Food carries memories. I’ve suspected that our fondness for foods foreign to us is, in part, that they don’t carry our memories. But what about the recent nostalgia for distinctively American food, for Midwestern home cooking, square meals, and blue-plate diner specials? Have we succeeded in drawing halos around the past during which we forked in those mashed potatoes and gravy?
In 1944, the next-to-last summer of the war — I was three, going on four — my mother tosses my father out and takes me to her mother in Arkansas. My grandmother works a shipwreck of a farm on forty hilly acres in the northern part of the state. When my mother hikes her skirt above her stocking tops to pull herself up into the rusted-out pickup at the crest of the drive, I do not know I will not see her again until two months before my sixth birthday. I break out in boils anyway.
My grandmother is sixty-five in 1944. Twenty years earlier she had chucked my mother’s father, a Folger’s coffee salesman, in Indianapolis, left my then-six-year-old mother off in a Roman Catholic convent in Albuquerque, and followed her man (“My man, I love him so,” she sang, “I’ll never let him go”) to Los Angeles, where they opened a popcorn stand, and then on to the Klondike in Alaska, where they panned for gold. Since the late Thirties, she has lived alone on the farm with her two hired hands, Bushels and Buckles.
I call her Grammy, this little squat tub of a woman. She is brutal, powerful, and repulsive. She never feeds me a bad meal.
On the red-checkered gingham tablecloth, Grammy sets down meals that stick to the ribs and do not hide the hard facts of the heavy thingness of things. Her cooking does not conceal being born, hard work, and bloody death; it does not deny its roots, does not smother its origins with sauces. It smells like itself. It uses lard, thick cream, the fatback off the hog, and butter, yellow cornmeal, and flour that comes in cloth sacks from which tea towels and children’s nighties are made. It is mixed with the hands and fried in iron skillets.
Its preparation is improvisational; it goes something like this: For withered lettuce, take a head of green or red leaf lettuce, preferably red. Wash, dry, and tear leaves. (Don’t cut or chop the lettuce.) Add a bunch of thin-sliced radishes and four or five green onions to the lettuce, which you should put in a big bowl. Mix it with your hands. In the skillet — you must have an iron skillet — fry a quarter-pound of thick-sliced bacon, cut into inch-long pieces, until crisp. Take out bacon and set aside on paper towel. Let bacon grease cool. To cooled bacon grease, add one-half cup cider vinegar, four tablespoons sugar. Stir well with a big fork and bring to a boil. (Once I didn’t wait until the bacon grease cooled, and when I added vinegar, steam rose up and burned my face.) Just before dinner, pour this, boiling, over lettuce and green onions, and radishes. Add bacon pieces. Serve immediately. The grease hardens quickly.
Nothing goes to waste. When Grammy butchers hogs, she pickles the cloven feet (trotters), the pointed cartilaginous ears, and the curling bone and gristle tails. She packs head cheese into the long-snouted hog’s head. Any pork remnants she grinds down into sausage, which she stuffs into the hog’s intestines. The last renderings and bacon grease, hoarded over the months in Mason jars, she turns into a smoke-blackened iron pot of swilling lye to make soap.
Milk is never let go bad. What Bushels and Buckles do not haul up to the road in sweating metal jugs for the dairy driver to pick up, what we do not drink, what is not poured into a trough for the piglets, Grammy churns into butter, makes into egg custards and puddings. She separates curds from whey, hangs the curds out on the clothesline in a cheesecloth clabber bag. More whey drips on the ground. On the table the next day, there is a bowl of soured clabber milk whose tender pebble curds you strew with sugar.
It is slow food, somebody’s-at-home food, and takes its time on back burners and low flames. Cooked vegetables are overcooked. The liquid left in the pot after cooking vegetables is called pot likker and coats your mouth with a taste that is undomesticate, mineral, dark and green, musty. You dip squares of cornbread or a rolled-up slice of light bread in the pot likker.
There is breaded tomato, made from tomatoes canned in August. Pools of melted butter percolate from the khaki bread crusts onto a lake of tomato juice. It is like eating scenery.
Grammy stands in the walk-in pantry and gazes at her Mason jars packed with whole pickled peaches stuck with cloves, bread-and-butter pickle, lye-soaked pale green and paler pink watermelon rind pickle, golf-ball-size pickled beets, pickled okra pods with frills of dill head. Standing with her hands on her broad hips, she will count the quarts of Bing cherries, white Royal Annes, boysenberries, blackberries, red and black raspberries, pie cherries, cling peach halves, and whole ivory Sickel pears, stem on, suspended in clear juice. When her best friend, Stell Ellis, comes to visit from Springfield, Missouri, Stell will say to my grandmother, “Let me look at your canning, doll.’’
