The Garden Patch

I have an ambivalent relationship with vegetable gardening due to my youth on a Tennesee farm.  The upside of a vegetable garden is obvious.  We had homegrown tomatoes from about July 4 through the rest of the summer, juicy, sweet and picked when they were ripe, not shipped in from Florida or Mexico.  If you wanted green beans for dinner, you went out and picked some.  Silver Queen sweet corn was so flavorful it really didn’t need butter.  Cucumbers, cantaloupe–Mother cut it up in slices and kept a gallon jar full in the refrigerator–“shelly” beans, all were grown every year.  There’s not much better than a thick slice of ripe, homegrown Big Boy tomato on a hot biscuit with butter.

The downside for me was two issues:  hard, manual labor, and bugs.  A large garden has to be hoed to get rid of the weeds, if you want to have any significant amout of produce.  And gardens are not like grocery stores.  You cannot shop when you need something.  When the garden “comes in,” you have to pick, eat, freeze, can and/or share.  One memorable summer the Kentucky Wonder pole beans would not stop bearing, I suppose due to optimal rain and sun.  Mother and I canned or froze a total of 100 quarts of beans.  I walked between the rows muttering, “Die, bastards, die.”  We even canned two bushels for Aunt Eunice in exchange for her making a slipcover for the couch.  And Kentucky Wonders are string beans, so you have to string them as well as break them before canning or freezing.  I resented the extra work.

Our garden was not organic by any stretch, since Daddy put a little fertilizer in the soil before we planted (not much, or you got all leaves and no fruit, so to speak).  We also used a pesticide on the young plants, but once they started bearing we couldn’t safely do that.  So bugs became a presence by the time we were ready to harvest from the garden.

The worms that get in ears of corn weirded me out, but they at least were not belligerent.  My real battles were with the blister bugs, or blister beetles, to give them their proper name.  The ones in our garden lived on the tomato plants.  They were one to two inches long with vertical black and white stripes.  If I approached a plant with a blister bug on it, the bug would do a sort of push-up and elevate its rear legs, the better to spray my hand with acid.  The acid raised blisters on anything it touched.  I learned to carry a stick with me so I could knock off any blister bugs that threatened, although I had to be careful not to knock them onto another plant where I planned to pick.

So I don’t have fond memories of gardening back in Tennessee.  Every once in a while the impulse to grow something still rises.  I used to grow tomatoes on my balcony, which my boyfriend called “the back forty,” but quit when I realized they were the most expensive tomatoes I’d ever had, and not very good to boot.  The kind you can grow in pots are not very flavorful.  I have the occasional pot of herbs along with the flower boxes, just to prove I still have it.  I could have a truck patch if I had to, but please don’t make me do it!


Mama’s Tea Cakes

Blanche Ella Collier Bowers

I never knew my grandmother on my mother’s side; she died before I was born.  Mother’s stories about her made her sound like the taskmaster and moral guardian of the family, while Papa, Mother’s father, was fun-loving and mischievous.  Both Mama and Papa worked hard on their small farm all their lives, raising five children.  Mother used to say I had Mama’s hands, long-fingered and slim, while she had Papa’s bony, large-knuckled ones.

Mother learned to cook from Mama, as well as how to can and preserve vegetables and fruits, make jams and jellies, and generally make the most of what they were able to grow in their garden patch.  Most of the recipes were in her head, and Mother did not write them down.  When I was in high school I asked her for Mama’s tea cake recipe.  They are simple, thin cookies, that are in fact good with a cup of tea.  I struggled with these, because it helps to know how to handle biscuit dough without over-working it in order to make these cookies!

Mama’s Tea Cakes

2 1/4 cups sugar

about 2 cups flour

1 tsp. baking soda

pinch salt

2 eggs

2/3 cup buttermilk

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup butter (or margarine, butter is better)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix the dry ingredients and put them on the biscuit board or pastry sheet where you will roll out the cakes.  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and pour the wet ingredients there.  Mix together until you have dough–don’t handle too much!  Roll out thin and cut into round cookies (biscuit cutter or a glass works fine).  Bake until lightly browned.

Optional:  Add lemon zest or orange zest.  Not authentic to the recipe or period, but a nice flavor.

The Cold War in Clarksville

In the early 1960’s, my father drove ICBMs into underground tunnels for a living.  My mother knew what he did, but no one else knew, except the people he worked with in the arsenal hidden inside a hill.

Every day during the week he would leave for work early in the morning, dressed in
khaki work clothes and wearing his Top Secret Clearance badge with  an atomic symbol and the letters “AEC” on it.  Mother packed his lunch in a brown paper bag.  He worked very regular hours most of the time, like someone working a shift at a factory.  If asked, my sisters and I said, “My daddy works for the government.”  That was all we knew at the time.

