Tag Archives: uncle

It’s What We Do

While out walking yesterday evening I smelled sunscreen as someone passed by. In an instant I was mentally back on the beach waiting for cousins to come down from the house so we could get in the water together. I was also reminded of something I once wrote about years of our family’s summer traditions:

It’s a rustic, waterfront cottage on the Chesapeake Bay in an isolated cluster of other old cottages a mile or so off the main road. It’s been added on to over the last fifty-plus years and is filled with second-hand furniture, hand-me-down linens, and old pots and pans. To do anything from use the kitchen stove to turning on the water pump requires knowledge of idiosyncrasies so specific that they’re passed down like family history. There’s sand on the floor, the smell of salt water in the air, and to me it’s perfect.

The actual owner is my uncle but we in the extended family like to call it “ours”. My grandfather and uncle purchased the overgrown waterfront lot in the late 1950’s and family at the time helped clear the land and build the original cottage. My great-grandmother even spent time there, so starting with her and moving down the line to my own two children means five generations of my family have enjoyed good times there. It became, and has remained for close to 60 years now, a fantastic escape for the entire extended Perkins family.

As kids we couldn’t wait to swim in the gentle waves of the bay. Over the years various combinations of extended family have stayed there together. By day we swam, played on floats, and walked to the marina counting ospreys and bald eagles along the way. By night we filled beds and arranged cots so that everyone had a place to sleep. Most nights as we slept in the crowded cottage one cousin’s sandy feet were in another cousin’s sunburned face, but no one could have been happier. We were family and we embraced the unity. It’s what we always did.

Old morning routines continued as adults cooked bacon and whispered over coffee so as not to wake us kids. I’ve often wondered just how many in our family, for decades, have watched the same sun rise over the same spot on the same horizon while the same scene of boats pulling in crab pots played out just off the beach. Over time, family who never knew their relatives who had passed away years earlier slept in the same rooms, same beds, and spent days on the same beach as those before them. We learned to appreciate the family history of that place. I hoped when I had kids they would appreciate that history and recognize this cottage as a place where most of the people in our huge extended family had gathered at some point. I hoped they would “get it”.

There was a satisfying comfort in growing up watching simple family patterns repeat as part of the experience at the bay. We’d stop at the same seafood shop for the same deviled crabs. A bushel of oysters or a dozen soft-shelled crabs for dinner was routine. Fishing from the beach and walks to the marina through tangled marsh grass and sun-bleached driftwood were part of us. At the same time every day we’d come in out of the sun for lunch. After some time back on the beach we’d all come in for supper. Our parents had done those things, and so had theirs. It’s what we did. I really hoped my kids would get it.

Sitting in the shade of a pine near the beach, older family members spoke often of the fun they’d had there when they were our ages. Many of their conversations began with “You’re too young to remember but…” or “Back in the old days…” Their spoken memories became part of our overall experience. And so did Rummy.

Granddaddy loved to play Rummy. He didn’t just enjoy it, he was a fiend. From an early age we were required, it seemed, to learn to play Rummy so that Granddaddy would have someone else to beat. He would play anywhere, anytime, but breezy evenings after a day of fishing and swimming were prime Rummy times at the bay. He played, my parents, aunts, and uncles played, and we cousins learned to play.

Years later as adults ourselves, my sisters and I started staying at the cottage together with our own kids. Decades old scenarios were now played out by our children. They swam with their cousins, walked to the marina, slept on the same sandy cots we had used as kids, and they learned to play Rummy. I found myself saying “You’re too young to remember but…” or “Back in the old days…” I wanted them to learn family things I had learned. We buy bait here because Granddaddy always did, we get groceries from that little store in town because we always have, or after supper we’ll walk to the marina like we always do. Simple familiar patterns became part of the good times there. It’s just what we did.

One evening after a day of swimming, my kids and I played Rummy. While we played we talked about the number of dolphins we’d seen that day, who had found the biggest horseshoe crab, and the other important bay things always discussed at the end of the day. I remembered as a kid having similar conversations with my parents as we played Rummy after a day in the sun. Simple times spent with family had come to mean so much and I really did appreciate and honestly cherish them. But would my own kids feel the same? So many things we did while at the bay we did “just because” everyone in our family had done them for years before us. There was satisfaction in that. Simple, decades-old traditions helped keep our long family history intact. Would my own kids feel that?

We continued our Rummy game and at one point my son shuffled the cards and said, “Funny how even if we never play Rummy any other time, we always play down here at the bay. Why is that?”

My daughter dealt the cards and said nonchalantly without looking up, “We’re Perkins. It’s what we do.”

“Yep.” My son responded casually as he looked over his cards. “We’re awesome.”

I never again wondered if they would understand and appreciate the simple but powerful patterns established over decades by a huge, close-knit family.