In the iron pot, a stewing hen floats and bobs on her own bubbling juices. Her goose-bumped skin sweats yellow fat. Grammy has scooped out from the hen's mysterious jumble of guts, gizzard, liver, gravel, a handful of embryonic eggs with yolks no bigger than marbles, and has set them aside for gravy. As the hen simmers, her wings slowly loosen at the joint and lie out on either side of her high-peaked breast like blunted angel wings on the gold-flecked broth, and the pure white dumplings puff up into summer clouds.
Grammy makes pork roast in the iron roaster while I think of how the witch tried to fatten up Gretel for her oven. I see if I can still measure my wrist with my thumb and finger. I can, and while I rest in the knowledge that I am not yet oven-ready, Grammy fries apple rings in butter until the apples are see-through as dime store blouses. As she works she sings, but she never whistles. “A whistling woman, a cackling hen, will always come, to some bad end,” she warns.
At night all four of us — me and Grammy and Bushels and Buckles — eat together. I suspect that our main meal came at four-thirty rather than at the traditional noontime of most farms because Grammy worked as long hours as her hired men.
By the time you finish reading this story you will know how to make a dinner that, typically, we would have eaten during one of the last two summers of World War II. In addition to the withered lettuce salad, the menu includes chicken-fry steak with gravy, mashed potatoes with turnips, green beans with pork, yellow crookneck squash, okra fried in cornmeal, and cornbread. You will have leftovers. But dibs and dabs of this and that are part of this cuisine, either reheated as they were originally served, or heated and mixed with another dish.
What you need for dinner for four:
four 1/2-pound pieces of cube steak
1/2 pound salt pork, fatback or thick-sliced bacon
one pound butter
1 head red leaf lettuce
1 pound fresh green beans
1 bunch radishes
1 bunch green onions
1 pound fresh okra, medium-size pods
1 pound yellow crookneck squash, medium-size
three or four yellow onions
jar of sweet gherkins or bread-and-butter pickle
As the oldest child (“mother to my mother’s young ’uns”) in a large German immigrant family on a farm in Indiana, my grandmother grew up, she would tell me, “working my fingers to the bone.” Her mother was stern and hard — by all accounts, a scrawny, puny, mean-hearted little woman — and Grammy ran away at sixteen. She married my uncle’s father (“a dreamer”), left him for the Folger’s coffee salesman who became my mother’s father, and then, when my mother turned six, left him, too. My mother, who would not permit me to see my father, never saw her father again after that.
“It would have been disloyal even to ask,” my mother says, eyeing me meaningfully.
“Didn’t you want to see him?” I ask.
“That is irrelevant,” she answers. My mother and father eloped. Grammy and my father were enemies from the start of my parents’ eight-year marriage. Grammy minces no words: He is “no-good,” my “spoiled, rich-kid father.” I am his “spitting image,” she says, waggling her butcher knife so close to my nose that my eyes almost cross and I can see the upper denture shift in her mouth.
I learned sass from my father, Grammy says. And I inherited bad habits, like “playin’ with your nasty self,” she tells me, laughing and wrathful all at once, “You’re pig as any, girl.” I will end up, she warns, like the neighbor’s silly boy. He “played his nasty.” If she catches me at it, she will do what her mother did— sprinkle red pepper on my “nasty.” Grammy, like her daughter, beat me unmercifully with anything that happened to be at hand. And it was from Grammy, who in repose appeared jolly, that my mother learned to say, “I’m gonna cut the blood out of you.”
I see Grammy, to this day, by the back porch. A feed sack apron covers the navy blue, white polka dot dress. She holds her butcher knife like a scepter and says “cheese” when her two children tell her to; the grin is not hers. She is four feet, ten inches tall — “stout,” my mother says when she shows a friend the snapshot. (Now that Grammy is long dead, my mother regards her mother as picturesque. “Quaint,” she says. In truth Grammy was big as a house, forty-five, maybe fifty inches at the belly. She was what she would have called a “man mountain Dean.”) Her narrow eyes peek, peer out of the photograph from between pillows of fat. Even her pierced ear lobes are fat—and twinkle with diamond studs.
Her face is an effeminate George Washington. She could be his sister. Her skin hangs in folds off her square jawline. Her lips gather like a coin purse.
Once a week she rinses her white hair with laundry blueing. (The blue brought out the blue of her eyes, explains my mother many years later in a rhapsodic contralto, as if she had forgotten the facts of her own life, forgotten that she says to me when she turns forty, “I would never have divorced your father, you know, had it not been for your grandmother.”)
