Breakfast Traditions

BREAKFAST TRADITIONS (another in my Blowing on Embers series)

Breakfast: the most important meal of the day, they say.

Always the first one up in the mornings, Mother made sure we had a good breakfast to start our school days off right. In those days before frozen waffles, toaster pop-ups, or smoothies, breakfast was a pretty big deal. And we never rushed out of the house without it.

Our breakfasts were varied. There was that old standard: bacon, eggs, and toast or similar combinations of protein and carbohydrates. Sometimes we had oatmeal and cinnamon toast; other mornings it might be Cream of Wheat; occasionally pancakes or waffles were on the menu, though most likely on the weekends. And sometimes we went into the kitchen to nothing more than dry cereal and milk. I was never much fond of cereal days—those were the days when my stomach started growling by mid-morning.

By my calculation, while we children were living at home, Mother prepared nothing short of 10,000 breakfasts. When my youngest brother left the nest for good, Mother made an announcement to our father: she was retiring from breakfast duty. From that day forward, before he left for work, Daddy made his own breakfasts (willingly, I might add) before Mother gave a thought to getting out of bed. If not for the cat pawing at her face on the pillow every morning, Mother might have remained in bed for a sinfully, but well-deserved, long time.

But back to breakfast. In addition to all that typical morning fare, there were two dishes in our breakfast repertoire that were, I believe, unique.

One was reserved for one day and one day only each year—Christmas. No one was allowed in the living room where the tree and presents were until we’d all eaten breakfast, and that breakfast was always the same: strawberry shortcake. I loved strawberry shortcake as a dessert and thought it was even more special as Christmas breakfast. As I look back on it, I think there were two reasons we were served this delicacy on Christmas morning. The first, and maybe most important, was that it was quick and easy. For one day a year, Mother didn’t have to get up extra early to have breakfast on the table.

The second reason was perhaps a little more wily. What kid wouldn’t be thrilled to have dessert for breakfast? If we were just as eager (or almost) for breakfast as for presents, and if breakfast was just as much a part of our holiday tradition as the rest of that big day, then there wouldn’t be any peeking under the tree before the parents were ready. There wouldn’t be any whining (well, not much, anyway) for everyone to hurry up so we could finally open the door to the living room. Whatever the reason, that strawberry shortcake breakfast was always a success.

The other unusual breakfast we had on occasion had a regional basis. Mother grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of southwestern North Carolina, a place where blackberries grow profusely on the mountainsides. Along with her mother and three sisters, she spent many afternoons picking blackberries, so many that they were able to can plenty of jars for use in the winter. And one of the ways blackberries were served in her home was stewed with a little sugar and poured over homemade buttered biscuits. It was a breakfast treat summer or winter.

Mother kept this breakfast tradition alive in our South Carolina home. We didn’t have access to fresh blackberries and frozen blackberries weren’t to be found in the freezer aisles in grocery stores, but stores did carry canned blackberries. Not the blackberries in gooey thick syrup for pies, but just plain old blackberries packed in water. All Mother had to do was put them in a pot on the stove, add a bit of sugar and a little more water, and heat them until the berries were warm and the sugar dissolved. In my opinion, there’s just nothing better than a plateful of biscuits, halved and buttered, smothered in blackberries, and swimming in that purple liquid. Mm-mmm good!

Needless to say, we’ve maintained both of these breakfast traditions in our home. And nothing has tickled me more than to discover that our now grown children have done the same in theirs. No doubt, one day some child in generations hence will look up to a parent and ask, “Why do we eat blackberries on biscuits?” or, “Why do we eat strawberry shortcake on Christmas morning?” and the parent will have no better answer than, “I don’t know. We just always have. It’s tradition.”

And that’s just fine with me.

Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Coming ‘Round the Mountain (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Public domain photos retrieved from Wikimedia Commons titled Winning horse and buggy with driver at the Wynnum Show, Brisbane

Is there anything quite like the sweet scent of a dew-kissed early morning—especially in our green southern mountains? Every time—every single time—I catch a whiff of it, I’m transported back to those too-rare childhood trips to visit my maternal grandparents.

