In addition to the Sunday dinners I hurried home from church at a very young age to cook while Mother and Daddy visited on the Church lawn, I also fed quite a few wandering fellows in my early days.
We lived four houses down from a railroad track---my most delightful time of day was when the City of New Orleans stopped to take on fuel. I would run down the block, climb the enormous, swooping trails of wisteria vine in the last neighbor's yard, and peer into the dining cars, all alight and bright with white napery, ladies in their nicest hats, and the coats of the smiling waiters.
I can still feel the crisp Autumn air on my face and arms, the rough wood of the huge old wisteria vine, big as tree limbs, that swooped in sways and drapes at the corner of the block. I'd climb up six or eight feet and stand watching, as the train just sat there, all the wisps and blasts of the steam streaming into the twilight air, with the stars punching their way through the darkest-of-blue sky. I always remember those years of train-watching as in Fall, mostly because it was much easier to see into the windows on those cool, early-dark nights, than in the still-light of Summer.
I thought it the most wonderful, the most romantic, the most elegant thing in the world to be able to sit there in that small space, with lovely shining silverware and china, and be one of those happy, beautifully-dressed passengers enjoying their meal. I never saw beneath shoulder-height, but having seen train dining cars in the movies, my child’s mind converted those images into glorious colors and gleams, with flowers in vases and a silvery coffeepot wielded by the white-coated waiter.
So our closeness to the railroad made us a haven for the far-from-home-and-hungry. The first three houses were that fake-brick-siding brown, all railroad houses where the workers lived, with our little white one on the end a beacon to all travelers. I truly believe there WAS a mark somewhere on our property, because seldom did a week go by without a shabby, polite man or two appearing at the screendoor, hat in hand, asking if he could "do some work" for a meal.
My Mother always cooked a big Southern noon dinner, and the leftovers were warmed over for our supper, along with any added dishes we might prepare. So when one of the men would ask in his polite code for something to eat, Mother would dish him up a plate, add a hunk of cornbread or two slices of lightbread, along with a big dollop of homemade preserves or jelly for dessert. Beverage was a quart jar brimming with strong iced tea.
On the occasions when she felt that the dinner might not stretch into extra meals for unexpected guests and our evening meal as well, she would get out a small skillet and fry up two big eggs, straight from my Mammaw's henhouse. Four slices of Wonder Bread this time, spread with Blue Plate mayonnaise, the hot buttery eggs slid between, a good sprinkle of salt and pepper. That and the requisite scoop of home-canned preserves made a fine meal for a man needing a bit of help to get him to wherever he was headed. For several years in my early childhood, we also had gallons of free milk from Mammaw's cow, along with fresh-churned butter, so a quart jar of cold milk would serve nicely to wash down those hot egg sandwiches, and add extra nourishment, besides.
A couple of times when she was out for the afternoon, and the knock came on the door, I bade them to wash up at the backyard faucet and sit down out in the shade at the picnic table, while I cooked the egg sandwiches and poured the tea or milk. We had very close neighbors and everyone looked out for all the children, so I never had one moment's fear of walking out that back door with the food and drink.
I guess I've fed half the world by now---lots of teenagers and hundreds of young soldiers, thousands at parties and weddings and dinners we've catered, but none have been quite as satisfying, somehow, as being ten and walking out that dusty screen door, hearing it slam shut behind me as I used both hands to balance and navigate down the steps to the backyard, carrying a plate of warm, greasy egg sandwiches and a quart of iced tea to a hungry man far from home.