My Mother Part 2 – Fire, Fish Ducks, and Grits
As mentioned before (Mother – Part 1), my folks had a chicken house with several hundred laying hens. Lois tended the chickens daily and collected the eggs. This event begins shortly after they had received, by mail order, a box of 50 chicks. Invariably, several of the chicks would not survive. The dead chicks would be burned to prevent the spread of any disease.
One mid-morning(my father was away for the day) Lois finished her rounds in the chicken house. She put several dead chicks on an existing burn pile a good distance from the chicken house and started the fire. Within minutes, a breeze whipped up and promptly pushed the fire into nearby dry weeds. The fire, fortunately, moved away from the chicken house, but headed straight for my father’s farm equipment shed that sheltered his tractor and several other implements.
Lois was unable to control the fire. Back then, we had no phone or other communications off of the farm. Mother grabbed me, jumped in the car and headed for help. The drive from the house to the public road was 1.5 miles and went down through the deep railroad cut (see “The Farm”). Going up the hill she met a couple of men coming in to go fishing (several local people had permission to fish from the farm). She told them what was happening. They went on to see if they could help while she went to call for help. The volunteer fire department showed up about 30 minutes later (they were 15 miles away).
I recall seeing them hosing down the smoking ashes of the shed and the burned hulk of the tractor. When they got through, there was nothing left but several posts that had supported the shed roof and the charred remains of the tractor and other equipment. The next thing I remember was my father walking around the ashes, kicking over the few standing poles. I did not hear any of the conversations that night—probably just as well. It was not long after that they gave up the egg business. (Oddly enough, there are no photos of this chapter in our lives!)
School Years – I could get by with Nothing
Lois started teaching the year I entered the first grade. She taught high school English and Biology. New Kent School was a two-floor brick building with a room for each of twelve grades, a library, a few offices, and an auditorium. The lower grades were downstairs (the boys’ and girls’ restrooms were also downstairs), middle school and high school grades were upstairs. Those first years, Lois and I both rode the school bus to school. Later, when we got a dependable car, Lois would drive to school and I did not have to ride the bus.
Because first grade was in the basement, I did not get by with anything. While I was generally well behaved, there was a girl in the first grade that I fancied. As everyone knows, little boys show their admiration for little girls by being bratty, teasing, etc. (I am told not all men outgrow this!) My actions soon came to the attention of our teacher, Ms Edwards, who was clearly the strictest teacher we would have in our entire twelve years of school. For punishment, I was sent to stand in the corner—in the hall under the stair well to the upper level.
It was a small school, and all of Lois’ students knew I was Mrs. Richmond’s little boy. The “girls’ room” was in our wing. Several high school girls had come by and spotted me in the corner. I stood there for the remainder of my sentence expecting my mother to appear at any moment. She never appeared and I thought perhaps she might not be aware of my misdeeds. It was not until dinner that evening she told my father that I had been sent to the corner in the hall. That launched an inquisition! After turning red, and stammering to try to explain, my mother explained that she had talked the teacher and found out what happened. They both had a good laugh. I did not understand the humor.
Speaking of punishment, well, it did not happen often, but mother’s mode of operation was a branch from a little pussy willow in the back yard. Those willow canes made effective switches and I felt the sting on the backs of my legs on several occasions. It was effective. I don’t recall the offense, but I do recall the consequence.
My mother was a pretty fair country cook. I think she did not enjoy cooking all that much, but in those days, that was the woman’s role. Balanced meals were usually prepared from fresh ingredients and included a meat, a vegetable, and a salad. If we were fortunate, there may have been a dessert. There was no question like “What would you like for supper?” We—my father and I—ate what she fixed—and liked it. That became part of my personal behavior throughout my life. I have tried (almost) anything new to eat set before me. Where ever I traveled, I figured if the local people could eat something, then I could at least taste it. Food has been a constant adventure for me (I did not say I have always liked everything, but would not have known that if I had not tried it). I have my mother to thank for that.
The only concession Lois ever granted me was that I did not have to eat country cured (“old”) ham. If she fixed that for dinner, she would fix me something else. Not sure why I refused ham, but that lasted about five years, then one day I announced, “Oh, I like country ham.” That was end of that.
Throughout my preschool and elementary school years, mother prepared most meals from scratch, except that about once a week we had Swanson “TV” dinners.
Lois was the equivalent of a modern pioneer woman. She would cook anything we brought in from hunting—so long it was cleaned and ready to cook. We ate well, even in lean times. We ate squirrel, venison, rabbit, duck, as well as many kinds of fish. My father trapped the marshes for muskrats for their pelts, and we ate muskrat on several occasions. It has a definitely gamey flavor, but it certainly was palatable. Not all of mother’s cooking efforts, however, were successful.
One day, several hunters that had launched their boat into the river from the farm left us four or five ducks. I recall mother being happy about the prospect of fresh duck. She spent some time cleaning and preparing the ducks, then put them in the oven to roast. Within an hour, the house began to fill with the most noxious odor—a very nasty oily-fishy aroma. It turns out that the ducks were mergansers—fish-eating ducks that were not fit for cooking because of the fish oil their bodies stored. It took a week to get the smell out of the house. As I recall, we ate at Susie’s house the next several nights. My father thought it was funny. Occasionally he would say, “Remember the time you cooked those fish ducks?” All he got in return was a glare.
And then there were the Grits
While on the topic of cooking; growing up in Virginia, you would think grits would have been a regular on the breakfast table. As it was, neither of my parents ate grits. I did not experience (and learn to like) grits until I went to college where they had them in the cafeteria every morning. I went home telling my parents about how great grits were and why had we never had them. Mother allowed as how she thought they were tasteless, not worth the effort. How they had lived in Virginia for more than 20 years and managed to not develop a taste for grits was a mystery to me. After all, they liked cream of wheat and farina!
Mother, however, decided to surprise me and fix grits. She got a box of grits with a recipe for cheesy grits, which she had heard me mention. That evening she served up a casserole dish of cheesy grits. They were gritty for sure. Naïve, my mother did not realize (and had overlooked the directions) that it was necessary to cook the grits first, then make the casserole. She simply put the dry grits with all the other ingredients in the casserole dish (minus any water) in the oven.
It was true grit!