I guess as you get older, you think about your childhood more and it seems to me that those memories are more vivid now than ever. I can just imagine what was going through my mother’s mind as she entered her 91st year of life and passed away shortly thereafter. She couldn’t seem to remember that I visited over the weekend or that I called her the previous night, but she remembered things from her younger days as if they happened yesterday. She remembered things that I did or said and I, quite frankly, didn’t remember them at all. If I don’t remember them, did they really happen? According to Mama, yes, they most certainly did. She remembered all the little things I did as a child such as bringing her a bouquet of yellow flowers and singing to her. That is why it saddened my heart when she failed to call me on my birthday in 2011 because this was the first time in my adult life I did not receive a telephone call from Mama singing Happy Birthday to me in her happy melodious voice. I guess she forgot and I did not have the heart to tell her she had forgotten. I guess this is what happens in your 91st year… you remember memories from your own childhood, but sometimes not your children. Most of the time she remembered but sometimes needed a little nudge to get the memory to flicker. My childhood was a pretty happy childhood as I look back on it. It certainly was not easy, but I guess it wasn’t suppose to be or so I was told. It made me the character I am today (and some would say that I am a real character).
We grew up on a farm in Statesboro, Georgia and that was all my parents knew was farming. At one time we owned a farm but most of the time we share cropped. We were part of a large family. Mama and Daddy had 8 children living and we were taught at a very early age about hard work. During the 40’s and 50’s living in rural Georgia was like living in a time warp. Not that it was bad, it was just different. When I tell my friends about it, they always say that sounds like you grew up with my great-grandmother and it makes me chuckle. We worked hard all week and every Saturday, we went into town and went to the movie. At that time there were 2 theatres in town. You could see a double feature, a serial and cartoon for $.10 cents The feature movies were most always, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash Larue, Tim Holt, The Durango Kid and Tom Mix. We even saw Tim Holt and his blazing six guns in person at the State Theater. We were all so excited. He was up on the stage and drew his guns from his holster and fired them (blanks), but it sounded so real to me. I remember how my heart raced. He was my hero for a long time. My favorite serials were Captain Video and Flash Gordon. The serials always ended with someone going off a cliff in a car or falling out of an airplane without a parachute, or something like that and we had to wait until the next week to find out if the hero died and, of course, he was always saved at the last minute. We lived for Saturdays. Some Saturdays, we would make the trip by horse and wagon to Wallace Brown’s store. We would have a dime each and would be able to get an ice cream cone, and all sorts of candy for a dime. Now, a dime won’t even cover part of the tax. It was such a treat because Mama would buy store bought bread (light bread as we called it) and hot dogs. These were things we very seldom had to eat and we considered them as special treats. Sometimes, if we were really fortunate, we would get a soda pop, which was the ultimate treat for all of us.
On Sunday, we always went to church in the morning and then the rest of the day we did nothing. It was the Lord’s day and it was made for resting. Then at the end of the day we went back to church for training union. We went to church on Monday night for RAs and GAs and on Wednesday night for prayer meeting. Our lives revolved around the church and its activities. Elmer Baptist Church will always have special meaning to me. That is where I found the Lord and I was baptized in Uncle Floyd’s pond. I think I was 8 or 9 at the time. I have been back to Elmer on several occassions, mostly for funerals. My little brother, Charles Grady, is buried in the graveyard beside the church and so is my little cousin, Carolyn, my Aunt Sula and Uncle Lawton, and my Aunt Teeny and Uncle Floyd, just to name a few.
Living conditions on the farm were stark as we had no running water, just a well in the backyard. There was no electricity and light was supplied by kerosene lanterns. We milked our own cows and made our own butter. We had a garden and canned and preserved all our fruits and vegetables. Mama cooked on a wood stove and I have to say she made some of the best food I have ever tasted… everything from scratch. She and my Aunt Sula were the best cooks in Georgia. Biscuits that would melt in your mouth and fried chicken nobody could rival.
I still recall with great clarity the day Mama made me go out and pick out a chicken for Sunday dinner and kill it and bring it back into the house for her to prepare. I had never done this before, but I had seen Mama do it a thousand times. I went to the yard and caught a chicken and, of course, the usual way they were killed is to wring their necks. It was not as easy as it had appeared when Mama did it. I started throwing the chicken up and down and round and round and the chicken was squawking but wasn’t dead. I think I snapped the neck part way (if there is such a thing) and I started crying because I had never inflicted harm on anyone or anything before and it was not a good feeling. I started screaming and threw the chicken to the ground. The chicken proceeded to zig zag around the yard like it was drunk. I guess that is where the expression “running around like a chicken with its head chopped off” came from. Mama heard me crying and screaming and came out and put the poor chicken out of his misery. I couldn’t even eat that chicken at dinner, (no McDonalds back then) all I could think about was its little chicken face looking up at me and how much pain I had inflicted on it. That feeling however finally went away and soon I was back to eating chicken.
