The Memory Keeper


A Wren's Nest in Dad's Bib Overalls

It was Monday morning, which meant clothes-washing time. A farm family of eight generated an enormous heap of dirty clothes in a week, and unless foul weather was imminent, Mother pulled the old Westinghouse wringer washer out of the corner of the back room and did the washing.

She filled the copper boiler with cold water from the kitchen sink. One faucet said “cold,” the other “hot,” but only the cold faucet produced water when you turned it on; we did not own a hot water tank yet. So she had to wait while the water heated on the old Kalamazoo cook stove.

As the water warmed she took her old paring knife, its blade sharpened into an efficient arc, and sliced two bars of Fels Naptha soap into the machine. Two galvanized rinse tubs were filled with cold water to be used after each load of clothes had agitated in the machine.

The hot water was poured into the machine and the first load, whites, went in. When Mother was certain that the load was adequately clean, she engaged the wringer atop the machine and fed the clothes between the rollers to squeeze out the soapy water. Then the next load went into the machine, the process repeated as the colors of the clothing darkened and the water grew murkier with soil.

The last load was always Dad's bib overalls and work socks. Mother would cluck her tongue as she scrubbed the feet of the socks, rubbing vigorously with a bar of Fels Naptha and muttering, “Fred, Fred. These clothes are so dirty they could stand upright in the corner!”

Dad rarely heard her muttering, and if he did, he ignored it; clothing was a necessary protective covering to him, and it was frivolous to change it indiscriminately, which to his way of thinking was more often than weekly. He believed that any article of clothing should be worn exclusively until it was reduced to shreds. The final load of Monday's laundry was, therefore, quite small: one pair of Big Mac bib overalls, one pair of denim dungarees which he wore to town and on Sunday afternoon, a few pair of stiff work socks, and whatever other under garments Mother coerced him into wearing.

It was my job to accompany Mother to the clothesline in the back yard and hand clothespins to her from the half-bushel basket that held her collection. The lightest colored pins were used for the white clothes, and subsequent darker loads could tolerate the older pins stained from heavy use.

By the time Mother had finished hanging the last load which included Dad's overalls, it was too late for the clothes to dry before nightfall. So the Big Macs and monkey socks hung out and softened in the long hours of darkness.

The next day Mother was occupied with Tuesday obligations, and the overalls hung in the sunshine until mid afternoon. Dad came in from mowing hay and announced he needed a few new teeth on the sickle bar, causalities of rocks in the clover field, and had to make a trip to town to buy some. He surprised Mother by asking for a clean pair of bib overalls, and she remembered the pair on the clothes line from the day before.

She hurried to the back yard and was about to gather the clothes off the line when a small bird startled her by flying out of the front pocket of Dad's bibs. Mother peeked in the pocket and smiled as she saw the beginnings of a nest, bits and pieces of feathers, tiny twigs, and soft grasses, already forming a small hollow for the wren where she would lay her eggs for a future family.

Returning to the kitchen empty handed, Mother smiled gently as Dad asked where his clean overalls were.

“I'm afraid they are spoken for,” she told Dad. “You'll have to make do with another pair for a few weeks.”

Dad, being far more practical and less sentimental than Mother, sputtered a bit and put up a weak argument as he learned about the small brown bird that had chosen his britches to raise her family. He pointed out that a 200-acre farm had plenty of nesting opportunities besides the front pocket of his pants. Mother listened quietly, but the set of her jaw and the sparkle in her eye disarmed Dad, and he accepted defeat with as much grace as he could muster.

And so it was that we were treated to an intimate look at the ritual of a home-building, egg-laying, patiently-setting demure little bird that blinked her dark brown eyes at us as we peeked at her from a mere inches away.

The babies hatched, stretched their naked necks toward the sky, yellow beaks open wide, and accepted the bugs and seeds fed to them by a devoted mother. All too quickly they grew feathers, teetered precariously on the edge of Dad's pocket, then tumbled into space and tried their wings.

When Mother was certain they had left the nest and had no plans to return, she took down the faded, sun-bleached overalls, washed them thoroughly, and returned them to Dad who sniffed the pocket before he took them upstairs to his bedroom to return them to their rightful place on his person.

wren
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

 

Tornado

tornado

 

Polly Rogers BrownThe early evening sky of June 8, l953, hung over us like a wet woolen blanket. The oppressive humidity made us walk slowly, stooped and shuffling like old people in dim light.

Mother had told us after supper to work in the garden while there was still light; the carrots needed thinning and the rest of the rows could use a good hoeing. But as the evening wore on and the air grew hot and heavy, we shuffled toward the back porch to plead for mercy and a cold drink. Mother came out and looked toward the southwest, one hand shading her eyes, the other smoothing her gingham apron. “Something doesn’t feel right,” she murmured to no one in particular as she walked down the steps and stood beside us. “I’ve never seen the sky that color before.” The tone of her voice made us suddenly afraid, as if someone were standing behind us and ready to grab us by the throats.

We watched as the sky in the distance darkened into navy tinged with green. Little tufts of white dotted the darker clouds like foam on a windy sea. An eerie yellow cast moving in from the horizon overspread the storm clouds, and they looked like old, angry bruises.

Suddenly the air became totally still. No leaf moved, no breeze made the willow by the creek sway. Our eyes were drawn by the southwestern sky that moved relentlessly across the horizon, sagging lower as it approached until we felt compelled to duck down and hide.

Then our ears strained to hear something from the horizon; it was a low rumble, more sensation than sound, a noise that grew louder until we clung to Mother’s skirt and hid behind her.

