Best Dog Ever

Chico and me on the farm

I grew up with dogs and cats, generally one dog at a time and, when we moved to the farm, multiple half-wild cats.  I loved them all, but Chico was the best dog.

I was in school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  Walking down the Strip, a slightly seedy street lined with delis, head shops and bookstores, I saw a man standing on the corner with a box of tiny puppies.  “The mother’s a purebred German shepherd, but some mutt got to her, ” he said.  “If people don’t take the puppies I’m going to drown them.”

I was stricken.  I immediately hatched a desperate plan.  I took the only puppy who was marked black and tan like a German shepherd and took him back to my dorm room.  He lived in a box under my bed for a few days.  I named him Chico, because he was a little boy and because I liked the Marx Brothers.  I took him to the vet, who told me he was only 4 weeks old, and gave him vitamins.  Then I bummed a ride home for the weekend and took him to my parents’ farm.

Mother was not thrilled when I turned up with a puppy in a shoebox.  There was no question of him living in the house–pets were never allowed inside–and the weather was cold.  Daddy built a small doghouse from bits of wood and insulated it with styrofoam.  He put a light on an industrial extension cord, put the light in a coffee can, and wrapped it in a towel, so Chico had a space heater.  He even put an alarm clock in a towel so Chico wouldn’t cry.   Then he fenced a tiny yard with loose bricks so Chico couldn’t wander away. 

Chico never looked back.  He grew into a 110-pound German shepherd, always gentle, loving and patient with all the grandchildren.  He was devoted to my parents and never bit a soul.  Chico liked to take my wrist in his mouth, shake it, and let it go.  I thought nothing of it until I saw him crack a hambone in his jaws.  When I brought a boyfriend home he would walk between me and the guy.  He didn’t growl.  He didn’t need to.

After Daddy died suddenly Chico became Mother’s guard dog and protector.  He still roamed the farm and cadged food from the neighbors.  When he was 11 years old, feeble and shaky, he had to be put down.   I’ve never had a dog since then.  I’m pretty much a cat person now.  But I’m glad I brought that puppy home.

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The Farm, 1974

Shed on Tennessee Farm
Photo by Erons Pics

When I think of that time, it’s mainly the heat I remember, and the air so thick.  The woods  in back of the house were lush and green, but the pasture in front was beginning to turn brown from the August heat.  Even as the sun set over the ridge, smoldering red, it didn’t get much cooler.  The haze of heat dissolved from the fields, but the air was still with moisture and hard to breathe in.

Then it was dark, and it was darker than it has ever been again.  Dark as Egypt, my mother would say.  No street lights, no security light, the nearest house a half mile away across the fields and shrouded in trees.  Coming down the gravel driveway to the raw, red brick house and turning off the car lights, you saw streaks and spots that weren’t there, like the lights inside your eyelids.

Then you and the boy stumbled across the yard in the dark and sat in the swing under the big oak tree.  Slowly you could see again, first the dark bulk of the house, and then the stars.  There were more stars then, thick brushstrokes of them across the sky.  You could actually see the arm of the Milky Way, distant pinpoints in the dark.

A car would pass on the road, lonely and preoccupied.  There was the hum of the air conditioner in the window of the house, the high, monotonous peeping of tree frogs, the quiet whuffling of cows, settled down to sleep by the pasture fence.  A bird rustled in the tree above your head, shifting its perch. The swing creaked and its chains jingled when the boy suddenly stopped its motion.

Then the moon rose above the ridge, drowning the stars, silvering the ground fog smoking in the hollow.  You could almost count the craters on the moon, it was so bright and unnaturally big.  And you were not afraid of anything, not anything.

Suddenly the porch light flicked on and off.  The boy decided it was time to go.  So you went in the house, resentful, not knowing that nothing would ever be the same again.

Blooming Grove

Dogwoods by Albert Bierstadt

            The white clapboard church is barely set back from the asphalt road, an old cemetery on one side, the raw red brick parsonage on the other.  The church is small and spare, with only a steeple for adornment.

            My car pulls into the small parking lot, spitting gravel and dust as it halts.  There are battered pickup trucks, washed and polished sedans, a couple of jacked-up muscle cars.  It is already hot, although it is not yet 11 in the morning.  The air is thick with humidity, a dense wall almost too thick to breathe.

            The men stand outside by the front porch, smoking and talking.  Their faces are sun-reddened.  They wear short-sleeved shirts and ties, and have removed their dark suit jackets in the heat.  They will put them on to go in the church, then take them off again and fold them carefully before the sermon starts. 

            I go up the worn concrete steps into the vestibule, suddenly dark and a little cooler, and emerge into the sanctuary.  The old, dark wood floors are muffled with runners of faded red carpet on the aisles.  The pews are old, dark wood as well, hard and slippery from generations of churchgoers.

            The white walls are bare.  There is no cross on the wall or statues in niches.  There are only a bare wooden pulpit, a small choir loft, a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, and a communion table—the altar, we call it—with a vase of flowers left over from a funeral, beginning to wilt.