It was an excruciatingly long drive from the South Carolina flatlands to North Carolina’s southwestern mountains, even longer for the three children relegated to the back seat.

We claimed our territory before the first hand ever touched a door handle. No one wanted to be stuck in the middle, surrounded by sibling arms, legs, and torsos. We knew we’d have to take turns, but hope sprang eternal.

The window-seat sitters were intolerant, and arguments began almost immediately: your feet are on my side . . . I don’t have anywhere to put them . . . keep ’em on the hump . . . Mama, he’s touching me. And so on.

Our trips usually began late on a Friday afternoon so Daddy could get in most of a day’s work and we’d still have all day Saturday for visiting—and resting up before we had to make our return trip on Sunday afternoon. In the days before interstate highways, the drive lasted more than six hours—an eternity to us children. A couple hours in and we were miserably fidgety. That’s when the questions began. When will we get there? How much longer? Are we there yet?

Mother tried diverting our attention with car games. We looked for license plates from other states; we searched for words on billboards that started with the next letter of the alphabet; we tried to be first to spot whatever animal or object one of our parents called out to us.

Once our brown, two-tone Ford Fairlane began climbing and winding, we knew we were getting close, which only made us more restless. That’s when Mother began leading us in all the verses of She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain, with its ever longer refrain. In my mind’s eye we were singing about Mother in an earlier era. I imagined her in a bonnet riding on the front seat of our song’s buggy, maybe even wearing scratchy red pajamas.

For Dad, navigating those ever steeper, narrow, curvy roads in the dark after an already long day at the office was harrowing enough without being distracted by the fussing and whining emanating from the back seat. No wonder Mother was so desperate to keep us occupied.

Everyone knew what was coming when we inevitably got on Dad’s last nerve, and we didn’t want to hear it any more than he wanted to say it: “Ask me that one more time, and I’ll turn this car around right here.” Not likely. Returning home would have made for an even longer trip, and no one wanted that. Occasionally, the threat was, “One more argument and I’ll stop this car and give everyone a spanking.” We rarely got spanked and never on a car trip, so why pull out that old chestnut? Sheer exhaustion, most likely.

Somehow, we always reached our destination in one piece and not too awfully frazzled. A few hugs, kisses, and a midnight snack later, we were hustled off to bed and bundled under the covers.

And then it was morning. This was the moment I’d been looking forward to since we first got in the car. I woke under a pile of Grandmother’s homemade quilts, fog drifting through the windows I’d opened the night before so I could feel the kiss of the deliciously crisp mountain air on my face.

Before anyone else stirred, even my early-rising grandfather, I stole outside to walk barefoot in the cool, damp grass. I breathed in the clean scent of a world washed in dew, nibbled on a green apple that had fallen from its tree, and slipped under the graceful, draping branches of the giant weeping willow on the edge of the yard—my sacred hideaway. It was the perfect spot for a little girl to daydream, think private thoughts, and grow.

And worth every minute I was stuck in the middle.

Any hour of the day, any season of the year, every time I see sights like these I know the mountains are my meant-to-be home.

 

 

 

Big Changes

Big Changes (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My year in the yellow house was pretty eventful, but so was the next place we lived: Thrift Road in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was where my youngest brother was born, where I started school and learned to read—a lifetime passion.

The night before my first grade school picture was to be taken, I took a pair of scissors to my hair.

It was where our family listened to the 1952 presidential election results. “Who are we for, Mommy?” It was where I got my first pet, a blonde cocker spaniel-spitz mix we named Boots and where she died from injuries received when she was hit by a car a few months later.

It was where I went from measles to chickenpox in one fell swoop, missing an entire three weeks of school. (Remember, this was before today’s age of vaccines.) I was so sick! And it was where my across-the-road neighbor, Mary Ann, told me she was adopted and had me convinced I was, too, a conviction so powerful that it had me searching for proof among my parents’ papers for five years.