They got it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Frozen in Time

There’s a lot of life in that old freezer.

It’s a chest freezer actually, from the 1960s I think. Dirty white with spots of ancient rust and it makes a horrifying screech when the lid is opened. For decades it sat on the huge back porch of Nannie’s farmhouse, ran perfectly, and never skipped a beat.

When Nannie died, Daddy debated what to do with that old freezer. He feared moving it would cause it to stop running but he hauled it across the field to his own screened porch where it still runs perfectly and never skips a beat. Daddy is gone now too, but the freezer runs on.

That freezer has a lot of life in it, in more ways than one.

Every summer Nannie filled its frosty racks with butter beans and other garden goodies. I’d take the path to her house and hear the familiar screech of the lid as I got to the porch. Nannie would be comically bent over head first in the freezer, digging through frozen packages, surrounded by the cloud of cold “smoke” that puffed out as she stirred the air inside.

Over decades the freezer took on a life of its own and became more than a useful place to store food. It became the focal point of Nannie’s porch with its broad surface that made a handy place to leave things, do things, and grow things.

It was a fine spot for African violets and a Christmas cactus. In early spring Nannie started vegetable seeds in trays and lined them up along the top of the freezer. She’d laugh for causing herself extra work when she had to move them all just to get a package of frozen corn for supper.

A lot of life went on around that freezer.

Nannie kept small weigh scales on the freezer in case someone from church came by to get a pound of snaps. Quart baskets of blackberries we all picked sat on the freezer until someone came to buy them. A random green apple, a forgotten eggplant, or a pie Nannie made and meant to give to a friend might all be on the freezer.

If one aunt had coupons for another aunt, they were left on the freezer. If a visiting friend found a cousin’s toy army man under the swing, it was left on the freezer. If an uncle returned a borrowed tool, it was left on the freezer. If you carried something when you stopped by to see Nannie you could leave it on the freezer. On the way out you just picked it up from the freezer.

I stood at the freezer with my aunt Noody on several Thanksgivings as she cut up the turkey before families arrived. She’d spread the giant bird out on the freezer, plates to the left for light meat, plates to the right for dark. The broad surface made a perfect work area.

Nannie left bags of homemade rolls on the freezer for me to deliver to aunts across the field. On countless summer evenings the freezer held glasses of iced tea, ash trays, and random conversation pieces brought over for a night of family stories on the porch. Sometimes the top of the freezer was cleared, newspaper spread, and a watermelon cut up for whoever happened to be visiting.

A lot of life revolved around that freezer.

Today the old freezer still runs on Daddy’s screened porch. I looked at it a few weeks ago. Nothing sits on top anymore, nothing being done there, nothing growing there as in the old days. I lifted the lid and the familiar screech was as strong as ever, the icy “smoke” still swirled, but the frosty racks were mostly empty.

Mama’s health issues have prevented her from gardening and freezing the summer’s goodies. I saw a few iced over packages labeled in her handwriting, “Corn 2012”, but they’re old and should be thrown away.

For decades that freezer was the accidental center of a lot of what Nannie and her huge extended family did. The conversations it heard, the family meals it held, the cousins, babies, and babies of cousins who wanted a turn sitting on its broad top are too numerous to ponder.

It’s still running, but just like the last few freezer burned packages of corn inside maybe the old chest freezer itself should finally be thrown away. But who could do that? Not me.

There’s a lot of life in that old freezer.

Stuart M. Perkins

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The Mule and the One Red Hen

My coworker often discusses drama caused over the years by one of her friends. At lunch she described the latest events to me and several others as she pondered whether she should even continue their friendship.

Knowing she’ll always deal with flare-ups of unpleasantness had my coworker in a quandary. Their friendship is great for the most part, but occasional negatives are difficult to deal with. She asked us for advice. I gave no advice but made a comment to the group.

“Jiggs would have said this is like the mule and the one red hen.”

Puzzled faces awaited my explanation.

As a kid I spent many summer weekends at the farm owned by Dessie and Jiggs, my aunt and uncle. I like to think I helped around the place but the reality is I played in the creek and ate Dessie’s good cooking. Often we’d ride over to see Bud and Cherry, friends who owned a nearby farm. We would pass woods, creeks, and in a bend in the road was a small pasture where there always stood a mule.

Next to the pasture was a weathered chicken coop. Not enclosed, but wandering where they chose, was a flock of maybe twenty chickens. The chickens were always in the vicinity of the coop and always together, except for one red hen.

Without fail, the mule and the hen would be together in the small pasture when we drove by. The first time I noticed, I paid little attention. Over time I realized they were always together. Soon I actually began to look for them. Each time, I saw the mule with the one red hen.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by their odd friendship. I never thought to mention it to Dessie and Jiggs until later in the summer when we once again made the drive. We were about to approach the pasture so I brought it up ahead of time to make sure they saw it for themselves.

