Tag Archives: children

Stew Day

This is a repost of a piece I wrote a few years ago about my family’s annual tradition of making Brunswick stew. I hadn’t thought about those times in a while, but today while outside in the crisp air a slight whiff of wood smoke took me back…

My morning walk took me by our local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from their truck seats, stretched, and waved to others setting up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out ears of corn alongside tables of huge tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of corn and tomatoes rivaled any farmers market.

Mounds of homegrown produce also meant it was time for a Brunswick stew.

I was an adult before I realized just how fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. My grandparents had a small farm and gave each of their children a bordering piece of land on which to build their homes. My grandparents’ farmhouse and the huge garden worked by our families were focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who just happened to be my cousins.

From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on their swing set, Daddy on the tractor, or my grandmother, Nannie. She might be picking beans, shucking corn, or emptying a bucket of tomatoes onto on old metal table under the apple tree. With so much ripe and ready at once, it was time for the stew.

It was exciting to wake up to the faint smell of wood smoke wafting across the field. Daddy and the uncles gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. By the time we kids showed up the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama, and the aunts had readied the vegetables and cut up the meat.

For the next several hours we kids played – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between the kitchen and the stew boiling outside. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what seemed to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. How interesting that Mama and the aunts were in charge of family cooking all year long, but on stew day Daddy and the uncles took over. I think they just wanted to play with the fire.

I never paid attention to what went into the stew. Even today I have no idea what recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to swirl around the giant pot. I do remember timing seemed important and there was debate over several points: add the corn, no add the butter beans first, is the meat already in, should we add more water, have the tomatoes cooked down, add salt, don’t add salt, get that oak leaf out that just fell in, and on and on.

Hours later, after being properly talked over and paddled, the stew was ready. It was always good, but with Nannie’s homemade rolls alongside, it was even better. Naturally we washed it down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about the many family stews and how long it had actually been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked the kitchen cabinets. There was one can of store-bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but it won’t be as good as “real”. I don’t know if it was the fresh vegetables, the boat oar, or the occasionally fallen oak leaf in the pot that made those stews so memorable.

It was more likely the fact that each time I ate real stew I was surrounded by laughing aunts and uncles, Nannie in her apron, and a gang of cousins. All gathered under a tree with bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand and sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Nugget of Kindness

I took a final gurgling slurp through my straw, balled up the empty hamburger wrapper and gathered trash as I stood to leave. That’s when I heard the little boy at the next table.

“No more chicken nuggets? I’m still hungry.”

As he asked, he and his little sister opened and shut the empty containers several times as if to verify their mother’s response when she answered “All gone.” The sight of two hungry kids looking earnestly between empty containers and their mother’s face almost made me ill. Memories have power. Even mine, some twenty years later.

My kids, then four and five, had just finished their own chicken nuggets. They were happily playing with the meal’s tiny toy when my daughter stopped and looked at me.

“No more chicken nuggets?”

Those were bleak years for me. A divorce, a lay-off, rent payment, car payment, and everyday bills made life challenging. Unfortunately, maybe fortunately, the kids and I frequented this fast food restaurant once a week. They occasionally saw friends there and always wanted chicken nuggets. They had stopped asking for sundaes. I was glad. I’d run out of excuses as to why they couldn’t have them. Never mentioning what they’d not have understood – money was tight. They looked forward to this outing and the same elderly cashier greeted us each time, always playfully interacting with them.

“No more chicken nuggets?” I heard her little voice repeat.

I had absolutely no cash and no other way to pay, but I remembered spare change in the car. Out we went. The kids stood behind me as I leaned inside to gather coins. There were fewer than I remembered, but was thrilled to find a total of fifty-six cents. Two quarters, a nickel, and a penny impossibly stuck to an old gummy bear. Money just the same.

Back at the table, I left the kids to their sodas while I went to the counter. Embarrassing! But my feelings of shame were overpowered by the desire to hand my kids more nuggets after watching them peer longingly into empty boxes. I guess it was symbolic. They wanted something. I should be able to give it to them.

The same elderly cashier greeted me. I pointed to the kids and told her they wanted more nuggets. My face turned red as I confessed I only had fifty-six cents, but would be happy to take what she could give me for that amount. If I went back to the table with at least one nugget each they might be happy. Next time I’d get sundaes too, I thought, trying to feel better about my parental failure.

I handed over the coins, apologized for the gummy bear remains I couldn’t totally pick off, and waited for her ridicule.

