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That’s Noody

I was in ninth grade when my English teacher asked us to write a three page paper on someone we respected. We were to choose someone who had influenced our thinking and whose character we admired. After groans from the class that the paper must go on for three long pages, we each set about choosing our person. Once we had decided, we were each to walk to the front of the class and write our choice on the blackboard. Since the person could be someone from any point in time, many chose religious, historical, or political figures. After we each wrote our person’s name on the blackboard, the teacher read them aloud.

I remember she went slowly down the list as she read names like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Neil Armstrong. Soon, she reached my chalk written choice.

“Margaret P. Lankey?” she asked, as she frowned and turned to the class, puzzled.

I raised my hand. “That’s Noody” I said. “She’s my aunt.”

I was never sure why we called her Noody. I probably asked but don’t recall an answer. It didn’t matter really. I come from a large family and almost everyone had a nickname. That’s just how it was done at home. Extended family lived all around me but I was lucky that Noody lived right next door. She and my uncle were as much a part of my everyday life as my parents and sisters.

Noody had an old redwood picnic table in her yard under the trees where she did everything from shelling butter beans to cleaning fish to cutting a watermelon for whoever happened to be in the yard that evening. When I saw her at the picnic table I’d walk over to visit. She was a great conversationalist and always seemed interested to hear what I had been up to. If she said “Let’s go sit in the swing.” I knew I was in for a treat. I loved to hear old family stories and she loved to tell them. She taught me the importance of remembering where you came from while not forgetting where you wanted to go. That’s Noody.

She could do things like drive a pickup truck, haul firewood, feed hogs and chickens, work hard in her garden, and slap on a baseball cap to cut grass, all while holding a handful of cookies to snack on now and then. She and Nannie, her mother and my grandmother, once cornered a snake near the barn. Noody, thinking she was lined up just right for a good decapitation, raised a hoe over her head and came down with all due force towards the snake. She missed, leaving a hole in the ground so deep that Nannie asked me to bring a shovel full of dirt to fill it. Noody belly laughed. Do your best to get the job done and if it doesn’t work as you’d hoped, so what, have a good laugh. That’s Noody.

Many winters if there was enough snow, we cousins took our sleds to a nearby hill. Noody would come along to be part of the fun. On other occasions we all went roller skating. Noody came along for that too, strapping on her skates to head into the rink like a pro. She even joined in the Hokey Pokey dance in the center of the rink a few times. At the family place on the Chesapeake Bay, while other adults sat on the beach or in the shade, Noody put on her bathing suit and plunged into the water with us kids. She taught me how to float on my back, and also taught me that hard work may be necessary, but playing hard is just as beneficial.

One time I stayed with out of town relatives for a few days. When I returned home I met Noody at the picnic table to tell her about it. When I finished relating my adventures she asked if I had yet sent them a “bread and butter note”. I told her not yet, but didn’t tell her that I had no idea what one was. She went inside and brought back some of her own stationery. There at the picnic table she helped me write a proper thank you note to the relatives I had visited. She taught me many lessons over the years. That’s Noody.

She was not just a mentor, but also an ally. Just before my thirteenth birthday I saw an ad in the back of Southern Living magazine for a tiny incubator and six quail eggs. Mama, not thrilled by my idea to add more animals to the ones I already had, gave me an instant “No”. I took the next logical step and met Noody at the picnic table. I showed her the ad and told her I really wanted to try hatching some eggs but Mama said “No”. Noody read the ad, put her hand on her hip and said, “Run bring me my checkbook.” With help from her, my uncle built a huge enclosure and the quail I hatched were part of my life for the next few years. If you want something that badly, why not go ahead and try. That’s Noody.

Many of my relatives are buried at the church near home that most of my extended family attended, and many still do. A couple years ago I took my kids for a walk around the cemetery there. As they read names from each of the family tombstones I would say, “That’s your great grandfather.” or “That’s your great great grandmother.” or “That’s your great uncle.” From a spot just a little further down than some of the older tombstones I heard one of the kids read a name. “Margaret P. Lankey” they called out.

“That’s Noody.” I said.

As soon as I heard her name I thought of the many good times with my fine aunt.

I also thought about the note my ninth grade teacher wrote in the upper right hand corner of my paper once she read it. “Please show this writing to Noody.” it said.

I still wish I had.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Cardboard Adventures

A mother and her young teenage son sat behind me on my bus ride home from work. From their conversation I could tell that the son had just come from a dentist appointment and was feeling a bit whiny from the experience.

His mother said, “I know it was rough, but when you get home you can go upstairs and play with your Xbox.”

A nice day like this, I thought, yet she suggested her son go inside and play with his Xbox?

When I was his age Mama would tell me to go outside and play with a cardboard box.

