LJ Idol 10: Topic 10: Take a Hike
Even after 30 years gone, I can still hear the raspy drawl of my great grandmother calling me to supper. Her tiny four square house was filled with the lingering fragrance of the back to back Winston cigarettes she smoked... along with day old coffee, bacon grease and fresh, hot biscuits. If food is love, my grandmothers was the kind that wrapped you in memories and wishes all at once and left you wanting more. I learned early that she was mercenary in doling out that love. She was sparse with her hugs, but generous with her gravy. Her words of praise were few and far between, but her fried chicken was spicy and plentiful. Once you tasted her love, your loyalty was unquestioning and your obedience guaranteed. No one wanted to be on the bad side of Miss Clara Bell, lest they find themselves hungry for her affections, starving for her approval.
Though her passing came well before I ever entered high school, my loyalties were deeply ingrained so far back I couldn't ever remember a time I didn't serve at her table (and her whim). When Granny Whitey (so called for her helmet of ash white hair) said jump, I jumped, all the while hollerin' “this high 'nuff?!” I never questioned her, talked back or refused to cooperate. There was no compromise or back up in her. Her compliments were so rare they gave you chills. Her rebukes so viciously common one became almost inured to their sting. There was something written in her eyes that forced you to decide immediately if you were in or out. I was all in.
She was born in the twenties and lived a hard life with seven siblings in a dirt floor shack. Life was never easy and always lean, skeletal... and more often than not, brutal. I suppose that's what turned her focus in life to food. It seems as if every day was spent growing, gathering, scrounging, cooking and consuming food. She perfected Scarlett O'Hara's vow to 'never go hungry again'. She hoarded canned and dry goods and I never entered her house that there wasn't something in some stage of preparation or consumption.
Our summers together are my best remembered. Most folks in Tennessee have figured out their own strategies for surviving the relentless heat and humidity. Some of us have the 'just go on' method. I learned this from Whitey. It pretty much means, you pretend nothing is different, do what you have to do with the resources at hand and hush complaints, because you can't change it. That's how we met every summer together. While many folks were sitting under fans, languidly melting into the days, we were soldiers in the war on hunger, scrounging and working to feed the family.
It's only been since I have grown and had a family of my own that I realize this behavior was a neurosis about food and I, an unwitting enabler. She was no longer needed or required to feed her children (and subsequent grandchildren) because they were grown and doing fine for themselves. Her scrabbling and scrounging were merely symptoms of her fear of of returning to those hungry days. Those that stopped and ate every day were more getting their share of her love than they were her food. Considering she was the only family member that ever showed any interest in me, I suppose I was in it for the love too.
In my need to please her, I followed her everywhere she would take me. One of my favorite places was Land Between the Lakes (a lovely place shared by Tennessee and Kentucky). Known to locals only as LBL, it has been a staple in many lives raised in this area. It's a conservation area boasting backwoods camping, bison and elk herds, red wolves, a planetarium, a real 1850s working farm and of course, fishing. Whitey was crazy for fishing. It was a practically free way to provide tons of good food for her family. Just like every other pursuit, I was her willing and obedient accomplice.
A typical day at LBL started before the sun was up. We'd have fried country sausage on big old cathead biscuits (with a generous dollop of mustard each) along with a few cups of strong black coffee (I reckon she never even considered I shouldn't have it). We would pack up her giant 1972 Ford LTD with cane poles and an ancient wicker creel. She would've had me digging night crawlers for a couple days beforehand, so the earthy, wriggly creatures would be fresh from the fridge in their perforated cardboard carton along with a styrofoam cup of 'stinkbait', which anglers can tell you is essential for catching Whitey's coveted prey, the catfish.
She'd include an ancient green steel thermos of strong, black coffee (no matter the weather) and a lunch basket packed with rag bologna sandwiches thick with hand sliced American cheese, a cold green-glass bottle of coke and more often than not, two big ripe tomatoes from her garden. These latter would be eaten like apples with a salt shaker in hand. In the trunk of the giant pine green Ford beast was a wooden box, handmade by my uncle with no nails or glue, only dovetail corners and leather hinges, inside which was a collection of hooks, bobbers, sinkers, line, tools and knives. With that, we were completely outfitted for a day of fishing.
The ride was always interesting considering Whitey stood barely five feet tall and therefore drove by looking through the steering wheel, not over it. It was riding in her car that I came to learn Whitey was fearless, afraid of nothing at all, up to and including dying in a fiery twist of crunched metal. We would arrive in LBL as the sun was just coming up, her very determined and focused, me somewhere between sleepy and harrowed. We'd park on a gravel roadside, always at some place she just felt was right and then would start the hike.
After loading me down like a pack mule, layering on bag after basket, she'd lay the wooden box across my arms and take the cane poles in hand. Where I saw no path or way through, she would find the way, leading me on an exhausting but interesting trek through brush and bramble. Later, in my twenties, when I had the leisure to be philosophical about my life, I reflected on these hikes and likened them to Great Life Lessons I felt she was somehow gifting to me, the favored grandchild. Each step, laden with these essential tools of survival and heading toward the necessary work-before-reward scenario, was a step toward enlightenment and survival acumen. Now that I am older, with strong, capable children of my own, I know the even deeper truth. When you are old, you really need someone to carry your stuff.
When we finally reached the shore, it would be perfect. A great strong bank, not too steep... tons of cover for the catfish (they love cavorting around in cool, sheltered places)... lots of shade... isolated and not 'fished out'... she really had a secret talent to find just the right fishing spot. We'd spend hours sitting in mostly silence, only broken when she would correct my form or technique. Much like hugging and praising, chatting just wasn't in her wheelhouse. We'd load the creel down with catfish, almost without fail. I can't remember a bad day fishing. Then again, why would I?
The trip back to the car hours later would be even more exhausting. The picnic basket at least would be empty of food and the thermos drained but the hike back with full creel was almost more than a little kid could handle. Like Whitey taught me, I just did. Once back to the car, I would momentarily be relieved to drop the load into the trunk, but then quickly fear the ride home. Once back, work wasn't done by any stretch, as there was gutting, composting and meal preparation to be done.
At the end of the day, long after the sun had lowered to pinks and blues of summer sky, there would be a table groaning with catfish fried up in spicy corn meal batter, hushpuppies (made with onions and beer), handmade black pepper slaw and white beans topped with tangy chow chow (put back last year) with cold sweet tea and strawberries and cream over leftover biscuits for dessert. I could almost correct 'food is love' to 'food is religion' considering the spiritual nature of just the memory, much less the experience. All thoughts of the hard work and hiking were replaced with the mercenary love of my grandmother... and I miss it every day.