Monday, November 12, 2012

I've always loved the old folks around me. One of the things I miss most being here in France is the contact between different generations. Of course families have it, but you can't just walk up to someone here and start even a conversation, much less a relationship, the way you can in the US. Folks in the Paris region are suspicious of anyone who is overly friendly. Most of my contact with the elderly here is at the salon where I get my hair cut. Dominique's place is always full of little old ladies (LOLs) having their hair permed or curled, or getting the occasional cut. Dominique is a man who's about my age. He lost his beloved wife and business partner to cancer two years ago, and now that his adult sons have fallen in love, his work seems to be his life. The LOLs come in, and they commiserate with him, tease him, and just generally have a great time being pampered and solving the problems of the world. But in return, they step over to the market on Thursday or Sunday morning to pick up his fruits and veggies, or go to the bakery and bring him his baguettes for the day, or to the tabac for his cigarettes . . . When a customer's hair has finished drying, she's bound to have another customer to take the curlers out for her. After Dominique finishes a cut and moves on to the next client, invariably someone else grabs a broom and sweeps up the hair. And the bottom of his mirrored wall is lined with postcards from his clients/friends, showing that they were thinking of him while they were gone. When I first visited Dominique's place in need of a haircut, I had only been here about a month. I could express myself a little in French, but the really difficult thing was understanding when other people spoke French to me. Gabbing with the clientele at his shop has helped my comprehension a lot (though I still don't understand everything); of course some of that comes with having been in France for three years now. But Dominique is almost as proud of my progress as if he himself had been my sole teacher. When I was in there last weekend, he was once again bragging on my progress. It's a special service he performs, even though he doesn't realize it. He's making his own stand against the giant corporations of the world, running his own little business and doing so on his own terms. In addition to that, he's created his own little community there of people who might otherwise never even say hello to each other. He promotes goodwill among all people, and for the time that a client is visiting Dominique's, she (or he) can forget about the mad rush of the world outside. He accepts walk-in customers and they accept his version of musical chairs as he directs his LOLs to and from the chairs at the dryers, those at the sinks or the mirror, or even on very busy days the stool behind his desk. They also accept that if they go in at 10:30, it may well be 12:30 before they come out . . . because he does things at his own pace and in his own way. You might think people would get fed up and stay away - but that's not how it is at Dominique's. We keep coming back for more, because it's a great place to be, and there's always good company. To my friend and coiffeur Dominique, and to all the Dominiques of the world, a big thank-you!

Suppertime

When I was a child, we always called it suppertime. As I recall, and I may not recall correctly, on weekdays, suppertime was always at 5:30 on the dot - that is, it was on the table and waiting at 5:30, and we sat down and ate as soon as my dad got home from work. He was always very punctual, in fact. There were a couple of constants (not counting the punctuality of my father and the reliability of my mother, which were also constants): unless we were having something like hot dogs or fish, There Would Be Cornbread! And There Would Be Iced Tea! My father drank his, as mentioned previously, from a quart-sized Duke's mayonnaise jar. Mama usually drank water, but the rest of us drank iced tea. We used Lipton's Family Size teabags, and boiled water to pour from the kettle to the teapot. One cup of Dixie Crystals sugar to one gallon of tea, which was made in and poured from a plastic, one-gallon milk jug. Mama made cornbread from finely ground (commercial -Autry, then later Autry-House brand) cornmeal, Coble buttermilk, water, Morton's salt, and Arm & Hammer baking soda. Then she fried it on a griddle like pancakes. It was delicious! If any of us had friends around when she started cooking it, she often had to make an extra batch, because it was renowned in the neighborhood. And if we had fish, the cornbread was cooked in the form of hush puppies, also delicious, especially with onions added! Of course, from the time I was very young, I stopped eating fish, so I'd have mixed rice and coleslaw with hush puppies, and I'd be just fine. Around our little table, which was covered with a red-checkered tablecloth, were two chairs for my mom and dad and 5 fruit crates which were the seats for us kids. Our boxes, as we called them, each had identifying marks, and we all knew exactly whose was whose. There was no question that if the wrong box was at someone's place, there would be no peace until