brought out to the pit where a group were tendin' an all-night pig-roast---oh, my, Porky Nirvana.  And if you forgot the forks, you'd hear an immediate chorus of snicks as half a dozen pocket-knives were opened to begin joogin' in that bowl.

 Mother just had a Know-How.   That hefty knife, which she’d washed and scalded and sharpened herself nearly every day for ten years, seemed a bit too big as she drew it from the side-scabbard on the butcher-block.   She’d squint down the blade with the eagle eye of a watchmaker, checking its angle and edge, then set that big five-pound cylinder of baloney on the board.    A little nudge to the angle, a press to ensure a solid seating, and then she’d lay the knife gently along one of the imaginary lines her eye had sectioned the big cylinder into.    A sure lift of the shoulder, the gentle descent as that scarred old knife cut through the perfect spot like slicing pie.



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Every time.   And she could cut that pound into equal-six, or equal-eight, depending on how many around your table that day, with each so fairly divided that there was never a squabble amongst ‘em.      There’s a Musical Gift, and a Literary Bent, as well as a Leaning-Toward-Law or Medicine or Military, and they all garner their praise and enhance their owners.   But a natural born talent, now, like whittlin’ out a swan, or charming an owl, or even cutting baloney---that’s a Purentee GIFT.


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Saturday, July 29, 2017

PLOTTING ESCAPES ME

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Thank you to the several people who e-mailed recently to ask why I don’t publish my blog, or at least some of the Southern stories.  I so appreciate the great compliment and confidence, but I’m not at all a plot-smith.   And though I’ve had lovely reactions to the small bits I write for LAWN TEA, it’s just descriptions mostly, and you can stay interested for JUST SO LONG in colours and expressions and postures and events; you gotta have a PLOT.

There are vast MASTERS of that, who weave stories out of whole cloth, with warp and weft swayed to accommodate truth or lie, deeds or thoughts. Close-up or back-up-and-squint, their stories have pattern and sequence, woven through with threads which provide texture and strength to the whole.   And then there are those who patch their stories out of the frayed edges all the way around, winding and darning until the tale rings true, if thin.  Somewhere in there, I guess I must work around the selvage, not matching up with the whole picture and having none of the pattern, just some mismatched threads.  I think I just skip-hop around the periphery of stuff,  knitting up a few little flowers there, embroidering a pile of leaves amongst the snarls, some hard-as-a-hickry-nut moments in the knots, or some fronds of lazy fern-waves behind the sheers.

It’s the centrals, the life-patterns and the true colours of the REAL that evade me.   Just prinking a plot together would probably stretch my feeble brain and drive me to making voodoo dolls.   It’s like me and card games---I can trump whatever you put down there, but haven’t a clue in Killarney what to lead with next.

Adjectives are my friends.  Never met many I didn’t embrace and claim for my own, and since there are so many, I scatter-shot them haphazardly across hill and dale, with plenty left for the ditches and the ruts.   I know all about spare prose; I read the tight, terse words, strung together like perfect pearls.  Given one of those exquisite sentences, I would be struck by the purity and absolute perfection of the statement.  If the same thought were my own, I’d be throwing in descriptives right and left, seeing in my mind all the intricacies of the idea, but losing those pearls right off the string into a great mudhole of modifiers.  In my hands, “Call me Ishmael,” would have deteriorated into this great doily of introduction up to and including bows and curtsies, and that whale-hunt would have outlasted Ahab, Whale and Pequod.

But a plot, now---that’s just not in my telling.  I’d start out a few lines, then veer wildly between whatever I’m reading now, maybe some Ivanhoe, a bit of Grafton, three lines from Hamlet, a little Reacher, a little Captains Courageous, some stolen string theory, a smidge of Princess Bride, a page or two of Tarzan, and wild wavers between Idgie Threadgoode and Raylan Givens.   All the while visualizing, as I do, the diverse group of all the fabulous character actors whose faces and voices would fill the parts.

