I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Having been witness to a little mudslinging this evening via the omnipresent social media platform Facebook, I got to thinking about different types of insults, both stupid and awe-inspiring, as well as the just plain lame. Hey, it doesn’t take much to amuse me or, apparently, inspire me to have well-thought-out lectures in my head.

The term “chicken” is an oft-used slang word employed against someone when they’re afraid or you’re trying to disparage them (with as little effort as possible); it’s meant to imply they’re cowardly. This derogatory term has been around since forever it seems, showing up in works from the 1600s and even used by Dickens in his writings. I’ve never understood the insult myself.

My grandmother had chickens…she kept loads of the little buggers in a big coop with a yard. Let me tell you, they are anything but cowardly. Just ask any lizard that happens to make its way into their domain. Oh wait, you can’t. Because they never make it back out again. A rooster may not always win a battle with a fox or a weasel, but I don’t think you’d see the feathered flock defender backing down nonetheless. Hens are no less brave…some are meaner than others, but trust me, none have an issue with drawing blood. Chickens, as a general rule, are fierce. Take it from me, and don’t ask how I know this, but those things will hunt you down, and peck your eyes out. Cowards. Yeah, right. We should all be so many chickens.

Sharing Some Laughs

Several years ago, my kids and I took a bus trip with my parents to see a Christmas play in an adjacent state. A great time was had by all which makes me really want to do another trip soon since it’s been so long since the last one, but what I want to talk about today was the entertainment provided on the return trip. For those of us left awake on the ride home, the tour guide played a video of a comedic motivational speaker named Jeanne Robertson, an older, southern lady with a knack for the hilarious.

Dressed to the nines in her well-fitted suits and speaking in a graceful, languid drawl, her stage presence belies her innate talent as a comedian…which makes her performances all the more hysterical. I love stand-up comedy and I like a variety of comedians for very different reasons, but none have made me laugh out loud as consistently and as freely as Ms. Robertson.

Maybe it’s the southern humor to which I can relate thanks to my extended family and friends, or maybe it’s her natural and unpretentious presentation — but whatever it is, to say I was pleasantly surprised to be so thoroughly entertained by such an unexpected comedian is an understatement. I mean, you simply do not look at this woman and think “comedic genius,” and yet, there she is.

It’s not an in-your-face, obscenity laden type of performance…she is a motivational speaker after all. But perhaps her humor is as enjoyable as it is for just that reason. It harks back to another age, one where story-telling was the height of entertainment – stories that were grounded in the simple everyday life and that could be appreciated by everyone, but were no less funny for all that.

 

 

Tasteful Memories

Have you ever thought about the powerful connection between smell and memory? One whiff of a food or perfume and, boom, you can be instantly transported back to a specific point in your life. Maybe childhood, maybe a person you knew, maybe a trip abroad, maybe the college dorms.

Well, it’s not just smell that can flood your brain with memories. Taste can do this as well. I realized just how true this is a few days ago when I was at an old-fashioned diner serving a full, honest-to-goodness country breakfast.

As the waitress brought out the plates, piled high with freshly baked biscuits, pancakes, fried eggs, and fried potatoes, I breathed in deeply, and when I dug into the food in front of me, I was transported back to breakfast at my grandmother’s.

As my regular readers know, both of my parents are from West Virginia, and we’d spend summers there – with both sets of grandparents. My mother’s mother, Grandma Jimmie would make a full country breakfast with everything made from scratch: biscuits, bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, beyond amazing gravy.

As I sat there, in this country diner, I felt a wave of nostalgia so intense, and I swear I could see that old kitchen, the coal stove, and envision myself sitting there at their table with my grandfather and the rest of the family waiting impatiently for breakfast to hit the table. And when it finally did? Oh boy, pure heaven!

That breakfast – not just any breakfast, mind you, but my grandmother’s breakfast, is a comfort food from my childhood that stands above all the rest. My own mother’s gravy and biscuits (not to mention her fried potatoes – to die for, yum!) summons up the same memories, and well, it’s more than just food, really. Although, it’s some damn fine food, I must say!  It thrills me to no end when I walk in my mother’s door to those delightful smells, knowing what I’ll be sitting down to when it’s time to eat.

It’s not just fresh-baked biscuits or the smell of bacon that reminds me of West Virginia, though. (And while I say these things remind of West Virginia, and I guess they do, it’s just a place – what they really remind me of are childhood, of growing up, and family. When I say West Virginia, to me, it encompasses so much more than just a place.) The taste of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries remind me of West Virginia too. Raspberry and blackberry bushes grew on the side of the mountain at my mother’s old stomping grounds. Blueberries flourished in the pastures where my father grew up. I had the best of both worlds and believe me, I tried my best to eat myself sick at each place.

