Saturday, January 17, 2009

A DARK PATH, VIII

Mammaw told me time and time again of the Sunday after Sunday that her Mama’s two brothers (Unca Fate and Unca Tillman, whose little out-in-the-hills upholstery business helped support their widowed sister and her brood) and their wives and girls would all go home with them after church.

GG Roma, beholden by her poverty to both couples, would get up before daylight to do all the cooking, knowing that nearly every Sunday, one SIL or the other would sidle up to her after church, duck her head coyly, and ask, “What’s for dinner at YOUR house?”

I try to imagine the sheer logistics of those coerced meals, knowing that she couldn’t demur or outright refuse, and was bound to those people for her livelihood and the food in her children’s mouths. I, who have cooked for hundreds-at-a-time right out of my home kitchen, try to get my mind around getting all that done and making it to church on time.

When my own children were growing up, we’d make a salad or two, a dessert, some relishes or pickles the night before, then early on Sunday morning, I’d put a big chicken casserole or pot roast into the oven, or on to simmer on the lowest burner til we were home again a little after noon. But under those conditions . . .

There's a GREAT difference in cooking for your own family, no matter how large, and in having to set out dinner for "company"---especially if you're having to grit your teeth and make a welcome that's hard to conjure. With family, you can go home, everybody can kick off their shoes, and you can set the dinner out, for a comfortable, family time. With others to be accommodated, especially so often and by their own intrusion, and with the prospect of a long hot afternoon of "entertaining" them when you just want a moment of that Day of Rest to be restful---I can only imagine the thoughts and feelings which accompanied the hard work.

And what on earth did she find enough of to SERVE to that multitude? She had eleven at her family table for every meal, and adding four extra adults and at least six more children---the fried chicken alone would have taken hours, and the chickenyard would have covered acres.

Mammaw always set a lavish table, and said that when her Mama and Daddy first got married, her Mama would kill and cook two chickens just for the two of them---“One’s just not enough for two, for dinner and supper both,” was the exact wording every time she told the story. The “bony parts” at that time would go into the stewpot for Monday’s dumplings, but as the children came along, the Sunday fried chicken became a rare thing, and the couple of Monday-morning chickens would be killed just for the stew.

That stew, much like New Orleans’ Red Beans and Rice, seemed to be a staple of the washday-on-Monday set, left to simmer whilst the big pot in the yard was set to boil early, cleaning and sanitizing those rough clothes the only way they had. I still have a bar of Fels Naphtha, brought from Mammaw’s house after her passing---it’s shrunk to a little pebble in the paper, and smells vile, but it was nothing compared to the harsh lye soap which they made at home. And there’s a little bottle of “Bluin’”---dried to a thin blue crust in the bottom of the bottle; the blue in the rinse seemed to whiten the clothes in those days Before Clorox.

And of course, GG and her girls did the cleaning up and the dishwashing while the “guests” took the shade on the porch. Mammaw’s major memory of those Sundays is that GG insisted that Mammaw and her siblings give over what they had just worn to church, for the visiting “town” cousins to PLAY in, romping around that dusty, foot-worn grassless yard, while Mammaw ‘n’ ’nem had to wear their own oldest clothes.

In GG’s meek acquiescence to the ascendant position of her two Sisters-in-Law, she was not known to show any of the fire of her own Mother, who, before GG was born and while all the “men” of the family were away at the “War”, caught a road-wanderer trying vainly to strip off her screaming nine-year-old’s underclothes in the barn. Great-Great knocked him in the head with a stick of kindling, and beat him in a frenzy til he was bloody. Then she held him at pistol-point when he came to while they were tying him up.

The words “chicken-killin’-dog” came into the story about here each time Mammaw told it, whether from her own narrative style or as words handed down the decades with the gory details. That phrase took on as much import and custom in our epic as “It was the best of times . . . “ did to usher in Sydney Carton's saga. And Mammaw would add, ‘What was she gonna DO---turn him loose, just so he could COME BACK?---that kinda man don’t deserve to live in the first place.”

I think Great-Great had just been home all that long time, with the dread of losing her husband to the faraway ravages of bullet and gangrene and disease. She held to the precarious hope of his return, but she knew that until then, every backbreaking chore and every cent and every mouthful of food were her own responsibility; she’d coped and cried and worked herself and her little ones through starvation and loneliness and lack of any amenities, through those years of tormenting heat and mosquitoes and sheer grinding poverty, and she’d JUST. HAD. ENOUGH.

She and her children tied him behind a horse and galloped him up and down the roads and furrows and gullies til he was dead. That woman was MADDDD, I tell you. Angry mad and Mental mad and some of both. And she just snapped.

And that’s the stock I come from. Scary, ain’t it? I know in my heart that I might do worse to anyone so treating anyone I love, and in circumstances like that---it’s part of my history, and I cannot bring myself to look on her with anything but admiration and sorrow for the circumstances she faced. And I know, in the grimmest, deepest darkest part of me, that if someone did that to one of our little girls, I'd be out there saddlin' up that horse.

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