August 6, 2018

Cottage cheese, ketchup and ‘My Kitchen Prayer’

Not long after my father died in 1997, my mother (who was confined to a wheelchair and had been for several years) came to live with us. Our daughters, Jessica and Caitlin, were ages 3 and 1. Caitlin doesn’t remember her grandfather, and Jessica barely does. But we’d been down to Bellair, the small village where my parents lived (near the Moonshine Store of hamburger fame) the week before Princess Diana was killed in the car crash in Paris.
            One memory from that visit remains in our family: Jessica had heard my father say his favorite expression when something annoyed him or even amused him: “Thunder and Mud!” We were all in the living room watching television when she walked up to him and said, “Papaw says, ‘Thunder and Mud!’”
             He laughed and slapped his leg as he sometimes did when something tickled him. Later that night after we had gone to bed, he came to the bedroom door and told us about Princess Diana. He had a heart attack and died a week later. For a few weeks after the funeral, a neighbor looked after Mother. But my sisters and I decided it would be better if she came and lived with my family.
            Both my wife and I worked, and the girls were in day care. Mother was able to care for herself to an extent and got around in the wheelchair. The girls were with her much of the time when they were home. That was particularly true after we widened the door of the cottage next door so Mother could be nearby but have the autonomy of her own home. She could still cook and take care of herself with help. As time progressed and they got older, she also took care of the girls at times.
            She cooked some for them, read to them, watched television and patiently answered the endless questions they thought up for her.
             I came home one evening, and she was propped up in her hospital bed with Caitlin sitting on her lap and Jessica standing beside the bed directing the whole show: They had rouge, powder, eye shadow and lipstick all over her face and were still going strong.
            “Here,” I hollered when I walked in the house. “What in the dickens are you kids doing to your grandmother?”
            “Leave them alone,” Mother said, smiling. ”They’re having fun.”
            They loved being with her, and I thought it was great that they had that time with their grandmother.
            Not long afterwards, Mother was in the kitchen getting the girls supper. I don’t know what she’d gotten for them, but the story goes that Jessica had some cottage cheese that she apparently didn’t want, so she smothered it with ketchup, thinking she wouldn’t have to eat it. Mother had other ideas.
            “Now you eat that, young lady,” she said.
            Jessica had other ideas, too. She looked up at the plaque Mother had on kitchen the wall that read:

My Kitchen Prayer 
Bless my pretty kitchen Lord
And light it with Thy Love
Help me plan and cook my meals
From Thy heavenly home above.
Bless our meals with Thy Presence
And warm them with Thy grace;
Watch over me as I do my work,
Washing pots and pans and plates.
The service I am trying to do
Is to make my family content,
So bless my eager efforts Lord
And make them heaven sent.

            She started singing the words to the little poem and taught Caitlin to sing with her, believing that their grandmother would be so happy to hear it that she wouldn’t make her eat the ketchup-covered cottage cheese. As I recall, it didn’t work.
            When Mother died a year or two later, both Jessica and Caitlin were devastated. They’d known her all of their lives and couldn’t remember when they didn’t know her. Their other grandmother had died when they were only 3 and 5. They hadn’t really known death.
             At the funeral, I was to give the eulogy for Mother. Jessica asked if she and Caitlin could be a part of it and sing “My Kitchen Prayer.” I agreed and stood listening as they sang the song from their hearts. Though there were tears during much of that day and the days around it, the music was a comfort, a piece of her that they got to keep.
             “Singing that little song as young girls was just our way of contributing to a ceremony dedicated to honoring a grandmother we were so close to,” Jessica says, “but today when I look back on that poem, it means something more. The role of homemaker, the act of being in the kitchen for hours a day … Sometimes it’s seen as this less-than, diminished role for women. But food was a huge part of how Grandma cared for her family and showed them love. It was how she gave strength, both physically and emotionally, to a family of hard workers with long days.
            “That prayer, which I still know all the words to, personifies that quiet strength that Grandma and so many of the women of her generation showed in small ways every day. I still think of her every time I taste a dish of hers that someone brings to a family gathering, and I bet I’d think of her if I were ever forced to eat ketchup-doused cottage cheese again, too. But it taught me that you have to lie in the bed you make, so you better make it well.”