Daddy was a silent man, dark and rugged, with rather forbidding eyebrows and a stern
grey-eyed gaze. There are black and white photos of Daddy and his best friend
Grissom, dressed in coveralls, posed by one of the flatbed trucks that hauled
the missiles.  Grissom was square-jawed and has a buzz cut.  They looked straight
at the camera, serious and dependable, the kind of men who could handle a nuclear warhead and not get rattled.

Occasionally, Daddy would be “on call.”  On those nights, he would bring home a pistol in a black leather holster and put it on top of the chest of drawers in my parents’ bedroom.  We were forbidden to enter the room.

“Don’t go near that chest of drawers,” he would say.  “That thing could kill you.”

Then a black sedan would come for him at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.  He would put on the holster and leave.  And shortly after that a freight train would roar past on the tracks in back of our house.

Periodically Daddy was sent to Los Alamos for training. He hated the desert.  Whenever he went to New Mexico Daddy came back with stories of the bone-dry horrors he had seen.  “There was a tarantula spider as big as a hat walking along the side of the road,” he
said.  “There’s a cave that the bats fly out of at dark, and they look like a thundercloud coming out, there’s so many of them.”

In 1962 Daddy was called out at night more often, carrying the pistol.  Mother looked worried.  One day Daddy brought home a brochure from work, with a Department of Defense logo on the back.  Its title was, “Building a Home Bomb Shelter.”

The booklet had lots of practical suggestions.  Food, water, how to dig a latrine in your  shelter if the sewage system stopped working—survival skills, A to Z.  I was troubled, however, by the booklet’s attitude toward pets.  They were expendable.  Only people
were important enough to save from nuclear destruction.

I had a recurring dream about my dog, Whitey.  I dreamed that the bombs had dropped,
and my family was in the bomb shelter Daddy built in our garage.  It was late evening all the time, day and night were gone forever.  The sun never rose or set.  The sky was the greenish color it gets right before a terrible thunderstorm or a tornado, and it never changed.

I was worried sick about Whitey.  When the sirens went off, I had gone looking for him, calling and calling.  But he didn’t come.  Finally I ran home to the shelter, racing
anxiously to safety.

I peered out the narrow glass windows in the garage door, watching for him.  After days of watching, I looked without hope—and he appeared in the back yard.

But he was strange.  He moved with an odd, sideways walk.  He glowed pale green, fluorescent.  But he had come home.  I ran to the door to let him in.

“No, honey, you can’t,” Daddy said.  “He would poison us all.”

“He can’t help it!” I cried.  “We can’t let him die, he’ll starve!”

“He’s going to die anyway,” Daddy said.

And the dog began to cry, a long, low moaning.  It went on and on, for days, until he was just a skeleton, still crying outside the door.  I woke up with a racing heart.

Father’s Day Special II: The Right Way to Do Things

Ford Tractor, Like Daddy’s

My daddy was a man who considered there was a right way to do anything, whether it was repairing a car engine or eating cornflakes.  He was not dictatorial or oppressive in any way.  Daddy just knew what he considered right, and he demonstrated how to do things, expecting you to follow his example.

When my nephew Jarrett was quite small, my sister Juanita and her family stayed on the farm with my parents for several weeks while they were in the process of moving to Kentucky.  Jarrett and his brother Mason followed Daddy around and absorbed his every utterance, but Jarrett was particularly impressionable.

Years later I met him and his fiancee for lunch in Manhattan and listened to Jarrett explain to her the proper way to eat cornflakes.  “Granddaddy showed me, ” he said.  “You pour the flakes in a bowl, then you crush them with your hands, like this”–he demonstrated.   ‘Then you put sugar on top, and finally you pour the milk on.”  He then moved on to the proper methodology for having molasses and biscuits.  “You have to put the butter on the plate, then pour the sorghum molasses on it.  You whip it up with your knife.  Then you split your biscuit, and spread it on the biscuit.”

Daddy’s lessons weren’t always absorbed.  He tried to teach my brother to work on a car engine, but Gil preferred to bounce a tennis ball off the side of the house.  He never managed to teach Mother to drive, because she would get nervous, he would get gruff, she would dissolve in tears, and the lesson ended.  Consequently she was dependent on other people for transportation her entire life.

But some of the lessons did sink in.  He taught me to change a tire after I had two flats in one week.  I had to jump on the crowbar to loosen the lug nuts, but I could do it.  It stood me in good stead for many years.

Daddy died of a heart attack when I was 22 years old.  I miss him to this day.  Happy Father’s Day to dads everywhere.  Your daughters love you.

