October 15, 2006

If I Could Go Back To Just One Day in Time…

…it would be one special Sunday at my grandmother’s house in Metropolis, Illinois when I was five years old.

Today there’s an empty lot where her house stood. Across the street, which is now paved, is a baseball field. My Grandma’s yard itself seems astonishingly small when I see it today. It looks as though no house could possibly have been built there, for sure not one that could have held a couple and six children. But it was and it did. She raised her whole family there, as well as several grandchildren from time to time.

It’s hard to describe the magic of Grandma’s house through the eyes of a five-year-old because five-year-olds see things so differently. But there’s one Sunday I clearly remember, and thinking about it today, I’m five years old again.

It’s a warm summer day. The breakfast biscuits and butter and sorgum molasses and eggs have been cleared away by Grandma, who is now in the back yard chasing down a chicken for Sunday dinner–the only day of the week we have meat. Most of the time it’s beans and biscuits or corn bread, which seems perfectly natural to me. Grandma grabs the chicken, ignoring my shrieks, swings it around by the head, breaks its neck, and proceeds to de-feather it outside over a pot of boiling water–the same pot she’ll use to boil water to wash clothes in on Monday, using a washboard and bars of lye soap she made herself in large wooden tubs. After the chicken is clean, she puts it in her ice box in a big blue and white pottery bowl to soak in fresh buttermilk.

Then, every Sunday, she puts on her black hat, which she attaches to her hair with two hat pins, and walks a block to the small church where she worships. Sometimes I go with her. This day I don’t. I stay home, take a small piece of charcoal, and head across the dirt road to the tennis courts where I never see anyone play tennis, and sit on the warm concrete, drawing pictures. It’s okay for kids to draw on the concrete. Everyone knows the next rain will wash it away.

When I get tired of that, I head back to Grandma’s yard where I pull several tiny flowers from her flower garden and sit by the water pump in the side yard, under the big cherry tree, digging in the dirt and re-planting those same flowers. I turn them into my own garden, longing to have one someday just like Grandma’s. Her garden, which seems to go on endlessly, is half flowers; rows and rows of them on one side of the path all the way from the house and back to the outhouse. Sunflowers three times as tall as I am, hollyhocks and yellow and orange zinnias and snapdragons and honeysuckle and roses will bloom there all summer long.

It’s a funny thing about that half of her garden. I always wonder why there are so many flowers until I realize, years later, that those flowers are her beauty and her dreams. She plants snapdragons and honeysuckle hoping hummingbirds will come, and they do. The yard is full of them. That garden, to me, is a symbol of the simplicity and tranquility of that time. When years later I see a yard full of flowers like that, I always stop, breathing in their earthy beauty, thinking about her. And I cry.

The other side of the yard is a riot of vegetables, rows and rows of corn and beans and lettuce and red and yellow tomatoes and green peppers, which she cans all through the summer so we can have vegetables over the winter. Her trips to the store are short. There isn’t much she needs there, other than more flour. She makes her own lard in the fall when my grandfather kills the pigs, which she also cans for the winter.

She starts Sunday dinner as soon as she comes home from church because on a wood burning stove it takes that long. First she mixes the biscuit dough, pouring a huge pile of flour on the only counter she has, swirling her hand into it to make a hole, where she pours milk and lard and salt and baking powder, then continues to swirl until the liquid has picked up enough of the flour to make a huge ball of dough. The leftover flour goes back in the bin. Nothing is ever wasted in Grandma’s house. I watch this from my corner. It fascinates me to watch her make biscuits because there’s something magic about her hand movements, always so sure, so swift. So loving.

This day, she fries the chicken and we sit around the table. My grandfather dips his biscuits into a saucer of molasses, my grandmother passes the chicken and boiled potatoes and string beans and lettuce and tomatoes. And a bowl of great northern beans, always. My grandfather, a quiet man, never says much during mealtime. My uncles, who are still young and at home, laugh and crack jokes, full of the joy of life, still looking forward to the rest of their lives, unaware of the good as well as the tragedy that lies ahead. But for today, I can barely wait to finish dinner, because today we’re making ice cream.

An hour passes while my grandmother clears up the dinner table and then I sit on the front porch with them, dying for the ice cream-making to start. But this is Sunday and the pace is slow. The ice cream will come, but it’s so rare to have it that I’m bursting with excitement.

Finally they give in to my pleas and we all head out back. I watch while the whole family pitches in. My grandmother stirs the milk and sugar and vanilla and egg custard she made in the house earlier and pours it into the metal container. My grandfather puts the chipped ice–which he chipped in a burlap bag–into the ice cream maker, alternating it with salt. My uncles begin to take turns churning the handle.

It takes forever.