Dirt works, down deep, into the lines across her palms. Her hands are calloused. She never wears gloves. “I can’t grab hold good,” she says. Orange bunions bulge on her size-five feet. For years she has worn ill-fitting shoes and boots. After her bath she sits on her bed, a folded towel under one foot. She cuts at her bunions with a straight razor. One night she slices too deeply. Her blood turns the white towel pink.
Before she switches off her lamp at night she soaks her dentures, which rub open sores on her gums, in a glass of water mixed with baking soda. Then she takes two tablespoons of pink Pepto-Bismol for her sour stomach. Under her pillow there is a sheathed dagger and a blue-black .38.
Grammy works unbelievably hard. Year round, she milks at dawn and dusk, rubbing the cows’ udders afterward with Bag Balm. She shovels out manure and spreads fresh hay; waters and feeds cows, chickens, horses, mules; slops the hogs, summoning them with “Sooooeeee, soooeee, pig;” midwives cows and hogs. Once spring comes, she has the garden, the canning, the piglets, the baby chicks mailed to her from the hatchery. And when all that is done, she comes in, sighing, through the screened-in back porch, swearing about the hired hands, or about a cow, a mule, a calf, or at me. She pulls off her rubbers and ties on her apron and begins the housework: the laundry (ours and the hands’), cooking, baking, cleaning up. I follow behind her to fetch, pick up, dust, fold, to iron handkerchiefs, pit and peel, snap beans, shell peas, hull strawberries.
She raises pullets, fryers, and the heavy-breathing laying hens under whose hot breasts I stick my hand to gather the eggs. In summer I get chicken shit between my bare toes. She keeps russet Jersey milk cows that moan right before milking time, their bags are so full. Then Grammy squats down on the stool, her legs wide apart, her blued hair rising and falling with the red flank. Humming, she works down the teat. Afterward, the empty bags sway when the cows walk out of the dark barn.
At farrowing time, rolling up her sleeves, she reaches clear to her elbow into an agonized, laboring sow and tugs. She grabs the delicate foretrotters and waits for another grunt, another contraction. A convulsive heave raises the sow’s head off the new straw and out pops a piglet, the fetal membrane hooding its snout and pressing its ears flat against its skull. She pulls back the membranous sac as easily as I peel a banana, and vigorously pumps the piglet’s back legs until it takes its first breath and squeals. When the piglets each root in at a teat and begin to nurse, Grammy tells me, “They are eating the buttons off their mother’s vest.” Because she leers, I think this is a dirty joke. I repeat it, years later, in the schoolyard. Everyone laughs.
She keeps two horses, a white stallion and a dray, or draught horse, and a succession of sorry spavined mules that truculently pull plows, a semi-mechanical seeder, a clanking, rusted harrow. Her milk separator takes cream from milk and an electric churner churns butter. She puts on her glasses and reads farm sale lists. She goes to auctions.
She sows field corn, alfalfa, and sweet clover, puts in hillocks of Country Gentleman roasting ears, and rows of staked-up Kentucky Wonder green beans, and I tear strips of worn-out sheet to tie up the bean vines. She raises Beefsteak tomatoes, round hummocks of red potatoes, Charleston Grey watermelons that she sends Bushels to cool in the creek.
Bushels and Buckles call Grammy, whose given name is Beatrice, “Mrs. Roberts” and “Ma’am.” Where fat Bushels and scrawny Buckles got their names, no one says. White-haired, grizzle-chinned, piss-smelling old men, they shave on Friday night and on Saturday change to clean blue overalls that are baggy but do not hide their bowlegs. Their hands are missing digits and their mouths missing teeth (when I can count I learn that, between the two men, they have three whole thumbs and thirteen and one-half fingers). They get blood blisters and toothaches and Bushels says he has a kidney stone. After lunch they sit with their legs splayed out and their hands fanned out over their crotches. (“Never show them your business,” Grammy says.)
They bunk out back behind the chicken house and cow barn in a cabin heated by a wood cookstove and papered with Little Rock Gazettes. They use a one-seater outhouse behind the cabin. (“Never go in there. You get diseases,” Grammy says.)
They never mention family. They don’t ever say “back home.” They don’t talk much at all. Grammy studies Buckles, his narrowed-down eyes watching the mist rising on the back pasture, and says, “That fella squints just like a suck-egg dog.”
Grammy assures anyone who asks that the hands are widowers. But she tells people she is a widow woman. Even I know she isn’t; she is what she, sneering, would call a “grass widow.”