each box was matched with its rightful owner. My mom sat with her back to the table where we did dishes, and I was to her left, on the corner. My dad sat across from my mother, and now I can't really remember where the others sat, though I think my brother Jack sat on the opposite side of the table from me, in the middle. These days, I don't call it supper anymore. It's "dinner"... because otherwise, a lot of people wouldn't know (or would pretend not to know) what I was talking about. And it definitely isn't on the table and ready to eat at 5:30. Digi and I are much more likely to eat at 8:30 or even 9:00. On days when I have to work until 8, it may be even later. I'm very lucky, because Digi is so cooperative and understanding when I don't feel much like cooking. He never pressures me or yells at me, and he never, ever sulks because his meal isn't on-the-minute. I am thankful every day to have not only a husband and friend, but a soulmate who makes life and all its duties a pleasure for me. (And it *is* a pleasure to prepare meals for him. Because he's so patient and always, always compliments me on *whatever* I prepare.) The photo above represents the veggies used in pork pie, which I sometimes make with the leftover pork from a pork roast (plus the pie crusts for the bottom and covering, and the herbs and spices, with any liquids added). Here in France, pork is cheaper than beef, and so we eat it fairly often. Plus, it's harder to prepare beef to both his specs and mine... he likes it rare, and I like it well-done. But it's been a while since I've made a pork pie. I'm thinking that with the cooler weather, the day is coming! Anyway, bon appétit to one and all!
September 03, 2006 - The Old and The "New" Sep 3, '06 6:57 AM for everyone As I mentioned early in my blog, I grew up in a small house in the country without all the modern conveniences like running water and plumbing in the house. We had an outdoor toilet and an outdoor shower, both built by my father. We did have running water on the back porch and in the shower, and a spigot just outside the shower as well. We brought water in and heated it to wash dishes and to bathe in, in winter. They were tough times for my folks, and they did the best they could with what they had. I'm very proud of what they accomplished. In 1969, my dad hired someone to build an addition to the house. What had been two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen before became four bedrooms. The small "bathroom" and the "heating hall" where the kerosene heater had been located became just a larger hallway. We added running water and plumbing, of course, a large living room, a large kitchen-dining area separated only by a double-sinked counter, two bathrooms, a small hall, and four closets. I was thirteen that year, and that's also the year that we got our first telephone. But with all these things that were added, there were some things taken away, as well. *The window in the old bathroom became just a doorway. I used to sit on top of my mother's closed sewing machine cabinet to look out that window and see my dad arrive home from work. He was there every day just at 5:30. Also from that window, we could sometimes see the movie playing at the local drive-in movie theater, before the pines grew so tall they blocked the view, and before the movie screen fell to pieces once the modern cinemas came to town. And on a few occasions, when I was very young, my father woke me up and held me up to that window to look outside and see the snow that very rarely fell. "Marthie... want to see some snow?" Now when we have snow here in France where the winters are colder, I look out our kitchen window, checking every few minutes to see if it's snowing yet... and though my dad died in 2000, I still hear, "Marthie? Want to see some snow?" *The back porch was torn off, the old back door filled in, and what we referred to as "the mud hole" was filled in as well. There was an old Firestone sign that my father had rigged to keep the drainage from the back porch sink from splashing up onto the porch and rotting it. The resulting run-off went down its own little path toward the roots of an oak tree my parents had planted there. In the wet earth, there was a stand of yellow-orange-red canna lilies. The tree stayed, but the cannas were cleaned out, and there would be no more digging for earthworms for fishbait at the wetter end of the mud hole. *Also disappearing just in that area, actually where the "new" part of the house stands even now, there was a flowering quince that we always referred to as a "crabtree." It was forgotten for at least twenty-five years, until I opened a Southern Living magazine containing photos of "your grandmother's flowers." I kept looking at those pictures and feeling this emotional reaction that I couldn't understand, until somehow I finally dug it from deep in the back of my mind... it was the same sort of bush we'd had all those years before, before the new part of the house was built. Now every year I look at those flowers that are among spring's first and feel joy that the plants are once again awakening, but also a nostalgia that will always be with me. ...to be continued...