July 11, 2018

Summertime livin’ and eatin’ at its best

“It’s summertime and the livin’s easy” is a line from one of my favorite songs. And summertime is probably my favorite season. There isn’t much I don’t like about it. The reason that comes to mind right now is fresh vegetables.
       The garden planted in early spring starts to produce its delicious bounty in summer. According to what you like, you can enjoy a variety of the freshest-tasting vegetables you could ever want. White icicle radishes are my favorite. When they’re cleaned and washed, there’s nothing better with any meal than those radishes dipped in salt. Personally, I like to dip them in salt from one of the old-fashioned salt dishes like my grandmother used. Tastes better somehow.
       Now if you like lettuce, you’re in luck, too. Some people like fresh-picked lettuce wilted in hot apple cider vinegar, bacon grease and a touch of sugar. And it’s not bad, really. But I prefer to take fresh lettuce, wash it in cold water and pile it on a peanut butter sandwich.
       If your garden is planted as the summer clips along, you can have most anything you want for weeks. The onions have been in the ground for quite a while, if you haven’t picked them all to eat as green onions.
       It’s the large onions, sliced and put together with fresh sliced cucumbers in vinegar and water that I like best. Salted, of course. They compliment any dinner well. For a snack, there’s nothing better than a large Bermuda onion, sliced and salted and put on a bread and butter—real butter, please, none of that slick, tasteless margarine—sandwich. It may be better if you have a cast-iron stomach. I don’t know.
       Tomatoes have got to be next. The first vine-ripened tomatoes of the summer are difficult to beat. What I always liked to do as a kid was walk through the garden and spot a really red, ripe, juicy one, pluck it from the vine, wipe it off a little and eat it right there. And yes, I carried the salt shaker with me.
       All the fresh tomatoes taste good, but they don’t compare with that first one. Some people make the mistake of putting them in the refrigerator, though. That’ll ruin the taste of a tomato quicker than about anything I know. So just slice hot tomatoes and put them on the table with your favorite meal. I even like them with bacon and eggs in the morning. They just start the day off the way it should be started.
       Green beans come along when you’re ready for them and not a minute sooner. I think I like wax beans the best. But any kind of fresh green beans cooked with bacon grease and some onion chips tastes so much better than store-bought beans that I sometimes wonder if they’re even the same thing.
       Moving beyond the green beans in the garden but at about the same time, the peas ripen and bulge in their pods. When they do, you cheat a little and dig a bunch of new potatoes even before they bloom if you have to. Just as long as you get the potatoes. All you do then is skin the potatoes and de-pod the peas, cook them together in a thick, rich, cream sauce. A little salt and pepper tops them off just fine.
       And finally: Yeah, finally because it’s the pinnacle of the summer. It’s the World Series of garden eating. That’s when the corn starts coming on, filling out into large yellow ears. (I like white corn well enough, but I especially like the Peaches and Cream variety with both yellow and white kernels.) Nothing like it if you eat it right. I love to take the freshly roasted or boiled corn and dip it in melted butter—again real butter, please, if you don’t want to spoil the taste—salt and pepper four rows, add a glob of butter for good measure and eat the four rows across horizontally with one vicious gnawing.
       Okay, so I’m an enthusiastic garden eater who likes his salt and real butter. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. And don’t quit until you’ve eaten four or five ears that way.
       At the end of the summer, if you’re lucky, you can have at least one meal with all your favorites. I personally can’t imagine anything better than a meal consisting of corn on the cob—roastin’ ears we used to call them—sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, creamed potatoes and peas, green beans and white radishes.
       Yeah, in the summertime, “the livin’s easy” and the eatin’s great.