Grammy is the first person I see naked. Her yellowed-white pubic hair springs up like dying grass across drooping purple labia. The corset ribbing cuts red vertical ridges into her rib cage, her flow of belly, her thighs. Her long loose breasts — she calls them “dinners” — are striped with stretch marks and tipped with nubby beige corduroy nipples. Her clabbered-milk thighs, her drooping buttocks — “hind end,” she says — the wild thatches of white hair growing from her armpits: I study her body as a palm reader might pause at the break in your life line. At sundown she stands in the bathtub and washes with a scratchy gray bar of lye soap. After she dries off, she shakes out white clouds of Cashmere Bouquet onto the yellowed skin on which the dinners rest. She rubs the talcum into the hair under her arms and into the hair covering the V of her sex (which she calls “my business”), and then she wriggles on flesh-pink sateen underpants.
Her biceps are the size of a man’s; she is incredibly strong. I watch as she sticks, dresses out, and butchers a series of struggling, squealing behemoth hogs. A hog, I learn, is a pig that weighs more than 120 pounds, and Grammy estimates that three hogs weigh half a ton. Both of them straining, she and one of the hired men will hoist a carcass onto an ancient tree limb reinforced with two-by-fours. The body hangs, snout down. The limb bows and groans. The blood pools, gums up in the red dirt. The flies buzz loudly. In the midst of dribbling blood and the circling flies, with her George Washington features smooth and calm, she saws, blade scraping against bone, hams, loins, racks of ribs. She chops off the same trotters that I watched her, months ago, pump to get the pig to take its first breath.
She wrings chickens’ necks as easily as she squeezes out a dishrag, places the fluttering chicken on the oak stump in the back yard, and chops off its head with a prompt whack of the axe, then tosses the decapitated body onto the ground for that dust-raising rumpus she calls “the last dance.” She pitches the red-combed head, its eyes — seconds ago as bright as a new doll’s — now beginning to film, to the dog. (When she screams, as she often does, “You are going to the dogs,” the expression carries fatal significance.) Gripping its yellow feet, she plunges the chicken carcass into boiling water to loosen the feathers, and, then outside (behind the back yard if there is a wind), feathers fly while she plucks.
Some extravagant strain in Grammy goes beyond tooth-and-claw survival. One day out in the pasture to the west of the house, she castrates a gray-mottled white stallion — “young Cholly” — who has kicked her, she swears, “for the last time.” Cholly’s rib cage does accordion wheezes and, with each deflation, another flush of magenta blood floods the tall grass. His high moans chill the hot summer air. “I struck a damn artery, boys,” she says to Bushels and Buckles, who look at the ground.
Finally she has to shoot him. The silent trio, each with a shovel, dig next to Cholly’s mounded white body. Before they push him in, Grammy — wearing her high-top boots — kicks the horse and with her fist raised, screams, “You goddamn son of a bitch. I’d do it to you again if I could!”
One night in ’43 she killed a “Conmanchee Injun.” She loves to tell the story. “You see, I heard somebody tryin’ to start my son’s Packard coupe up out in the garage along about three in the ayem, an’ I creeped out there in my bare feet and nightie pickin’ up the ice pick on my way,” she begins the story. “It was pitch black in the gay-rage, an’ he never saw me comin’, so busy he was tryin’ to hot-wire that coupe. I just put the ol’ pick right in his back and before he could even straighten up good, I got him a second jab.” Then, depending on her audience and her mood, she will supply the short, expurgated or long and unexpurgated version — a vision in either instance of unrelieved bloody slaughter. In the unexpurgated version she will triumphantly wave the blood-spotted feedsack nightgown in her listener’s face or faces. Then comes the coda: “When the sheriff and his boys got here, they told me that Injun had a record miles long, and had escaped without them even knowin’ it from the county work farm just across the hill.
“I’d guess,” she would add, slyly, studying her audience’s eyes, “they talked about that over at the county farm for a long time! ”
As a child I believed she loved killing, that she was a Nazi of the barnyard, conducting her spectacular pogroms against the hooved, the horned, the curly-tailed and spotted, the webfooted and speechless. Hacking at a hog’s leg to get at what would be smoked into ham, blood running, dripping off her wrists, she once looked across at me, my ears stopped against the squealing with my hands, and hollered, “Even the devil’s got to eat.”
By 1944 more than seven million men are in uniform. On June 6 the Allies land in Normandy and by mid-July the U.S. Pacific forces overrun Saipan. Grammy’s favorite of her two children, my uncle, is with the Navy on Okinawa. One afternoon she pushes aside the heavy ivory lace curtains and licks the back of a war mother’s sticker — a white star on a field of azure blue — and glues it to her front window.