Charlotte was where I was terrorized by the hundreds—hundreds—of snakes that slithered out of a weedy field and across our driveway after a heavy summer rain with me in their midst. I’d never seen a snake, but I’d picked up from somewhere (certainly not from my wildlife-loving parents and not from TV—we didn’t have one of those) that snakes were to be feared more than death itself. I leapt onto the bottom rail of the chain link fence that enclosed our back yard, my tiny hands clutching the links for dear life, and screamed bloody murder till my parents came out to save me. My snakes turned out to be nothing more than slugs!

Thrift Road must have extended further then than it does now because I was able to walk to Thomasboro School, just a few blocks away. According to current maps, it’s much too far a distance for a first grader to walk. Today’s roads in that neighborhood (like Freedom Road and I-85) are also far too busy for children to walk them safely.

We had a school-wide assembly on my very first day where the principal, Mr. Curlee, announced that he had locked up all bicycles that had been improperly parked (whatever that meant). I thought that was so mean! Mr. Curlee terrified me.

I’d swear that my teacher, Mrs. Howie, was older than these mountains I live among today. For reasons I won’t go into, I thought she was mean, too. But she must have been an effective teacher. I started school at a distinct disadvantage: all my classmates had a year of kindergarten under their belts, but I’d just moved from South Carolina where there was no public kindergarten. As a result, everyone else in my first grade class was well ahead of me both academically and socially in the beginning. It must not have taken long for me to catch up, though, because my report card (yes, of course I still have it) was stellar in every way, even when I missed a full 30% of a grading period because of those childhood diseases.

My report card cover. How very Dick and Jane.

We lived in Charlotte a mere sixteen or seventeen months before returning to Florence. I’d been in second grade for just days when we made the move. When I walked into Briggs Elementary School, a few days into the South Carolina school year, as well, whose do you think was the first face I saw? Teddy’s! We were reunited! It was more than I’d ever dared hope for. I had long since resigned myself to the certainty that our paths would never again cross.

In my elation at this happy surprise, I told my newfound girlfriends that Teddy and I already knew each other, that he was, in fact, my long lost boyfriend. When they didn’t seem to believe me, I did what may have been—to this day—the boldest and most uncharacteristic thing of my entire life. I told them I’d prove it by kissing Teddy one hundred times! I had to chase him down at recess, but I did it.

We never spoke again.

My third grade class. For some reason, I don’t have a second grade picture, but with the exception of the teacher, the cast is the same. (That’s me way back there in the last seat of the row next to the wall.)  Miss Milliken was our second grade teacher. Our exotic, red-headed third grade teacher was Miss Whitlock. I adored them both.

My Year in the Yellow House—Revisited

My Year in the Yellow House—Revisited (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

As I wrote “My Year in the Yellow House,” I wondered whether the story would have broad appeal since it didn’t have any overarching theme or message. Just random memories. Nothing much to see there.

The yellow house many decades later—no longer yellow, but with the addition of front and side porches

I was suddenly taken aback at that notion. My essay was full of big deals. Unstated, but implied, was the fact that my youngest brother was conceived the year we lived in the yellow house, rounding out our family. How would my own life story be changed if that hadn’t happened? Most assuredly, he and his children think it was a pretty big deal.

Questions bubbled up.

For the family who lost their home and all their household belongings right down to their shoes and underwear, the blaze that destroyed their house was monumental. I wonder how it changed their lives. Did they have family nearby to put them up temporarily? Did they have a savings account in the bank to help get them back on their feet? Was their life savings, however large or small, stashed in a mattress that went up in flames? What happened to them, I wonder.

Was Glory’s tumor malignant? That’s what I always thought. If it was, did it go into spontaneous remission? Did her family’s faith cure her? How did she turn out? Or did the tumor kill her? When? How was her family—and their belief system—affected?

What about Carol’s family? Is there a more devastating blow than losing your young child? Did her family survive intact? Many don’t. And what did the world lose with no Carol to grow up in it? What about the family that never was? Would she have changed the world? Questions the answers to which no one will never know.

It was an eventful year on our small block. My own travails were pretty petty compared to what was happening all around me.