Instead, she took my offering, said nothing, but walked to the back behind large stainless steel shelves. In seconds she returned, smiled, and handed me a small bag. Relief! When I took the bag, something seemed odd. I opened it.

I had hoped for two chicken nuggets. What I got was a container crammed full of at least a dozen. No words came to me as I looked at the kindly cashier. I was stuttering a lame explanation for my situation when she shook her head and held up one hand to stop me.

She shrugged it off. “Sometimes it be like that.” She said, and went on her way.

Back at the table I opened the bag, spread out a dozen nuggets, and heard my kids squeal. At the bottom of the bag were two quarters, a nickel, and a penny miraculously freed from the remnants of an old gummy bear.

That entire memory was a sad, happy, emotional one of times and circumstances now long gone.

The elderly cashier knew nuggets wouldn’t solve everything for me, but she also seemed to know from experience how a small gesture with a large meaning might help me through a very low moment.

I snapped back to reality hearing the little boy’s voice at the next table.

 “No more chicken nuggets? I’m still hungry.” He and his little sister continued to open and shut the empty containers as if to will a few more to appear.

I don’t remember every detail of my bleak times decades ago, but I do remember the helpless feeling and silent frantic search for a few more pennies when your kids ask for something as simple as a chicken nugget and you just can’t do it. That silent frantic search was going on at the next table as the mother poked and prodded every nook and cranny of her purse.

I knew what she was feeling.

Tossing my trash into the can, I stopped at the counter and spoke with the young girl at the register.

“When I leave, can you take two orders of chicken nuggets to that table?” I motioned behind me at the mother who had moved on to pants pockets in her search. The cashier nodded yes.

“Oh, and three sundaes too.” I added.

Puzzled, she rang up my order and handed me the receipt, her expression clearly asking what was going on with the woman at the table.

I shrugged it off. “Sometimes it be like that.” I said, and went on my way.  

I knew nuggets and sundaes wouldn’t solve everything for her, but I also knew from experience how a small gesture with a large meaning might help her through a very low moment.

On a related note: The few times in life I’ve felt I did a “good deed” I think of and give credit to my grandmother, Nannie. She always said “When you see a need, fill it, and don’t worry about who gets the credit.” In conversation she’d go on to say if you can’t do a lot, do a little, because to someone else your little could be a lot.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Family Tree

There it was, covered in salty spray from the waves of the Chesapeake Bay. A tiny pine tree so fragile and insubstantial, enveloped by a formidable mass of vines and branches. It was nothing, dominated by everything.

Just that day the sprout pushed upwards through leaf litter. Its tiny taproot pushed down into sandy loam, gripping rocks as it sought firmer soil. For the next few decades or so the growing pine fought to stake a claim in the thick tangle, finally reaching an opening where it held its own. On that craggy bit of land where forest met beach, the struggling pine withstood seasons of hot, cold, drought, and flood.

Soon enough it merged with the surrounding thicket to become just another part of that coastal snarl of growth. Day after day, year after year, the pine held on in the bad and grew in the good. Raucous seagulls and breezes through needles were the only sounds it knew.   

Until the chainsaw.

It was likely my grandfather, chainsaw in hand, who first pushed his way into dense undergrowth there on the edge of the bay. In the late 1950s, his purchase of a beachfront lot covered in gums, pines, and briary vines was one he was proud of despite its wildness. Surely it took a lot of hard work and hope to get through that first summer of clearing. Eventually he, along with my grandmother and extended family, managed to clear the land and build a summer cottage.

Who can know the decision making employed as they chose which trees to leave, but when all was said and done a handful remained on the mostly cleared plot. Somehow, through chainsaw, truck, and tractor, that scrawny pine at the edge of the beach was left among the standing. Ripped clean of brambles and surrounding scrub, it now stood alone in the open. Watching all.

In those early years the pine watched my grandfather bait hooks. So near the beach, its scant shade probably served as a reasonable place to clean fish. Being a useless pine, it might have been a good place to prop old oars or temporarily tie a small boat. As my grandfather stacked crab pots against its trunk maybe my grandmother handed him the lunch she made, even squinting one eye as she looked up to watch the pine’s boughs wave in the bay breeze.

Taller and a thicker with time, the pine blocked scorching sun from a deck built by the beach. My grandparents sat nonchalantly swatting mosquitoes as their grown children, and by then a few grandchildren, enjoyed the calm bay water. The shading pine watched over splashing cousins as more than one looked up in time to watch an osprey land among its cone laden branches.