It was, by now, unnaturally dark, the early evening mimicking the last few moments of the day before darkness fell. The ominous storm continued to move from west to east, now beginning to churn and roll as flickers of light seemed to come from its center. “Is that heat lightning?” we asked Mother. “Should we go to the basement?

The rumbling grew and the flickers of light became bright flashes that looked like shards of lightning, broken off from the bolt and tumbled with the clouds, shooting out and up erratically. “Are those boxes above the clouds?” someone asked. We watched as small cubes were flung upward above the clouds to tumble and then to fall back down and disappear into the churning blackness. (We learned days later that the small cubes above the clouds were homes, many containing families settling in for the evening. The flashes of light came from power lines caught in the fury of the tornado.)

The minutes passed and we stood close to Mother, unable to look away from the monster that churned across the sky, feeling its power and our frailty. Mother's lips moved without sound, and we knew she was praying for the people in the path of the storm.

We stood there as if in a dream. Time and space seemed altered, the world reduced to a small cluster of people who stood under the elm tree by the back porch, their eyes riveted on the western sky, the air still and hot, as if they were in an oven. And thirty miles away a storm of magnitude we had never seen before ground its way across the horizon, churning and tumbling and flinging bits of light and pieces of debris its motion generated.

The storm lasted half an hour. Then the western sky grew calmer and the clouds settled into gray. The deep rumble faded into silence, and we breathed easier as a light wind cooled our faces and the sound of evening song birds returned.

Later as we went to bed, Mother reminded us say our prayers, adding gently, “And pray for those poor people who were under the storm clouds.”

 

**************************************************************************

At about 8:30 pm, on Monday evening, June 8, 1953, a tornado touched down near the intersection of W. Coldwater and North Linden roads, just north of Flint. Before the storm left Genesee County, 116 people died in the Beecher district. A one-half mile wide track of destruction was left.

Most people living in the area were at home with the children in bed. By the time people heard the storm’s roar their houses were being torn apart.

The slow-moving tornado wrecked 340 houses, severely damaged many others and injured 844 persons. The major damage was concentrated between Clio Road & N. Dort Hwy. This area contained mostly small homes with some businesses and a high school.

The Beecher tornado was the last single tornado to cause over 100 deaths in the United States. It is ranked the 10th deadliest tornado in U. S. history.

The Flint Public Library


Photos Courtesy of Getty Images

Heaven on a Plate

Polly Rogers BrownDo you conjure up winter dreams of summer foods that make you weak-kneed with desire?  I get that way around this time of year when I remember green fried tomatoes.  First, I apologize to my southern friends who order this delicacy year around from their local eatery and fork it up with their grits and biscuits with barely a thought.  I’ve had a plate of your version on my infrequent visits to your neck of the woods.  The reaction has always been disbelief that you guys really like these little discs of light green blandness and actually reorder on return visits.

Here’s the other side of the story.  Michigan green fried tomatoes are only available in individual farm kitchens from the middle of August until hard frost.  They are gathered from the sunny side of the garden after the vines have fully matured and ripe tomatoes have become the norm, not the miracle they were when they first appeared.  Only certain green tomatoes make the cut.  Nothing hard and lumpy and misshapen will do.  The fruit must be voluptuous and full, showing a hint of pink on the bottom and a darker shade of pale orange on the inside when it is sliced. 

One or two eligible tomatoes are only enough to annoy one; there must be several to slice and fry, preferably in ample quantity to assure a dozen or so slices per diner, with a plate of extras to cool and save for breakfast when it will be eaten cold with equal fervor.

Now begins the ritual, the slow dance in which the cook engages with the mound of prime tomatoes.

First, the large, ancestral Griswold iron skillet is placed on the largest burner of the range to heat slowly.  A large pie pan has a cup of flour spread on the bottom for dredging the slices.  Then the tomatoes are cut into three or four slices, with the crown and blossom end sliced off leaving the meaty centers exposed.  Each slice is dipped in flour and transferred to a platter to grow a bit gummy as the juice blends with the coating.

Then the oil is added to the skillet.  The best oil is light and delicate, allowing the heady tomato flavor to dominate.  When it is just short of smoking hot, the tomato slices are arranged in the pan.  Then patience must be exercised.  No peeking is allowed.  No surreptitious lifting of the slice in the middle to check the bottom for color.  When the slices are adequately browned the cook feels it in her bones.   There is a certain look the beautiful little circles take on when the bottoms are crisp and a golden brown that starts to climb up the sides and signals that it is time to turn the slices. 

fried green tomatoes 

Then the wait begins anew.  You stand there looking at heaven in a pan, almost attainable, but needing to finish the bottom golden crust before you lift each slice and arrange it on a platter.  When the last slice is transferred, the fire turned off, and the skillet moved away from the heat, the diner must exercise the last bit of restraint before she digs in.  The tomatoes must cool slightly, enough to keep from blistering the tongue, and with adequate time to allow the flavors to mellow and spread into a riot of exquisite tangy juiciness.

Then the moment of purest joy arrives; the first forkful lifted and accepted by an exuberant mouth.  Everything around you fades to unimportant.  The taste, the texture, the bouquet – that is enough to transport you to a place as close to paradise as one can hope to visit. 

And THAT, my Southern friends, is a Michigan green fried tomato.  Come north and I’ll make you a plate.  But check before you come; I’ll need to see if my tomatoes have reached that ephemeral stage of perfection that is worthy of my ancestral Griswold.







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