            The sanctuary smells of dusty carpet, furniture polish, the wilting flowers, and people beginning to sweat as the room fills.  The women’s polyester flowered dresses are bright against their husbands’ Sunday suits.  I fan myself with a paper fan on a wooden stick.  It is printed with a scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is kneeling in a white robe and praying, pinned  in a beam of white light like a deer in the headlights.

            Then the preacher comes in, the choir loft fills with my aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, and the service begins.  The preacher cannot stir me.  I am impervious to his thin, nasal voice; the mistakes in his grammar gall me.  His collar is too big.  My heart is harder than stone, it oozes contempt like the asphalt road outside oozes tar.

            But I am undone all the same.  It is the old country hymns, sung by untrained voices.  My uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my neighbors sing harmony without effort or thought, singing a melancholy song their parents sang to them.  They sing, “O come, angel band, come and around me stand/O bear me away on your snow white wings/ To my immortal home.”

            And I am borne away on those wings, out the back door of the church, into the green graveyard.  Ancient cedar trees shade the graves; the breeze whispers through the branches.  My grandparents are there, and my great-grandparents, and my great-great grandparents.  The old, grey stones are worn and crooked.  They are simple, no fancy carvings, no weeping Victorian angels.  They sink into the mossy graves.   There is no room for anyone else.  The past owns this place.

Twenty-seven Cousins and One Aunt

Oldest Cousin With Her Daughter and Grandson

I made a fast trip to my home town in Tennessee this weekend because my sisters were all driving there for the cousins’ lunch.  Usually my sister Sherrie is the only one who can go, because she lives less than an hour away.  For the rest of us, it’s a lengthy drive or, in my case, a two-hour flight.  But we all agreed to get together this time and go to the lunch.

The Jones family used to have big reunions in the summertime.  We’d cook out and picnic in the local park.  I remember my grandfather, Pap, sitting in a lawn chair under a huge shade tree, his back poker-straight.  He had rather cold blue eyes and a beak of a nose.  Mammy, my grandmother, had passed away by the time I remember the reunions. His ten children would be there with their spouses and children, so it was quite a crowd.  My cousin Mary Ann organized reunions later, after Pap died.  It got harder and harder to gather the group as some moved away, and others died.  Then Mary Ann passed away suddenly from a medical condition and the reunions stopped.

A few years ago the last of Pap’s children started meeting at a restaurant for lunch occasionally along with some of their nieces and nephews, i.e., the cousins.  The lunch on Saturday was one of the biggest ever.  Aunt Agnes was there, the youngest of Pap’s children–she’s 86.  And there were 27 cousins, ranging in age from Lurleen, who is 87(oldest daughter of Pap’s oldest son), to four of Pap’s great-great-grandchildren, three of whom were less than 10 years old. 

It was pretty overwhelming, especially when I realized our teenaged waitress was a cousin, too (one of the great-great-grandchildren), and did not remember her great-grandfather, who was one of my dad’s brothers.  Whew!  And I’m not that old!  I guess that’s what happens when you have a large family spread over 20 years, and some of them have large families spread over 20 years, like my parents did.   

The world is different now.  We are scattered far and wide, and many of us don’t know the other cousins.  One of my nephews met a cousin when he and his wife took their first child to the pediatrician.  They had the traditional Southern “where are you from?  where is your family from?” conversation.  Turns out they were both Pap’s great-grandchildren and had never known each other.   Now they are friends.

Here’s a short video of everyone at the lunch!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Pmfuf3RC-0&feature=channel_video_title

Home Cooking

Fried Chicken
Photo credit: Niall Kennedy

I have my mother’s recipes.  When she had to move to a nursing home some years ago after having a stroke, my sisters and I cleaned out her apartment, and the recipes went home with me.  Most of them are not anything you would want to cook now—classic ‘50’s and ‘60’s concoctions she’d torn out of women’s magazines, full of Campbell’s soup or condensed milk, or even, God forbid, that syrupy Eagle Brand stuff.  But the notecards have the recipes I remember as a child, growing up in Tennessee.

Some of them are so terse they are unintelligible.  I called Mother at the nursing home and asked her about Mama’s Tea Cakes.  (Mama was Mother’s mother.)  It calls for “flour,” no amount specified.  “What do you mean, ‘flour’?” I asked her.  “How much?  Two cups?”  She said slowly, “Enough flour.  You’ll know when you see it.”  True enough for someone who made biscuits from scratch all the time, but not for me.  I finally figured out how much by the texture, when the dough was just dry enough and not too dry.  I wrote down the amount for future use.

The chocolate pie recipe became a matter of contention after Mother died in 2004.  For some reason I took a notion to bake it for the first time in years.  There were two versions, and neither was complete—oven temperature?  How long do you bake it?  None of my sisters remembered, and they had variant versions from our aunt Elsie.  Finally, after comparing with a hokey hillbilly cookbook from a Cracker Barrel store, I think I got the definitive recipe.

Mother’s Southern Baptist Sunday School class cookbook was a great source of recipes as well.  I have their recommendation on how to cook perfect fried chicken every time.  I’ve had to adapt the cooking time, because chickens now are bred to have bloated breasts and take longer to cook.  