June 16, 2018

A Memory on Father's Day

As I reflect on this year's Father’s Day, mine has been gone for more than 20 years. Still, it’s a day I want to remember him because of who he was, what he was, when he was, and for all the times I forgot that. This column is for him.
            My father was a farmer and a truck-driving man. Not the kind of trucker who drives the 18-wheelers on the interstate highways today. His trucks had no air-conditioning, sleeper cabs, cushion-ride seats, AM-FM or Sirius radios, GPS systems or any other comfort modern technology provides.
            No, he drove a regular two-speed axle, two-ton straight truck. The only bigger truck he ever owned was a 10-wheeler he took west a couple of years to follow the wheat harvest from the panhandle of Texas to the Canadian line. And the trucks were almost always Dodges. In a trucking career that spanned from 1939 to the mid-‘80s, he had only two trucks of a different make that I can recall with as many as five during World War II when he had a deferment from military service to support the farming community.
            With these trucks he hauled livestock, hay, grain, coal, lime, fertilizer, furniture—anything he could get in a truck. He and his drivers hauled through all kinds of weather. I’ve seen him scoop coal in the driving rain, load livestock in the bitter cold and haul hay in the blazing heat.
            Probably the only things that kept me from trying to follow in his footsteps was a trip I made to the Indianapolis stockyards with him one hot July or August when I was 10 or 11 years old.
            He had several stops to load a cow here, a calf there and a few hogs somewhere before being full loaded. A couple of places with just a calf or two, he wouldn’t even set up the loading chute. He just raised the end gate, tossed the animal in and drove off.
            The sweat dripped from his face, stinging his eyes while a river of it poured in; his shirt was completely soaked. As he wrote out the bill of lading for the woman at the last stop and wiped his eyes with a red handkerchief, the sweat trickled through the small hairs on the back of his hand, smudging the pencil lead on the paper as he wrote.
            ”Would you like a Pepsi, Harold,” the grizzled, white-haired woman asked.
            “Be good,” he said, still furiously scribbling and holding out his left hand for the drink. One gulp, two gulps, a breath, another gulp. The Pepsi was gone.
            “Thanks,” he said, handing her the empty bottle. Almost before he had the copy of the bill of lading ripped out and had given it to her, he was shutting the door, switching the key on and grinding the engine to life.
            As we turned out on the road, and headed east toward Indianapolis, he said, “Don’t ever do anything for a living that you have to work this hard.”
            Except for those trips, there were times I hardly ever saw him for days on end. He’d sometimes put on his clothes on Monday morning, load for Indianapolis, sleep in the truck at the coal mine in Brazil, Ind., while waiting for a load of coal for the return trip. And he’d scoop the coal, load for Indianapolis and do it over again.
            Or he‘d get home in the wee hours of the morning, sleep a little and be gone long before I got up. Even when I did get to go with him, he didn’t talk much. And when he did, it was about being honest or always paying his bills. 
            He slowed down as the years passed, had only two trucks for a while, then only one after he started farming. Then he’d work from six in the morning until nine at night—sometimes earlier, sometimes later—day in and day out, unless it rained. When I worked with him, I prayed for rain 24 hours a day. He never told me not to farm, but I remembered his advice about hauling livestock. Farming didn’t seem any easier.
            Just before he quit hauling livestock in the ‘60s, he took a straight load of cattle to Indianapolis and put four lambs on the upper deck at the front of the truck. Livestock hauling had dwindled and coal hauling was almost a thing of the past. He unloaded the cattle and was home by midnight.
            The next morning he woke to the sound of lambs bleating. Jumping out of bed, he bellowed, “What the devil is that?”
            “Sounds like sheep,” my mother answered.
            “Thunder and mud, I forgot to unload those lambs.”
            Another trucker going to Indianapolis stopped by for the lambs, and my father’s friends razzed him for a while. He’d smile and shake his head, but he never forgot his family or friends as he had those lambs. And it seems to me that a man who worked hard all his life needs to be remembered on Father’s Day.
            Thanks, Dad, I wish you were still here to share the day.

