Country at Heart

Mealtimes at Grandma's

Country at HeartMealtimes at Grandma’s house were somewhat structured, unlike at ours. Just before we were ready to eat, Grandma called for me to come and "set" the table. I went to the Buffet and pulled out the flatware and plates. This formal table setting was for each meal — no exceptions. We didn't eat on the porch, in the bedroom, or out under a shady tree. Everyone ate at the table, which I guess is the purpose of a kitchen table. I could snack while sitting in the porch swing or in the front room (if it was in the dead of winter), but that was about the extent of my away-from-the-table eating.

I awoke each morning to the smell of strong, black coffee brewing in that hundred-year-old coffee pot. It was the sweetest aroma I'd ever smelled (when it comes to food). When that first whiff of Maxwell House drifted into my bedroom and tickled my nose, I'd hop out of bed, wash up, and make a beeline to the table, ready to chow down.

There awaiting me on the small, four-chair table was a plate piled high with Grandma’s soft, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth, buttermilk biscuits. Then there was her homemade butter, and before clamping down on those mile-high buns we'd slather each side with butter, layer one side with homemade peach or blackberry preserves, and breakfast was on.

At breakfast, there were only two cups and two saucers set out for coffee — one for each of my grandparents. As much as I drooled over that delicious, hot drink, for whatever reason Grandma wouldn't let me have any. I drank fresh-from-the-cow-milk instead. The cow's milk was also their coffee's creamer.

Usually we had sausage, bacon, wieners, beef steak, pork chops, or fried ham. Of course, scrambled eggs were cooked with a slab of homemade butter or dropped smack-dab into the leftover bacon grease. Breakfast was (and still is) my favorite meal, especially that first morning meal at Grandma Maud's. If it was a school day I'd miss lunch, but supper would be waiting when I got home.

Grandmother was a natural-born cook who made a biscuits mouth-wateringly good. Meals were never carelessly nor thoughtlessly thrown together. Each one was planned ahead and never rushed. She put so much of herself into whatever she made that it was all carefully prepared and well-seasoned with much love. She could probably tell by the way I ate that I thoroughly enjoyed her cooking. Of course, I always had to wash dishes; after such sumptuous dining, dish-washing was "a piece of cake."

biscuit with butter
Photo by Fotolia/Michael Ballard

The Necessity of Quilts

Country at HeartHandmade quilts are works of love and a long, laborious task. I never had the patience to quilt. After watching my Grandmother work on a single quilt for what seemed like years, I passed on the opportunity to learn the craft. (I have no idea how long it took to make a quilt, but I know it didn’t take her as long as I thought it did. I was a child, and that was the way my mind computed it.)

Many rural houses back then didn’t have gas or electric heating. Like ours, some didn’t even have a heater in rooms other than the front (main) room. For those who slept in heater-less rooms, we needed heavy bed tops. Not only that, but during the winter — even if there was a heater in a room — it seldom burned all night. People didn’t have fuel for that, so the quilts were our heaters. Once we got into bed and pulled a couple of covers on top, we were good to go. We slept through the night, unless we had to get up to “potty.”

Even though he needed those quilts, whenever Grandmother's had her quilting frame up it was an inconvenient intrusion on my space and freedom of movement. I was envious of the space that oversized contraption occupied in the living room. It was like an unwanted guest who not only overstayed her welcome, but who also competed for Grandma's time and attention.

That "elephant" was an ever-present nuisance, especially if it was winter and I couldn't sit on the porch or roam around outside. My grandmother, grandfather, and I had to sit around that larger-than-life-frame. I couldn't wait until she either took it down or I went home. However, when I went home, came back, and the frame was down, I sauntered into my bedroom for a nice surprise: Grandma’s latest creation was sprawled across the bed. Then I pinched myself for being selfish, 'cause after all, I was a guest in her house, even if the quilting frame was too close for comfort!

Quilt
Photo by Fotolia/melnikofd

Grandmother's Quilts

Country at HeartDuring this time of the year — when we turn on the heat and put extra covers on the bed — my mind travels back to my childhood when we pulled out the quilts, fluffed them up, aired them out, and put them on the bed. Now that process may sound simple, but it didn't start with pulling them out from wherever we stored them.

That quilting thing started in Grandma’s house, perhaps years before we ever saw a quilt. She always kept a cardboard box with scraps from her old, worn-out aprons (if they weren’t soiled or torn to shreds), old clothes (dresses, shirts, skirts, blouses, denim blue jeans), flour and meal sacks, old sheets, strips of leftover fabric, and old handkerchiefs. Some of those items may be exaggerated, but quilts were indeed made from any salvageable fabric that could be sewn together.