And yet, they weren’t. I heard something on the radio recently about how important it is to listen, really listen, to all the insignificant things your young child wants to tell you, no matter how busy you are with more important grown-up issues. The point was that if you don’t listen now, they’re unlikely to tell you the really important stuff later. But it was the next phrase that really struck me: “to them [the children] it’s all important.” Of course it is. It’s all they know.

To five-year-old me, it was all important. It would have been to any five-year-old.

My most potent memory from that year is the one where I was pushed into a tiny but formidable dark space, locked in, and forced to allow my most valuable possession to be desecrated in order to gain my freedom, having no confidence that the bargain would be honored, even then. My doll was my baby; it was an intolerable choice. And all because of someone’s inexplicable need to be cruel.

I don’t know all the ways the doll experience colored my life. Was that the moment the meek, compliant girl I grew into was forged? Was it what made me forever seek to avoid confrontation at almost any cost? Was Glory’s taunting what birthed my empathy for others? Or was it just a terrible moment with no particular future consequences other than a bad memory?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.

What about you? What questions still linger from your early years? Were there childhood moments—little or not so little— that changed your life?

Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts

Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My maternal grandmother, like most rural mountain women of her generation, was a prolific quilter. Her quilting frame was hung from the dining room ceiling where it could be raised and lowered by pulleys. It made her home the perfect place for a quilt-making gathering, but she would have been worried to pieces having outsiders in the way, so quilting bees were limited to family members.

When I was about nine years old, I was the recipient of one of those quilts. It featured the Little Dutch Girl pattern: a little girl in profile with her flared dress, a big sunbonnet hiding her face from view, and equally big shoes—wooden clogs, no doubt. In each square, the girl’s outfit was multi-hued, each square’s color combination different from the ones around it.

The colorful quilt served as my bedspread for several years, on the same antique cherry bed that had been my mother’s. She had restored it when she was a teen as part of a 4-H Room Improvement project which earned her a blue ribbon at the North Carolina State Fair. That same bed was used by my daughter when she was a girl and then by her own daughter.

Unfortunately, the quilt was not quite so long-lived as the bed, now more than 150 years old. While not exactly ephemera, quilts were made to be used. My Little Dutch Girl quilt was well-used, first by me and later by my daughter. It wore out.

By the time I learned to appreciate my quilt for both its personal and cultural heritage, it was too threadbare, stained, and torn to save it. But I couldn’t toss it. A few years ago, I cut the quilt into its squares and framed the few that weren’t too stained or frayed. One I gave to my mother, one I kept for myself; others I stashed away for children and grandchildren.

Now I’ve inherited a few more of Grandmother’s quilts. Unlike my girlhood quilt, I treat these with great respect. I don’t tuck them away where they can’t be appreciated, but I’ve learned not to expose them to daily use and abuse atop beds, either. These quilts hang side by side over a bedroom railing. Like MaMa’s Civil War bedspread, they are always on view and always available to provide extra cover on chilly nights—when they warm both body and soul.

I love these old quilts made by my grandmother, and I’m fascinated by the study of them. Her stitches were exquisite and her squares, large or tiny, were precise. But Grandmother didn’t exercise the same kind of care in other aspects of her quilt making. (Mother was right.)

Precision was not what you’d expect to find within Grandmother’s squares. One little Dutch girl’s profile, for instance, might vary from those around it. One’s shoes may be a little larger or smaller, while another’s might drop off the square entirely. Grandmother carelessly arranged colors. With Grandmother’s quilts, it’s not unusual to spot an aqua square somewhere in a row of royal blue ones. Or, you may find a wool or satin piece of fabric mixed in a row of cotton squares.

This quilt contains 148 border squares. 146 of them are black. The other two look like this.

Notice the random color placement of the “petals” in this quilt square. Can you spot the petal that was pieced together?

Whether it was plain old sloppiness, a preference for form over function, poor planning, or the “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” philosophy stated on one of her many cross-stitched pieces, these little details simply didn’t seem to matter to Grandmother. And one thing’s for sure—her quilts are unique; they’ll never be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Among other fabrics, Grandmother used a red-checkered tablecloth, printed flour sacks, and old children’s pajamas to make this quilt.

