Saturday, July 31, 2010

Creating Cozy

Isn't it bizarre how we buy these big parcels of land and then spend so much time shrinking the spaces to cozy parcels that we can enjoy from our favorite windows?

Mountaintop Mary and Don own a whole top of a mountain, but they've figured a way to create a cozy place for their grandchildren's reading and dreaming. Just off their front porch, they've closed in a section of yard with ranch-style fencing. In the middle of this enclosure, they've built a tee-pee out of rebar and chicken wire; here they're growing lunar pumpkin vines to create tee-pee walls with brilliant orange blooms. The entrance path to the the tee-pee is a home-hewn stone walkway. All around this miniature mansion are bright red canna lilies in an English-style flower plot inviting the hummingbirds to hover. Their hammock swings gently in the breezes wafting across this child-size Granny Camp garden.

Our close-in trees not only provide shade for our house, they also provide places to observe birds and other beasts feeding and frolicking in the branches. Our niece, Nikki's, favorite reading spot is in the hammock strung between an Eastern hemlock and a black walnut tree only twenty steps from our front door. Would it be as inviting if she had to hike to get to it? I will admit that autumn would be a bit quieter without the avalanche of walnuts bombarding our roof as they fall, but where would we put Nikki's favorite spot? And, every time I speak to my children about moving our bonfire pit farther away from our porch to improve the "curb appeal" of our entry way (not that we have curbs in Coker Creek), I get wails of distress that I would even think about making it less accessible.

Richard and many of the people we know up here worry about the big trees so close to our house. I've had several workmen come up here and admonish me for having pine trees anywhere near our roof line, for fear that they'll fall on said roof. Mamie now says she should have listened to her husband when he wanted to take out all the close-in trees before building her home seventy-six years ago. But, until recently she, like me, celebrated her big trees.

We do have some serious wind storms, and ice can make the branches of pines brittle, but I'd as soon sell this house and live in the desert as worry about a tree falling on our heads. Lightening could strike us as we work in the garden or walk from our carport, but I think that we all have to pick our battles and the things we will worry about. I worry about things that go "bump" in the night, like black bears, not black walnuts.

At least one hummingbird and a wasp have located our front yard feeder. I find it funny that hummingbirds will chase each other from any one area rather than share their food, no matter how many feeders are in the vicinity; but a wasp sucking down the sweet sustenance doesn't worry our winged warrior one whit.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Good Golly, Miss Molly

Good golly, Miss Molly.
How hard can things get?
I’ve been trying to publish
Nancy’s book for months,
And haven’t succeeded yet.
She and I really thought
Her work was finely tuned;
But no, it seems the printer wants
For us to circle the moon.
Finally, in frustration,
We started the process fresh.
A proof copy has been ordered
We hope we can give it a rest.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Woodland Wonders

How high does a hummingbird feeder have to be hung? We had a hummingbird attempting to get through the kitchen window, apparently attracted to the orchid on the sill. Or was it the tomatoes ripening above the orchid? This orchid was given to me by “my Atlanta girls,” Rachel, Rebecca, and Sarah, for my birthday, four years ago. It has bloomed beautifully for all four years, and is the first bloom of spring at our house in the holler. It serves to remind me of the ever-renewing love between “my girls” and me.

It just happened that Josie was the one who noticed the hummingbird’s seemingly suicidal attempt to come through the closed window. It had no way to know how badly this could have gone for him. Our cat, Buster, is a great grey hunter, who often lies in wait of prey on the picnic table just outside that window. With his faithful side-kick, Gypsy, he’s sometimes been successful at catching several squirrels, a bird or two, and many a mole. Josie’s comments and this daring feat of the hummingbird prompted me to fill our hummingbird feeder and relocate it to where we can observe these most aggressive avians from a frequented spot in front of a window.

Our wild bird feeder is in a dogwood tree about twenty feet outside the kitchen window, similar to the spacing between Jack’s bird buffet and his kitchen window. Our concern is that, as small as the hummers are, we won’t be able to see them as well as we’d like. For now, the hummingbird feeder is on a low branch in our black walnut tree outside the office window, where I can watch it as I type. The only feeding frenzy, thus far, is an army of ants attracted to its steady drip of sugar water.

Lately, we’ve been waking to the presence of a visiting bulldog, waiting for Gypsy to come out and play. I don’t know whether its Dozer or his little brother, but he puts me in mind of short, stocky Spanky from “Spanky and Our Gang,” waiting for long, lean Alfalfa with the interesting head of hair(Gypsy?) I don’t know who Buster plays in this scenario, but he certainly loves to torment Gypsy until Gypsy takes action chasing him.

Gypsy used to be so docile that she’d allow all animals visiting our front porch, including our cat, first dibs on her food bowl. Dozer, his brother and all the visiting dogs have cured her of that; she now lies down with her paws curved around her dish, daring anyone to getting near enough for a nibble.

Our usual letter carrier Garry says that the substitute mailman on duty yesterday saw a baby doe near our mailbox. We’ve never seen a doe or a deer of any age on our property -- a weasel, a bear, a red fox, and bunches of bunnies, but never a deer. We just never know what woodland wonders we’ll see.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Excess Largesse

Pastor Lynda called yesterday morning to take us up on our offer to supply support for her congregation’s food bank in the form of food. One of our primary reasons for gardening and beginning the First Friday suppers was to create an avenue into families of Coker Creek. I miss the easy relationships we had with so many children and their parents now that we live so far from family.

I was scheduled to go to the garden to harvest field peas, but was concerned that the recipients of the excess of the Almighty’s largesse may not be usable to non-cooks. My misgivings about the ability of Lynda’s clients to use fresh food were assuaged by her assurances that she could show them proper pea-shelling procedures and such.