Sadly, this is a memory that I’m hard pressed to duplicate these days – store bought berries are just not the same, they lack flavor and what flavor there is, is just…different. But luckily, I’m in a rural area and have options, so sometimes when I see them at local farmers’ markets, I’ll stock up on homegrown grown fruit, and all is right with the world again.

Speaking of fruit, I have yet to find a peach that will rival the fruit from my mother’s peach tree from our own backyard, but I try…oh trust me, I try. But for just an instant, with that initial bite of each one I try, year in and year out, it throws me back to a carefree time when that tree still stood. Why is it we don’t appreciate these things more when we actually have them?

Comfort foods are a wonderful thing. The warmth from the nostalgia and emotions they inspire runs deep and a world of hidden memories is just waiting to be unlocked with a smell or taste.

The Man I Knew as Grandpa

I never got the chance to meet my biological grandfather, Arbrie Emil Mills. He was killed when a coal car cut off both his legs when he was working in the mines of West Virginia in 1942. It was the definition of a tragedy. My Grandma Jimmie was pregnant with my Mom at the time and it took my Grandmother many, many years to recover from her loss and move forward. Eventually, Grandma Jimmie did remarry — my mother was married herself and had a family of her own by then. My brother was 7 and I was 5 the year we met the big hulking bear of a man we knew as Grandpa Walker. Everyone called him Clark but his name was Champ. And he was as big as a mountain. He must have really loved my grandmother to plunge headfirst into the craziness that was my family. That, or he was already crazy to begin with.

I can’t say what kind of man Arbrie was since he had passed long before I ever existed, but I can say with certainty that Clark Walker seemed tailor-made for my Grandma Jimmie. My only wish is that they had found each other sooner so my grandmother wouldn’t have been alone for so long. She was a firecracker who loved to argue and thanks to her sharp mind and quick wit, she was good at it. Clark put up with all her quirks and shenanigans — in fact, he seemed to enjoy smoothing her ruffled feathers. The household walked on eggshells — make that quilt-covered eggshells — all morning until she woke up, which was usually around noon. (I tell you what though — looking back on it now as an adult with kids, my Grandma Jimmie spent the better part of her life busting her ass to put food on her family’s table, shoes on her kids’ feet, and did everything she needed to do to keep her family together in the mountains of West Virginia, so if she wanted to sleep till noon later in life, I say, more power to her.)  But, my Grandpa never questioned her need for sleep, never tried to change her routine. He just accepted it as the way things were and put up with it because he knew it made her happy. The sun rose and set around my grandmother as far as Grandpa was concerned.

Need an example? How about this…ever heard of a Jimmy truck? They don’t make them anymore, but they did back in the day. Grandpa bought one of these trucks (in cash!) just because it had my Grandma’s name emblazoned on the back. Well, slightly misspelled, but still. His heart was in it.

Perhaps the clincher that proved just how much he adored my grandmother was the fact that on top of living with her and her persnickety ways, he also lived with my great-grandmother, Grandma Mooney. I’m sure you remember her. Yup, Grandma Mooney of the Vinegar Valentines and the Spooky Charades was in the house as well and she had quite the attitude. She was also a little instigator. No, really!  Nothing pleased her more than starting something between my grandparents and then sitting back to watch the resulting chaos, coffee cup in hand and a smile on her face. In spite of all this, my grandfather took damn good care of her when she got sick later on. All because he loved my grandmother with a love that was fierce.

Grandma Jimmie and Grandpa Walker looking cool

Growing up, I thought Grandpa Walker was IT. I remember he gave me a kitten when I was little that I wasn’t supposed to have. (He gave my brother one too, but my brother was deathly allergic — which made shoving the kittens in his face really, really fun, but I digress.)  We couldn’t take them home of course…thanks Keith, for that. But we enjoyed them each summer.