Father’s Day Special: Don’t Try This at Home

Daddy and Mother

I’m the youngest of five children, and there are almost 20 years between my oldest sister and me.  Daddy turned 40 years old not long after I was born.  That’s not unusual today, but in my parents’ day they were considered old enough to be grandparents!   There are seven years between the next-to-youngest and me, so I’m sure Mother and Daddy thought their family was done long before I came along.

You’d think they would not have been pleased, but from all accounts they were thrilled.  Even when I was a teenager, Daddy still spent time with me and did things with me, difficult as that was for him with a girl who wasn’t athletic, and at a time when we didn’t have money to spare for movies or dinners out.

One inspiration he had falls squarely into the “don’t try this at home” category.  It rarely snowed more than a dusting in our part of Tennessee–ice storms were more prevalent.  So any snow was a huge treat and a special occasion.  One winter we got a few inches of snow, and school was closed.  I had a sled, but the runners kept getting bogged down in the wet snow.  Then Daddy had his big idea.  He took a discarded car hood from my uncle’s garage, and chained it upside-down to the back of his tractor.  “Get on the hood, baby doll, and hold on!” he said.

We spent a good part of the afternoon going up and down the slushy, ice-slick road with the tractor and car hood.  Looking back on it now, I wonder why the hood didn’t slide into the tractor’s rear wheels, and how on earth I kept from falling off.  But I had no problems at the time, and it was exhilirating to ride and slide in the cold.

Finally we went home, and Daddy unchained the hood.  My boy cousins next door had been watching enviously.  “Uncle George, could we use that car hood?” Dale asked.  Daddy said they could.  Dale and Don launched themselves down a hill, completely unable to steer the hood.  They hit a tree and Don broke his arm.  Oops!  Like I said, don’t try this at home!

Chocolate Pie: Fudge in a Crust

Photo by
Chocolate pie is an emotional subject.  This was my sister Juanita’s favorite dessert years ago.  She had married and moved away, living everywhere from Hawaii to Germany with her Army-officer husband.  Every time she came to visit with her young family, our mother would make a chocolate pie to her specifications–no meringue, the traditional family recipe, no variations.  Juanita would cut a sliver, “just to taste it,” and walk away from it.  Put down that knife!  In no time, another sliver would be gone, and another, and another, until someone else cut a slice in self-defense.

I got Mother’s recipes after she died (see “Home Cooking,” April 14, 2011).  The chocolate pie recipe lacked a lot of information, like oven temperature and how long to bake.  I canvassed the family, consulted other recipes, and experimented a bit.  Here’s the result.  This is not like chocolate pudding pie, or the stuff you get in diners.  It’s very easy, and very chocolate.  I highly recommend it when you’re feeling down and can’t deal with a double boiler.

Mother’s Chocolate Pie

1 unbaked 9″ pie crust (make your own, use refrigerated or frozen)

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons cocoa

3 egg yolks

1 cup milk

1/2 stick butter

1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

Mix all dry ingredients, then add egg yolks, milk, butter and vanilla flavoring.  Cook in a saucepan on top of stove until thick.  Put in unbaked pie crust and bake at 350 degrees until crust is brown.

If you like, you can use the egg whites to make meringue.  No advice on that topic!

Family History: What’s Buried

When I was working for a nonprofit organization in New York City our diversity task
force brought in a consultant to do sensitivity exercises.  The consultant had us all stand in a line.  First she called out statements that, if they applied to you, you were to take a step back:  Person of color, ancestors came through Ellis Island, parents didn’t go to college, parents spoke a language other than English.  Then she made statements that  required you to step forward.  Most of these I don’t remember; one had to do with having a graduate degree.  I just remember that the Chief Operating Officer and I ended up by the window, while most of the rest were huddled in the back of the room.  I had never viewed  myself as privileged before.

I come from a very large family which none of us knew much about until recently.  Mother and Daddy both were born and raised in a small farming community in Montgomery County, Tennessee. Daddy was a Jones, Mother was a Bowers.  My cousins on the Jones side liked to joke that it was a wonder we weren’t all idiots, since there were Joneses and Bowerses on both sides of our family trees.   My parents went through the Great Depression, and told me that sometimes they had nothing but biscuits and sawmill gravy to eat.  Neither graduated from high school.

Mostly my relatives were tenant farmers or blue-collar workers.  No one had gone to college before my generation.  To me it was a point of pride that we had apparently been in Montgomery County forever without making much of a mark on it.  We didn’t have any
glorious Civil War history to recount and apparently were too poor to own slaves.

I thought of myself as an educated, liberal person over the years, having no heritage of slavery, lynching or Jim Crow atrocities to live down.  I also thought I came from a humble
background and, along with my sisters and brother, had managed to pull myself
up into the middle class.  Meanwhile, my cousins Bobby Bowers and Greg Jones had been digging into the genealogy of the Bowers family.  In December 2006 they  printed “The Descendants of Nathaniel Bowers, Rev., and Hannah Smith.”  My sister Sherrie sent me a copy, and I began picking my way through 12 generations of Bowerses.