But seasons change and later that winter, like every one before, the pine held on through months of biting cold. Blasted by frozen mist and bitter wind, it waited for us. We were oblivious. Last summer was just a memory and next summer was just a dream, so no one thought about the solitary pine. With needles covered in ice and roots holding against squalls, the tree endured the cold.

But summers reappear, and in the warmth, the pine watched familiar faces return. For over sixty years it has witnessed the customs of our extended family as we parade beneath. Many have come and gone, but in their time each walked, sat, or laughed beneath that tree. It has shaded in summer and waited in winter. It has watched old faces no longer return, young faces become older, and little faces join the traditions.

Amidst years of transformations that tree has remained a constant. The people, the surroundings, and the cottage itself have changed. The pine is the same. For years we watched ospreys in its branches and wind in its boughs. We have always watched the pine. Or has it always watched us?

When I last visited the bay it crossed my mind that the pine may not always be there. What if it had already fallen? I parked the car and almost ran past the cottage to look towards the beach. No need to have worried.

There it was, covered in salty spray from the waves of the Chesapeake Bay. A towering pine tree so robust and sturdy, enveloped by blue skies and balmy breezes. It was everything, dominated by nothing.  

Stuart M. Perkins

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Motherwell Magazine – “Perfect Fit”

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have another essay appearing in Motherwell Magazine!

Motherwell is an online publication that tells all sides of the parenting story, with original content on family life, culture, obstacles and the process of overcoming them. 

Below is the link to my piece on their Facebook page. If you like, please comment on their Facebook page just below the essay.

We love the feedback!

Thanks again to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities such as this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Motherwell Magazine – “Dumb Little Dish”

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have an essay appearing in Motherwell Magazine!

Motherwell is an online publication that tells all sides of the parenting story, with original content on family life, culture, obstacles and the process of overcoming them. 

Below is the link to my piece on their Facebook page. If you like, please comment there just below the essay.

We love the feedback!

Thanks again to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities such as this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

39 Comments

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Alexandria Living Magazine – “I Just Might Keep That”

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have another essay appearing in the current issue of Alexandria Living magazine!

It’s always a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and as an Alexandria, Virginia resident it is especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Alexandria Living. If you like, please comment on the magazine website in the space they provide just below the essay.

We would love to hear your feedback!

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/lifestyle/i-just-might-keep-that-stuart-perkins-red-marble/

Thanks again to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities like this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Alexandria Living Magazine – A Stranger’s Act of Kindness

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have another essay appearing in the current issue of Alexandria Living magazine!

It’s always a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and as an Alexandria, Virginia resident it is especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Alexandria Living. Check it out, and if you like, please comment on the magazine website in the space they provide just below the essay.

We would love to hear your feedback!

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/lifestyle/stuart-perkins-a-strangers-act-of-kindness-keys-locked-in-car-march-2020/

Thanks again to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities like this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Wrap Star!

It was holiday time again. Back from shopping, my sisters raced to their rooms. The sound of hushed whispers mixed with the crinkling of bags stashed hurriedly into closets. Christmas presents. The only thing they enjoyed more than shopping for them was wrapping them.

Mama taught them well. Before Christmas she cleared a table and lined up with military precision her wrapping paper, tape, scissors and ribbon. Unrolling a length of paper over the gift on the table, Mama’s keen eye determined the amount needed for perfect coverage. Her scissors sliced a cut so exact any surgeon would be jealous.

Folds and seams were flawless. The tape was snipped neatly and applied invisibly. Mama was meticulous even to the bow, another step made magically simple. Using several strips of ribbon, she gripped each between her thumb and a blade of the scissors then jerked her hand down each of their lengths. Voila! A festive cluster created by some mysterious feat of wizardry. The perfect bow of curls.

For years Mama repeated her fascinating exactness in gift wrapping and my sisters learned well. Our tree was surrounded by magnificently concealed holiday surprises but I sometimes wondered why they bothered. With paper so tightly formed around each gift it was no mystery what was inside. A book looked like a book. A box was likely a shirt. My new Frisbee was clearly just that. What happened to shaking mysterious gifts and guessing the contents? That was half the fun!

But, their wrapping efforts were works of art. My sisters took pride in their skills and enjoyed the process.

I did not.

My uneven folds and botched tape jobs were the brunt of their jokes. Not that I didn’t care about the gift wrap, but wasn’t all of this going in the trash? My sisters encouraged my efforts though I knew mine would never look like theirs.

They giggled. “Keep trying, you’ll get there.”