While I was small, most summers found me by his side, when I wasn’t chasing lizards or looking for crawdads or swinging from grape vines. When I was still a little girl, it might’ve been the first summer I met my grandfather even — so maybe 5 — I remember trying to cut my fried eggs with a fork and knife just like my dad. My dad was amazing with a knife and fork — he could cut anything and everything slick as butter while being quiet as a mouse. It was truly impressive, and I always wanted to be like him. But, I could never come close to being as fast and neat as he was and most of the time I just ended up making a big racket. It was certainly annoying for everyone in the kitchen. So anyway, here I am cutting my fried eggs like a maniac and my father ummm…chastised me, yeah, we’ll go with that, chastised me for making so much noise. And sitting in “my spot” next to my grandfather as I was, he yanked my chair closer to him and told my dad in no uncertain terms to “leave her be and let her cut her eggs however she wants” — which was awe-inspiring really because I was little and my dad was…well DAD. You simply didn’t talk back to him.  Clearly Grandpa didn’t get THAT memo. Or if he did, he didn’t care one bit.

As I’ve written about before, for a part of his life my grandfather drank beer like some people drink soda, or coffee. He basically just drank the stuff all day long. It took an enormous amount (about the size of a silo) to give him a buzz, but eventually he would start feeling the effects, and when he did, he’d get on a musical bent. When this creative urge came across him, out came the banjo which he was really quite good at playing. The tunes he chose? Yeah, well, those started out pretty good too, more on the bluegrass side but that was okay, and then it would slide into gospel, getting faster and zanier the more he drank. Verses would eventually repeat themselves, words would slur or get mixed up. Sometimes it was an outright free-for-all of different songs thrown together as one. What verses he couldn’t remember, he made up on the fly.

I remember my mother made a recording of one of his more off the rails lively sessions and took it to my Aunt Bunny for her to listen to — back when cassette recordings were still the rage. I got so angry because by the end of the impromptu concert they were in tears laughing at his madcap musical antics. I snapped at them over it and ended up paying the price. And of course, looking back on it, it WAS funny…hilarious even. But this was my grandfather they were laughing at! No-one was supposed to be laughing at him!

Hey, he had my back – I had his.

my favorite picture

 

Construction Ahead

I want to say Happy Father’s Day to my Dad. And I’m sure my children would like to take this time to thank him for the inside joke that I constantly throw out, even though they weren’t even born when the joke originated, and it’s one they don’t really “get,” but they laugh along with me anyway. Of course, their laughter is likely just a way to placate their eccentric mother since we’re always in the car with me driving at the time of said joke, and they do have their safety and well-being to consider.

I’ll share a bit of nostalgia with you and let you in on the inside joke – there are actually two. And which joke gets repeated on which outing depends entirely on which road construction sign I happen to see at the time.  I know, I know, make jokes about construction signs, you say? Who on earth can come up with jokes about road construction signs?  Well, my Dad can. And little did he know they would drive off into the future at full speed to infect his grandchildren.

I have no idea if these happened all on the same long family trip, though I think they did. I think my Dad just happened to be on a “roll” during this one lengthy excursion with a Great-Aunt in tow – honestly, it all happened so long ago that I can’t remember exactly.  There are a great many parts of my childhood that I remember only in fragments, not getting the whole picture, but rather just fractured bits. I believe on this particular occasion, we were taking my Great Aunt Bunny to West Virginia with us, and both the long drive and the looming visit itself would have made her an anxiety ridden nervous wreck, such things always did. Which would make sense – IF that’s the trip I’m remembering – because my Dad would have been doing what he could, in his own silly way, to ease my Aunt’s nerves. The jokes I’m going to tell you about, however, those stand out in my mind.

The trip to West Virginia from our house back in those days took a solid 8 hours, and more often than not, there was road construction along the way. Going through an area of construction, with all of its delays and issues, during an already 8-hour trip – with two pains in the ass children, can never be an easy thing, but on this particular trip in question, my Dad decided to take his comic show on the road, as it were, and lighten the mood.

Coming upon a section of road construction that required rerouting of the lanes, there was a safety sign duly posted informing all and sundry of a “flag man ahead.” Now most people would slow down, follow the “flag man’s” direction and just move on, right? Not my Dad. He stopped, rolled down his window (this was in a time when you really did roll down a window) and cheerily greeted the guy: “Hi, Mr. Man!”  After we drove on, and I suppose due to the looks of confusion from all of his passengers – except my mother, I don’t even what to know what look she was giving him – he says, “Well, I don’t know him well enough to call him Flag!”  Rolling eyes and groaning laughter ensued. And the joke has lived on into infamy. Although, my version keeps the window tightly closed, with me just shouting through the glass, but in a good way, not like when there is an errant jaywalker or a driver who has apparently never heard of a turn signal.