Richard had gone downtown to the recycle center, unloading our “souvenirs” all our company in the form of the trash left after their departures. I wasn’t looking forward to working alone in the hot sun, but one of the things I’ve learned from Mamie is how to be like Tom Sawyer in getting some company in and assistance with my work. I invited Mountaintop Mary to make picking peas and gathering eggs at Mamie’s the day’s activities for her version of Granny Camp.

Mary and three of her four grandchildren, spending the summer with her, arrived with baskets in hand. We exchanged tokens of our appreciation of each other, Emma presenting me with a perfect Zinnia and the children choosing their favorite souvenirs from our collection of Coker Creek t-shirts and such. Chris, Aaron, and Emma, with Grandma Mary’s help, made short work of pea-picking and headed home for lunch.

While I continued my harvesting, Marshall and Donna came by to pick peaches. Donna and I began comparing notes on dealing with all this edible excess. I shared with her my desire to teach needy families in the area the same survival skills that we’ve been learning from Mamie and Jack. Lo and behold, she had been having the same conversation with someone connected to the Smoky Mountain Christian Camp, down the road from Jack’s house and his gardens. She also informed me that her grandchildren are coming to Coker Creek for Donna and Marshall’s version of Granny Camp, and that they, like some of our campers, had a visit to Ms. Mamie’s garden and hen house on the top of their wish list of vacation activities. Move over Mickey Mouse; the kids love the pleasures of the simple way of life.

When Richard and I had our first version of Granny Camp on Lake Pontchartrain, our Austrian nephews who had spent several weeks doing all the American tourist activities, including Disney World, declared that their time boating, floating, and fishing at our place was, “better than Disney World.” We’re striving to create the same sense of excitement for families who come to Coker Creek to visit. We’re hoping to have the opportunity to help do the same for families living here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is There Anything as Oppulent?

Is there anything as opulent as a big bouquet of blooms
Carefully arranged in vases, gifts from friends far away?
Hydrangeas which always remind me of the joy I had in Jane
Are viewed in vases from Terry Sue and Les and his wife Gayle.
Sunflowers set spectacularly under the copy of a collage
Mimic the flowers in the artwork that Sheila made.
I pine for the good times we shared in Louisiana
And for their friendship in times of greatest pain.
All of us are scattered like pollen on the winds
It’s soothing to see their faces as I gaze on my bouquets.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hard Knocks and Hilarity

Pity the poor people who have nothing to teach the younger generation. And pity the younger generation that thinks they have nothing to learn from their elders. It does seem that humanity is on a hamster’s treadmill, running as fast as we can and always circling back around to where we started as a society. We can’t count on learning only from our own experiences to get us through or we circle back around to the ways of the past. But who ever writes the histories of the “stay-at-home” moms and dads?

If we don’t mine the wisdom of the old folks and learn from their successes and their failures, we’re doomed. The problem is that most people haven’t been taught to admit, much less teach, about the experiments that failed. We ridicule failure and only honor success, so that’s what we’re taught about. How many science experiments are needlessly funded and repeated because we don’t force people to publish their false starts and failures? How often do we share the truth about old and dead people rather than only sharing their goodness?

Mamie is so special because she has learned to laugh about what went wrong as well as celebrating what went right, and she’s willing to share her stories. I don’t even know how many times she’s admonished me not to put my corn in the freezer until it’s all cooled. She worked so hard as a young bride preparing her corn crop and processing the fruits of her family’s labors, only to have the corn spoil in the freezer because she took a short cut after reading the proper methods in the extension service instructions. She can laugh now, but she probably shed a tear or two when this was food that she had counted on to feed her family.

And as my friend Sherry Palmer wrote about in Monroe Life, stringing pole beans is a teachable skill which it behooves one to learn from the locals, unless you like flossing your teeth while you eat. We’ve learned the hard way that the hilling of our rows of crops serves more than one valuable purpose. Jack talks about how the old-timers used to till every other day in a dry spell to make a mulch of the dirt for preserving moisture. Mamie and Jack admit that potatoes won’t grow except in the loose soil of the hilled dirt. And we now know that you have to hill your corn or it may keel over.

Mamie often says, “I could have (or should have) told you that.” Richard’s response is, “Oh, yeah, now she tells us!” Mine is, “What a great opportunity to laugh at all of our need for further education.” Richard believes that everything we need to know, we can read, even though he’s the first to bemoan the fact that failed experiments are rarely publicized. I believe that there’s only so much we can learn from people who haven’t done a thing, and much to learn from those who went to the school of hard knocks.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Waiting on Oneself

The first twenty years of my life, I spent waiting for my prince in shining armor to rescue me from the evil dragons of reality. The second twenty years I spent facing reality with two children in tow. I thought that I’d have a fresh start when my children reached majority, but I then felt the need to make right the things I had done wrong as their mother. The last twenty years, I spent making amends to all that I felt that I dragged through my hell with me. Now I don’t know who I am. It’s very difficult to reinvent oneself, especially if one is almost sixty years old.

Josie pointed out that she doesn’t understand my misgivings about being a farm wife, since I am so obviously proud of my food-fixing abilities. It’s so easy to continue to fall into who we used to be instead of who we want to become.

All my life, I’ve waited on other people, literally and figuratively; I turned it into a way to make money by becoming a caterer. With just a college preparatory high school education and no discernible job skills, it was either that or become a hooker, and I didn’t think that being a hooker was conducive to good parenting.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I have trouble sitting still if there’s anyone wanting to be waited on. I also have some doubts that anyone would give credence to what I have to say outside of my family and closest friends because of my lack of academic degrees, so I’ve limited my writing to cookbooks and publicity pieces. I have hidden behind other authors as a co-author, editor, and publisher. Before I go headlong back down the path to perdition with all this waiting and washing and cooking and cleaning, I’d better back up a bit.

In Coker Creek, I have the perfect opportunity to close myself off from the world and write to my heart’s content, but I’ve put myself out there as a cook, class clown, and caterer to the wants and whims of others. Now, that’s what people expect of me. This has to stop!