 There are supposed to be less than half a dozen plots in the known world anyway, and they’ve been used and re-used and re-written and convoluted and plagiarized and re-purposed til the cows come home.   Don’t writers ever worry that the exact set of circumstances they’re writing so feverishly about, with all the new-to-them labors of their harried, fertile brains, might have been published in 1898 or 2004, by some housewife from Little Rock, still unknown and stuck with several hundred languishing copies?   There they’d be---not having read those particular stories, with a year’s worth of work and re-write and edit and submissions and rejection slips, all finally accepted by HarperCollins and ready to go---and then falls the ax on the whole deal.

I'll just hang right here, overdoing the descriptions, with nowhere to go but down another prosy path too overgrown with words. 

I received three books yesterday, by Rick Bragg, new-to-me author whose Southern prose will make your eyes bug out and tear up and go REAL wide at the same time your heart is just stricken with the moment, it’s so good.   One of those “Where Has This Been for So Long?” kinda writers.  

Says I, who spent about five hours Thursday peep-reading page after page of his work from quite a few Amazon books with the little doohickey you can click for a sample.    I came out of that trance pure-Dee drunk with words and phrases I’ve heard and used all my life, all arranged anew like anagrams of what I thought words should say.   It didn’t matter which books---I’d just keep at one, drinking it all in, til it ran out, then on to the next---different title, different plot, but OH, that self-same gift for making you sit up and take notice and remember and marvel and tremble some.


I’m going to go keep reading now---All Over But the Shoutin'---one of three which arrived yesterday, new and shining like treasure tumbling from the box.   Now THERE’S a WRITER.  He uses lots of words, as well, but they’re spare and apt and exactly right.   The plot of this one, since it’s autobiographical, is as old as Adam and Eve, but so wonderfully told in his Southern phrasing and stark sentences---a gift seldom found.  I devoured half the first one last night, in this quiet room with no sound save my turning pages and Chris' small finger-waves at his Nook, with an occasional soft sigh from me, marveling at the genius of a line.   I don't think Genius can describe this.

Thank you, Latane, for the introduction.


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Sunday, July 16, 2017

ONE WITH THE WIND






All photos by the incomparable Marty Kittrell, who has explored Mississippi for years, camera in hand.  

Any drive through the Delta will yield quite a number of small scenes away-off in the fields---the brave shapes of compact churches which seem to populate these rolling acres more freely than tractors sometimes.   They’re mostly deserted, these last small gathering-houses of the locals, as the ebb and flow of population mimed the changes in the state---prosperity or poverty, as they carried the denizens to greener fields, so to speak, or as the young’uns moved swiftly away in search of jobs and a better life, the members remaining slowly took their places in the small plots of the surrounding cemetery.  



This one reminds me of a dissatisfied baby with a Kewpie curl , standing on his little concrete feet.

The last time I was down there, in 2004, you could still see the withering husks of old country churches across the fields---their white paint dimmed to gray by time and heat and field-dust.   So many of them seem to be put down like little chalk Monopoly pieces, with no rhyme or reason in the middle of a REAL Nowhere, with the narrow gravel of their ingress hidden by rolling rows of cotton and beans.  And many of them are deserted now---stripped to the echoes, as the exodus of the farm-folk and country-dwellers emptied those timeworn pews.   Even when I still lived there, countless empty edifices raised their bowing heads above that rich black gumbo, still humbly waiting for the faithful to return.   And many a beautiful topiary of the encroaching kudzu has, at its center, a small chapel, still with altar, pews, and choir-loft nestled within.






One of the great mysteries to me was always the leaving of things---it was as if one night after services, there was a mysterious mass departure from the Chapel of St. Mary Celeste.   Many a small building still holds hymnbooks, offering plates, the necessaries for Lord’s Supper, even notices on the wall and the flyaway dimness of printed programs blown down beneath the pews like the dried leaves on the porch.