Not just any cardboard box. One of the huge discarded cardboard boxes from the nearby T.V. shop.

When my sisters and I were kids there was a T.V. shop across the field from our house. As new televisions were delivered for display, the huge cardboard boxes they were shipped in were then stacked behind the shop for disposal. If we promised to ask the owner first, Mama would occasionally allow us to drag one across the field to our backyard. Along the way, we attracted the attention of our cousins playing outside. They always joined the fun.

Although Mama allowed us to drag a box home from time to time, she did so reluctantly knowing that ultimately she would be left to dispose of the ragged remains. Sooner or later we would be done with the box. Sooner if it rained. Rain is cardboard’s enemy.

Those huge boxes easily held me, a sister or two, and one of the smaller cousins. An old rusty pair of scissors in Daddy’s garage helped us shape each box into our fantasy of the day. Once, we cut portholes in a seaworthy box and hacked off the top to make an open air deck. We crawled inside and waited for tidal waves.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she walked by to pick tomatoes, clearly wondering how long it would be before she had to dispose of our creation.

“A cruise ship!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said, shaking her head.

We once hooked two boxes together to make a train. We cut away the front of one box so the engineer could wave to cars and we cut away the back of the second box so that passengers could wave from the caboose. We crawled inside and waited to arrive at the station.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she swept the sidewalk.

“A train!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said.

One particularly grand box which had held a console television made the perfect army tank. We cut a lookout hole in the top, made several holes in the walls from which to shoot pretend guns, and we crawled inside and waited for the enemy.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she carried in groceries.

“A tank!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said.

There was a period when we’d gone quite a while without cardboard adventures. It was during this bleak time that a delivery truck backed into my neighbor’s driveway. As we watched the truck maneuver closer to the back door, one of my cousins was the first to realize the magnitude of the event.

“Mrs. Brenneman’s getting a new refrigerator.” he said under his breath.

We fidgeted with anticipation.

After what seemed an eternity, one of the delivery men appeared with the empty cardboard box which had held the new refrigerator. With some effort, he dragged it into Mrs. Brenneman’s yard and went back inside.

Four of us kids, working feverishly like ants carrying bread crust, managed to slide, drag, and inch the massive cardboard box over to our backyard. We climbed in to savor the new cardboard smell and to experience the muffled silence. The silence was momentarily broken as our collie pushed her way in, licked each of us in the face and left. Even she seemed amazed by our good fortune.

We sat inside the cavernous box trying to decide what to turn this gift into. Before we reached a consensus it got dark outside. Cousins had to go home and my sisters and I had to go inside.

Morning came and horror of all horrors, it had rained in the night.  We ran outside to check on our massive cardboard box. The rain hadn’t ruined it completely, but the once stately walls now sagged, corners were rounded over by the rainwater, and the smooth outside surface was wrinkled and peeling.

Three cousins approached. We stood staring at our sagging mound of a box not wanting to believe that our prize was ruined, but it appeared to be so.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked on her way to get the mail.

“It’s trash is what it is.” we answered back, resigned to the soggy truth.

“No. It’s an igloo.” Mama said.

We looked at each other and grinned. We ran to the rounded shell of a box, molded the wet cardboard so as to give us one long tunnel as an entrance, and we crawled inside to wait for polar bears.

That young teenager just back from the dentist most likely went inside to play alone with his Xbox. I never had an Xbox, but unless it came in packaging large enough for cousins and me to fashion a cruise ship, train, tank, or igloo, I don’t know that I would have wanted one.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Five Black Cows

“Are you poor or something?”

I still remember when a kid asked me that at lunch in the fifth grade as I unwrapped my bologna sandwich, which he looked at with disgust. In front of him was a yellow school lunch tray with a little square pizza and a carton of milk he’d bought with lunch money. I only had a brown paper bag holding the sandwich Mama had made, and a thermos of milk from home. As he ate his school lunch brownie, I pulled out a little plastic bag holding my six vanilla wafers.

He repeated, “I don’t eat bologna because I’m not poor. Are you poor?”

No. I have five black cows!” I said. I wasn’t sure what that meant, and I was the one who’d said it.

I don’t remember ever having another conversation with that kid, but I do remember that’s when I began to wonder if I might be poor. I’d never thought about it. We did have five black cows in the pasture at home and maybe I thought since no one else I knew had five black cows, everyone else must be poor. We practically had a herd. We must be rich.

But as I thought about it, other kids at school did talk a lot about new clothes from the mall. My sisters and I had a lot of shirts and pajamas that Nannie had made for us. She’d walk from her farmhouse down the path and under the walnut tree to our house  with fabric hanging over her arm and a measuring tape in her hand. She’d talk to Mama a while about whether the butter beans were ready to be picked, then they’d call us into the kitchen so Nannie could measure our arms or legs. Later on, for Christmas or a birthday, we’d open a present from Nannie to find something made from the cloth she’d had over her arm in Mama’s kitchen that day. I guessed I was poor then, after all.

