Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turkey and Blessings

     This week the whole family gathered at my house to celebrate the first truly American holiday: Thanksgiving. My house overflowed with siblings, nieces, nephews, and my mom and dad. We measured the three oldest male cousins against their annual ladder of growth marks on the wall. Once again, they have grown taller and more mature. I’m sure it was just yesterday that these three were hitting each other over the head with croquet mallets and chasing each other with fire-sticks from the yearly campfires. Now they tower over all but their dads, entertain themselves with less violent pursuits and even ask what they can do to help.
      I fretted for a week before everyone came. How would I get everything done? There was shopping to finish, beds to strip, floors to polish, furniture to dust, kitchen cabinets to clean, a stove to scrub. The list felt endless, but then I remembered: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Each day I concentrated only on what needed to be done before dark. That, plus help from the young man who occasionally comes to clean for me, calmed my anxieties. Although I’ve always been sure that the hostess gene skipped me, I was able to figure out menus for each day, satisfactory sleeping arrangements for fourteen people, entertainment for the younger ones, and how to get the turkey cooked perfectly.
     The week was full of laughter and some happy tears. There was singing and games and stories retold. There were walks and rocks for splashing and a hammock for swinging wildly under the tree. We gathered evergreens on Friday and the children made wreaths then, on Saturday, my sister and I decorated my front gate for Christmas. There were Christmas presents passed from car to car and some left behind to be opened in a month. There was even a birthday cake.
     Joe says the whole family came, ate everything in sight and left. But, he was laughing as he said it. The yearly pilgrimage to the farm is a treasured tradition for us. I went in early one morning and curled up in bed with my mom. She asked me if getting ready had been too overwhelming. If she had asked me two weeks before everyone arrived, I might have said, “yes.” But, as soon as my nephew started strumming his guitar for me, as soon as my two nieces begged for homemade grape-juice, “the kind with the grapes still floating in it,” as soon as all of us joined hands around the table, it was more than worth it. The family bonds that we rebuild each year are precious. Oh, and how did I cook that perfect turkey? I didn't.  My brother-in-law cooked it for me. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

And There Was Pie

    Last week, on Veteran’s Day, the entire school system turned out to celebrate service men and women in our rural community. Every student in the county, plus all the teachers, principals and aides paraded down Main Street to honor those who have protected our freedoms. The senior class spent several days after school constructing a replica of Iwo Jima on a haywagon. The sixth graders spent their own money on flags to hand out to the watching crowd. The band marched, the kindergarteners dressed in historical costumes, the fourth grade rode a red white and blue float waving flags and hand painted signs in honor of the soldiers. The other students paraded behind homemade banners and highly decorated three- quarter ton pick up trucks. It was a day that no one will forget.
     On Wednesday evenings, several local churches coordinate an after-school program for children in grades K to 12. This program concludes with a meal cooked by three women who volunteer in the kitchen after working all day at other jobs. Each Wednesday, they whip up supper for forty to fifty eager eaters and then stay late to clean up. They eat their own meal standing up . Suppers are always home-made. For many children, this may be the only sit down family style meal of the week so these kitchen angels take their job very seriously. Home-made pizza, fried chicken, meatloaf. The meal last week was an early celebration of Thanksgiving. It involved two roasted turkeys, twenty pounds of potatoes mashed and smothered in gravy, huge bowls of stuffing bursting with celery and onions and sausage, home-made whole wheat rolls and pie. Pie with hand made crusts. Pie that was flaky and piled high with hand cut apple slices or filled to the brim with creamy pumpkin custard. No frozen crusts or canned apples in sight. Pie that said, “I love you.”
     Tonight, one of our community leaders with a passion for mission work, spent her fourth evening in the back room of the local church collecting shoe boxes full of goodies for children for Operation Christmas Child. She and her sister-in-law are aiming to collect five hundred boxes from our community of 2500 people. That’s one box for every five people. They’ve canvassed the elementary school WRE program, the county 4H program, the high school National Honor Society and every member of every church in every valley. So far over two hundred fifty boxes have been packed into bigger boxes for a trip to Charlotte, NC. The two women will follow these shoe boxes south and spend three long days helping pack hundreds of thousands of boxes for transport overseas. They won’t get paid for this and in fact will spend their own money to travel and stay in the area so they can work.