I want to travel the country like the other Jack Darnell and his wife Sherry do; the wide world will be my muse. This is not my house, even though it is the home of my home, which is my marriage to Richard. Wherever we are is home to me, and we can both take our work on the road. It’s Richard that wants a place to call home, so I will help him get settled into his routines, and then I will fly as high as my mind can take me.

I’ll always come back to my Richard; he’s the tail on my high-flying kite. But I was not meant to stay bound by the strictures of small-town life. I must seize this moment to become what I was meant to be.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Life of a Farm Wife

The peas need picking; we have a few beets to boil;
The squashes are ready to cook in some oil.
The beans are bursting with fiber and flavor;
So many gifts from the garden to savor.
The corn can be roasted or boiled or stewed;
All of these things are really good food.
I just can’t figure where to start
On the preparation that is my part
In this grand experiment on country life.
How did I ever become a farm wife?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Teamwork and Technology

Richard learned laundry, cooking and cleaning long before I met him, so we generally share these tasks. Truth be told, we ignore many maintenance issues until our stuff starts to implode. Richard is into equipment of the mechanical kind, so this isn’t true of our vehicle maintenance for which Richard has a set of practical protocols. He understands that our tires and batteries are stamped with expiration dates for a reason; and one of his favorite sayings about oil changes, “Oil is cheap; engines are expensive,” sends him down the mountain to Mac’s every three thousand miles on either odometer.

Richard responds to rules and reason, two things that you just have to get past if you’re going to deal with toddlers, teenagers or technology. Using computers takes a lot of winging it, with which I am most comfortable. Richard’s relationship with technology is terribly tenuous, so I’m usually the technology support person in our home, no matter how little I know about the issues at hand. It seems only fair, since Richard handles maintenance on our vehicles because he has more understanding and interest in machinery than I do, that I handle technology tasks for the same reason.

My laptop had long-since died; Richard had reached a roadblock with the computer that he uses to continue his World War II Museum volunteer efforts started ten years ago, before the opening of the New Orleans attraction (then called the D-Day Museum). First, the Higgins Society built a full-scale working replica of an LCVP (like the one in Saving Private Ryan); next came the restoration of an LCS. Now, the society is working on rebuilding a PT Boat. Even with his aversion to technology, Richard’s dogged determination and attention to detail put him in the position of official archivist for the digitized blueprints and photographs of the Higgins Society’s projects.

At the time of our evacuation from New Orleans in front of Hurricane Katrina, we carried with us is the fruits of hundreds of hours that Richard spent on breaking down and indexing millions of megabites of graphics information. He continues these efforts from our house in the holler, but there are issues with coordinating volunteer input, especially from six hundred miles away. With different cameras and different people inputting information, the files Richard receives arrive in various digital formats with several degrees of resolution, all requiring their own sets of tricks to open and edit.

I can’t work with anyone looking over my shoulder, so I took the opportunity of laundry day with Richard down the mountain to take a look at our technology. We now have a new print head coming for our malfunctioning printer, and a new laptop is on the way for me. The computer that has been bogged down is now defragged and working, but the photo manipulation is still driving us insane, even after lots of downloads and false starts.

We may require a trip to New Orleans for real resolution and a food fix.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Looking Forward to Future Fun

The laundry lady is off today, as are the cook, field hands, and chauffeur, so I guess Richard and I will have to get busy doing all the tasks we’d like to assign to our help – if we only had help. The sheets won’t walk to the washer, and the peas won’t pick themselves. It’s still too early to take our surplus garden goods to Pastor Lynda’s food pantry, so all the squash and beans that we’ve shoved into the RV refrigerator until our guests departed are now in desperate need of disposition (or maybe disposal, by now.)

I had an appointment in Atlanta yesterday, and my van shimmied all the way down and back every time my speed exceeded fifty miles per hour. We know my tires are due for replacement, so we’re hoping that the problem is simply the tires. But when one has one hundred, nineteen thousand miles on a vehicle, there’s no telling what may be wrong. It’s time for Richard to take a trip down the mountain to Mac’s Auto Car for diagnosis.

The driver’s side window began misbehaving while we had family here. Once we finally got it into the up position, Richard secured the control button with duct tape to keep it that way. I’m now unable to go through any drive-thru for food or banking business. Maybe, when one begins to duct tape one’s vehicle, it’s time to look into a replacement. Should I get another “Santa’s sleigh” -- or a little red sports car with standard transmission for downshifting on these mountain roads? Of course, shifting entails clutching and with that kink in my right hip, I don’t know how that would work out.

I just hate how reality keeps intruding on my fantasy life.
On the up side, Susan emailed me that she and Mark are coming through Tennessee in late August, on their way to Florida from their home in Kentucky. I’ve been telling them that Mark, a certified scuba diver, can go snorkeling in the Conasauga. We haven’t tried it, but I’ve read that it is possible to see dozens of species of fish, mussels, and other forms of endangered wildlife in our area of this mountain river. It’s said to be one of the six most biologically diverse river systems in the United States.

Susan and I are famous for our “cremation cooking.” This may be excuse enough to assign our guys all meal plans, with restaurant reservations being acceptable forms of food foraging.

There’s a chance that Terry Sue and her three children will make it up this way from Florida for a fall session of Granny Camp. By that time, all of our canning should be done; if not, Terry Sue, Theresa Ann and I could make and put up grape jam. Richard, Tristan, and Trey might make pizza or some other culinary creation. Cooking with kids is a whole new level of kitchen fun; Corinne, Kathleen, and Solomon may have started a trend of having our young guests cook for our crowds.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Granny Camp Good-Byes

There’s nothing much harder than getting back in the groove of our real rhythm after the constant excitement of kids. When my own children would go to visit their father in the summer, I’d close off their rooms so as not to miss them so badly. As long as their doors were closed, I could pretend that they were only sleeping, not gone.