“Have y’all noticed,” I asked excitedly, “that every time we ride by this pasture up here that instead of with the flock, one chicken hangs out with the mule? It’s cool that they’re friends.”

We rounded the bend in the road and Dessie and Jiggs turned to look at what I had described. Sure enough, the flock of chickens pecked around the coop, but the mule and the one red hen were together in the pasture. Having seen the two together, Dessie and Jiggs turned back around as we passed by.

“Well.” Dessie acknowledged in her genuinely pleasant way.

Jiggs looked at me in the rear view mirror as he drove. I could see him grinning.

“You know why they’re friends, don’t you?” Jiggs asked. I saw Dessie turn to look at him. Seeing the grin on his face, one quickly formed on hers. She was ready for whatever he would say next.

I wasn’t.

“No why?” I asked. Always thinking Jiggs one of the most intelligent people I’d ever met, I was eager to have the highly technical explanation of this complex interspecies relationship explained to me in full, and forthwith.

“Because,” Jiggs began as he formed his erudite response, “when the mule craps the chicken picks stuff out of it.”

I retched.

Dessie laughed hysterically.

Jiggs kept driving.

My stomach settled long enough for me to speak. “That doesn’t seem like a friendship at all then.”

“Sure it does.” Jiggs said, still grinning. “The chicken enjoys being with the mule, she just knows she has to deal with a little crap now and then.”

Well, Jiggs certainly explained that one.

And I explained to my coworkers that we all have friendships with dynamics of good and the occasional bad. If you’re really friends with someone then dealing with crap now and then is just part of the arrangement.

Several coworkers laughed, one actually applauded, but two were suddenly no longer interested in lunch.

My coworker and her mule are still friends, the last I heard.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Kindred Connection

“I dread the holidays.” The woman seated beside me on the bus today said. She flipped through pages of a sales flyer that reminded her to buy early and save.

“The shopping?” I asked.

“No, the family!” she responded. “I’ll have to spend time around all of my father’s siblings and I’ve never felt connected to them. Did you spend much time around your aunts or uncles while growing up?”

“Oh yeah…”, I began as the memories started flowing.

She interrupted me. “His siblings lived nearby but didn’t interact with me very much. How about yours?”

“Oh yeah…” I said as I stared upwards about to relate a funny family story.

Again she cut me short. “I just didn’t enjoy being around them.” she added.

Instead of being cut off, I only nodded my head in understanding.

However, I didn’t really understand at all. I was lucky to come into this world literally surrounded by a large extended family. My father’s siblings were also my neighbors because my grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their five children an adjoining piece of property on which to build homes and raise families. Because they lived beside me, across the field, or just past the walnut tree, my aunts and uncles were as much a part of everyday life as my parents.

There are countless recollections I associate with my father’s sisters and brothers, but some specific memories come to mind whenever I think of each individual.

My aunt Noody encouraged me in whatever I had set my mind to. When I was a kid she spoke to me as though I were an adult and she made me feel relevant. We often took neighborhood walks together and talked about anything that crossed our minds. I trimmed her crepe myrtles and in return she made for me the best potato soup I ever had.  When our extended family gathered at the bay, Noody not only laughed at us kids playing in the water, she joined in. In swimming cap festooned with pink plastic flowers she patiently taught me to float on my back. She went roller skating with us kids too. One particular night I rested on the sidelines and she said “Don’t sit there like an old man. Come skate!”

My aunt Jenny once brushed a spider off of me once. When the giant hairy thing crawled up my pants leg she instantly brushed it away with her bare hand. She was my hero for doing that. Jenny laughed loudly and liked to hear others do the same. Once, while several of us kids were in a swimming pool, Jenny suddenly came down the sliding board wearing a huge floppy hat and holding an open umbrella above her head. She laughed as hard as we did when she plunged into the pool. Every Halloween for several years she drove my sister and me around town to visit people. Too old for trick-or-treating, we still dressed up as old women and no one laughed at us any harder than Jenny.

Interrupting my thoughts, the woman on the bus said, “And when I was a kid they never did anything fun with me. Did yours?”

“Oh yeah…” I began again, smiling at the funny anecdote I was about to tell.

She cut me off again. “My family is just not fun.” she said.

Assuming she was finished, I started thinking again.

My uncle Tuck, for decades now, has made sure that our extended family has been able to use the cottage on the bay. Tuck insists we use the cottage whenever we can and is kind enough to update us on where in the shed the fishing poles are located, not to forget to use the crab pots if we want, and to please try to go down more than we did last year. With each trip down he reminds us to help ourselves to anything we find in the refrigerator and to just have fun. There were also many times when Tuck’s calm and logical advice helped me figure out solutions to quite a few problems.