And I couldn’t forget the trips my classmates talked about making to ice cream shops on the weekends. Their parents would buy them ice cream cones with sprinkles, or banana splits in little blue plastic dishes. My family made ice cream over at Nannie’s. We all sat on the edge of the well by the ice cream freezer while Nannie made a creamy magic potion in the kitchen, then came outside and dumped it into the freezer. Daddy and uncles would crank it until it got going good, then we kids would all get a turn cranking until our arms were tired. If we weren’t actually cranking the ice cream then we were standing by watching, barefoot in the melting ice and rock salt that ran from the bottom of the ice cream freezer. Barefoot. I was poor.

Then there were the kids at school who talked about catching fireflies. One girl, I remembered, said that her father bought her a little clear plastic box with a handle and she filled it with fireflies at night to make a lantern. I didn’t know about fireflies so much, but I knew that at home when we kids noticed a lightning bug, we’d get old mayonnaise jars out of Nannie’s rooting bed by the chicken house to hold the bugs as we caught them. No lids, so we used our hands to cover the top. I wasn’t sure if my lightning bugs were as good as that girl’s fireflies, but I knew we used old jars and not new plastic boxes with handles. Clearly, I was poor.

With that issue settled in my head, I resigned myself to – well, whatever it was that poor people resigned themselves to. I would just have to wait and see what that was.

But as time passed, months and years, I had many conversations with friends about the way I grew up. They usually commented on how lucky I was to have grown up with my extended family nearby, and to have lived just across the field from a grandmother who spent her time making and doing things for us. Some were envious that my family had gathered often “just because” to sit and laugh while home-made ice cream was cranked by the well. I’d long since learned that fireflies and lightning bugs were the same, but I’d also learned that keeping them in a little plastic box from the store was nowhere near as memorable as the way we kids raced to Nannie’s rooting bed to hunt for old mayonnaise jars together.

Many memories flooded back with each conversation about growing up with my huge family all around. I even once told friends about the kid in school who asked if I was poor simply because I was eating a bologna sandwich and six vanilla wafers. Looking back, I really was the rich one, not him. But somewhere inside I had known that all along.

After all, I had five black cows.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Stew Day

My Sunday morning walk took me by the local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from their truck seats, stretched, and waved to other vendors arriving to set up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out dozens of ears of corn alongside boxes of huge red tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of tomatoes, squash, butter beans and other vegetables rivaled any farmers market display. The mounds of our 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 had given 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 the focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who happened to be my cousins. From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on the swing set, an uncle on the tractor, or my grandmother Nannie under the apple tree by the well as she emptied a bucket of just picked tomatoes onto an old metal table. 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 through my bedroom window from across the field. Daddy and the uncles would have gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. It was no stove-top pot. That thing could easily hold two small kids. A cousin and I proved that once during a game of hide-and-seek! By the time we kids showed up on the morning of the stew, the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama and the aunts had readied the meat and cut up vegetables from the garden.

For the next several hours we kids would play – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between kitchen and the boiling stew. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what appeared to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. As a kid I remember thinking how interesting it was 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.

Even today I have no idea what stew recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to be swirled around the giant pot. I do remember that timing seemed to be everything and there was generally great debate over several major points. Time for 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. Since making homemade ice cream was a separate family event unto itself, Nannie had usually made blackberry roll for dessert instead, having picked the blackberries in the pasture herself. Naturally we washed it all down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about all of the family stews we had in the past and how long it had been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked my kitchen cabinets. I did have one can of store bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but I’m certain it won’t be as good as the “real” stuff. 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.

I imagine 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 the rest of my extended family. We were gathered there under a tree, bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand, and a glass of sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Scent of a Memory

When I finally moved away from my parents’ house I still lived only a few miles away. I moved occasionally over the years but never more than a twenty minute drive or so from their house and the place I grew up.  A couple of years ago when I decided to make a bigger move, Mama clutched her breast at the travesty of my moving so far away. “It’s only two hours from Richmond to D.C. It’s not a big deal”, I tried to console her. To her though, I may as well have been taking part in efforts to colonize the moon. She couldn’t hide her distress when she asked “But won’t you get homesick?” I had never lived far from home maybe, but I had traveled to other countries, for years I went on annual week-long beach trips with old friends, and I’d had countless weekends away over the years. Homesick? Silly Mama, that’s not something to worry about. I’d never felt that way in the past and couldn’t see why I ever would. I made the move and homesickness was never a thought.