Even though we housed Ginette, Solomon, Kathleen, Caleb and max in our RV, they still infused our lives and home with all manner of energy. It won’t help that I don’t have to see the inside of the empty RV; I’ll miss the daily delights that they provided in our home and in our lives.

While life has given us more surprises than we care to count; kids bring the kinds of surprises on which we thrive. I love to see my own life through the lenses of those who see every moment as an adventure to be embraced. Who knew there were crawfish to be caught in our creek, or that only certain salamanders are indigenous to our area? Max never gave up on looking for a crawfish big enough to boil.

A museum is just a collection of stuff until seen through a child’s eyes. Who else could be so fascinated by a phone booth or an ancient tooth? Watching children in the water is to observe absolute freedom from the laws of gravity and girth. The big kids can be carried around by the little kids, and you never know who will best whom in a battle.

Now that our nieces and nephews have come and gone, there’s no one to look forward to greeting me in the morning with the anticipation of a new adventure every day. Our breakfasts will go back to basics with no excuse to fire up the waffle iron or pancake griddle. There will be no Caleb drawing dinosaurs with tutoring from a big brother Solomon on how many toes each type had. We won’t have any little fingers flying along our keyboard, or Kathleen’s lilting voice reading original verse.

We also won’t have zucchini muffins exploding out of little faces, or ice cream bowls becoming projectiles across our table. There will be no more blood-curdling screams because of unseen anthills being stepped on, or in-depth analysis of every morsel of food presented at a meal. White bread will become a thing of the past, as will daily dessert.

Richard loves routine; I always anticipate surprises -- to the point that I can’t get comfortable with rituals or routine. It’s easier to live on the edge than to get good and comfortable only to have the rug ripped out from under me. Having families with parents enjoying their children while we take care of the basic needs creates an atmosphere of controlled chaos that’s a pure joy to share – all of the fun with none of the responsibility. It’s like being a big sister again.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Syrup and Salamanders

What a wild ride life is when you have four children in tow! All foods have to be carefully counted so that we’re prepared with an answer to, “How many cookies (pancakes, pieces of bacon, Jelly Bellies, etc.) are we allowed to have?” There’s a limit imposed on everything, lest the need to best one’s brother overcome one’s ability to be fair-minded and prudent. We allow two sodas per day to cut down on the number of unfinished and forgotten cans of pop we find on every flat surface when the kids leave any given room.

It took two and a half pounds of thick-sliced bacon and a triple batch of pancakes to soothe the savages. We offered four varieties of pancake syrup, but Ginette informed me that, since her children float their pancakes on a sea of syrup, perhaps we were being overly generous in offering real maple syrup as an option.” Besides which,” she said, “I doubt they’d appreciate the difference.” When the children heard this, they were incensed. Howe dare their mother impugn the sensitivity of their palates! This led to doling out of drizzles of real maple syrup because all of life can be a learning experience.

The only things Caleb and Max have fished for are crawfish. While they, with the assistance of their older sister Kathleen, have caught quite a few, none of them are big enough for the boiling pot, so mostly they’ve let them go. Their big game hunting has netted them a salamander which led to the purchase of a field guide to amphibians from Coker Creek Gallery, and another from Charles Hall Museum Gift Shop. These learning experiences can be great economic engines.

The salamander, now named “Rocko,” has also led to discussions of sleeping arrangements for the newest member of their family. While the boys want him to sleep in the RV with them, their mother insists that the air conditioning would kill Rocko. Kathleen was greatly relieved to hear that she didn’t have to bunk with an amphibian.

The Charles hall Museum was a big hit with Ginette and her children. The eclectic collection of guns, toys, telephones, Indian artifacts, phonographs, photographs, automobiles, and other items for any interest had them intrigued enough to want to return another day -- with Richard included in our group, to add running commentary.

We’ve seen Bald River Falls, swam at Indian Boundary Beach, collected crawfish from our creek, and saved salamanders (from what, I don’t know). Solomon and Richard’s pizzas were a big hit, as was our ice cream sundae party. The traveling road show will now head down to Georgia to visit other relations.

Richard can relax for a day, as I’m heading to Georgia to play at Vogel State Park with Ginette and Rachel and their children before over-nighting in Atlanta with Holly. The RV refrigerator is bulging with goodies from the garden, so I’m sure to have much cooking and canning to keep me from being too blue when I return to our House in the Holler.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Flying Saucer or Food?

The next session of Granny Camp is about to begin, and we couldn’t be more excited. Solomon is planning to make some pizza; Kathleen is going to cook a dinner with me. Caleb will try to eat and sleep at our pond with a fishing rod in his hand, while his brother Max goes along for the adventure. We’re hoping the kids will go gold panning; maybe they’ll find gold in our creek, in addition to the worms they find on its banks. Richard spent the day shopping for food and fishing gear while I got the RV guest-ready; and to avoid inviting viral interludes, password protected our a computer. It is only prudent with a visiting teenage brood.

At this time of year, we quite often have to split our labors into inside and outside duties. I’ve put up over a dozen jars of plum jam from Jack’s gift, while Richard worked on completing the step replacement project he and John had begun. This plum jam is not the color of plums; but it is a gorgeous garnet. I do love making jewel-colored jams.

Along with getting the tomato cages staked against future storms, Richard brought home a bucket of beans, more yellow squash, tomatoes, and zucchini, and a surprise of a beautiful unblemished fluted-edge white squash about which I know nothing. We planted yellow squash where this came up, so we don’t even know how it got into our garden. Richard described it as a flying saucer; I think it looks more like a decorative throw pillow for a doll’s bed. If anyone knows anything about flying saucer squash, I’d love to learn about it.