To me the war pours as naturally through life as the tap water from the deep well out back. But war is also a bogeyman, evil and dangerous, whose face I cannot and do not dare imagine. War is Japs. “If they attack the farm,” Grammy advises, “they will float down on us” — her stubby fingers illustrate the plunge — “with parachutes. They will catch you and stick you” — she mimes the Japs’ short stabs and my grunts — “in the belly with a bayonet. Then they will cook you in the big pot in the yard, and eat you with hot pickles.” All dark-skinned people, she tells me, like hot, spicy food,and are cannibals.
Any distant flash of heat lightning, every far-off rattle of thunder, any backfire out on the road, might be the bombs she prophesied. Every hyper-excited voice rising through the Philco’s static could be its herald. “Shut up, young ’un,” she commands while she tunes.
Grammy came from people and from a generation that had gone hungry. War evokes her fear of going hungry again. She smokes hams and sides of bacon for Mr. Black — the euphemism for the black market — to trade for rationed tires, for the sugar and coffee she hoards. We do not butcher beef, so she trades a side of pork with a butcher for a side of beef.
When she uses the tough round steaks, she takes out the claw hammer and beats them out thin to make chicken-fry steak. She pours a half cup of flour, two tablespoons salt, and a pinch of black pepper into a brown paper bag. One at a time, she puts the steaks into the bag, shaking it up and down until the meat is thoroughly coated. When the melted lard in the iron skillet is hot enough that a drop of water tossed into the skillet pops, it is time to put in the steaks. She cooks them on one side until the blood seeps up to the top, then turns them over. How long she cooks them depends on whether she wants the meat rare or well-done, the coating crisp or mushy. For Bushels and Buckles she cooks it mushy and adds, right before taking the steaks out of the skillet, several dollops of Worcestershire sauce, pronounced “War-chess-tire.” She always leaves any pieces of crust that fall off the steaks in the skillet to give the gravy “crunchers.”
(Typically, one sees “cream gravy” featured in truck-stop diners as the accompaniment to chicken-fry steak. My grandmother only made cream gravies with poultry and pork chops, and called them “milk” gravy. What she made for chicken-fry steak she called “water gravy.” The principle of water gravy is two tablespoons of flour to one cup liquid. This is the place where you can use your pot likker if you have any. Into the grease left in the skillet — about one-fourth cup — add four tablespoons flour and over low heat stir with a fork until a slight bubbling starts. Bit by bit, add two cups water or any leftover pot likker. When it thickens and “comes together,” add salt and pepper to taste.)
Grammy makes our bread. She kneads up mounds of dough and puts it in a floured bowl under a clean dish-rag to rise. Before the bread is finished baking, she rubs the tops with melted butter to brown the crust. She makes yeast rolls, cinnamon rolls, and in winter apple kuchen. She makes fresh buttermilk biscuit and cornbread. To the cornbread recipe off the sack, she sometimes adds a pint jar of home-canned cream corn or, better, she stands three or four fresh ears on a plate, slices the cobs with her butcher knife, and scrapes kernels and the “milk” from the cut corn into her cornmeal mixture. Or she will crumble bacon left from breakfast or “cracklins” saved from rendering a hog.
The war dominates the news, but polio comes next. Polio had paralyzed Roosevelt while he was governor of New York, and in 1944 it kills more than 1000 people, even more in 1945, and cripples additional thousands. In newspapers between the lean-jawed generals, the pale dying boys, and the bombers with noses painted to look like dragons, I stare at polio victims in iron lungs and Sister Kenny briskly massaging atrophied limbs. If I have even the slightest sore throat (a polio symptom) I am too scared to tell Grammy.
Polio — and the “silly boy” who rides his white mule past our house — is the reason Grammy gives when she refuses to let me play with children down the road. Excepting occasional Saturday afternoons when we ferry the delicate eggs at ten miles per hour around high-shouldered furrows left by farm wagons, I do not leave the farm.
Grammy sits on the back porch, snapping and stringing green beans. These are times when she tells me about growing up in Indiana. She grabs the bean string on the stem end, where the bean flower once was, and pulls downward. The string comes off. She pinches off the end, then she snaps the bean in two. Right after lunch, she cooks up a mess of beans for that night’s dinner.
To make her green beans, she chops thick-sliced bacon or fatback into half-inch cubes, which she puts in a heavy pot with snapped and stringed beans and two chopped yellow onions. (She also adds any beet or turnip tops or any other tender greens, such as spinach or mustard, she has on hand. Tiny turnips, thinned from the garden, are plopped in whole, and are particularly delicious.) After barely covering them with water, she simmers the beans on a back burner for an hour or two until they turn a dark olive green in color and are mushy in texture. The pot likker is served in a sauce bowl.
