by Michael Gafford
As the scene comes into focus, Jimmy Neal (Pete) 14, Troy (Bo) 13, and myself, Michael 11, soon to be 12, are seen in the process of fraying the sole remaining nerve of their mother Mildred, a young 32. Diane, 6, is helping her mother prepare for our annual Christmas pilgrimage to our grandparent's farm in northern Mississippi.
Exactly when did Memphis become home for Mom and Dad?
I'm not sure. It had only been a short decade since M/M Boll Weevil had driven them from the red clay hills of northern Mississippi, and it seems to me that we traveled back "home" as often as possible. My siblings and I were on our annual two week sabbatical from formal education and we were excited, to say the least.
"Mom, is that everything?" Dad asked.
"I think so, Jimmy."
Dad had just turned 33 and was thin but what was referred to as stout, the result of a life of hard work.
"If anyone needs to go, they had better go now."
"Shotgun!" Pete yells.
"Shotgun!" Troy follows, leaving me the middle seat in the back. But this is no problem; there's not a bad seat in the house. It's almost Christmas and I am heading to this kid's Shangri-la -- my magic carpet, a 1959 Ford, fins and all.
Yes, these are the good ole days. Days where form has not yet succumbed to function nor excess to efficiency. Gas is in the teens with trading stamps for good measure. This car is massive and fast, equipped with 440 air conditioning (roll down four windows and drive 40MPH) but we don't need it today. Seems colder today than normal.
"I'm Standard," Pete says.
"I'm Pure," Troy adds.
"I'm Sinclair," I say, betraying my affection for the dinosaur. With the relative stability in the refined petroleum industry in northern Mississippi, this is a game at which I rarely excel. But it was fun, and mom and dad encouraged such nonfatal diversions on our hour plus road trip.
"I want to play," Diane chimes in, and we laugh. She can't even see over the dash.
As we near the state line, the staccato pulse of the turn signal is interrupted by the sound of pea gravel under the wheels of our car.
"Yes," I emphatically respond.
"Now, Jimmy, sparklers will be just fine," Mom cautions. I know there is a hospital somewhere filled with kids missing appendages and eyes because that is one of Mom's great fears. As soon as the car comes mostly stopped, the doors fly open and, like a covey on the rise, the four tow-headed kids are out and headed to the large open air tent just across the Mississippi-Tennessee state line.
We get them all, all except m-80s. There are firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, and even florals. A grocery sack almost full. Are we rich? Yes, in the things that are really important. We are all healthy, all happy, all there. There would come days when life choices would leave us down different roads, but that is not today.
"Dad taught me that one." I beam.
New Albany, a bustling rural community of 7500, at least that's what the sign has said for the past 40+ years -- and if they believe it that strongly, well, that's good enough for me. A rather nondescript town, I would say. NA, as it is known by the locals, is the prototypical Southern, county seat town that services a rather large agriculture based rural economy.
As we near town, we cross over the Tallahatchie River (more of a stream here). The car turns right before stopping at Latham's Diner. Yes, at Latham's one can get anything he wants as long as he wants a hamburger. Dad opens the car door and walks in, his brood in tow, much like a duck leading her brood to water.
"Give me a sack of hot ones. I'll also need an RC, a Dr. Pepper, a Chocolate Soldier, a Double Cola, a Big Orange and a carton of chocolate milk."
Latham's burger is unique, a secret recipe, but I suspect it has something to do with soybean meal and a strong mustard.
Latham's is a narrow place, maybe 12' x 48', featuring a counter with stools and a few small tables and chairs. There is also a self-service "Coke" machine, one of those you slide the glass lid back and get what you want. Chips are also self-serve at the counter. The front half of the store is retail; the rear half is for storage and cooking. Looking closely at the wall, one sees the numerous wooden plaques (those tacky signs one can buy for his tacky friends at those tacky roadside souvenir shops). They are mostly humorous, citing the virtues of a faithful dog or bemoaning an overbearing wife or mother-in-law. Spying a vacant stool near the front door, I mount this noble steed. As I sit on the revolving wooden disk, I am suddenly transformed into a cowboy hero. Faster and faster I spin, hoping to make the horn at 8 seconds. Then the savage beast hurls me on my head. Ouch. My riding is okay, but the dismount needs work.