I tried to imitate Mama’s keen eye yet ended up unrolling enough paper to wrap any one gift two and a half times. My scissors didn’t glide through the paper, so I was left with torn and jagged edges. Folding ragged bits to hide my blunders only resulted in lumps, wrinkles and ridges. It was bad.

My tape job was worse.

Instead of tidy strips I ripped foot-long pieces knowing it would take that much to rein in my mistakes. Once under control, each of my gifts was ready for a bow. Gripping the scissors, I tried to imitate Mama’s maneuver. During one noble attempt I yanked back hard, the ribbon snapped, and I stabbed my bedroom door. The gash is still visible today.

With wrapping eventually finished, my pitiful packages were made fun of instantly. “Did you just put a bow on a ball of trash?” “Wait, that is a bow, right?” I heard it all. I could never achieve the beauty crafted by my sisters.

They giggled again. “Keep trying. You’ll get there.”

As they wrapped theirs, they chuckled about mine. Enough was enough. If my gifts brought that much Christmas joy even before being opened, then I knew just what to do.

I taped wadded scraps of paper to each gift, forming odd-shaped masses, which I then wrapped in paper ripped from the roll. Who needed scissors? Pulling a length of tape from the dispenser, I wound it entirely around what became a wrinkled blob. No worrying with folds or seams. My gifts looked like distorted little mummies ready for bows.

I decided to forego the bows.

Finally finished, I hauled the gifts to the tree and stood beside the gleaming gift wrapping of the others aligned there in symmetrical perfection. I dumped my pile of Yuletide rubble.

There, let them make fun.

One sister approached the Christmas tree and stared at my heap of colorful debris. As she reached down and grabbed one of the holiday blobs, she called to the others. I waited for their good-hearted ribbing.

“What are these?” she asked as she handed each of them a wrinkled mass.

Eyes began to widen. “Shake it!” “Shake this one!” “What could it be?” they squealed with excitement as they poked and prodded.

For days leading up to Christmas they investigated my oddball gifts. They pondered, guessed and took visiting cousins to the living room to show off the crazy presents. They found humor, not in my mistakes, but in my new style of wrapping. By Christmas Eve they admitted what fun it had already been.

My fancy designs had caused quite the stir.

“How did you decide the shapes?” “How did you make them lumpy?” They agreed that next year instead of forming smooth and perfectly wrapped gifts topped with beautiful bows they would attempt my oddly unique method.

“We’ve wrapped ours the same way for so long. Not sure we could pull this off!” they said.

I giggled. “Keep trying. You’ll get there.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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1. magic marker

“No, no, no!”

That reprimanding tone rang a bell for some reason. Behind me in the check-out line a young mother wrestled something from her toddler’s tight grip.

“No, no, no!” she repeated. The little boy grabbed a ball point pen from a display rack near the cash register. Having swiftly removed the cap, he was about to demonstrate his unique brand of artwork across a stack of Washington Posts. He clenched his little fist when his mother tried to take the pen. I felt for him.

What child doesn’t like to draw?

I drew constantly as a child. Pens and pencils were my implements of choice and when I could sneak it away I’d use my oldest sister’s fountain pen until it emptied. She always wondered why her ink ran out so quickly and unless she reads this it will remain a decades-old secret. Of course I had a box of Crayola crayons, 64 count with a built-in sharpener. I lived large. One thing I’d never used, but craved greatly, was a magic marker. I didn’t have one, but Mama did.

I’d seen her use it once then toss it into something in the back of the high cabinet above the stove. I was too short then to know the secrets of that cabinet, but one day as Mama backed out of the driveway to go to the grocery store I seized the opportunity to learn. Home alone, I slid a kitchen chair to the stove, climbed up, and eased open the cabinet door. I saw spices, aspirin, glue, rubber bands, and a deck of playing cards. That was it. Disappointed, I started to close the cabinet, and that’s when I saw it. There, from inside an old coffee mug, wedged between broken pencils and a pair of scissors it called to me. A black magic marker!

My heart beat a little faster as I reached in and plucked the marker from the mug. I removed the cap, catching a whiff of that distinct (and what I considered beautiful) aroma. In slow motion I turned to hop from the chair, determined to be quiet as I secretly drew with that marvelous thing. I’d return it to the mug when done and no one would know. No one could be as stealthy.

Except for Mama.

“No, no, no!” Mama said, coming in the back door with an armload of groceries.

“You can’t use that. It’ll get everywhere and it will never wash off.” she continued.