Some of that stuff I definitely would have sent to the incinerator or tossed in the fireplace, but luckily Grandmother saw something in those rags that I didn’t. Women who quilt today (including me) use mostly new, store-bought fabric; Grandmother used whatever she could get her hands on. I remember her seemingly forever picking up little-bitty pieces of fabric and meticulously sewing them onto one another. Most quilters use an electric sewing machine; my grandmother had an old-fashioned pedal machine. However, I don’t recall her using it to stitch her quilts. She quilted an even more old-fashioned way — by hand. By the time she finished stitching everything, it came out as a beautiful, practical, much-needed comforter — another one of her masterpieces.

My mother never made quilts, so the ones we received came from Grandmother. I’m not sure what kind of batting (padding) went inside, but, boy, were those quilts heavy! Unless it was an extremely cold night, we only needed one ... two if you wanted to be sure you wouldn’t feel any draft whatsoever. Those handmade quilts were so thick and heavy that it just about took all three of us girls to raise them up so we could get out of the bed in the morning!

Sewing a quilt
Photo by Fotolia/chairboy

Autumntime in Our Neck of the Woods

Country at HeartEnd of summer ... back-to-school ... bright, warm, sunny, hazy days ... hot-dog roasting... apple pickin' ... County Fair fun ... get everything done before it's too cold. It's autumn in the country, and this lovely season's changes are too noticeable for even the casual observer to overlook.

I just love autumn, and especially October, with its mild temperatures and pleasant days. This month is like an extra-special, thirty-one-day, end-of-the-summer gift from God. These shorter, getting-cooler days are almost too beautiful to be true. They are still soothingly warm, and while they're not really hot enough to go bare-footing through the park, you may get away with donning short sleeves and a pair of flip-flops. You may even be able to go without a hat or a scarf while the sun's warm rays teasingly tickle your forehead and whisper into your ear that, regardless to how much you wish it wouldn't, the end of fall looms on the horizon. The trees (with the exception of the pines), vines, and bushes are gradually being stripped by autumn's powerful hands. They are now as bare as they can be. It’s plain to see that fall will not last much longer.

The place where I grew up is tucked in the Southwestern corner of Arkansas. While it's nice, it’s a long way from being as enchanting as the postcard-pretty mountains way up in the Northeastern part of the state. As a child, I had never heard of the Ozarks, nor had I seen pictures of that breathtakingly beautiful area with its colorful, autumn landscape. So our neck of the woods was our own pride and joy. With whatever glowing colors we have mingling among the evergreen pines, our area still has a uniqueness of its own.

Before fall was over, Dad always drove down this winding, tree-lined lane that led back into the woods behind our house. It was Mr. "Good Buddy's" old, long-abandoned homestead. This parcel of land must have been our family’s secret, because we always seemed to be the only ones to hit the “fruit lotto" — or perhaps we simply beat the late birds to the worm. Either way, rather than go for a picnic among the tall, Arkansas pines, we went there to pick those green, oval-shaped ornaments from that sprawling tree ... the biggest, juiciest, plumpest, sweetest pears on Earth.

Mother Nature was generous, as always. She worked overtime growing that fruit on every limb and branch, and the branches drooped with those real, organic, Bartlett pears. The gentle autumn winds caused those luscious fruits to graciously drop to the ground, giving us a fun time of picking them up … and fun we had! Whenever we gathered the season’s delicious sweet, ripe, crunchy pears, something told us that summer was long past.

During this end-of-the-year season, the earth cools down a little bit, making it pleasant to be outdoors. The warm sun shines at an eye-squinting angle. Tree limbs do their aerobic dance, shaking themselves until the last brown leaves fall to the ground, leaving the landscape somewhat unsightly, dry, and barren. Squirrels and other hibernating creatures busily scurry around, making sure they've got all of their winter provisions stored securely away.

Farmers gather in the last of their harvests. Country kids take their last hay rides. For us, it was when Grandma did her final canning stint. Mother made pear preserves from our batch. But since it wasn't my favorite fruit, I only ate it if we had eaten all of Grandmother's delicious peach and apple preserves, which to me are tastier than pears. Produce stands sport winter squash and their first Thanksgiving pumpkins. Winter is on the way.

pears
Photo by Fotolia/hansenn

Watermelon Thumpin'

Country at HeartOne day while purchasing watermelons, I saw a man land a good, hard thump on one — first time I’ve seen anyone do that other than us back-wood, country folks. When I impulsively thumped one, I asked myself, "What in the world are you doing?" My honest answer was, "I have no idea."