After leaving NA, we head south out of town to an even smaller town, Ingomar, then to an even smaller community, Lone Star. Lone Star is not a city, not even a town. It is listed on no paper maps. It has no post office or elected officials. It has a store and a Baptist Church. It is, in reality, a rural neighborhood.
We are there.
Bailing out, I run between the two large canola lilies and through the screen door for a quick hey and a hug and a howdy. I quickly return to the car and grab my Red Rider and, reaching into the grocery sack, I grab a few "grenades." I heard that there are some Germans with a machine gun nest and an "ugly" attitude behind the barn. I am just doing my part to protect the American way.
After a short reconnaissance patrol could turn up no hostile forces, I return to the house. Oh, the house. Originally a two room log cabin built by my great-grandfather, the house has grown to five rooms for my grandparents and their five children. Upon reentering the house, I am greeted by the beckoning smells coming from the kitchen, the wood burning stove in particular. Mama amazes me with her almost magical ability to turn out such delicious delicacies from a wood burning stove. There are fried apple and peach pies. There are tea cakes, those massive sugar cookies with chocolate sauce as a glue, kind of a reverse Oreo. There seems to also be an endless array of pies and cakes to tempt us to stray. If one had the money, he could not buy something this good. These are seasoned with love and flavored by hard work. No amount of money can buy what I get for free. Yes, those long summer days of peeling apples and peaches and then drying them on a sheet of tin are beginning to pay off.
While the weather is rather cool, we, my brothers and I, go outside to the front porch with its various amusement rides. Here I pile into a ladder back chair with a deer skin as a seat and lean back on the two rear legs. Pete and Bo jump into the swing. They have mastered the art of flipping upside down by squeezing the chains. There seems to be something magical about hanging upside down, defying fate and gravity (or at least it's very masculine, but I don't think it is just a guy thing).
It seems almost immediately, Bill, the family bird dog, who thinks he is human, arrives at the end of the porch and begins to talk and I mean talk. His bark is almost pleading as he attempts to communicates to us something he views as important.
"What is it, Bill?"
"Wanna help with the eggs?" Mama asks, and in a flash we are up and she leads the way down the concrete steps to the chicken house across the gravel road. There my grandmother lifts the highly agitated Dominecker or Red Rock hen to retrieve an egg or two. These would be breakfast or maybe they would make their way into one of her other delicacies. She usually leaves a "seed," an old egg my grandmother writes on and leaves for the old girl to keep up production. And sometimes she lets the girl have them all, and in a couple of weeks the hen hatches her brood.
In the house is a radio, but no television. The radio is a necessary lifeline with the outside world. One needs to know the latest commodity reports broadcast Monday through Friday at noon followed by the weather report. The radio is also used to catch a broadcast of the local team, the Ignomar Falcons or, if reception is good, the Cardinals or Cubs. But there is no television, nor do I feel that is a loss.
In the corner in a lard bucket is our Christmas tree, an aromatic cedar freshly hewn from the pasture. The tree is decorated with ornaments, big lights, strings of popcorn and, of course, an angel on top.
I spend the rest of the day exploring the wilds of the Mississippi countryside. There are cats, chickens and cows to investigate. There are bales of hay to scale and cribs with corn almost to the top that need to be climbed, and there is a smokehouse full of meat, a really cool place for a kid. The smokehouse is quite full because the two hogs were slaughtered last month.
As the sun begins to sink low, I meet two of my uncles and supervise the milking of about a dozen Jersey cows. After this bi-daily task is completed, there is a time for a few innings of corncob ball, which my uncles allow my brothers and me to join. This game consists of a vivid imagination, a bucket of corncobs and a bat, or more correctly a wooden slat approximately 3" by 36". It was during these games that a hard throwing Warren Spahn would face down the switch hitting Kid from Commerce, Mickey Mantle, the Mick. Maybe a lean Whitey Ford would bus one in high and tight to back off a smiling Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays. But my favorite were the "junk throwers," the Hoyt Wilhelms. Those hurlers threw curves and drops, maybe a knuckle curve.
A word here about the ground rules would be appropriate. First, grounded cobs are all outs. A cob is in play if it stays mostly intact. They all break up some, but if a cob stays mostly intact, then that piece determines the outcome. Cobs with an excessive amount of cow manure are not allowed. Pass the pitcher in the air is a single, hit the barn on the bounce is a double, hit the barn on the fly, a triple, and finally hit the roof or beyond is a home run. As darkness begins to overtake the field of honor, Pete hums me one in high and tight.