Grandmother was a giggler and she kept me in stitches. Even now, looking at her quilts makes me chuckle. I think she’d have wanted it that way.

Needles and Thread, Part I: Workmanship

Needles and Thread, Part I: Workmanship

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My mother is an expert needlewoman. At least, she was until arthritis and eyesight betrayed her. She grew up in an era when nearly all young girls learned to sew and excel at other needlework. When I was a girl, my mother made all my clothes before she taught me to sew, too.

She was a painstaking seamstress who worked on an item of clothing until it met the approval of her extraordinarily critical eye. Ripping out seams didn’t bother her one whit if it meant a better garment. A dart that didn’t end precisely at the right point, a facing that didn’t lie perfectly flat, a seam that puckered the tiniest bit—none of these flaws would do, no matter how slight.

I spent torturous hours standing on a stool where I was required to turn ever so slowly, like a music box ballerina (but not nearly so patiently), while she pinned and repinned a dress hem until it was perfectly straight, a fact she ensured with her trusty yardstick. Wherever needle and thread were concerned, Mother was a perfectionist.

My mother, like hers before her, tatted for years, making doilies, snowflake tree ornaments, and yards of knotted lace edging for collars, sleeves, and hemlines. She spent many an evening working on needlepoint, embroidery, crewel work, and cross-stitch, too. Needlework pieces made by either Mother or Grandmother covered the walls of my parents’ home: a zinnia bouquet, a North Carolina map, birds of America, twin Christmas “Partridge in a Pear Tree” wall hangings, along with humorous or pithy pearls of wisdom. “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” and”Nobody sits down until the cook sits down,” and “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” are three memorable ones.

The combination cross-stitch and embroidery piece that long hung just inside Mother’s bathroom door has always been one of my favorites. Surrounded by basic embroidered designs depicting various bathroom scenes (a stick figure powdering her nose, an overflowing tub, someone nervously dancing on the wrong side of the door), are these cross-stitched words:

Who waits outside this door / One may never know / So hurry up, my dear / He, too, may have to go.

One day when I was visiting Mom, I wondered aloud about its provenance. I wasn’t a hundred percent certain, but I was pretty confident I’d seen this piece hanging in my grandparents’ house before it was in hers. Her response was sure and strong. “Mother made it. I’ve always been really proud of my needlework. Mother was never very careful with hers, and there’s a mistake in this picture.”

DSCF8888

Can you find a mistake?

She cheerfully volunteered to show me its fault as proof. She studied that piece, then studied some more trying to find the offending error. After a long few minutes, Mother said, “I can’t find anything wrong with it. I made it, after all!”

A perfectionist—and a cocky one at that.

Avon Calling

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Smell: the sense that triggers our strongest childhood memories.

While it’s the aroma of sauteed onions or fried chicken or vanilla and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen that conjures up distant memories for most people, my strongest scent memory comes from an altogether different place.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has used Avon’s moisturizing cream on her face. Today’s “new and improved” product no longer comes in that familiar green jar, and these days the contents don’t have much of a scent at all, but back in the old days the aroma was distinctive.

avon jar

As a girl, I often found myself slipping into my parents’ bedroom on the sly and heading straight towards Mother’s dresser. I could count on finding the ubiquitous green jar in one of two places—either in the top middle drawer or, more often, front and center on the dresser top. I stood there, furtively unscrewing the lid to take in a deep whiff. The scent brought me comfort and a profound sense of closeness to my mom—even though she was only two or three rooms away.

As far as I know, no one in our family ever knew about my fixation, and to this day, I can’t for the life of me explain why I didn’t just walk down the hall to wherever Mother happened to be and give her a hug. She was certainly huggable—and she was always there. But for some reason I found something alluring about surreptitiously getting my “Mom fix” from that little green jar. Maybe it was the concentration of the fragrance, somehow making my sense of Mother an even stronger presence than the real thing.

But what made this secret habit so funny, so bizarre, is this: I never liked how that cream smelled!

These days I keep an old empty Avon jar in my own dresser, just for the memories. I call it “Mom, Distilled.” I do miss that old scent, though.