The next sign that encouraged my Dad to act was a bit more hearty and enthusiastic, or rather, his reaction was at any rate. For seemingly no reason whatsoever, and certainly with no warning, my Dad threw out his hand and grabbed my mother by the top of her head. I wish, for the life of me, that I could remember the look on my mother’s face at that instant, but what I conjure (based on personal experience with the woman), it would’ve been a hoot, and not exactly a look of adoration towards my father either. In his defense, he pointed to the “Stop Ahead,” sign we were passing…I mean, he was only following directions, right?

My kids are 25 and 18, and I kid you not, they know exactly what is going to happen when we pass construction or road work that has one of these signs posted. Oh, they may forget in the moment as they text or watch videos on the phone, but whoever is in the front passenger seat is sure to have their head accosted, or to be startled into thinking we’ve seen someone we know, each and every time…and when they search the surrounding area for the sign and find it, they smile a pacifying smile and then go back to their business.

It makes no difference to me if my kids don’t share in my joke. I think it’s hilarious and sometimes, dammit, I just do things because they amuse ME, not necessarily those around me. And more than being amusing, it reminds me of family, of times gone by, and while I can’t grasp the full memory of that road trip from so many years ago – only bits and pieces remain, what does stick in my head is the fact that my Dad was on a comedic roll for the entire drive. Who knew his Dad jokes would get passed down through the generations? I guarantee you that while they may not repeat the jokes themselves, till their dying day, my kids will never be able to pass road construction without at least going over those wisecracks in their head. And maybe, just maybe, when they have kids, this bit of Dad-silliness will live on.

So, thank you Dad…it’s not enough that you’ve had my back since I was born or that you constantly watch out for me. Your casually tossed out pieces of comedic genius have stayed with me over the years and have been the source of great joy, in so many ways. Here’s to family road trips from back in the day. Here’s to lasting memories. Happy Father’s Day! I love you.

dad in his element

The Best Room Ever

Okay, I need everyone to pay attention because what I’m about to tell you may be the single most important argument to ever be made in the history of debate…

The kitchen is the best room in any house. Period.

Now I know I’ve started a frenzy among all the “man cave,” “she shed,” “bedroom” loving people, but I hereby stick to my claim that the kitchen is the best room in any house ever.

Think about it! The kitchen really is the focal point for all the activity inside any house or dwelling. It’s where all the action takes place. Sure, the living room sees a lot of feet shuffling through and a lot of butts on furniture but the entertainment is mostly derived from the television. All the *real* action is happening inside the kitchen.

I’ll break it down for you because I’m not leaving until I’ve convinced every single one of you that I’m right… Okay, granted, you could close this blog at any time so I guess I can’t really enforce that… so… I’ll just let it go and continue with making my point… hopefully you’ll stick around.

Let me start with a little background –

Growing up, we would visit my grandparents every summer. Both sets of grandparents, as loyal readers already know, lived in rural West Virginia, my parents’ old stomping ground. My maternal grandparents (Grandma Mooney and company!) had a pseudo-living/sitting room set up where the dining room should have been – but it was more of an extension of the kitchen. It’s just how the old farm-house was made. The first floor was just one big room basically, with the kitchen proper to the right and the dining room/sitting room to the left – no walls in between and close enough that you could fling a coffee cup from the sitting room and hit my grandmother in the head as she made breakfast (not that I would suggest doing that, however, if you wanted to live past the first serving of eggs). The centerpiece of the sitting room was a huge, round dining table made out of solid wood that I remember always had a green gingham vinyl, felt-backed tablecloth in place.

If you ever peeked in the windows, you would find everyone sitting around that table, playing cards, chattering up a storm, eating fried eggs, or watching the smallest t.v. I think I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure it was in color. It got maybe three channels. There was a living room in the house – but it was on the second floor. And I never once saw anyone up there, except for me when I was playing house. No, being near the kitchen was the place to be.

In my childhood home, there is a family room and my parents are quite happy there whenever they’re watching t.v. But when company comes – including my grownup self – we sit at the kitchen table, coffee cups in hand, hopefully potato soup (if I’m lucky) or some other gastronomical treat from my mother’s massive repertoire in front of us, and talk the day away.

Like my parents, a great-aunt (Grandma Mooney’s daughter) of mine moved from West Virginia to the concrete jungle of the city, Baltimore to be exact. My parents eventually opted for a more suburban route, but my aunt and her family stayed in the city. My aunt kept her country ways though and sure enough, life took place in the kitchen. Visiting her every Sunday saw us sitting around the kitchen table, eating homemade crab cakes, polish sausage, and drinking coffee or sweet tea.