"Ouch!" I respond (can't rub it though).
"Oops, guess that one got away from me."
"Hardly felt it," I say, but I lie.
"Who wants to bring in some more wood for the stove?" my grandmother asks. "And stay shed of that ax."
Following hugs all around, I continue on into the living room, where a large warm fire lights the room with the aid of a single light bulb suspended from the center of the room. There I am joined by numerous cousins and aunts and uncles in solving the world's problems. Yeah, the really big ones. What are the Rebels and the Bulldogs going to have this year? Is this the year the Cardinals or the Cubs take it all? It is here that I learn that there are two types of fish. There is the "eating fish" -- the ones fried up golden brown with a little salt and pepper with fries, ketchup, a slice of onion and a big glass of sweet tea. But my favorite fish are the "talking fish" -- the ones we catch over and over, and the story begins, "Do you remember the time?" How could we not remember? We caught them, or sometimes almost caught them, over and over.
"Alright, you little criminals, wash your hands and come eat," Uncle Travis bellows, and with that we all rush into the kitchen where we are greeted by a heavily laden table.
A long, wobbly bench on one side between the table and the half wall separates the kitchen from the dining room. There are 4 or 5 ladder back chairs around the table. The kitchen has a flour box, "Hoosier chest," a sink and the aforementioned stove. The kids eat in the kitchen because we love to "ride the bench." The adults are eating in the more formal dining room. In essence, this is all one very "busy" room, separated by the half wall that supports jars of pepper sauce and preserves, as well as various papers and such.
Always before the meal my grandfather prays. Let me say that again: "Grandfather prays" -- again, "My grandfather prays." Oh, this prayer is not a short memorized offering but a heartfelt, tear rendering plea. A plea that the Lord and Creator of this universe would take special care of his family. This is not a mere blanket request for Divine favor, but he mentions every child, every grandchild and every in-law by name, truly laboring with requests of Divine providence in every way. Then we begin to enjoy. There are homemade rolls, chicken and dressing, deviled eggs, cranberry sauce, sweet tea, peas, beans, cornbread, jellies and preserves, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and then the desserts -- spice peaches, coconut and chocolate cakes, pecan, chocolate, lemon and coconut pies. Yes, this is a special event. Good food + good people = good times.
The patriarch of the family, Ernest Odell Browning, my grandfather, is dressed in his everyday bib overalls. He owns a dressier pair, but today is not Sunday and no one is getting married or buried so he wears the big comfortable ones. By nature, he is a quiet, hardworking man, a fine example of the adage that their deeds shall precede them. His hair is a thinning gray and he has a significant girth. His bride, Sally Hearn, is a diminutive saintly lady. Her apron and dress covers a heart of purest gold, but if one looks into her eyes one can see the heart radiate. She has long black hair that is starting to gray, braided and wrapped around her head.
As the evening progresses into night, some of the adults decide to go to town to bowl a few games; the kids are bedded down in various rooms on pallets. These pallets consist of numerous quilts, and as the temperature drops and the fire dies down they are greatly appreciated.
A mystery to me is how my grandparents find the time. Farming is not a full time job, it is an overtime job -- and look at the stack of quilts, each one the result of thousands of cuts and stitches. I do not know where they find the time, but I think it has something to do with priorities. No one doubts the priority of these saints, God, family, fellowman and self.
I'm up very early, but my grandparents are already at it. Getting up while it is still night, they have rekindled the fires in the fireplace and stove. Papa is at the barn. As I place my toe, it recoils like a window shade as it is greeted by frigid linoleum flooring.
Just as dinner last night, breakfast is great. There is bacon with rind still on it, plates of ham and sausage, bowls of scrambled eggs, plates of biscuits with jellies preserves and sorghum and, of course, homemade butter. There is red eye gravy and sharp cheddar cheese. There is milk and hot chocolate. Yum Yum.
Leaving the house with my co-conspirator, Joe, we meet my main "country bud," Nicky, on the road to his house located at the end of the cul de sac. Joe is a year younger than I with an older sister, Carolyn, who knows just how to spin a tale that scares me, headless corpses, ghosts, etc. Joe also has a younger brother, "Red," who is about Diane's age. His family usually comes back home to Mississippi from Illinois twice a year, making the trip once in the summer for fishing and traveling and once over the Christmas holiday. Nicky is my age, maybe a little younger and is an ideal companion.