Mamie makes extra-crisp pickles, soaking her cucumbers in lime before canning. I stayed home to begin this two-day process with the two gallons of cucumbers from our refrigerator. We’ll need all the refrigerator space we can get with two new cooks coming to our kitchen.

When asked about special requests for food or fun, our niece Ginette said that her children wanted pancakes or waffles and daily trips to swim at Indian Boundary Beach. One of them requested roast beef, which will be the dinner that awaits them on their arrival. Ginette is looking forward to Mamie’s garden and all the fresh veggies she can carry. I hope she likes stringing beans because there’s always work waiting after the harvest.

It’s hard to pack all the activities into just three days of Granny Camp. We have new multi-colored flower pots for dishing up ice cream sundaes, and a bowl of blue Jello for Gummi Fish fishing. There are ghost stories to tell around a campfire, and hide and seek in the dark. We even have a pair of night-vision goggles to lend the littlest child who is “it.”

The pace is so lively while the kids are here that I feel like we’ve been riding motor bikes on the Dragon’s Tale after they leave. It takes me a while to regain my balance.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Garden Pest Pas de Deux

While the deer have departed
From our garden salad bar
(Perhaps they found for themselves
A tastier garden plot),
Squash bugs feast on our squash plants;
Bean beetles ingest our beans;
Spud bugs feast on foliage;
Worms work on cabbage-leaf lace.

The chickens have lately found
That cucumbers are tasty,
While foraging in our garden
For their free-range food.
What should have been our allies
In our war on insects
Have now become another
Invading horde to feed.

Who do you suppose will win the spoils of this --
Our garden pest pas de deux?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Weather Weakness

We were certain that we’d done something wrong; why else would our corn lie down on the job? We went over to Mamie’s shortly after sunrise to see about resetting it before Mamie saw the devastation. We knew that we hadn’t mounded our rows enough, and we couldn’t face her just then.

As I held each stalk straight, Richard trenched between the rows, gathering mud to build a support mound around each individual plant. Because the soil is heavy in clay, it stuck to the shovel like half-set cement. Most times Richard could release only half of each shovelful meant for the mound. The remainder went back with his next dip in the dirt. He could barely move his feet, as the clay had created lifts on the bottoms of his shoes. He commented that he felt like he was walking on stilts.

I had worn my Western-style boots, and even these were in danger of being lost in a trench through the sucking power of wet clay. It was treacherous enough finding firm footing in the holes that Richard had carved out between the rows. It was made much more interesting by not knowing whether my boot was going to stay in a hole when I attempted to step out.

Mountain Mama had already told me that she was concerned that the lack of rain may have adversely affected the quality we could expect from the corn at a critical stage in its growth, so I worried that Richard was breaking his back for nothing. After each row, I offered to just call it quits with growing the corn, reminding Richard that we had a second planting that still had potential. Even with his back aching, he insisted on continuing in our rescue efforts. What a sad stand of corn we left; the stalks that had been straight as tin soldiers was now bent-backed like old crones, but it was, at least, standing.

Mamie called to let us know that our beans had fallen in the storm, never once mentioning the state of our corn rows. She suggested that we come over and push the poles down deep into the dirt while it was still so slick from our recent rains. We knew right along that our poles were destined to collapse since the clay had been so hard every time we attempted planting them that they simply stood on top of the soil. It didn’t help that the corn had fallen onto the beans, but Mamie clearly didn’t notice the corn rows were amiss. She also suggested that we join her in eating a watermelon that had been given to her.

Over slices of cold watermelon, we discussed the corn. I suggested that next time we’d plant the seeds deeper; Mamie assured us that the seeds had been properly planted and the rows well-maintained. She agreed with Richard’s theory that the lack of rain had simply kept the roots too shallow. It was almost soothing to know that the weather was our weakness.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Gruesome Glimpse of Our Garden

Mamie’s fond of saying that anyone who doesn’t believe in gambling shouldn’t garden. This year, that’s an understatement. If Richard and I had any sense of superstition, we’d have long ago realized that we have horribly weird weather woes.

Now that we’ve watered our plants enough to stave off death, risking Mamie’s well pump in the process, the storms have moved in and fouled our fields. The corn which yesterday stood proudly reaching for heaven is now lying down in the dirt. The poles on which our green beans grew have become a bamboo mat with accents of leaves and beans.

Don’t you think we should have gotten a glimpse of the fact that weather isn’t our ally, when after being flooded out of our Louisiana home by a record-breaking hurricane; we brought to Tennessee a record-breaking drought that dried up our newly dug pond? One might wonder whether foolhardiness or faith led us to believe we could grow a garden.

We planted late because of too much spring rain, and once our seeds sprouted, we had to hand water. Just as the corn came onto the stalks higher than our heads we’re hit with super storms -- Is this a curse resulting from of my ambivalence about all the cooking and canning that gardening success would bring?

Who are we going to feed anyway? Mamie now eats like a bird, and I don’t mean by that she eats constantly; she says she’s lost her appetite for food. Lynda, the pastor of the Coker Creek church that contains a food pantry, only distributes fresh food once a month. County and community “feed the people” outreaches are governed by local board of health laws, and we don’t have an inspected kitchen for preparation. What possible reason could we have for continuing to grow more garden goods than the three of us (counting Mamie) can eat?

We both love to cook; I especially enjoy being given the challenge of turning a group of random ingredients into edible fare. What do infirm old folks on the mountain do for food if they have no family here? Maybe we could become cooks and drivers for “Meals on Wheels” in Coker Creek and leave the growing to the really good gardeners.

What would we do for fun if we didn’t grow a garden? We love to read; I love to write; I can even get exercise with Deborah and her debs. Richard has hobbies galore that give him a lot more sense of control than our recent gardening gaffs, and a house is a never-ending honey-do list. He and Gary have become fishing friends through their involvement in the Ruritan Club. And Christmas package preparation takes two months to complete.