Turns out my parents were distant enough as cousins to escape any incest jokes.  However, most of my other assumptions were not particularly true.  There had been  land, and perhaps education.  Nathaniel Bowers was a preacher and was born in Connecticut (date unknown).  His wife was born in 1683.  His grandson James fought in the Revolutionary War (with the rank of Capt.) and received a pension, moving to  Montgomery County from New Jersey around 1820.  James owned 400 acres of land—a war land grant?

During the Civil War, Corporal John Claiborne Bowers was sent home with malaria the
day before the surrender of Fort Donelson to the Union army, so he avoided
going to prison camp with the rest of the Confederate soldiers.  Yet he had been there, so he may have fought.  Family lore said he was paid to fight by a more affluent neighbor, which was common at the time. His widow received a Confederate Army pension.

The genealogy book noted births, deaths, pensions, deeds, census data, and even a
newspaper account of an apparent multiple murder including the husband of one
of the Bowerses in 1878.  The question of slave ownership was never raised.  Nothing
explained how the land had gone away.

I emailed Cousin Bobby about it, and he said he didn’t look into slave ownership.  But what he did find out changed my view of our family history forever. Education, property, Revolutionary and Civil War veterans—not what I thought I knew.  And still a lot of
buried history.

There Is No Frigate Like a Book

Do you remember when you first learned to read?  I don’t remember the date, but I do remember the sensation.

I was five years old, not yet in school.  My parents and my sisters had read to me for years, and I loved books already.  But I loved most sitting in Daddy’s lap while he read the “funny pages” to me every Sunday.  At some point the words in the comic strips suddenly made sense to me before he read them out loud.  It was like something clicked in my brain, and there was no going back.

It was like waking up in Wonderland!  I read books, newspapers, cereal boxes, signs, anything with print on it.  Mother and my sister Sherrie taught me to write, which opened up another world of pleasure.  I fell into a world of words, and I’ve never left it since.

How powerful it is to read other people’s stories, thoughts, and feelings–and to express your own!  To voyage to worlds you will never see, or that only exist in someone’s imagination!  I love movies, photography, theater, and even online games sometimes (I’m struggling not to become an Angry Birds addict).  But I rejoice in the magic of words.  Emily Dickinson put it best:

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

High School Daze

In high school I thought life was happening somewhere else, not in the rural backwater where I lived.  A lot of it happened on TV; I saw it every night.  I spent those years getting ready to be somewhere else.  And then I was afraid to go.

The black high school and the country high school were closed down, and we were all
bused into the white town high school for our sophomore year. I rode the bus for an hour and a half each way, every day.  There were 3000 students in the school.  One day there were rumors of a race riot.  I think two kids had a shoving match in the hallway.   One of my best friends was black.  The other black kids hated her; she was very smart and very sarcastic.  She designed her own clothes and was the first person I ever saw wear clogs or knickers. Years later she got into the New England Conservatory by threatening them with a lawsuit.

I wrote poems and stories.  I read Jane Austen’s novels for  the first time.  I read a lot of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and wondered what the missing parts were like.  I thought Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a sap.

I named my black cat  “Firecat” after the Cat Stevens album.  My mother changed his
name to Tom.  She said I couldn’t name him something she was embarrassed to yell out the back door.

We lived across the state line from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.  Helicopters were always flying over our farm. My senior year was the last year of the draft lottery.  I got a POW bracelet two months before the cease-fire.  But my officer  was MIA in Laos, and he never came back.

When our new high school opened I only had to ride the bus for 45 minutes each way. Our school colors were green and gold, green from the country high school and gold from the black high school that had closed.  Our mascot was the Viking, so of course “Valhalla” was our song.  Our school was 60% white and 40% black.  We had black cheerleaders, band members and football players, even student council members.  We thought we were cool and only rednecks were racists.  A few years later drugs destroyed the school.    They
put a chain link fence with a guard post around the school.  Every week German shepherds sniffed through the lockers.

I had braces and bad skin for most of my high school career.  Then my senior year things started to change, but it was too late to become popular.

A lot of other things happened that merit more discussion, like my dad’s heart attack, and how Latin changed my life (really, it did).  More on those later.  But my high school days ended at last with graduation.

I was the valedictorian of my class.  The title of my graduation address was, “The Meaning of Life.”  I think it had something to do with service to others, which seems unlikely for me to have made up

Before my brother's wedding, 2 years after graduation

.  Four of my classmates got married on graduation day.   Then there was just a long, dull summer to get through, and my new life could begin.

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