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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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Asp Not

It was hot the morning Mary Dell and I began working in her cottage garden and in spite of the heat we eagerly launched into our efforts. While I pruned, watered, or weeded the winding walkway, Mary Dell began the work she did best. She talked to each plant, wished it well, and commented on its beauty. She even got around to deadheading a day lily, looking quite stylish wearing the latest in sun hats and shades.

“Oh bless.” Mary Dell said as she attempted to lift a shovel. Various yard tools were sometimes left scattered throughout the garden and we gathered them to return them to the shed. “Why, I can’t even lift this thing! Would you mind carrying it?”Mary Dell asked.

“All of these tools.” she sighed. “And why on earth would I have a splitting maul? Are you aware, it must weigh ten pounds! I couldn’t lift that thing either and I think it’s still over there by the bluebirds.” she said as she waved in a general direction with freshly manicured nails.

Mary Dell’s respect for nature and her love of gardens, combined with her impeccable sense of style and fashion, often prompted her to ask, “What outfit does one wear as one gardens?” She intensely appreciated every bloom in her garden and it was always entertaining to help her with the upkeep. Besides, there was also the anticipation of a lunch of her famous macaroni salad, cold and delicious.

In addition to her fondness for gardens, Mary Dell was an animal lover. She was pleased by the number of birds and other animals seen regularly on her land and was most proud of the nesting bluebirds which had taken up residence in the birdhouse she put up just for them, attached to the sturdiest of poles and set in concrete. Yes, she loved all kinds of wildlife. “Well, just the kind that have legs.” she’d say. She loathed snakes.

We worked all morning but by afternoon the heat was too much. As I wiped gritty sweat from my face, Mary Dell pondered which style of footwear would be most appropriate for her upcoming garden party. We sat in the shade of a thickly hanging wisteria drinking iced tea and looking over the garden, commenting on everything from aster to zinnia.

Mary Dell sipped her tea, “What a productive day and thank heavens we didn’t come across any of those vile beasts!”

“Beasts?” I wondered if she’d spent too much time in the sun. “What beasts?” I asked again.

Lest any appear if the word were mentioned too loudly, Mary Dell leaned forward and whispered, “Snakes“.

“Aw, there’s nothing wrong with snakes.” I said, defending them to get a rise out of her since I knew she hated them. “They’re here for a reason. They have a purpose.” I continued.

“Shoes.” Mary Dell said as a noise from the bluebirds caused us to turn and see them flitting around the birdhouse. “Maybe snakes are good for shoes, but I could never wear them!” she insisted. I began to give Mary Dell a lecture on snakes’ importance to the environment, reminding her that as a lover of wildlife she should learn to respect them. She only halfway listened because the bluebirds continued their noisy fuss.

I looked towards the bluebird house where there was more than the usual amount of activity. Loud calls and chirps came from the bluebird pair that had been nesting there. Leaning back in my chair I took a gulp of tea. “Remember the time I was raking leaves and that little snake tried to crawl into my shoe?” I asked. “I had to actually reach down and pull it out by the tail, remember?”

Mary Dell clutched her breast. “Oh save us all, yes I remember that.” She said as she dabbed her forehead with a napkin, looking faint. I laughed and asked what she would have done had that happened to her. “Well,” she responded seriously, “I would have immediately phoned my realtor and sold the place by day’s end!”

Looking around at the work we’d just finished I told Mary Dell I’d secretly prayed we’d see a snake as we weeded. I chuckled when she said the mere notion was about to give her a migraine. We poured ourselves more tea and noticed the bluebirds still making quite a racket. Not only the nesting pair, but several birds of all kinds were now diving madly at the birdhouse.

“Something’s going on.” I said as we stood to inspect the commotion. We meandered down the garden path towards the birdhouse and the mixed flock of angry birds flew only a short distance away as we approached. They continued their constant fuss as they hopped from branch to branch in a nearby tree.

I walked up to the birdhouse to get a better look when the head of a very large black snake popped out of the opening, then quickly withdrew. My prayer had been answered.

“It’s just a snake.” I said to Mary Dell as casually as I could without laughing, anticipating her reaction.

“A what?” she screamed as both hands flew to her throat. “Oh come on! It’s not, is it?” she asked as she looked back and forth between me and the birdhouse, hoping for a sign that I was joking. In slow motion, Mary Dell crouched and tiptoed towards the birdhouse. As she did, the large snake lifted its head and held a stare through the opening in the birdhouse, looking right at her.

“Lord have mercy!” Mary Dell exclaimed, hopping off the ground a bit as she waved her hands wildly in the air. “I can see the face of the heinous creature!” She turned on her heels, which were clad in the latest summer sandal fashion, and headed towards the house.

“Where are you going?” I asked between laughs.

“To get my gun!” she responded, as if there were any need to ask.

“Wait, wait, wait.” I said. “Let’s not kill it.”