Until I smelled a cantaloupe.

While growing up, summer days always saw a cantaloupe in Mama’s kitchen. A huge bowl in the refrigerator was always full of a recently sliced melon and another would be waiting in the wings. There could be one in the large kitchen windowsill, maybe one on the floor by the stove, and probably one on the counter sometimes cut in half just waiting for Mama to return to the task. The smell of cantaloupe was always in the kitchen. After hot days riding bikes with cousins or building forts down in the pasture I looked forward to that bowl of cold, sliced cantaloupe that I knew would be waiting.

I would simply walk into the kitchen and smell cantaloupe.

These days I ride a bus to work each morning. The only smells are those of exhaust from passing traffic and bus fumes from the 4A as it picks me up, takes me a few miles away, and drops me off at a Metro station where I catch an equally smelly shuttle to cross the Potomac into Georgetown. One morning as the shuttle neared the university and stopped at a light, the greasy smell of the vehicle combined with the odor from asphalt pavers working on a side street. It wasn’t the best way to start a morning. As we sat on the shuttle waiting for the light to change the woman next to me began to rifle through her tote bag. She momentarily opened a plastic container and the aroma hit me. She had cantaloupe.

I felt a strange feeling come over me and for a minute I closed my eyes, unsure whether it might be the acrid odors of exhaust and asphalt that were finally getting to me. No, that wasn’t it. I was homesick. The smell of the shuttle, exhaust, bus fumes and asphalt disappeared. Instead, the smell of those few small chunks of cantaloupe took me back to Mama’s kitchen, building forts in the pasture among the blackberry bushes, and lazy summer days riding bikes with my cousins.

I had smelled a cantaloupe.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Doing Corn!

A few years ago I reminisced with coworkers about childhood experiences we longed to relive. One said “Oh, I want to do Italy again! The sights and sounds!” Another said “I want to do Paris again! The shopping!” When asked what summertime fun I wanted to have again I whispered “I want to do corn…!”

Nannie, my grandmother, had a huge garden on her farm which was summer’s focus for my family and my extended family. We anticipated nothing more than CORN. Excitement began when Daddy hooked the planter to the tractor. Weeks later, we pulled suckers in the hot cornfield. “Straighten the stalks up as you go.” Daddy said, wiping his face with a handkerchief. As time passed, Nannie checked corn by pulling shucks back just enough to stick a fingernail into a juice kernel. “If we’d get rain it would go on and make.” Mama predicted. “You could get enough for supper now.” Aunt Noody insisted. Weeks later as the entire field neared “readiness”, Nannie used her skills to decide when timing was right and finally said “Y’all want to do corn Tuesday?”

Tuesday morning aunts started “before it got hot”. Yawning cousins gathered by the barn with lawn chairs, buckets, pans, and knives. In the field, cornstalks jerked and we heard “sca-runch!” each time an ear was pulled. “Lord, it’s snaky in here.” Aunt Helen declared. “Sca-runch!” we heard again. One by one aunts came from the cornfield pushing wheelbarrows filled with corn. They made it to the shade of the giant tree by the barn where chairs had been arranged around bushel baskets to hold the shucks, wiped their sweaty faces, and sat down. Shucking style was important and if we cousins didn’t get all the silks of then “we just as well not shuck”. Wormy ears were passed to aunts who flicked away wriggling offenders and cut damaged kernels away with surgical precision. As each pan filled with shucked corn, one of us cousins ran it up to Nannie’s house to be blanched in huge pots of boiling water.

Nannie hummed hymns as she plopped steaming blanched corn to cool in ice water in the old ceramic kitchen sink while cousins stood at the counter and cut corn off cobs. Aunt Dessie asked “How many pints y’all reckon we’ll get?” as cousins packed corn into freezer cartons. “I still got some from last year so don’t count any out for me.” Aunt Jenny demanded.  We ate mouthfuls of corn as we cut but we didn’t need to because Nannie saved out “pretty” ears for lunch. Cousins ate on the huge porch, leaning forward over plates, butter dripping from chins. After lunch we did more corn until Nannie announced “It’s just too hot.” The steamy kitchen was cleaned, sticky hands washed, and freezer cartons full of corn were divided up. Mama and the aunts stacked the filled freezer cartons onto trays and we all walked home across the field to help put them in our freezers. We had done corn.

My coworkers’ favorite summer memories may be be of Italy and Paris where shopping, sights, and sounds made childhood special, but not mine. A hot summer day with sticky hands, a chin covered with butter, and giggling cousins is what I long for again. I don’t need to go to foreign countries to hear the sounds I want to hear. I want to go home and hear Nannie hum and the “sca-runch!” in the cornfield. I want to do corn…

Stuart M. Perkins

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