I love hearing stories of other people’s pursuits; I hope to collect oral histories of Mamie, Jack, and other long-time Appalachian residents. I could continue to cultivate writers like Jack and Nancy, and might even use some of the time to tell my own tales.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Crazy For Canning

Didn’t want to exercise, but did go;
Because I like the women there, you know.
Gardening seems to me exercise enough,
But Deborah doesn’t believe my guff.
I did have at least one more good excuse --
The canning of several people’s produce.

Jack has just called us; his plums ripened and fell.
We will make plum jam, and grape jam, as well.
Mamie canned plum juice without adding jell.
What will it be? It’s too early to tell.
She can’t help herself; gifts from friends’ yards
Prompt her to can them. She says it’s not hard.

Some cans she will gift and some she will keep
I’m sure that Mamie could can in her sleep.
Her basement is too full of her bounty;
But she can’t sell it, so says the county.
In times past, there were community mills
For grains and wood from the Coker Creeks hills.

It would be nice to share knowledge and food
Sharing the cleaning would also be good.
We’d be sure to have giggles and guffaws
As each of us shared our strengths and our flaws
An approved kitchen would be just the thing;
There we could process whatever folks bring.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rain Again

It has rained again;
Now is a good time
To can all the fruits
Of the many vines.

Tomorrow’s picking
Will be bigger yet,
Now that the soil
Has gotten so wet.

Weeds will poke up
Their intrusive heads;
The only good weeds
Are those that are dead.

We will weed and pick,
And come home with more
Fresh vegetables
To cook -- and to store.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Creating Casseroles

What does one do with forty-four cups of sliced squash? We turned half of it into several main dish casseroles, adapting a recipe that Donna gave me for Vidalia onion pudding that got rave reviews at our most recent First Friday supper.

We didn’t grow any Vidalias, so Richard harvested and sliced some of our white and yellow onions, along with making julienne strips out of a couple of bell peppers. It all sounds so healthy, so far. What could be better for us than squash, onions and peppers? Just wait; this is a main dish, after all.

To each eight cups of vegetables, I added two cups of julienned ham, two cups of heavy cream, two eggs, a bit of flour and baking powder, and a half cup of Asiago (like Parmesan) cheese. Once it bubbled and browned, we served it to Charlie and Deborah’s Bluegrass buddies, in addition to others. Adam had just retrieved Josie from the hospital, so one small casserole went to feed them; a meatless version was for Deborah’s dining pleasure; and two very large casseroles were created for potluck suppers, one for the Bluegrass group. I thought it was delicious, but it may have seemed a little exotic for some of the folks. We’ll see how it goes with another group before deciding whether it’s a keeper recipe.

I still have twenty-two cups of squash, if you don’t include the unsliced crooknecks in the refrigerator. I shudder to think what’s now on the plants, waiting to be picked after our recent rain. Mamie keeps informing me that I need to put a little bit of poison at the base of each squash plant to ward off cut worms killing our plants, but I’m not sure that a few garden fatalities would be altogether bad. What were we thinking when we planted a whole row of each addition to the garden?

Our freezer is still full of last year’s bounty, so I’ve promised Richard a vat of vegetable soup; but who else will want to eat soup in the summer? This will give me something else to store. I have enough frozen basil from Market Mary to make pesto for all of Italy, but this can’t be safely canned. Does it make sense to add volume to what’s already in the freezer by making readily edible products that can’t be stored under our bed? Have I even informed you that we still have butternut squash from last summer, and that our potatoes already need pulling up?

Becoming strict vegetarians may be the best course of action; I assume it would take huge quantities of vegetables to consume enough calories to fuel us all summer. If we joined the raw foods movement we could eat like wild hogs, foraging for food with the garden as a buffet line -- no knife, no fork, no cooking or cleaning. Jack eats his veggies right out of the earth, and he’s as healthy as a horse; he keeps his weight down, too.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sudden Storms and Dog Days

The black cloud cover over Coker Creek promised a good soaking, but we dared not have too much hope; even the breezes were hot and humid. As the first sprinkle hit the ground, Mamie and I couldn’t wait to share our excitement over the occurrence, racing each other to the phone. Richard was convinced that Mountain Mama had done an old Indian rain dance to bring this blessing, even though I don’t think Mamie has any Indian blood in her. I hope it’s true that she’s dancing because it would prove that her latest bout with sciatica is improving.

The rain we got wasn’t enough to wet our whistles (whatever that means;) it was only enough to transform our yard into a steam bath. We were sorely disappointed that we had been subjected to such a cruel tease by Mother Nature. I thought of calling Mamie to ask if we had jinxed ourselves with our premature celebration, but didn’t want to disturb her, in case she was still dancing for more moisture.

Just when we were ready to concede defeat on the rain dance working, thunder rumbled and rolled through the holler. The sky darkened and the skies opened; wind and rain raged. Gypsy, who is usually terrified by thunder, must have been relieved that the violently noisy storm brought equally powerful cooling; she continued to do her fine imitation of a door mat without once crying out for rescue.

Richard and I threw open the windows to better hear and smell the sweet storm; admitting that it would be better if we had a more gentle, much longer rain, rather than this sudden gully washer. As we sat at the kitchen table snapping beans, we kept reassuring each other that the garden ground was so nice and fluffy from Richard’s tilling and our hoeing that it was bound to accept much of the water that was washing over it. We were sure that, since all the seeds had long-since sprouted, we weren’t in danger of wash-out. As the Yiddish say, “From our mouths, to God’s ears.”

The rain also revived our dog; she’s cavorting again with the cat. Great Pyrenees aren’t made for the heat, even with a summer buzz cut. It was so hot and dry that poor Gypsy couldn’t find a cool spot under the topsoil, no matter how many holes she dug. Even with eight acres of shade, a pond, and two creeks, she still finds it necessary to dig in the dirt for cooling herself.