Now, speaking of kitchens, West Virginia women know how to cook. Between my great-grandmother, my grandmothers, my mother, and my great-aunt…these ladies took comfort food to a whole new level. So who wouldn’t want to hang out in the kitchen and be a taste-tester or gobble up the so-called rejects of whatever meal they were preparing? Or if you were brave, sneak something off a serving plate before it made its way out to the table?

But there is more to it than food, so much more. For me the heart of the house is the kitchen. We’re a family in the kitchen. Good news, bad news, shared joys and sorrows – all happened in the kitchen. Oh, we had food, we’re a family that loves food, but in the kitchens of my childhood, we also had camaraderie – we shared laughter and gossip, tears and heart to heart talks. Life was lived in the kitchen. Still is, in so many ways.

So, for those of you trying to make it work in that cramped two-bedroom apartment the size of a photo-booth, and especially those of you with lots of room to spread out (you know who you are…you can go a full day and not see another member of your household or family) – here’s a piece of advice for whatever it’s worth.

Hang out in the kitchen. Maybe cook dinner together every once in a while, or throw together some snacks and play cards or a board game at the table – whip up something awesome, and I’m not just talking food.

Grandma Mooney’s Spooky and Wonderful Gift

I’ve been thinking a lot of my beloved Grandma Mooney (great-grandmother to those just tuning in).  Thank you for letting me share her stories with you all; I think you’ll agree she was a very rare and highly entertaining individual indeed.

Now, I do dabble a bit in the occult.  I love giving or receiving tarot card readings.  I also strongly believe in ghosts to the point that I would never dare make one angry, or even dream of playing the Ouija board alone.  I strongly believe there is more to this world than our limited five senses can ever know or that science can prove or disprove, at least for now – I mean we’re learning more and more every day about the world around us, right? Who knows what they may find out.  I also strongly believe that you should agree with me, or I will use my ancient Voodoo magic to hex you.  Nah, just kidding on that one, but I am a firm believer in the paranormal in general.

Grandma Mooney had a unique ability that luckily, I did NOT inherit…it can’t have been pleasant.  It wasn’t a super power like flying, freezing time, or moving things with her mind (seriously though, how cool would that be!?), but it was a spooky gift for sure.  Grandma Mooney always knew when someone was dying.  She never got upset; she was completely matter of fact about it.  She’d get the feeling in her bones (I assume it was her bones at any rate), and just nonchalantly announce, “John’s dying.  Gotta go,” and then she’d be off, to go help the family.  Without fail, whoever the unfortunate soul was that she would name would either be on their deathbed or dead before she even got there.  Of course, back then there was no Facebook, no cell phone texting, and no emails; this gift was pure intuition. She was always accurate, and it was really, very creepy.

While we’re on the subject of death and dying, did I tell you about the time I almost killed Grandma Mooney?  If it wasn’t my fault, it might have been her sheer orneriness. Let me explain…and spoiler…there was a happy ending, no Grandmothers were hurt in this story.

My grandfather, god bless him – I loved him to pieces – enjoyed three things in his life: playing the banjo, singing, and drinking beer. He drank beer like some people drink soda pop or ice tea. And for the most part, he could handle his alcohol. Later on in life, he decided he’d had enough and just stopped, cold turkey, and never looked back. But back in the day, when he was especially deep into his cups, he liked to get out the banjo and entertain all and sundry – with bluegrass and hymns being his favorite music of choice. The more beer he drank, the more boisterous his hymns and bluegrass songs would become.

This one particular day, when I was 7 or 8 years old, Grandpa Walker was really going at it with his hymns while Grandma Mooney ate a piece of cornbread.  You may know, old-school cornbread was really dry and would fall apart when you ate it.  Anyway, I got really carried away by grandfather’s music this day, and before you know it, I was howling like a dog on the front porch. Yeah, I was an ornery child. Like great-grandmother like great-granddaughter.

This tickled Grandma Mooney to the point of laughing her ass off, but as luck would have it, she started choking on her cornbread.  I was so scared that I ran away for the rest of the afternoon.  No way was I going to stick around to see what happened!  All I know is Grandma Mooney was laughing and choking, so I did what any reasonable 7 or 8-year-old kid would do; I ran for the hills.  Not my bravest moment, to be sure.

One thing was guaranteed.  If she actually did die choking on cornbread, she would definitely come back to haunt me.  And if she didn’t…

…she was definitely going to kick my ass.