These wonderful old-to-me plates which held wine/grape juice for The Lord’s Supper are a neat successor to the Chalice, the Cup of the really olden years.   I love the idea of them, and I love the inset glisten of the tee-ninecy cups, but the whole affair, from felty bottom to small Cross-shaped finial on the lid, always strikes me as a charming meld of carousel and centrifuge.   I wonder why someone didn’t rescue this tray, and take the cups away in it.  I wonder more how they got all those wee jiggling cups home without breakage.



Some of the structures have lost walls, roofs, steeples, and weather has savaged the contents, with all the paper and wood frayed by the elements    The pews still stand, sagging with the years; old number boards and banners hang their messages from decades past, and the floors creak their remembrance of footsteps long stilled.   



A few of the places seem still bright and the congregation just dismissed---you can practically hear the notes of "What a friend . . ." ringing across the pews as the Sunday suits and the bright hats nod their way out. 







Except for the languishing pianos.  They seem to take the abandonment hardest, with the yellowing keys and the dust sifting in. I think they are the saddest relics, with their once-bright varnish bubbled and chipped, and the yellowed keys swelled above the key bed like protruding teeth. 





They're used to the human touch and that symbiotic pairing which makes the music; without the hands to play them, they die---they faint---they fail.



There should be a State Commission for the gentle removal and preservation of all the frangible religious artifacts left to the wind.  I'd write my Representative for that.







Sunday, July 9, 2017

FAMILY REUNIONS

Henery Edward Newman & Siblings- L to R -Etta, Henry, Myrtle, Pryor B, Lucy, Sam, Bessie, Uncle Brick, & Loraine

Left to right:  Aunt Eddie, Uncle Bud, Mammaw, Uncle Peabo, Aunt Lu, Uncle Sam &  Aint Bessie (twins), Uncle Brick and Aint Lo    One brother Uncle E passed away as a young father, in 1929   I made this picture with my Brownie camera in 1958, the last time they were all together.


Today marks the 1200th post on LAWN TEA, and as most have been, it’s mostly memories.


There’s just something about Summer that always reminds me of Family Reunions.   The familiar-yet-seldom trek over blacktops and through the Sunday-morning sunshine beating down on the sleepy little towns on the way.   That last long gravel road, with the dusty foliage almost brushing the doors of the car---I don’t think I ever went out there once, without the windows-down, minutely-microscopic grit of road-dust between my back teeth.  That hill-dust was different, somehow, from Delta dust---ours would billow out behind your car, but you could still SEE the car.  Hill dust grew as you went, into this opaque screen obscuring road and landmarks, and marking your passage like a great tawny-red bubble floating down the road.

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Then there was the first glimpse of the weathered green roof and the old silvery board-and-batten of the house which saw ten children raised and out into the world.   The house was on a little rise, surrounded by a good hardy grove of trees, but with only one big old window-fan in the house, and the heat of the day beating down on the big dusty yard, we had an annual glimpse of the REAL feeling of the place where our Mammaw’s Mother and Daddy built their first home. 
The only picture I know of the original house, with Great-Grandma Romy on the left+ and eldest daughter Aunt Eddie center, holding her two baby sons. Clockwise above:  Uncle Peabo, Uncle Bud, Uncle E, Mammaw,  twins Uncle Sam and Aint Bessie, then Uncle Brick and Aint Lo.  Aunt Lu is the one in gray at Mammaw's elbow.

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I can still smell the ingrained wood-smoke in the living room, with the huge crocheted 48-star Flag sagging its weight over the unused-in-decades fireplace, and the saggy-butt old couch and chairs with the prickly flocky velvet.   Uncle Peabo and Aunt Katie last lived in the house, as I remember from my teens, and were in residence til they passed on.  I assume that there was eventually an indoor bathroom, but the old cistern-for-wash-water and the stovepipe well were still in use when we were last there in the early Sixties.    



Not our cistern, but photographed by my dear friend Janie at Southern Lagniappe


I used to love going to those old gatherings   Sometimes I’d make three pound cakes on a Friday.  And have a new scratchy dress for the festivities on Sunday---somehow you just didn’t wear comfortable Summer clothes to a Reunion.   Well, some of the young City Cousins, more avant garde than we in every respect, especially in THEIR minds, sometimes did---all pool-tan and comfy in cotton shorts and sleeveless shirts, but it was incumbent on “our side” to maintain a ladylike decorum. 