It's been a busy week. Now where was I? Oh yes . . . things that changed with the new addition to the house. *The back porch was torn down, as I mentioned in Part 1. On the back porch was the washing machine... the old-fashioned kind with a wringer to put the clothes through to remove the excess water. No spin cycle, and no hot water. And on the post nearest the steps, Mama kept her clothespin bag for hanging up the clothes - though sometimes it was magically transformed into a nest for a mama wren with her new family. As I said in an earlier entry, the back door was locked with a padlock when we weren't at home, and the key was kept hanging on a nail just next to the window. (The front door was locked by a hook and eye holding the screen door closed.) I do remember sitting there on the edge of the back porch, with my legs dangling over the side, eating huge slices of watermelon or double-dipped cones of ice cream to celebrate the Fourth of July. Also on the back porch, just above the steps, was a rifle, kept there for easy access so Mama could come to the rescue in case any of us barefoot children came across poisonous snakes or any other vicious creatures. Once after supper, my brother and I thought we could get away with playing in the mud in the garden. The earth was rich and moist, and when it rained, the bottom end of the garden was a wonderful place to sink our toes. We'd work our feet into the ground until we were up to our knees in rich black mud. Mama didn't think it was a good idea to do that because of the danger of ringworm (not actually a worm, but a fungus), but we were hard-headed and thought we could get cleaned up before she noticed. The plan was that he would wash off first while I hid. Then when he gave the signal, I'd come out and wash off, and our parents would be none the wiser. So to wait, I ducked under a big white rose bush that wasn't too close to the house. I looked down to see just how muddy** I was, and lo and behold! right about a foot away there was a copperhead lying there in a heap. I froze in fear. We'd all been taught from a very young age to watch out for copperheads and to recognize the cocoa brown hourglass pattern. I knew I was looking at a poisonous snake that was close enough to bite me if it wanted to. I stood there paralyzed for what seemed like ages, then finally mustered my courage and leaped away and ran like the dickens, shouting for Mama. She heard me yelling and came with the rifle, ridding the place of one more threat to her babies. I can't remember whether I was punished for playing in the mud, but I can imagine that Mama was so relieved that I wasn't snakebitten that she just let it go. **Ever wonder where the name "Muddy" came from? :D
*When the new part was added to the house in 1969, the front porch also had to go. What had been under the porch became part of the front yard. On the porch itself, we didn't have a lot of things. Coming out the front door, there was the window to the living room on the right and the window to the bedroom on the left. The television antenna was on the end nearest the driveway, and just beside the antenna there was a cedar tree that had been put there as a Christmas tree and then continued to grow. The steps were directly in front of the door, and I remember always carefully watching overhead for wasps. There were sometimes dirt daubers building nests, but we didn't worry so much about them, because they aren't as aggressive as the red wasps who built their paper nests in the corners. At the other end of the porch was a beautiful deep pink camellia, which is still there on the corner and is covered with blossoms every year. It's a lot bigger now, too. Of course, after more than 35 years, that's not surprising. And just next to the bedroom window was the porch swing. Like so many things around the place, my dad made it. We spent countless hours in that swing, alone, together, resting, you name it. While my oldest sister was in the house helping my mother prepare meals, my second sister used to sit in the middle of the swing with me on one side and my youngest brother on the other and sing to us. The song that always comes to mind when I think of the swing is "Dark Moon." And what a wonderful place to be during a summer rainstorm! We went inside (and often under a quilt) if there were thunder and lightning, but if it was just rain, we sat there swinging and watching the rain. It was also a great place for telling ghost stories after dark, if the mosquitoes weren't too bad. Bullitt, our German shepherd, was usually there, nudging us for a few caresses. We got Bullitt when I was a very little girl, and he was more trustworthy than most humans when it came to protecting me. My dad used to tell people that if they could take me without hurting the dog, they could have me. Bullitt walked me down the lane to meet the schoolbus every morning, and he was there waiting for me every afternoon when the bus dropped me off. If I went to a neighbor's house, he went with me and waited politely outside until I came back out. Often on Sundays, one of us kids would go home with a cousin, and Bullitt would circle the car repeatedly trying to find the missing person. He didn't rest easy until that child was home again. He could appear out of nowhere if someone came into the yard. They were all right as long as they stayed in front, but he *would not* allow anyone to walk around the corner of the house unless we told him it was all right. And even then he stayed between the child (usually me) and the stranger. Often in addition to Bullitt, Sam the cat was on the porch, too. After much pleading from me and a little persuasion from my Dad's cousin (who needed to get rid of some kittens), we brought Sam home when I was five. Bullitt promptly chased him up a tree for the first and only time. We explained to him that Sam was now part of the family and he'd have to get used to it. Before long, the two were playing together. Fairly often when we children were playing on the porch, Bullitt would lie down to sleep, Sam would crawl up on his back, and the two would take a nap together. If only I'd had my digital then! And if only I had a front porch with a swing now. Those were the days!