There was no central air or heat, just the natural elements and a fireplace. I can remember waking up on a cold Georgia morning and we would discuss who was going to get up and build the fire in the fireplace in our bedroom. At that time, Gloria and I shared a bedroom. You know, come to think of it, I have never had a bedroom of my own. I went from sharing with Gloria for most of my childhood, then with Judy for a short period of time and then I got married and I have shared a bedroom with Jim for a little over 54 years now. But, I digress. I can still remember the coldness of the winter and gathering around the stove to keep warm and then warming up the feather bed before jumping into it at night. Oh how wonderful it was… to snuggle down into the down and fall asleep.
Morning always came too quickly and once the fires were built everyone was up and about getting ready to catch the bus for school. In the Winter, we didn’t miss school very often but the Spring and Fall were very different. We were kept home a lot to bring in the crops. Picking cotton, hoeing, picking and stringing tobacco and harvesting peanuts and other crops. Last week, I found one of my report cards from elementary school and one of the entries said “Janie is an excellent student, but she needs to attend school more regularly.” I can remember standing out in the field on a school day watching the school bus go by and waving to my friends.
Fall and early Winter were also times to stock up on meats for the winter months. The weather had to be a certain temperature in order to butcher. I will never forget the gruesome sight of “butcher day”. All of the aunts, uncles and cousins would gather and it was a social event. From what I can remember, the men would shoot the pigs in the head, then dip the bodies one by one into a vat of scalding water (to remove the hair, I guess) and then they hang them up on a hook with a pulley and would cut them from beginning to end and then start cutting the poor creatures up into parts.
The first time I saw the way sausage was made, I almost barfed. Now this next part is from a child’s memory so it may or may not be totally true, but its how I remember it. In the old days, for those of you who do not know, they took the intestines out and cleaned them up and used them for casings and then they would grind the byproducts up with a meat grinder while attaching the intestines to the mouth of the grinder and filling up the intestines with the ground substance. After filling up a certain amount, you give the intestines a twist and.. viola.. you have a sausage link and you just keep going and you have a long string of continuous links. I guess that may be why I don’t particularly care for sausage.
Most of the meat would be hung in the smoke house to cure and then be used during the lean winter months. We also make cracklins, chitlins, etc. Bet you thought these things didn’t really exist. But they do. The South is famous for its ability to take what most would consider non-useable portions of the animal and turn them into regional delicacies. Pig’s feet, hog jowls, ham hocks, cracklin’s, and chitlin’s are all part of Southern tradition . I personally will not eat these things, especially chitlins. Chitlins are basically boiled pig guts, at least that is what I remember and they stink. Cracklins are fat with a little bit of pig skin attached and when you are cooking them they produce a lot of excess fat. The cracklins were cooked in lard in Mama’s big black cast iron wash pot which sat in the middle of the back yard. It was about 15 or 20 gallons in size. Mama washed clothes in that pot, made soap in that pot and made cane syrup in that pot plus a whole bunch of other things. Come hog-killing time, they cooked cracklins in it. Now the thing I remember about cracklins is that they never did them in the house because, it didn’t smell very good, it made the house hotter than blazes and I remember Daddy saying if you weren’t careful you could burn the house down. I remember eating cracklins but I don’t remember particularly liking them. Cracklins are similar to what most of you know as “pork rinds”. Since I became an adult, I have not chosen to eat a cracklin.
Which leads me to another southern dish… turnips. I hate turnips. We always had turnips when I was growing up. Mama cooked them all the time and was always trying to give me them to me as an adult to eat or take them home to my family. I tell her Mama, I do not like turnips and she says well, you ate them all the time when you were growing up. And I tell her, that is because you made me eat them.. and that was what was to eat (again no McDonalds). In my childhood, you ate what was cooked and if you didn’t like it you either ate it or went without. Picky eaters did not exist in our family … it was not allowed.
I never will forget that weekend Jim and I went up to visit our relatives in Statesboro and stayed with Aunt Teeny and Uncle Floyd. Aunt Teeny fixed a breakfast fit for a king.. scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, biscuits, gravy, grits… Jim ate and ate. He told Aunt Teeny that those were the best scrambled eggs he had ever had. Whereupon she told him that the secret ingredient was pig brains. I thought Jim was going to upchuck right then and there. Somehow he managed to keep it together but he made sure he never ate them again. Even though they tasted good, I guess he could not get passed the mental image of what pig brains might look like.
One thing that made life on the farm tolerable was family. Especially our cousins. Even though we all worked very hard, we had a lot of fun times too. We spent many times running through the corn fields playing tag, spent time playing tin can alley, hide n seek in the barn and just so many happy memories there. Getting together on a warm summer night and eating boiled peanuts and drinking sweet tea under the mulberry tree in the back yard with the lightening bugs floating in the night air. We spent a lot of time chasing lightening bugs and putting them in jars with holes in the lids and putting them next to our beds at night, only to wake in the morning to find they had died. We decided not to capture them anymore. This is one of my most favorite memories. Sure wish I could do that right now. My fondest dream would be to be a child again and to just let the burdens of the world be carried by someone else, preferably an adult with a sense of humor, intelligence and a good general knowledge of how to navigate this big old ball, we call the World.