When I was growing up, everything was fried, even the vegetables, unless they were “cooked down” with a piece of fat meat.  Dessert was a part of every meal, sometimes just biscuits with butter and jam or sorghum molasses, but always there.  Mother cooked three meals a day, every day, and cooked for whoever was home, including the workers getting in the tobacco in the fall, as many as 10 or 12 people.

 My family has a terrible history of heart disease and high blood pressure.  All of us try to cook healthy things now, which pretty much kills everything I grew up with.  But every once in a while I throw caution to the wind and make that chocolate pie, or a Baptist pound cake, which requires a pound of butter and six eggs, or even fry some chicken.   It makes my tiny condo kitchen smell like home.

Photo of My Grandfather, circa 1941

My Grandfather

The world was sepia-toned back then.  A man’s mules were not just machines to work the fields.  They were friends or enemies, members of the family you followed down the rows, piloting the plow with your strength and their strength over the years, to plant and tend the crops that were your life and their life.

             The mules were named Judy and Mandy.  Their ears were quizzical, their noses were soft, their teeth were large and they were apt to bite.  If Judy and Mandy were put in the same stall in the old, run-down stable, they would nip at each other, whicker nastily, and fuss.  If they were put in separate stalls, they would each kick the wall between them until it collapsed and they were together, to nip at each other and fuss.

             In the photo it is early spring.  The trees are just beginning to bud.  It is time to break the ground for the plant bed, to sow the tobacco seeds and cover the bed with canvas.  By May the plants are spreading small, flat green leaves.  It will be time to break the ground in the field with the mules, and set the tobacco plants by hand, backbreaking labor.      

The man is serious in this photo, sincere.  He wears his hat on the back of his head, so his face is revealed, open.  He wears worn overalls and a flimsy jacket.  He wears a clean white shirt. 

You cannot see his five children.  You cannot see his irreverent humor, or how he loved to hear his coonhounds run, their bell-like voices bawling “oh-oh-oh” as they raced on the trail of their prey. 

But you can see his hazel eyes if you look at me or my niece Judy.  And you can feel his love of animals in the dogs, cats, rabbits and chickens his great-great-grandchildren love.

Fishing on a Hot Summer Day

When it’s hot and humid I remember going fishing with Uncle Tip.  I was a teenager living with my parents on a small, hilly farm in Tennessee about a mile from the Cumberland River.  A number of my aunts and uncles lived up and down the road from us. Uncle Tip, whose real name was Clifford Settle, was married to Aunt Eunice, one of Daddy’s sisters.   They had retired to the country, and their son and grandchildren lived hours away.  So Uncle Tip decided to teach me to fly-fish in the river.

Fishing in the Cumberland was no fancy affair of expensive rods and reels, waders and L.L. Bean paraphernalia.  Uncle Tip had a small bass boat, a jon-boat as they were called, green metal with aluminum seats which got hot in the sun, and a bass motor, too small to pull a water-skier but powerful enough to putter up and down the river.  We would go out early in the morning or late afternoon.   Invariably it was quite hot, so I wore cutoff  jeans and a t-shirt, and Uncle Tip wore a cotton sport shirt with his work khakis and a Telephone Pioneers baseball cap to shelter his freckled face.  

Fly Fishing in the Cumberland
He took the boat upriver to whatever looked like a good spot, usually where a tree had fallen off the bank into the water, and there were shady spots from the other trees leaning over.  The fish liked to lurk in the shade once the day got warm, and our job was to tempt them to the surface with a carefully placed fly, letting it drift for a while as the boat drifted with the current. 

Uncle Tip taught me to hold the fly-rod lightly and flick it with my wrist, not my shoulder, so as to place the fly more accurately—and so as not to snag his hat, his shirt, a tree branch, or other obstacles in the way, as I frequently did at first.  He always put a neon-colored plastic popper on the line so you could see if the fish grabbed it before you felt it, since we were letting the line drag.   I didn’t catch very many fish, but to me that was unimportant.  There was something hypnotic about floating along, watching the line, then raising the rod to move the lure to a more promising place. 

Eventually Uncle Tip said, “Connie, want to go for a ride?”  I always said, “Yeah, sure, if you have time.”  He always had time.  We reeled in our lines, he put our catch in his creel, and we headed down the river.  Uncle Tip went just fast enough for us to feel the breeze.  I sat back and let it blow my hair away from my face.  He pointed out whose farm or house we were passing.  Parts of the river were more heavily wooded, oaks, elms, maples, cedar trees. 

Once I saw a white and grey hawk perched on a branch of a log in the river.  It looked like a ghost of a hawk, sharp-featured and keen but white with grey shadows.  Uncle Tip called it a “fish hawk.”  As we looked it dove off the branch and skimmed the river.  It didn’t catch a fish, and returned patiently to its branch. 

After a half hour at most, Uncle Tip would turn the boat around and we headed back to the boat slip.  I waded up the ramp, pulling the boat, conscious of the river’s tug on my calves.