As I glanced at the stranger thumpin’ that melon, I also wondered if he knew why he thumped it. He probably didn't, because these days most watermelon buyers are clueless as to why they thump 'em. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that watermelon thumpin’ is akin to belonging to a secret society. It's a sign that the "thumpers" know something that "non-thumpers" don't — which they probably don't, but their ego makes them think they do.

I have no idea when watermelon thumpin' started, but I do know that I saw it way back when I was a kid. I saw my dad and other farmers thump them in their patches. A thumped watermelon supposedly emits a certain sound and a certain feel to the finger. By the thump, you can determine if a melon is ripe, ready to pull, and ready to eat. Do you really believe that? Well, I don't ... not really. Those old, experienced, country farmers may know what they're doing, but I have no idea. Over the years, I simply picked up the habit.

When people thump 'em in the store, they're listening for that certain sound that they think indicates the melon is a prize pick. Since I don’t know what the “sound “ sounds like and what the “feel” feels like, instead of thumpin’ ‘em, I do several things.

First, I look the watermelon over real good. I do know this much: if a watermelon has a dark, yellowish-brown coloration on one side, it means that it laid in the field for a good little spell ... perhaps too long. If it did, it could be overripe, or in some extreme cases, just right for eating. It all depends. Actually, that one is the kind I prefer over the dark green ones. To me, those are not ripe enough to be deliciously good and sweet. Perhaps it's just tradition, but I do like to see a little yellow on the ones I buy.

Next, I simply press the watermelon on all sides. If there is a soft spot, even on a dark green one, it usually means that the melon was dropped and bruised. It can be eaten, but not that part.

Finally, if I thump the fruit, it's simply out of habit and because it is something that I want to do. I have no earthly idea what I'm looking for. So, inexperienced me, I just look at a melon and decide if it's the one I want to buy, though I will seldom buy a melon that is all green. To me, they are not as ripe, nor are they as sweet as the ones with the light yellow patch on 'em. The patch indicates that at least it did mostly ripen on the vine. The solid green ones may indicate that they didn't stay in the field long enough. I pass on those.

I'm a country girl and should have my "thump" down pat, but I don't, so if you ever see me thumping a watermelon, just know that I haven’t the foggiest idea what I'm doing. Tell me to buy the watermelon, take it home, and give it a try. If that one is a dud, maybe with the next one I'll hit the jackpot.

watermelon
Photo by Fotolia/rozakov

Homesteaders

Country at HeartI always wondered about homesteaders — not just the houses but the people who originally built them. Why did they settle in that particular place? Why was the house built where it was? Who lived there? Did they live alone or with family? How many kids? Any animals? Did they inherit the land, buy it, or did they "squat" on someone else's land?

Houses were usually built near a road and not too far away from the rest of civilization, unless someone had no choice but to build on land where their ancestors lived. Many poor families, like mine, didn't have a homestead. They rented their houses, and I do not consider renters to be homesteaders, because they do not own the land nor the house.

I think of homesteaders as people who originally settled on a parcel, built their house from the ground up, settled in and stayed there forever. That was the case with one of the property owners that I consider a homesteader, and the one whose house I think may have been built by her husband or is one that she inherited from her parents or some other relative.

To me, homesteaders are real "country": backward but rugged, hard-working, overall-wearing men and little, old, bonnet-wearing ladies with snow white hair tromping around in ground-length, calico dresses. But, of course, that description more properly fits those homesteaders from bygone centuries — with one exception. Our neighbor, Miss Munn, as we called her.

That dear soul was an older lady who lived down in the lane about three-fourths of a mile behind our house. Now to me, she was a real homesteader. She had a house that I had never seen before or since. She was somewhat eccentric, and at that time kids didn't talk to (or with) older people as they do today, but I had a million questions floating around in my mind for her. For one thing, I was curious to know who built her house and why her house was made unlike everybody else's. It had a wide, open-ended hall running the length of the center of the house. I even imagined a dog trotting right down the center of that dwelling ... and that's why it's called a "dog-trot" house.