May 27, 2018

‘Blowing fire” takes the pain out of a burn

I was young, only 6 years old. Although I don't understand it, I do remember what happened, how I felt. Let me tell you about it.
It was an early summer evening and I heard my mother call me home for supper. For a while, I pretended I didn't hear her. Then I headed home, dejected that I had to do something as boring as eat supper when I could play.
As I walked along with my head down, the rest of the kids continued playing kick the can. I kicked disgustedly at the gravel at the side of the road with my bare feet. The remains of a brush and leaf pile a man had burned in front of his house was upon me before I realized it. But, I never hesitated or missed a step and began walking through it.
At the edge of the 12- or 15-foot-long pile, the powdery soft gray ashes felt pleasant to my feet. Closer to the center of the pile, the ashes began to feel warm. But, they still felt pleasant as I kicked along. Several feet in the center were red-hot coals, covered by mounds of ashes at the top.
Jumping and screaming, I took one, two, three, maybe four steps before I could get out of the hot coals. I ran gingerly, falling and landing in the ditch with my feet sending messages of pain to my brain.
A friend heard my screams and came running to my rescue. He tried to calm me down, told me not to cry. I only screamed louder. He didn't know what to do, but stayed with me.
My father was driving by a half a block away with a truckload of cattle on his way to Indianapolis. Somehow, my friend got his attention or my father heard my screaming. I don't know which. But he came and got me and carried me home.
It's not quite clear to me what happened for a while after that. I vaguely remember the doctor looking at my feet and trying to get me to shut up. Didn't happen. He smeared lard on both feet and wrapped them with gauze.
One of the neighbors suggested to my mother that a local farmer who could "blow fire" be called. By the time he arrived from the field, I had been screaming for well more than an hour. The doctor had done me no good at all. I awaited the farmer who blew fire hopefully, yet skeptically.
When he arrived, he told my mother that he didn't know what he could do since the doctor had put the lard on my feet. But he would try if she wanted him to. She did. So did I.
Between cries of pain and tears of anguish, I watched his kind face and steady eyes (that I can still see clearly today) as he unwrapped the bandages from my feet. Tenderly, he held first one foot then the other with one hand and blew through a finger of the other hand at my burned feet.
His eyes never left his job. Although I hoped he could help, I looked at him and knew almost that there was nothing neither he nor anybody else was going to be able to do for me. But as he blew, the fire seemed to leave my feet and my crying and screaming subsided.
Not quit, subsided.
He left to do his evening chores and returned in an hour or so and went through the process again. By the time he had finished the second time, even my blubbering had quit. My feet were tender, but they no longer burned. It wasn't long before I was asleep, exhausted.
In a few days, the water was drained from the massive blisters on the bottoms of my feet. My mother pulled me around in a little red wagon until my feet were healed and I could walk again.
Since then, I've tried to explain and understand how the pain left my feet. I've attributed it to the fact that I was young and wanted to believe, that I simply became exhausted and went to sleep and the burn went away, that I ... . But I've been burned since, and the burning sensation lingers for hours, even days.
Whatever happened, the pain of the burn doesn't go away as quickly now as it did back then. And the burns since haven't been quite so bad, either. I don't know.
I do know that many people believed the fire could be blown out of a burn. These people claimed it takes no special ability to be able to do it. Anyone can learn it, they said, if they could find somebody to tell them how.
Here's how they said it works: As the fire blower ministers to the burn victim, he or she blows over his or her fingers at the burned area, but doesn't let the breath touch the burn. While he or she is doing this, he or she repeats several designated words over and over in his or her mind.
The surface technique is simple. Anyone can learn it by watching or reading the above paragraph. The words are another thing. I have never found anyone who would tell me what they were. Nor did anybody know their origin, but they thought they were partially Biblical.
The fire blowers believe that for anyone to be able to blow fire, a man who knows the words must tell a woman, never a man. And he can't tell a relative. Then a woman can tell a man, never a woman. Nor can she tell a relative.
None of these people were allowed to take money for their services, they said. They only claimed that they could take the fire out of the burn so it wouldn't hurt; they didn't claim that they could cure the burn, eliminate scars from severe burns to alleviate the pain caused by tenderness.
Perhaps it's only folklore; perhaps there's nothing to it; perhaps it exists only in the mind. I don't know. I only know that one time a long time ago a man blew the fire out of my feet. At least I thought he did.

April 2, 2018

The Hanging of Elizabeth Reed

My June 21, 1978, column in the Robinson Daily News ...