Even when I drew with generic pens, pencils, and crayons Mama made it clear I was to sit at the kitchen table, draw only on the paper, and never get near the walls. No surprise that the notion of me with a magic marker made her nervous. I handed Mama the marker, she returned it to the coffee mug, and I headed to my sister’s room to take out my disappointment on the fountain pen.

With Christmas right around the corner, my sisters and I started making our lists for Santa Claus. I noticed that their extensive lists included things like dolls, dresses, games, and make up. I had written down one thing only.

  1. magic marker

Oh, everyone laughed, but to me it was serious. I had to know what it was like to draw with a magic marker. Pens and pencils were great, crayons were fun, and fountain pens were nice while the ink lasted, but I had to have a magic marker! Christmas seemed like it would never come.

But it did, and when that morning came, in my spot near the tree was the mountain of gifts Santa Claus generously left every year. As my sisters hugged new dolls and compared games and make up, I marveled at my remote control helicopter and a book about dinosaurs. To the left of a new pair of slippers was a small, plain box. There were no words or pictures to provide a clue, but as I lifted the lid the distinct and beautiful aroma gave it away. A brand new magic marker.

Merry Christmas to me!

I held the precious thing high in the air. I had to draw immediately! I ran to the kitchen table where I knew it was safe, grabbed my drawing pad and sat down. Mama, on my heels the entire time, pulled me and the entire kitchen table three feet from the wall. She instantly spread a layer of newspaper beneath my drawing pad, handed me several wet paper towels, and reminded me that magic marker ink would never wash off. Daddy stood by calmly, grinning at Mama’s panic. I think I know which half of Santa Claus was behind that particular gift. I happily drew as the distinct and beautiful aroma filled the kitchen.

For a kid who finally got his magic marker, it really was the most wonderful time of the year.

And Mama was incorrect. Magic marker ink will come off, it just takes rubbing alcohol and three good days of scrubbing. I know, because when she wasn’t looking that Christmas morning I’d scribbled a test patch across my knee.

Stuart M. Perkins

 

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Dumb Little Dish

The dumb little dish meant nothing to me. I threw it in the trash.

Fall had come, temperatures dropped, and I thought it best to bring plants back inside after their summer spent on the sunny side porch. The dumb little dish covered in dirt and crusty old plant fertilizer had been under a Christmas cactus to catch the draining water.

It was an ugly dish too. The last remaining piece of an awful looking partial set of hand-me-down dishes given to me years and years ago when I moved into a new place and had nothing for the kitchen. Each plate, saucer, and cup had a nonsense design of white geese, blue ribbons, and an occasional flower. Or maybe the thing was a sickly butterfly. Altogether hideous.

Over the years, various pieces were broken and thrown away. I began to use the last few dishes as trays under my paltry collection of houseplants. Time and accidents had whittled the set down to this one lone worthless dish. It was filthy. I bought shiny new plastic trays to catch draining water from the plants, so the dumb little dish really meant nothing anymore.

It had two big chips on the edge anyway. One chip happened when my son Evan, only four at the time, turned it upside down to use as a ramp for his MatchBox cars. The second mishap occurred when Greer, only six then, decided it would make a nice boat for Barbie. In a stormy capsizing incident, the boat was chipped a second time. A few chips but so what, I still used the dishes. They were all I had.

In summer we’d sit on the screened porch and Evan would eat sliced hot dogs from those dishes. I’d watch his tiny hands pick up one piece at a time and smile as he popped each into his mouth. Greer would ask for one helping, no now she wanted two, of macaroni and cheese on those dishes and being the fickle little girl she was decided never mind. She wanted pizza.

Evan continued to use a dish or two as car ramps, flying saucers, or to hold his crayons as he colored. Greer’s Barbie often used the dishes as wading pools, boats, or stages from which to sing to imaginary audiences. One Christmas, Greer and Evan got watercolor paint sets from Santa Claus. Every remaining dish in the decrepit old set was called on for use in mixing those paints. The three of us had a grand time!

Those dishes held soups and sandwiches, marbles and doll shoes, eggs and bacon, army men and princess stickers. That ragged old set of dishes was there every evening at the dinner table, every lunch on the porch, and every time one of the kids needed a spaceship or a place to save acorns they found during our walks in the woods together.

The dumb little dish with two chips that meant nothing to me was the last of its set. It had somehow survived Matchbox cars, Barbies and countless meals with my children and me. Many years, and a thousand happy memories later, it was still here.

The dumb little dish meant everything to me. I took it out of the trash.

Stuart M. Perkins

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