Grammy subscribes to Country Gentleman, the Saturday Evening Post, and a local Sunday newspaper, and although she is not a Jehovah’s Witness, her friend Stell Ellis is, and Stell sees to it that my grandmother gets The Watchtower every week. But Grammy never reads it. She gets seed catalogues and invitations to farm sales, and saves them all. The drawer of her library table is stuffed with crisp, yellowed illustrated pamphlets on colon disease, colonic irrigation, rupture and hernia cures and hernia trusses, letters from my mother and uncle. She owns a navy blue Leatherette Bible, a Webster’s dictionary my uncle won as a college prize, a mildewed copy of Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee — probably a remnant from her Klondike days — and a catalogue with tipped-in reproductions of Degas’s ballet dancers sent by my uncle from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. About that catalogue, she tells me, “That’s where your mother lives.”
When I have been good, when the war news is hopeful, the hens laying well, the Jerseys giving milk with a high cream content, Grammy lets me have the “toe-dancer pictures.” I sit on the davenport in winter, or in summer on the porch swing, and gaze at Degas’s pastels, the filmy blue tutus, pink-suffused faces, and the tight chignons — “topknots” she calls them — and if I beg she will make one in my hair. But, she warns, “Don’t expect me to do this every day. You’re the kind that give ’em an inch, they take a mile.”
When she is down at the barn or out in the fields or vegetable garden, I go to her bedroom. It’s a shady, cool room centered by a vast mahogany four-poster, crowded with massive matching chests-of-drawers on which she placed starched tatted “runners,” and against the walls are cardboard boxes in which she stores clothing from what she remembers as her “better days,” as well as gunny sacks stuffed with rags for rag rugs. I stand in front of the long mirror built into the door to her wardrobe closet and, lifting my feed sack skirts with one hand and with the other pulling back my hair for a topknot, I try — in the brown boys’ boots which Grammy buys me (I do not dare take them off because I can’t tie the laces) — to stand on my toes.
The two-foot-high Philco, shaped like an arch in a cathedral and covered, across the front, with brown fabric, carries war news, Roosevelt’s Saturday-night Fireside Chats, hillbilly music, Queen for a Day, Gal Sunday, farm reports. Just before supper on the twenty-third of April, 1945 — by which time I have, through a series of maneuvers, taught myself to read — FDR’s death is announced on the radio. For the next eighty-five hours only grief mixed with the static. Grammy stops dead. She sobs. She beats the green wool easy chair. “It’s like I was widowed myself,” she sobs to Bushels and Buckles, who look frightened over the bowls of bread torn up in milk that is our dinner that night. The next morning Grammy walks slowly, wiping her eyes into the corner of her apron, down the steep grade to the barn to milk Bossy, Joan Crawford, Clabber Girl, and Vanessa. She has looped a black sateen arm-band around her thick upper arm. She hates Harry Truman. Not until Stell Ellis shows up after Decoration Day does Grammy cheer up. Stell and Grammy have been “pals forever.”
Stell comes three or four times a year from her home in Springfield, Missouri. Stell is married to a bookkeeper for the city of Springfield and has three daughters. Two of their husbands are in the war. The third has asthma. One daughter is “no-count” and, from what I overhear, Stell has worries with her husband. “The old goat” has “prostrate trouble” and is “chasin’ young tail.”
Stell drives a black Ford with leather seats down on Route 66, which she grimly calls “Blood Alley.” Her husband gets her extra gas coupons from “Mr. Black.”
Stell wears bright lipstick and matching cheeks. She shaves her eyebrows and then in the morning draws on them with a pencil. The pencil matches her “good” hair which, when I ask, she tells me is “hennaed and marcelled at the beauty parlor.” She rubs deodorant cream under her shaved armpits. The deodorant is called Odor-o-no and comes in a cobalt blue glass jar. She dabs on a strong perfume, hyacinth, she says. She wears what Grammy calls a “ruched and tucked” dress with “gussets,” and has, she admits, when Grammy compliments her, “a cute figure.” Grammy uses “the Havilland” instead of the “kitchen dishes” when Stell visits, and she is all dressed up, too, in silk or rayon jersey dresses clasped at the bosom with a brooch, and high-heel black pumps.
For two or three days Grammy leaves the farm work, even the milk cows, to Bushels and Buckles while she and Stell drink coffee and talk. Stell always gives Grammy a permanent, and it is always “too goddam tight.” One day Stell runs her hand through my natural — and tight — curls, and says to my grandmother, “Doesn’t she just have hair like a nigger, though, Beatrice?”