Pie. It’s all pie. Pie piled high with hand cut apple slices. Pie with home-made crusts. Pie that says, “I love you.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Meaty Season

     I have eaten my fill of meat this week. We have put our garden to rest. My cellar shelves are loaded with jars of pickles, beans, tomatoes, grape juice, jelly, relishes, applesauce and peaches. There are baskets of potatoes and boxes of apples stacked on the floor. Normally I would also have strings of onions dangling from the ceiling, but this was not a good onion year. Although the fresh fruits and vegetables have petered out, the season of meat has begun. We had squirrel gravy a couple of weeks ago and now we are eating venison. I recently read a book by author/historian Warren Blackhurst who chronicled the lives of settlers in this area. In one chapter of his book, A Mixed Harvest, the main character, Andy, notes that the weather is finally cool enough for the family to hunt some venison and hang it in the meat house. The season of meat was dependent on weather cool enough for the keeping.
     Although we have a refrigerator and a freezer we, like those settlers of old, still focus a portion of our menus around what’s available. And what’s available right now is deer meat. We have cut up the hams for the freezer, fried the tenderloin for supper and breakfast, and processed the shoulders into jerky. Even the dogs share in the feast. Joe drags the remains over to their houses and they disappear so deep into the carcass that only their wagging tails are visible. They won’t eat dried kibble again until they have stripped the last of the scraps from the bones. I’m hoping for at least two more deer before the season ends because canned venison is my go-to for a quick supper. Then after hunting season, we will have a hog butchered and, after that, a beef.
     Joe still remembers his family doing all of their butchering on the farm. In fact when I met him, the pole and barrel for scalding hogs was still out in the barnyard. Joe doesn’t miss the killing and hard work of getting the meat wrapped and salted and ground, but he does miss dipping cracklings out of the rendering kettle and the resulting cans of pure white fat that were perfect for popcorn. No matter. Some of our neighbors still butcher on their farms so we can visit them and lend a hand for some lard if we’ve a mind to. For these families, meat season is a season of in-gathering. The kids and grandchildren are drawn back to the farm each November to hunt deer and then again in January to butcher the hogs. In this way, traditions and skills are passed to the next generation.
     I had a friend who moved to the county from the city and immediately acquired a flock of fat breasted chickens and a mob of meaty rabbits. I still remember her amazement as she described how the butchering was for her five-year old. Elizabeth was afraid that her very girly girl would be offended or frightened by the process. Instead, her blond headed cherub squatted over the offal and dug through it, asking questions and watching with interest as the chickens ran around like chickens with their heads cut off do. I know some people are offended by the idea that meat once ran around, but for this little girl, it was just a part of the circle of life. Hakuna Matata and all that. Our ancestors were not vegetarians. They couldn’t afford to be. There was a season for fresh fruits and vegetables and a season for meat. It’s the same on my farm.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Scary Halloween

     Pumpkins glare at me from every stoop and step as I drive home. They are twinkly reminders that a small amount of light can illuminate a whole lot of darkness, even if it is coming from a scowling face. In church on Sunday, my minister talked about Halloween. While he’s against it in principal, he said there are times when it can bring communities together. His words took me back to Tylerton on Smith Island. When I was still hale and hearty enough to take my sixth grade students on a three day trip to this island, out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, twice we managed to land there close to Halloween. Because the life of a waterman is harsh and dangerous, many of the families had moved off-island for easier work. Tylerton was a community with only four children left and it was a mighty quiet place. So, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators had my students create wacky costumes from found objects and then go trick-or-treating in the 25 house community. The islanders welcomed the sound of unruly children roaming the streets and celebrated Halloween for a week with each successive group of students.
     Our village also used to echo with the laughter of cowboys and princesses and nerds and outlaws, but this Halloween the streets were subdued. There are less than three hundred children left in our county. Like the Smith Islanders, many of our Appalachian farm families have had to move to the lowlands for work. So, houses compete for the trick-or-treaters because the giggly Martians and sober hobos bring us hope that our community isn’t done, yet. I managed to bribe two miniature cowboys down my long driveway with a promise of home-made cookies. Even teen-agers well into high school are welcomed with Snickers bars and popcorn balls. Children make noise and remind us that we are still alive. A Halloween without children is one of the scariest nights I can imagine.