Sadly, she lived alone in that big old house on a large parcel of land. She, like many country folks, didn't have running water, electricity, a telephone, nor indoor plumbing. She had an old fashioned, stinky outhouse just like everybody else; however, I do not believe she lacked modern conveniences due to poverty but due to her choice to live on the land like a real homesteader. Her house was well-built and well maintained. I loved walking through that wide, open hall and peering into the side rooms. I still recall an antique picture that hung on one of the bedroom walls — one that I longed to own someday.

To her credit, she had all these little kitty cats for company and entertainment ... but I don't remember any dogs. She had cows for milk and butter, a horse for plowing, chickens for eggs and for eating, and she probably had a few stray rats running throughout the house, too. At any rate, her place was self-contained. She had just about everything that she needed right on her own farm, except fabric for clothing and perhaps flour, sugar, and corn meal.

But, then again, as self-sufficient as she was, she probably ground her own meal, made her sugar from sugar cane, and grew her own wheat and pounded it into flour. Perhaps I'm stretching it a bit, but being the industrious person that she was, I wouldn't put anything past her capabilities.

Our dear, old, homesteading neighbor must have really loved her place. She never left home. She never went to town. The farthest she ventured from her homestead was our backyard to ask my dad to go up the road and "fetch" Mr. Hollis, the man who took care of her business. Other than that, she stayed put.

It was a special treat when my grandmother asked us girls to accompany her to Miss Munn's house. I was always ready to go before she got the words out of her mouth. Her place was so placid and surreal — like a dwelling from another planet. When I was there, it was like being on a voyage to a world where paranormal people live.

No doubt about it, she was a good cook and must have baked something sweet every day in her big, old-fashioned, wood-burning stove, because whenever we went there, she always gave us sweet breads made with real cow milk, and butter, and with those rich, brown, country hen eggs.

Old homesteaders are so neat. Their places are usually much larger than most houses in the community, and the lay of the land appears more prosperous than that of the average home dweller. The land is so rich, and things seem to grow on their land that don't grow on anybody else's. I do believe that those particular homesteaders are a notch above their neighbors. At least, that's the impression that I got from the two homesteads that I remember so fondly. They loved the land and their place in particular. And until they died, they stayed right in that same spot and lived just like my idea of real, bona fide homesteader.

Country road
Photo by Fotolia/Buffy 1982

Country Bridges

Country at HeartPerhaps it's a misnomer to say “country bridges” since most bridges are in the country, and if you need to cross the rivers and lakes and streams that dot the landscape, there must be a bridge to take you over, even if it's a small, crude, unstable-looking one. I suppose there are a few bridges in cities like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It was probably built when the area was "country" like rural Arkansas. But the bridges that I’ll refer to are the ones from my childhood. Also, I never knew those fancy, colorful, stately, covered bridges existed until years later, when I saw pictures in magazines. I never saw any in my neck of the woods.

But let's cross the bridges that really “got to me.” They are the small, insecure-looking ones that I didn't like. Occasionally, while traveling to the fields, church, or wherever we had to go, we encountered at least one. Actually, there’s a small bridge right at our little country church, but that one didn't frighten me too much. I reasoned that since it is only about twenty-five feet long, if our car had fallen into it, we probably could have easily crawled out of it. But whenever Dad drove across those other little, scrawny, rotting-looking wood bridges, I held my breath until we were completely on the other side. Then I sighed a sigh of relief. I always wondered if one day a too-heavy vehicle would attempt to cross and the bridge would give way. Of course, that was simply my irrational childish fear, and, fortunately, it never happened.

Sometimes — depending on where we were going — we came to a bridge that we had to cross on foot. While I was a little scared if we were in the car, if I had to tromp across it myself, I was a lot scared. When I walked across those bridges with the planks that looked like they had spaces between them a foot wide, and where you could see the water flowing beneath, I just didn’t want to go to the other side. And, unlike those three Billy goats on the Ugly Old Troll's bridge, I didn’t tromp across. As scared as I was, I held my breath and tiptoed across as though I thought my little, 50-pound body would crash it. I was too scared to stare down, thinking that by staring the bridge would sense my fear and collapse underneath me.

There are a few bridges that probably span a quarter of a mile, but those are normally crossed in a vehicle. And for some reason, I didn’t have too much fear when we rode across those overpasses. That’s probably because they appeared so big and strong and secure, as though even the biggest, longest, heaviest truck wouldn’t shake it.

Perhaps other country kids didn’t have that fear, but I did, and I think it’s normal. By the way, some of those same rickety bridges are still there, and when I go home, I even cross over some of them. As safe as they were then, they are still safe today.

Old wooden bridge
Photo by Fotolia/ovcerleonid