Grammy laughs until she cries, and says, “She sure does. Now wouldn’t that be funny, though?”
Once, while Stell waits for Grammy’s permanent to set, she tells me about her grandson Bobby, her “eldest,” whose “belly button wasn’t tied up right tight at birth, you know, missy?” Stell, like my grandmother (who calls me “young ’un” and “girl”), never calls me by name. One day when Bobby was six he ate too much of Stell’s angel cake and peach ice cream and “burst his guts out onto the living room carpet.” According to Stell, her fast action in “scooping the guts back up into him” with her bare hands is what saved the boy’s life. When Stell gets ready to leave, Grammy and Bushels and Buckles load her down with farm goods. Grammy packs into cheesecloth blocks of the butter she churns with the electric churner, carefully tilts the brown eggs Stell favors into egg cartons, takes down a side of bacon from its iron hook in the smokehouse and folds it into newspapers, arranges jars of cling peaches, green beans, and kraut into orange crates, and, if it is summer or fall, the two women get out early, roll their hose around their knees and hitch up their skirts with clothespins and pick “messes” of corn, green beans, ripe tomatoes, long shiny eating cukes, and little, nubby, hard-warted picklers, yellow crookneck squash, okra, the net-rinded muskmelons, and pale green honeydews.
As soon as one laundry basket is heaped, I struggle up through the rows, dodging the humming mosquitoes that rise up right after first light, thread through stands of scratchy hollyhocks and sidestep sharp edges of the colossal drooping sunflower heads, and, grunting with the weight of the basket, the wire handles digging into and cutting my palms, sweating and red-faced, I say to myself, “Chug-a-chug-chug: I am the little engine who could.”
Then Stell is ready to go. She and Grammy hug and kiss and cry. Stell tells me, “You help out your grandmother, you hear?” She honks and waves as she backs out of the driveway and Grammy directs her. Stell’s flowers stand up in jars wedged into the front seat with melons and corn and cabbages. Grammy has a scarlet cupid-bow lipstick mark on her doughy powdered cheek. She stands up at the road by the mailbox until all she sees of Stell Ellis is dust. That is what she says when she gets back to the yard. “I stood out there until all I could see of Stell Ellis was dust.” She is blinking back tears and her face looks bigger under the new tight curls.
During World War II, those who can, raise Victory Gardens and generally eat more vegetables. It is not unusual for families to have two, three, even four vegetables at a main meal. During summer we often eat green beans, crookneck squash, fried okra, and mashed potatoes and turnip. The yellow crookneck squash is not only aesthetically pleasing but has a far sweeter taste than zucchini. After slicing four squash and one yellow onion in rings, Grammy simmers them (with just enough water to cover them in the pan) until the vegetables are soft. After straining off the “likker” (preferably into a pan of green beans), she mashes the squash and onions with a potato masher until the vegetables start to break up. Just before serving, Grammy adds half of a quarter-pound stick of butter to the cooked vegetables (in the pan) along with a couple of tablespoons of sugar and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
When she mixes mashed potatoes, Grammy adds one medium-size turnip, sliced, to the raw potatoes. When the potatoes and turnips break up easily when “pronged” with a fork, she drains them (saving water for gravy) and adds butter with milk, cream, or half-and-half. She is careful to mash the potatoes until their consistency is smooth but not silky smooth. Grammy frequently complains that “city cooks” will whip potatoes until they are the consistency of wallpaper paste. “Mashed potatoes, goddammit, means mashed.”
I do not know any vegetable as likely to be greeted with “I’m not eating that.” But to those of us who have had our okra fried, nothing tastes better. Grammy puts quarter-inch rounds of okra (one handful at a time) into a paper bag with one-half cup yellow cornmeal, salt, and a little sugar and shakes it up and down. After the okra is coated, she fries it in lard or bacon grease in her iron skillet. The browned, fried okra is delicious hot or cold.
Although I did not know it in 1944 and 1945 — or did not know the name for what I felt — I know now that I was unrelievedly lonely. I missed my mother, who was working on her master’s degree in New York, and who rarely wrote. When I ask Grammy, which I learn not to do, “When is Mama coming for me?” if she answers me at all, she says, equably, “I don’t know,” or angrily, “If she gets married again, her new husband may not want you.” Once she tells me, holding a letter from my mother in her hand and looking up over the top of her spectacles, “Your mama has her a soldier boy.”
I hardly dare permit myself to think of my father. When I try to conjure my father mentally, he is dim — long shadow and heat. I remember only warmth and hugeness. I know he was bad. I suspect I was like him.
I have dolls, Belinda and Pearly and George. I pat out mud pies for them with rocks and eggs I steal out of the hen house and peach peels and apple parings I get from the pig slops when I carry them down.