They add more ice. More salt. I’m mesmerized. I cannot take my eyes off that brown wooden bucket. After an eternity, the handle begins to move slower. It’s getting hard now. It won’t be long and I can barely sit still, but I do.

My uncles are sweating because of the exertion and also, they say, because it’s hot, but I don’t feel the heat. I never do at Grandma’s. Her house is air-conditioned by God.

My uncles offer to let me turn the handle and laugh at me when I can’t. Then, finally, it’s time.

They open the bucket, slowly…so excruciatingly slow…scraping the ice and salt off, pulling the metal container out. I’m almost screaming with anticipation but I don’t make a sound. Not now. I can’t. We’re about to have homemade ice cream.

Grandma carries the container into the kitchen. We all follow her. We sit around the table while she dishes it out. First to my grandfather. Next, my uncles. Finally, finally! she hands me a bowl full of vanilla ice cream and a spoon, and I begin to dig in. The cold sweetness, the unbelievably wonderful smell, and the taste, all things that I can’t begin to know, at the time, will stay in my mouth forever. I can feel the grains of sugar. I can almost count them as they slide down my throat fast, way too fast. My uncles tell jokes, it’s almost too hard to concentrate on the ice cream because they’re so funny this day. Even my grandfather, who rarely smiles, laughs out loud.

Finally the ice cream is gone from our plates, but it’ll never be gone from my mind.

I can tell you, no ice cream has never again tasted like that ice cream did on that long-ago Sunday at Grandma’s house. The whole day is still with me, all of it. Early in June in Metropolis, Illinois, when life was simple and secure, and love and laughter surrounded the life of a small five-year-old girl.

Thanks y’all, for stopping by and letting me go all nostalgic on you. But some days, ya know, it’s hard not to. Y’all come back again soon, ya hear me?

I love y’all, you KNOW I do,

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11 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. Lovely, lovely, lovely, Beth. I remember Sundays like that.
    Hugs, Pat

  2. Hots, you’re a beautiful person with great sensitivity. What a perfect tribute to your grandparents and a wonderful way of life.

  3. Thank you, guys, and I especially thank you, Pat, for saying, just the other day on one of our lists, you wish you could go back for just one day.

    Sometimes you can, and it’s eerie, watching yourself at that age and size while you’re watching your beloved grandmother make magic on her kitchen counter.

    Love to you both,
    Hotclue aka Beth (Sometimes 😉

  4. This sure brought back similar memories for me. We even had the old “outhouse” you spoke of, which my kids still can’t seem to believe anyone lived like that ever, without a toilet, running water or bath tubs. We relied on the rain filling a cistern to obtain needed water and a big tub to fill once a week for bathing if there was enough water left after cooking and washing clothes. Mom rung the chicken’s necks like you mentioned, too.

    Home made ice cream was something we seldom had, maybe on a holiday if we were lucky, but it sure was cherished and was a lot better than the stuff ya buy today.

    Thanks for my memory refresher.
    Love ya, Ginny

  5. You’re more than welcome, Ginny. Hope you come back again soon!

    Love, Hotclue

  6. Hi, Beth. Great story. Sounds a lot like our house when I was growing up, though we lived in the city, had running water and such. But I remember my mom ringing the chicken’s neck for Sunday dinner. My dad made the biscuits from scratch, every morning for breakfast. It was during The Depression and we didn’t realize we were poor because everybody else lived the same way. There was no crime or vandalism in the neighborhood. Just kids playing hide-and-seek and kick-the-can. Seems like an idyllic time now. Thanks for the memories.


  7. Chester, that’s exactly how it was. That’s so funny, several people have mentioned our grandmothers doing that to our Sunday dinner chickens, and I thought it was just my grandmother, doing something wacky. 😉 And yeah, as a farmer’s grandkid, I never knew we were poor either. Actually, I don’t think we were. We just didn’t have any money, that’s all.
    Thanks so much for dropping by, please come back again.

  8. Hey Beth,

    My dad pointed me toward this entry and told me it was just like this for him when he visited Grandma there too. Really great entry — your writing really painted a picture for me 🙂

    Hope you’re well there in Chicago and hopefully I can come visit you again sometime. Or maybe you could come back to Alaska for awhile?


  9. Oh, how I’d love to come back to Alaska for even a short visit, and one of these days I might do that. Hey, thanks, David, for stopping by! And you’re welcome at our house anytime, you know that.

    Love, Hotclue AND her alter ego, Beth 😉

  10. When I wipe the tears away I’ll respond. Quit ripping out my heartstrings, darn you!

  11. Erika, what a lovely, lovely thing to say. It’s a real compliment for any author to know that somewhere, somehow, she’s touched someone’s heart to that extent. I deeply appreciate it. Thank you.

    Love, Hotclue







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