“Why on earth not?” she asked as she crept back to the birdhouse.

“It’s probably already eaten the eggs.” I said. “So let me get it out and take it away somewhere.” I knew if it came out on its own Mary Dell would show it the business end of her revolver. And a very stylish revolver it was sure to be.

Amazingly, Mary Dell agreed to help. The plan was to hold a bag under the birdhouse, simply flip the latch that held the front of the birdhouse shut, the front would then open, and the snake would fall into the bag.

Yeah, right.

The plan began well enough,  but the longer we took, the more the frightened snake poked its head from the birdhouse. Each time it did, Mary Dell screamed and the snake retreated. I couldn’t stop laughing at their dance, but with each appearance of the snake’s head it became harder and harder to keep Mary Dell from going for her gun.

Stepping backwards to pick up the bag for the snake I tripped over the splitting maul we had yet to put away. I fell against the post supporting the birdhouse. The startled snake poked through the hole again, but this time about a foot of its body came out and hung suspended in air for a few seconds as it looked at us. I was certain I heard several cats being slaughtered simultaneously when I realized it was only Mary Dell screaming again. She had seen the length of snake pour from the hole, tongue flicking, shining eyes staring at us. The snake retreated again but it was too much for Mary Dell.

In as fluid a motion as you could imagine Mary Dell bent down and picked up that ten pound splitting maul. This tiny woman, clad stylishly in fashionable summer wear, charged past me. She raised the splitting maul completely over her head, screamed the cry of the insane, and smashed it into the birdhouse. In an instant, the birdhouse and post came out of the ground, complete with concrete still caked around the base. It fell with a thud. The birdhouse was cracked in several places and I could see the snake moving on the inside, still alive, but unable to get out. This was even better, I thought.

“Mary Dell, since the birdhouse is on the ground now, you hold the bag open with one shovel while I use the other shovel to slide the birdhouse into it.” I said quickly.

“You don’t mean it.” she said with a crazed look, eyes darting.

“It’s ok. It can’t get out of the birdhouse.” I said trying to convince Mary Dell, although I wasn’t entirely convinced myself.

“Oh yes it can get out!”, Mary Dell said as she headed to the house with an itchy trigger finger.

“Let’s just try one more time.” I said. Mary Dell reluctantly returned and gingerly picked  up a shovel. “Go ahead.” I said. “Just hold the bag open while I push the birdhouse inside.” Mary Dell leaned down, inches away from the birdhouse,  and slowly started to open the bag. “That’s good.” I said. “Don’t worry. The snake won’t come out.”

It came out.

The snake didn’t just exit the birdhouse, it shot half its body length from the birdhouse directly towards Mary Dell. Just as quickly though, it retreated back into the broken birdhouse.

What I heard next was metal hitting the ground as the shovel Mary Dell had held fell back to earth. Mary Dell didn’t scream and run to the house, she screamed the entire way to the house. I never actually saw her. I only saw bushes move in the wake of her running past, a sun hat on the walkway and a summer sandal lodged in the yarrow. I returned to the snake and took only seconds to slide the birdhouse into the bag. Closing the bag tightly, I headed to the house. Luckily, Mary Dell had regained some composure and agreed to talk to me through the glass of the closed (and locked) storm door.

“Where is a good place to take the snake?” I asked, stifling a laugh. “I want to take it someplace where it won’t find its way back to scare you again.” I hoped that would be incentive enough for her to help me but I knew there were probably hundreds more in the woods just like the one I had in the bag.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Mary Dell suddenly looked totally at ease, a smile came over her face, and she stepped outside with me and the snake.

“Actually, I just thought of a grand place.” she said pleasantly. “Turn right on the main road, go two miles, turn right at the church, take the very next left, and go to the end of the road. It’s a fabulous place for a snake. Just turn it loose there.”

How great, I thought. My lecture on the importance of snakes had hit home! She decided to help! Feeling proud of myself I got in the car, snake in the bag, and followed Mary Dell’s directions. The location did seem good and “snaky” and with only one house in that area the snake should stay out of trouble. I pulled over, emptied the bag onto the edge of a field, and watched the somewhat dazed snake slither off on its own.

When I got back to Mary Dell’s she had collected her wits, as well as her hat and sandal, and looked suspiciously pleased with herself as she set out plates and glasses for the lunch we were late having. “See?” I said, eager to hear Mary Dell admit that I’d convinced her of the value of snakes. “All of that fear yet you ultimately came around to my side and helped out the snake.”

“Oh no, that’s not it. That’s not it at all.” she said, taking a casual sip of tea. “You see, Mr. Wilson lives in the house at the end of the road where you took that hideous serpent. He has chickens and he hates snakes. He’ll kill it on sight. I called ahead to let him know he was about to have company.”

“Macaroni salad?” she asked, as she adjusted her sun hat and sat down smiling.

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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