I teach Grammy’s dog to bring down hens. By screaming “Sic ’em, sic ’em,” I get him to grab the chickens in his mouth. Their squirming and pecking excites him, and he worries at their necks until he wears them down. When the hens cease flapping, squawking, pecking, he wearies of the game and lumbers off, feathers sticking to his muzzle, and he leaves the heaving, half-dead chicken.
I feel a disorienting pleasure, watching the dog tear at a hen. But once he has walked off, I swear never to do it again, and try to erase the event from my mind. (Ever after I will feel a commonality, a chilly familial bonding, with mass murderers, idle snipers, and movie villains. I suspected that my chicken-killing and their person-killing operated out of the same dynamic, that they too, at first, felt tempted by and then enjoyed the deed, and, when it was done, felt disgust and self-hatred.
For a long time Grammy is mystified by the mauled chickens. Finally she catches me out by the blackberry bushes, which grew as thick as concertina wire. She catches me siccing the hound on a black-and-white speckled pullet. She grabs me up by the hair and switch-whips me until I run blood. Often when she punishes me she will say, “Why don’t you just git to your mother in New York,” and during this whipping she repeats her suggestion — surely only rhetorical anger, bluster, blow. But when she goes back down to the barn that afternoon to milk the cows for the night, leaving me on the bottom step of the back porch, I decide to find my mother. Dressed in my sunbonnet and boots, with Belinda and George and some cold biscuit in a paper sack, I head off down the road.
From two years of farm work I am sturdy, and I get perhaps two miles, walking along through the slanting, late afternoon sunlight, while in the east, the moon rises in a white sliver. Finally a pickup truck, driven by the local Baptist minister, stops. He is wearing a dark navy blue suit; he drives me back to the farm.
(Why didn’t Grammy send me back? I was, as she said almost daily, “the worst baggage, the heaviest load” she’d ever carried. I was not, as my mother suggested in her letters I should be, “good company for your grammy.” I tracked in mud, left doors open and let the house fill with flies and mosquitoes, smeared dirty hands on walls and dresses, broke glasses. If she touched me, I flinched. When her broad short back was turned, I stuck out my tongue. More than once I told her I hated her, and most of the time I did hate her.)
In wintertime there is less work. Grammy decorates dinner plates with bluebirds, robins, blackbirds, cherry trees. She cuts and sews clothes from the feed sacks, makes tea towels, mends linens, embroiders cross-stitch patterns onto pillowcases. In winter she lets me help her make pies, giving me my own swatch of pie dough to roll out, and helping me make cinnamon sugar to sprinkle on them. Grammy makes pie crusts with lard for shortening and with quick strokes she rolls them out onto a flour-sprinkled wooden breadboard with a wooden rolling pin my uncle bought her. For fillings, she uses fresh whatever is in season, and in winter uses the berries, peaches, and pie cherries she has canned. She simply heaps up the fresh fruit or the canned into the pie shell, adds sprinklings of flour, sugar, and pieces of butter. If she decides the fruit does not have much taste, she adds cinnamon and nutmeg. If she has time (or company coming), she makes lattice crusts which she “gussies up” with cut-outs (sketched on the rolled-out crust with the tip of a knife) of cherries, apples, profiles of birds, or what she calls a “heaven top,” a round sun with a smiling face, stars of varying size, perhaps a few clouds and a crescent man-in-the-moon. These are stuck to the crust with beaten egg white and then polished with more egg white. She never fails to smile when she does this, and for a few moments, perhaps then, even whole days, I think I will soon love her.
Perhaps by keeping me, Grammy was trying, in part, to make amends to my mother for leaving her behind in Albuquerque, and then, two years later, giving her to my uncle — twenty-four then — to rear, which he did. Certainly Grammy was “land-greedy,” according to my uncle, who loved her dearly — and who had borrowed heavily in the mid-Thirties to buy his mother that farm. My mother sent her fifty dollars, each month, for caring for me. In the Forties, fifty dollars was not an insubstantial sum. She was lonesome, and frightened her son would be killed in Japan, and that she would be left entirely alone in the world (she said this, often), for she never much cared for my mother. (Many years later, when my mother would sometimes drink a martini, she would weep, recalling that Grammy cursed her just minutes before she died.)
Two weeks after my runaway attempt, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. When the Japanese surrendered, Stell was visiting. That night she and Grammy twirled wildly in their bare feet through the deep grass of the front yard, ignoring the chiggers that bit their ankles and naked arms. They invited me to dance, but I was too’ shy, and hung back at the edge of the lawn. In September my mother came for me.