So, while everyone my age was up trees or running headlong-can’t-stop down the grassy hills of THE OLD HOMEPLACE, I was setting tables and fanning flies away from the watermelon and watching after babies.   My kinda fun.

Everybody brought those aluminum-frame lawn chairs---the ones with the seats like they were made of stiff seat-belts, light and collapsible for transport in those wide-trunked Chevvies and Fords, along with the big Igloo coolers and quilt-wedged gallons of sweet tea.   Aunt Lo always brought a single gallon of her pickles---a vinegary jug of  naked cucumber slices floating like strange pale cogs in a yellowed aquarium.   How we kids crowded around her as she set down the big wide-mouthed jug, and how we hovered like the small bees drawn to the brine.  We understood their allegiance to the stuff, as they floated and drowned in ecstasy in the spill-over pool created by dip after dip of our eager spoons. 




The tables were always planks laid on sawhorses, with well-cloroxed sheets spread on, with one big one for the food (always organized, by Southern Command and Sovereign Decree, by plates and silverware at the end, and a succession of meats and casseroles, then bowls and pots of vegetables, followed by cold stuff and salads.  Desserts would be spread in a grand array, already cut by careful hands beforehand, to avoid mess AND clumsy swipes of knives and spoons by the inept.   Somewhere hovering between salad and sweet were the “congealed salads,” those inevitable Tupperware bowls and molds of anything you could rightfully stir into Jello.   The choice of whether it WAS one or t'other was up to family custom, and breezily accepted by one and all as “just their way”).
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The laughing and talking and hugging and catching up were a mighty thing to behold---all those descendants of the same little couple married so young, and she a widow so soon, with ten children to raise.  The meetings-at-car-doors and long lookings down the drive for faraway kin, coming all the way from Memphis and Alabama and that long bus trip from Indianapolis for the farthest-away sister were moments of anticipation and relief, and the greetings and shouts across that familiar  yard were probably far beyond any childhood noises the elder generation playing there ever made---all ten of them together.

 The brothers and sisters were all hearty laughers and mostly loud talkers, as were quite a few of their own offspring, and it was a wonderful time of gathering.  

With our own seven now scattered into seven states, it’s an absolute given that we’ll not gather that way often, and never in the heat of that Mississippi past, as we’re all-but-one gone from there now, moved all around the country, with our own lives to carry on, and so many miles, so many miles.   Only a very few of our now-family have ever been to that Old Homeplace, for the house was torn down in the seventies after it had stood sagging into Time for many years.  The only remnant of that little farmplace was the yellow brick of the chimney, salvaged by Daddy when the new owners tore down the house, and used to cover one wall of the sunroom in our own family home.  I used to stand at that wall, running my fingers along brick and mortar, wondering where in the structure of the chimney was this piece of my history I was touching, and what wars and tears and family celebrations IT had seen as it warmed my kin, cooked their food, dried their clothes, in the century-and-more since it was molded and laid.  Now that childhood home, too, has been sold to other folks, yea these twenty years past.  

 I wonder how many memories remain to the cousins of my generation, how many tell their children of that old spot where it all began, how many remember the Aunts and Uncles, how many have only the small pixel quilt-patches of strange faces and forgotten names on hive-sites where family histories are kept and shared.   Sis keeps “our” site, doing the research and the annotations and computer work, keeping the dates and facts in order.

And I only jot down memories, adding them to the trove of information and history, hoping I’m not the only, not the last.






Tuesday, July 4, 2017

GOD BLESS AMERICA





Remembering other days, other times of celebration, and especially thinking of the newest family member gone off to serve her country.

From countless renditions, innumerable versions of the song---the original which started it all, and remains the one which makes our hearts beat most with pride in our country.  It's a 99-year-old song, timeless and true, and this is the lady who sang it best.