Time was when there wasn't much for convicted murderers to look forward to after completion of their sentences. Take old Elizabeth Reed from Purgatory Swamp south of Palestine, Illinois, for example.
      Reed was accused and convicted of slipping a little “sweetin’” in her husband’s coffee (or sassafras tea, according to the account you read) back in 1844. Her sentence? To hang by the neck until dead. And that didn’t take long. What happened to her after ...
      But let's take a look at the events leading up to the hanging before going on to what little I could find out about what happened to her after she completed her sentence. Existing accounts are sketchy and inconsistent, and this account is based on a composite of the articles about the event now on file at the Robinson, Ill., Township Library (the library where as a youngster From Here To Eternity author James Jones honed his interest in literature).
      Reed and her husband, William, lived in a log cabin in what one writer called Purgatory Swamp; another writer said this cabin was located eight miles south of Palestine or about a half a mile northwest of Heathsville.
      During the summer of 1844, William Reed became ill. A doctor was called to the cabin. After a brief examination, the doctor said the feeble old man couldn't live long. And he didn't.
      A neighbor girl, Eveline Deal, was called to the cabin to help care for him. After the doctor left, Elizabeth put some white powder in the old man's coffee. He was dead when the doctor returned.
At the time of the funeral, Elizabeth acted like the grieving widow. It wasn't until later that her behavior became suspect. Or, more likely, it wasn't until the Deal girl told someone that she had seen Elizabeth pour white powder in the coffee that she was suspected of murder.
      The paper that contained the powder was still in the cabin. Evidently Deal turned the paper and her suspicions over to the sheriff, and he conducted an investigation. It was established that Elizabeth had bought the powder (arsenic) from a Russellville druggist. The paper was the kind used only by that druggist who identified it as the one he had wrapped the arsenic in for Elizabeth.
      Witnesses testified that she had gone to the druggist in a disguise to buy the poison. What kind of disguise was never mentioned. In various instances, Reed was described as a strange woman, ("of a very peculiar and hardened disposition") who seemed to have a facial disfigurement of some kind. She always wore a white cap or band tied around her head and wore a veil over her face when she went out. Perhaps that was the disguise.
     At the time of her arrest in August of 1844, Reed was placed in the county jail at Palestine. She quickly burned the log jail (which was never rebuilt because the county seat was moved to Robinson) to the ground. Until a change of venue was granted, she was kept in the loft of the sheriff's cabin "with a chain fastened to one of her lower limbs, and thence to a part of the bed."
     In September of 1844, the Grand Jury indicted her for murder. The change of venue was later granted, and she was moved to Lawrence County. Her trial was held in April 1845, and she was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on May 23, 1845.
      One eyewitness said years later, "The (execution) day dawned bright and balmy." Some 20,000 people had come from all over Illinois and Indiana to watch the hanging. Many of them arrived before dawn.
      Elizabeth Reed supposedly gave a full confession, which was later printed in pamphlet form. She was visited regularly in Lawrenceville by the clergy and allegedly confessed to them or their wives. It is difficult to determine what actually happened, because one account of the incident indicates that the governor of Illinois offered to revoke the execution sentence if she would confess.
      Whether she ever confessed, she still rode to the site of the hanging on the morning of May 23, 1845, sitting on her coffin. The crowds surrounded her on all sides, singing songs like "On Greenland's Icy Mountains." Reed, who had been baptized after her conviction, was dressed in white and had shouted, prayed and sung as she rode along. She mounted the scaffold singing "psalms of praise."
      One writer said the "scaffold stood on the northeast corner of the green hill (in Lawrenceville) with the maple tree at the bottom which had its top badly broken by the great number of men and boys anxious to see the taking off of this poor woman." A later writer said the hanging took place near the 10th Street Bridge.
      Take your pick.
      Before the hanging, a minister preached Reed's funeral as she sat on the scaffold. At the conclusion of the long sermon, a black hood was placed over her head and she stepped to the trap and the sheriff, who had tried to resign rather than hang a woman but didn't because there was nobody else to do it, cut the rope which held the trap by a small pulley fastened to a post. Reed plunged through the trap, "revolved several times, but did not struggle much" and was lowered from sight. Her sentence was completed.
      No, they didn't put a convicted murderer in jail long in those days. Nor did they spend much money to bury one. Reed was buried in a shallow grave beneath the scaffold. Relatives dug her up that night and reburied her in an unmarked grave next to her husband in the southwest corner of Baker Cemetery near Heathsville. According to available reports, there is now a marker over her grave, and Elizabeth Reed has the distinction of being the first and only woman to be hanged in Illinois.

(Note: This is not the Elizabeth Reed that Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts wrote about in his song, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” He wrote that song about a girl but not the one in the title. Story is that Betts often wrote in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, where Elizabeth Reed Napier, born Nov. 9, 1845, a few months after Elizabeth Reed was hanged, is buried. He is said to have used the name on her tombstone as the title because he didn’t want to identify whom the song was about: “a girl he had an affair with who was Boz Scaggs’ girlfriend.” Many references to Elizabeth Reed can be found on the internet, including a book about her hanging.)