It is true that she almost drowned herself following Rachel’s dog, Cinnamon, into our pond one spring before she had her summer “do.” Not being a water dog, her coat absorbed half the pond; she needed serious assistance getting her soaked self back onto the bank. I don’t think there’s any danger of her drowning on dry land, and last I checked we have no quick sand. I guess Gypsy has some sense, or maybe she simply has a long memory.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Soil and Souls

Mamie continues to apologize for the fact that we’re getting no rain on our garden, when we did such a good job of making it so “pretty.” She’s taken to calling to give us permission to, once again, use her water from her well with the failing pump to save our crops.

With downtown temperatures reaching one hundred degrees, and our heat in the holler at over ninety, our latest habit is to wait until the last two hours before nightfall for any gardening work. An early dinner with Mamie is a good start to our endeavors. This accomplishes the watering of our soil with Mountain Mama’s water and of our souls and her words of wit and wisdom.

So far, we haven’t had a day without a harvest. Richard sliced forty-four cups of crookneck squash yesterday, and we have half a bushel of beans to string. We have yet to get our first ripe tomato, but Mamie is already harvesting potatoes, and our onions seem to be giving up on growing. Our cucumbers are rather bitter, possibly from lack of rain – or Mamie says, because we didn’t cut off the bitter ends.
There are so many tricks that Mamie has learned over ninety years, that she can’t possibly remember to tell us everything we need to know prior to us making our mistakes, and some of our errors give us all a guffaw. Before we put up our pickles, we’ll try cutting off the stem end of each cuke.

Richard expressed concern about Mamie’s chickens in light of the humid, hot weather. In her typical style, Mamie said that they weren’t eating much, but neither was she. She knew this was saving her money on feed and hoped that she’d take off a pound or two. Before going to the garden, we reminded Mamie that the failure of our crops would give us less work to do in the kitchen. She was so pleased that we were able to see something good in what she was worrying over, as if she had caused the skies to remain dry.

Both Jack and Mamie have told us that old-time farmers use dirt as mulch for their plants’ roots. Jack says that, during a drought, the old-timers used to plow dirt onto their rows every other day. It was clearly time to bring out the hoe. While Richard hoed, I watered, thinking about how careful I had to be in telling our city friends about Richard “hoeing” while I watched. “Ho” means a whole different thing in city circles that “hoe” does in the country. This realization should be good for a giggle from Mamie next time I see her.

While we may not be so lucky in many things — As soon as we dug our pond, we had the worst drought in Tennessee history, and as soon as we planted our garden the skies refused to supply rain—we’re blessed by with the gift of laughter and friends with whom we can laugh.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Back to Baseline

Back to Baseline

I really must get back to baseline;
I’ve had two days to mope and whine.
Our house feels too big when all are gone
There’s no ready laughter I can depend upon.
Richard and I have lots of fun,
But there’s not as much energy one-on-one.

It’s true that I’m a bit of a basket case. I can never remember a time that I didn’t mourn the leaving whenever a relative or friend came for a visit. All the anticipation, all the planning, all the preparation, and then all the fellowship and fun – gone in an instant when they roll onto our right-of-way.

Richard reminds me that the cleaning after a group leaves is a good time to relive the fun we had making the messes, but some company becomes family and generally cleans up after themselves, so there’s not even the mixed emotions of less work along with the less people. I hate having to get my brain back in gear to address all the realities that I can so easily avoid when we’re entertaining -- things like watering and weeding the garden before it withers.

Mamie made it clear that we’d lose our hard work if we didn’t put some water on it. Even though she’s worried about her well pump, she gave us permission to water the rows as long as we avoided wasting water on the walkways between them. She sweetened the deal with an invitation to join her for dinner. Two of her sisters and their daughters had come to visit for the long holiday week-end, and the family was in and out of Mamie’s house with casseroles and a host of other foods. Mamie regularly reminds me that eating alone isn’t any fun; we were glad to help her finish some of the leftover largesse.

Mamie faces every day what we’re facing now, the loss of her people who provided her daily giggles. With her oldest son in heaven and her oldest daughter in nursing care, she sure has had a lot of loss to bear in one year. I suspect that she never really had to fully feel the loss of her husband thirty-eight years ago as long as his namesake lived almost next door. If my relationship with my children is any indication of a pattern with children born to a very young mother, Mamie’s oldest daughter was probably also a best friend, as I know her son Frank, Jr. was.

Now that Mamie’s my mountain mama, we often bring her goodies from our cooking capers and invite her over to our house for supper. She hardly ever accepts our invitations, but we sure will be happy to oblige any time she wants us to share her home and hearth with us city slickers. We’re always sure to give her a few giggles because I see the world from a standpoint of at least thirty degrees off center while Richard sees everything from a scientific perspective – and because Mamie believes in learning through love and laughter.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fun, Frolic and Food

As soon as Nikki’s family drove into our drive, we piled them back into the car for a trip to the Ruritan Building for our First Friday supper where they were introduced to many of our mountain people, including Jack Darnell. They were also able to sample lots of fabulous food, not the least of which was our red beans and rice. As soon as Mary and John headed for Wisconsin the next morning, we took off to Tellico Plains to retrieve our latest find from a vendor at The Barn of Plenty, multi-colored ceramic flower pots for serving “dirt,” Mountaintop Mary’s planned dessert for our Granny Camp cookout.

With only three days of doing, we barely scratched the surface of all the things to do in our neck of the woods, but Corinne did collect some of our local treasures, eggs from Mamie’s hens and gold from Coker Creek. We all ate veggies grown in Mamie’s garden, and Tom came close to catching a fish from the shallows in Tellico River. Nikki spent many an hour in our hammock reading and many more knitting and cross stitching on my favorite place on the couch as we chatted. Richard fulfilled her fantasies of sensational salads and sundaes with real whipped cream. I lost count of how many times she announced that she felt like she was in heaven.