"She's a beaut," I say.
"Got her today. Mom and Dad gave her to me a day early," Nicky responds, glowing now that he is packing heat too.
And so we are off. Quarry today, redskins on the warpath? No. Germans? No way. Big game on the plains? Yes.
"Check this one out." Joe points at the track in the mud.
"Wilde beast, maybe Cape buffalo," Nickey responds, looking at the track.
"Hard to tell," Joe adds.
And so we are off making America, or at least Union County, Mississippi, a safer place to live. Most of the evil forces were restrained, but word was going around of a planned UFO invasion; we are packing iron and are determined to bring these aliens under control should they appear.
"Let's eat," I say.
"Great," Joe replies.
Reaching into my pocket, I begin to fish out crumbly biscuits full of salty ham, sausage and sharp cheese, ever vigilantly looking to the horizon. Nickey and Joe do the same.
Here we are, the Three Musketeers (or is it the Three Stooges?). No women folk here, this is men's work. Yes, we are going to be real men. Cowboys, warriors, real men. We don't need women to gum up the works, or so we think.
These forays are educational. It is here I learn the big things in life. Things like one should not pee on an electric fence, and bulls and roosters will in fact chase you should you venture into their territory.
After dinner we all adjourn to the comfort of the fire in the living room, where uncles Lavern and Charlie pop popcorn in long handled poppers.
Suddenly Uncle Graden bursts into the room.
"Where's my shotgun?"
"What's the problem?" Mom asks.
"Saw someone sneaking around outside. Peeking in windows and 'tippy toeing' around. Not sure who it is, but I am sure he's up to no good."
Suddenly the kitchen door flies open and a large man with white hair and beard steps inside dressed in a fire engine red outfit.
"Ho, ho, ho," he bellows.
"I'll be back soon. If all you kids are asleep, I come in; if not, well, I come back next year."
And with that admonition he leaves the room with another hearty "ho, ho, ho."
How could I have ever started to doubt that Santa was real? I saw him with my own two eyes.
"Mama, I'm getting tired," Joe offers.
"Me too," I add.
After a fitful night of little sleep, I awake to bicycles, baby dolls and such, something for all the kids, and there have to be at least a dozen kids here.
"What did you get, Diane?" Troy questions.
"A Chatty Cathy with a doll house too."
Throughout the morning we remember past holidays and the good times we shared with family and friends. I sit near the fire, as long as I can stand the heat, and listen to people I love laugh and, yes, weep. As the day progresses, families begin to leave, some heading home and some heading to visit other families and friends. And so we also load into the car and make tracks across the bottom to another rural neighborhood. This one is called Pinedale, home for my paternal grandparents.
"Let me fix y'all a plate," my grandmother offers.
"We are stuffed," Dad replies . . . and we are.
"I bet we can find a little room for some cake and ice cream." My grandfather smiles and leads us into the kitchen. There my Aunt Demetra, Dad's younger sister and a real cool aunt, loads us up. After the unfortunate death of my grandfather, my grandmother met and married a good man, Dick Lawrence.
"What will it be? Chocolate, Peach, Sherbet, or Neapolitan?"
"Peach, for me," I say. One thing about my paternal grandparents, they believe in ice cream, and that's a good thing.
After a short visit and catching up, we exchange gifts and affections. As the sun is sinking, Dad again admonishes us to go to the bathroom. Then, as dad drives home, Mom smiles and offers a prayer over her sleeping brood.
How do I know? Some things you just know.
As the white Ford barrels down Highway 78, the images on the screen become grainy and begin to fade. Soon the screen goes black with the exception of a single white dot in the center of the screen that eventually also fades away into the darkness.
Watch your step exiting the vehicle. Hope you enjoyed the trip. I did.
Michael Gafford writes to USADEEPSOUTH:
"As my uncle refers to a birth of a calf as a cow finding a calf, Mom and Dad were living in Memphis but visiting back home in Union County, Mississippi, when they 'found' me that cold December day in 1952. I was raised in Memphis, graduating from Memphis State University (BA 1977). I worked in the security field before recently retiring. I presently live in southern New Jersey and return home as often as possible."
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