We used to go picking briarberries in summer dressed in long pants and long-sleeved shirts to protect us against the briars and mosquitos. We collected the berries in galvanized buckets. We ate as many as we wanted and still had plenty left for mama to make some Briarberry Pudding (recipe below) - and still enough to put some in the freezer too, for later. I remember one particular time when my brother and I went briarberry picking next to a garden that a neighbor was kind enough to let us use. We had to walk through a field then through the woods to get there. We called it "the other garden." As we were on our way there, when we came out of the woods, we saw that the grass next to the old tobacco barn was really high. One of us commented, "This'd be a good place for a snake!" Sure enough, just a few steps later, we encountered a black snake. No problem, because he wasn't a poisonous one. But there's always that instant of chills running through the blood before the brain kicks in with the information that there's no danger. I suppose we should count ourselves pretty fortunate that we never got bitten by snakes, the way we ran barefoot almost everywhere. Mama's Briarberry Pudding Ingredients: 2 cups sifted self-rising flour a good forkful of shortening (1/3 cup) Enough buttermilk to wet the flour [If you can't find buttermilk, you can use regular milk with a bit of lemon juice or vinegar added - just enough to make it curdle] 1 quart briarberries Directions: Cut shortening into flour. Mix in buttermilk. Fold in blackberries; don't overmix. Turn batter into a greased 9x14 baking dish. Bake at 450° F (approx. 235° C) for 30 minutes or until nicely browned. Serve with butter sauce to taste. Butter Sauce Ingredients: 1/4 pound butter or margarine 1/2 cup sugar (or 2/3 if you like it a little sweeter) 1/3 cup water Directions: Mix ingredients; melt together over medium heat and bring to a boil before serving as desired over briarberry pudding. Eat it while it's hot!
From the year when I was 11-going-on-12 to the year when I turned 16, I spent part of each summer at my cousin's house, and we worked "putting in tobacco," also known as "barning tobacco." The first summer, we worked for a distant cousin we called "Uncle" and his partner TJ. Their wives took turns preparing our lunch - always a spread worthy of royalty, and always accompanied by all the sweet iced tea we could drink. Our employer or one of our co-workers collected us and dropped us off each day. We rode in the back of a pick-up truck... imagine a truckload of teenagers in grubby clothes laughing and having the time of their lives as they rode to or from adult labor that was part of the economic base of the place where we lived. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, I was paid $1.00 an hour. One summer I remember being given $300 when it was all over. I think that was the year I bought my first record player - but most of the money went for school supplies and clothes. The first summer (1968), I started out as the tractor driver, but graduated to stringer on the right wing, a position that had me touching hands with my cropper Milton Smith, a magnificent pianist who used to play for us during our lunch breaks. He was later hired as pianist for Elvis Presley - unfortunately his first concert playing with Elvis was to be the one scheduled for Fayetteville, North Carolina, in late August 1977. After that summer, another cousin was our boss; he and a partner farmed 100 acres of the stuff. They ran two harvester teams, five days a week. We worked from about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a Pepsi/Mountain Dew break (also with the cheese-and-peanut-butter crackers we called "Nabs") in the morning and afternoon, and a lunch break. Wikipedia gives some good information about the process of harvesting and curing tobacco. The information below which explains my experience comes from that site, and I've omitted the parts that aren't relevant to the years I worked in tobacco. Additional info from me personally is in [brackets]. If you want to know more about it, please visit Wikipedia. In the nineteenth century, tobacco began to be harvested by pulling individual leaves off the stalk as they ripened. The leaves ripen from the ground upwards, so a field of tobacco may go through several "pullings" before the tobacco is entirely harvested, and the stalks may be turned into the soil. "Cropping" or "pulling" are terms for pulling leaves off tobacco. Leaves are cropped as they ripen, from the bottom of the stalk up. The first crop at the very bottom of the stalks are called "sand lugs", as they are often against the ground and are coated with dirt splashed up when it rains. Sand lugs weigh the most, and are most difficult to work with. Originally workers cropped the tobacco and placed it on mule-pulled sleds. [We called them "drags," and they were pulled by tractors when I was a child.] Some farmers use "tobacco harvesters" - basically a trailer pulled behind a tractor. The harvester is a wheeled sled or trailer that has seats for the croppers to sit on and seats just in front of these for the "stringers" to sit on. The croppers pull the leaves off in handfuls, and pass these to the "stringer", who loops twine around the handfuls of tobacco and hangs them on a long wooden square pole. Traditionally, the croppers, down in the dark and wet, with their faces getting slapped by the huge tobacco leaves, were men, and the stringers seated on the higher elevated seats were women. The harvester has places for 4 teams of workers: 8 people cropping and stringing, plus a packer who takes the heavy strung poles of wet green tobacco from the stringers and packs them onto the pallet section of the harvester, plus a tractor driver, making the total crew of each harvester 10 people. Interestingly, the outer seats are suspended from the harvester - slung out over to fit into the aisles of tobacco. [Here's how works for the stringers on the "wings" - or how it worked then: The stringer takes a stick from the bin overhead and loops some twine securely around the end of the stick, then puts it into a holder which is suspended on a slide mechanism. The cropper picks two or three leaves from each stalk of tobacco and hands it up to his stringer, supposedly in manageable bundles. The stringer puts several loops around the first bunch. Then she works in a figure eight motion, stringing the bundles of tobacco to alternating sides of the stick, making sure to keep the string taut. As the stick gets more and more tobacco on it, she pushes the stick away from her for better access to the part where the tobacco is being added. When the stick is full, she wraps the string around the end of the stick several times and breaks the twine. She then yells "Stick!" to get the pallet man's attention, and as the harvester keeps moving, she lifts the heavy stick over the row of tobacco and passes it to him. I sometimes had to lift sticks of tobacco that weighed more than I did. Then the process begins all over again. Stringers working immediately behind the tractor have it easier because they don't get dragged between two rows of tobacco. They only catch it from one side. Their bin of sticks is between the two of them. Sometimes, someone runs into a problem, such as thread that becomes knotted up or is breaking too easily, a row that may not have been cropped properly the previous week and is therefore heavier than the other rows, or even a snake in the tobacco row. In cases like these, we'd yell, "Whoa!" and the tractor would come to a halt. Once the problem was taken care of, the command was "Go ahead!" Often at the end of the season when all that was left were a few leaves at the tops of the plants, we'd virtually fly through the fields, and sometimes the croppers and stringers would trade places. Kind of like the idea of a powder-puff football game!] As these seats are suspended it is important to balance the weight of the 2 outside teams (similar to a playground see-saw). Having too heavy or light a person in an unbalanced combination often results in the harvester tipping over especially when turning around at the end of a lane. [Except in places where the ends of the fields had a lot of open space, I always had to turn the tractor over to someone bigger and stronger than me to make the narrow turns at the ends of the rows. Fortunately, we never had a harvester turn over during my years in the tobacco field.] Cropped leaves are immediately transferred to tobacco barns, where they will be cured. Curing methods varies with the type of tobacco grown, and tobacco barn design varies accordingly. Flue-cured tobacco was originally strung onto tobacco sticks, which were hung from tier-poles in curing barns. These barns have flues which run from externally-fed fire boxes, heat-curing the tobacco without exposing it to smoke. Traditional curing barns in the U.S. are falling into disuse, as the trend toward more efficient prefabricated metal "bulk barns", allows greater efficiency. [End of Wikipedia info.] I learned a lot from my days in the tobacco field. It was there that I learned to be a little less shy - as it was I spent most days blushing beet red because of off-color comments from some of the teenaged boys I worked with. (One of their favorite things to do during breaks was to catch tobacco hornworms and put them down the backs of the older girls. Since I mentioned Milton by name earlier, let me state categorically that he was always a perfect gentleman.) I learned just a little bit about holding my own in discussions, though I'm still learning that almost 40 years later. All in all, even though it was hard, dirty work, I look back on those summers with a smile.