Not only did our guests go home with full tummies and gold dust, they also went away with new knowledge and some of our culinary creations. Bill Schaaf from Bill’s Pit Stop and his twin boys, Billy and Eugene, guided a gold panning tour sharing a lot of local lore along the way. Chef Holly’s husband, Don, drove in from Atlanta to give fly fishing lessons to Richard, Tom and Corinne. Corinne and I enjoyed kitchen time, cooking a little something every day of her stay. We were able to send Nikki’s family home with some of her favorite zucchini muffins, Tom’s favorite roasted pecans, and the family’s favorite lasagna, and some flourless peanut butter and jelly cookies thrown in for good measure.

I’ve been so busy living that I’ve had almost no time for writing. I know that this is not the way a writer is supposed to work; at every writers’ conference I’ve ever attended the speakers admonish us to write for a couple of hours a day if we want to be “real” writers. Maybe only recluses can ever become real writers, and reclusive doesn’t tell the tale of any part of what I’d choose for our lives. I could only hope that my memory wouldn’t fail me before I got to the telling of our tales.

Two and a half weeks of fun and frolic with close friends and relations only whetted my appetite for more. Another niece, Ginette, and her four children are planning to be here for four days, but I have to wait for another week and a half before the next Granny Camp session begins.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Granny Camp Games

We thought we were going to have Nicholas, Miya and their friends in early June, for the first official “Granny Camp” session of the summer, but those plans were changed at the last minute. I’ve been sitting on “G,” and waiting for “o” for a month now. Mountaintop Mary and I have been conspiring to share kids and camping capers since last summer.

My niece Nikki and her family are coming today. We’ll begin their stay with introducing them to anywhere from twenty to one hundred of our neighbors at the July First Friday potluck supper. They’ll also get to meet Mary and John and their two dogs, as Mary’s ER visit has delayed their departure until at least tomorrow.
Nikki’s pre-teen daughter, Corinne, brought Coker Creek gold home from her last trip to visit us. Her one request is for gold panning with Bill of Bill’s Pit Stop, so this is the activity planned for the first full day of fun and frolic. Since I’ve never known Bill to come out of the creek without a vial of gold, I’m sure this will be a highlight of this trip for her, her daddy, Tom, and her mom. Mountaintop Mary, Don and their four grandchildren are going to join us in the gold panning adventure that will begin at Doc Roger’s field and continue in the creek that runs in back of our house. I’m hoping Corinne will love having a “little sister” to play with.

I can’t wait to cook with Corinne. She and I have shared kitchen capers since she was a toddler. One of her favorite creations is Cajun roasted pecans which are a favorite of her daddy. She’s an old hand at layering lasagna and breaking bread for bread pudding, as well as cutting up carrots for carrot cake. And I know Nikki is already drooling over the prospect of Richard’s perfectly prepared salads.

We’re old hands at Granny Camp; Rachel used to visit us with her girls for four weeks every summer. The first ten years were spent in New Orleans, where one of Richard’s joys was sharing what he referred to as “twucks, twains and twactors” with the kids. He was also into bringing home vast quantities of “fwozen confections” for everyone. Another of his tricks was building towers of “chick sticks” around the kids, and teaching them how to use leverage to tumble the towers.

The last five of the years of this summer tradition in Louisiana were spent on Lake Pontchartrain. Outdoor activities ruled on the lake. Richard would arrange to have everything in order for the day’s activities, whether they included crabbing, cooking or blasting across the lake in a boat. Rachel came to calling him an elf because whatever we wanted to do was waiting for us as before we even decided to do it. Richard is still an event elf; Nikki has been talking about his salads since her last summer visit with Corinne.

Let the Granny Camp games begin.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Spit Sisters

Either I really do have a huge black cloud hanging over my head, or I never noticed before how many of life’s curve balls can fly past any one person. Over the course of the last two years, no less than all of my best friends have been handling life-threatening diseases in themselves or in an immediate family member. While baking cookies and making casseroles for the various affected parties, we had come to joke about my curse. But maybe that further jinxed us.

The curse has struck again; either that, or John and Mary were really meant to stay a couple more days in our neck of the woods. On our way to the Museum of Appalachia, we had to take a u-turn to UT Hospital, where Mary was admitted for testing and observation. As Richard and John accompanied Mary into the ER, I was tasked with checking her in. On the admission form, there was a space for me to enter my relationship to her. I almost wrote “spit sister” in the allowed space.

I became spit sister to Mountaintop Mary while taking her to the hospital in Maryville when her husband Don had been hit by my curse, and she drank out of my cup of water. While doing our last book signing, Jack finished the barbecue plate that I had started and abandoned on our display table. I told him that this meant I was his spit sister. He doubled the club begun with Mountaintop Mary.

Then along came Music Mary, drinking out of my cup of water while riding in my van. I’m now up to being spit sister to three and blood sister to one friend. This is in addition to my four birth sisters, one deceased, and scores of soul sisters. All I can say is that I’m happy for the ability to send holiday and birthday greetings by the phone and email; otherwise, postage and card costs would put us in the poor house.

Mary’s unplanned ER visit did give us the opportunity to introduce John, not to the Museum of Appalachia, but to the wonderful Thai restaurant where Mary and I had eaten a couple of days before. At this point, we’re waiting for the doctors to finish their testing, while we get to have Mary and John’s company for at least one more night. We’d happily let them move in with us, if only our house had a bit more space. John and Richard have been like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, rebuilding the porch steps and the pump house with both of their many power tools.

Mary has pointed out that she knows there’s room on our property for a travel trailer of their own, but she’s not sure we have enough space for all of John’s “big boy” toys and tools. While he recently sold his motorcycle, John does still have his sailboat. Somehow, I don’t think our pond can compete with the Great Lakes for sailing. Oh, well…