My uncle Jiggs was at our house on my first birthday. Mama said he came in, squatted down, and called me. The first steps I ever took were from Mama to Jiggs there in the kitchen. Jiggs lived across the field but also had a farm where I spent many summer weekends. When up against what to me were impossible mechanical issues with maybe a tractor or truck, Jiggs would  calmly suggest we just “think about this thing for a minute”. By the end of a cup of coffee Jiggs had thought it through and miraculously, to me anyway, solved the problem. During that process Jiggs never got upset. He would make a joke out of it, think about it, then fix it.

Fortunately, as a kid, I had an almost daily connection with my father’s siblings and their spouses who influenced me just as much. I can’t imagine growing up without their presence, guidance, and comedy! I was thinking about them all when the woman on the bus elbowed me to get my attention.

“And they’ll ask me questions over and over but when I begin to answer they’ll just cut me off. Ever known anyone like that? she asked.

“Oh yeah.” I said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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What Man?

“Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?” Daddy asked when my sisters and I were kids.

“What man?” we responded.

Daddy grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten he asked a question.

What man?” my sisters and I repeated. We grinned and stomped a foot at him.

We were familiar with his exasperating style but we knew a joke was coming. Or was it a joke? With Daddy we were never sure. He told a joke in such a way that after we had a good laugh we still had to ask him whether it was true.

“Is that real, Daddy?” one of us asked after he delivered the punch line.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” he answered, then walked off to busy himself with Daddy things, leaving us still wondering.

Daddy’s joke and story telling styles were the same – set us up, draw us in, hit us with a good one, then walk away like he’d had nothing to do with the laughter he left behind. Clearly it was genetic because I saw similar styles exhibited by his siblings. All excellent joke and story tellers.

Just like many families gather around the television at night, our families walked across the field to gather on my grandmother’s back porch. Nannie enjoyed the fact that her children had homes next to her farmhouse, and we all enjoyed her back porch filling with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Story telling would soon begin.

My parents, aunts, and uncles would shift chairs around the huge screened porch as they asked Nannie about the garden, wondered out loud as to when we’d dig potatoes, or decided we ought to fix home made ice cream the next weekend. Eventually, they would settle into the random collection of old metal chairs that lined the porch. Amid the sounds of ice tinkling in the tea glasses, metal chairs being scooted into final position, or a cousin’s dog barking to be let onto the porch, one of them would finally say, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

The games had begun.

Daddy or an uncle would stretch a story out for a while and the porch would laugh. The first story would trigger a second. The second story would give rise to a third. Then someone would remember a joke. More laughing from the porch.

At times, Mama or an aunt would feign disgust over a story or joke they considered remotely off color. “Thank goodness that’s all you told.” they might say. “I was afraid you were going to tell the one about the horse!”

A clear signal that the one about the horse should now be told.

Once the horse joke began, Mama and the aunts would sigh in disgust, then grin at each other between sips of iced tea.

The stories my family told were always funny, but I remember how much I loved their story telling styles. If Daddy told one, you may as well have a seat. He could stretch a knock-knock joke into a filibuster. One uncle might deliver lightning fast one liners, another might rival Daddy for air time. One aunt could hardly finish a funny story for all the laughing she did as she told it. I loved hearing what was told and couldn’t get enough of how it was told. There were many years of good story telling on that porch.

Earlier this year, both of my kids and I sat on the screened porch at my parents’ house. Daddy, eighty years old now, sat down to join us. As the four of us discussed what my kids had planned for the summer, I remembered my own summer evenings on Nannie’s porch listening to relatives do their story telling.

During a rare pause in Daddy’s conversation with the kids, I asked, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

“What man?” they both asked.

“He’ll tell you.” I said, as I nodded towards their grandfather.

Daddy said nothing, but he grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten I’d asked the question.

What man, Big Daddy?” the kids asked him.

Like the pro he was, Daddy slowly launched into one of his best. He stretched it out, paused when necessary, sped up when required, and hit the punch line hard at the end. Both of the kids doubled over with laughter and told him he was “awesome”. I could tell something was on their minds.

“That was funny, but was it true Big Daddy?” they asked him.

He looked at me and grinned from ear to ear. He remembered the old days on Nannie’s porch, just as I had.

Getting no response from him, the kids turned to me.

“Well?” they asked me. “Was that true?”

I grinned at the inquiring looks on their faces. I remembered that feeling when what I’d just heard had been hilarious, but had been told to me in such a way that I really wasn’t sure it was a joke. Daddy’s grin became even wider when I responded to my kids.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” I said to them. In unison, Daddy and I left the porch, leaving the kids still wondering.

Stuart M. Perkins

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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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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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