Monthly Archives: March 2015

Memory triggers

OverstuffedArmchairThe other day I caught a glimpse of a flowered, overstuffed chair on a TV sitcom and my mind flashed back more than 50 years, to my grandparents’ living room. Clear as day, I saw again Mimi’s flowered, overstuffed armchair, backed against the wall between her living room and dining room.

Just over the chair hung a large framed photo of the U.S.S. Trepang, Uncle Ponk’s submarine home during WWII. I heard again Mimi’s matter-of-fact voice recounting his wartime adventures, not realizing until years later how terrifying those days in the Pacific must have been for him, a young sailor just out of high school.  (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Trepang_%28SS-412%29 for a little history of that ship.)

In my mind’s eye I saw the swinging french-style doors separating the two rooms and heard the little squeak one made when pushed. On the living room side the doors were faced with sheer, not quite see-through nylon curtains, affixed top and bottom with narrow brass rods.

The soles of my feet felt again the cool grit of sand tracked across the linoleum floor. (It was summer time; shoes were optional both in and out of the house.) Shades of pastel blue and  green floral patterns on the floor complemented those on the sofa and chairs.

Large, light and dark cherry pink blossoms predominated on Mimi’s slip covers, some of them hand-sewn from feed sacks. That’s right — feed sacks. Chicken feed for Mimi’s hens and rooster came in 100 pound sacks made of cotton material, never paper or plastic. None were ever discarded. Pillow cases, aprons, kitchen curtains and furniture covers could be constructed of that material.

Mimi owned a sewing machine in later days, but for the feed sacks she just used a large needle and strands of white thread. Her careful stitches never raveled. She didn’t need a pattern, at least I never saw her use one for these creations. If she got tired of a particular pattern, or if the material wore through, well, another sack would be along most any day.

In my house, I treasure several such triggers from that country farm house. Like granddaddy’s platform rocker. One of my earliest and fondest memories of my mother’s father (Da to us grandkids) is of him sitting hunched over in his rocking chair in the living room. In those days it was covered with heavy faded pink brocade, the pattern worn off on the arms and seat.

Da would call us over and suggest, with a twinkle in his eye, that we didn’t really want a slice of his apple, did we? He would proceed to use his pocket knife to slowly pare a large, shiny red apple, taking special care not to break the single spiraling peel.

When at long last he was satisfied that all the peel was indeed off, he would not halve or quarter the apple. Instead he carved thin flat ovals, offering one slice at a time to first this child, then that one, then one for himself, until every smidgeon was gone, all the way down to the seeds.

Other days he would bend forward a little so one of us could reach the top of his head with his metal pocket comb. His coarse, gray hair cut short in a military-style bristle, we thought it great fun to run the comb back and forth through his hair and watch it spring straight back up. These days it would seem like a peculiar way to have fun, but it certainly amused us kids back then.

I don’t remember Da ever rocking in that chair. He sat in it to read mail or a farm magazine, to pull off his boots at night or watch TV in later years, but mostly he reigned over us grandkids from that chair.

Today that chair resides in a place of honor in my sunroom, not often used as a chair by me but well used for naps by one of my cats. She doesn’t rock in it either. I never look at that chair without remembering Da, the apple or the twinkle in his eye.

Then, there’s Mimi’s pie safe. For newcomers to these parts, a pie safe kept pies (and cakes too) safe — from flies and gnats, mostly. It housed an assortment of other stuff too, like everyday plates, an occasional piece of mail, toothpicks and a few knick-knacks, but its most important contents were Mimi’s home-baked cakes and pies.

Coconut pies. Pumpkin pies. Coconut layer cakes or pineapple layer cakes. There was always a pie or cake in that safe, you could count on that. In the bottom section, dark and dry, Mimi would store one of the huge fruitcakes she baked at Thanksgiving, wrapped in rum-soaked cheesecloth and kept “safe” from sweet tooth marauders until Christmas time.

That pie safe now safely resides in my house too, not full of pies and cakes but books. Every time I pull one from those shelves, I can almost smell the grated coconut, pumpkin pie spice or rum-wrapped fruitcake.

Memory triggers appear in lots of places these days, like the block of ice I saw in a commercial one night. Suddenly it was a summer day in downtown Florence, school was out and all the neighborhood kids were skipping and yelling behind the ice wagon.

I smelled again the long-eared mule —  or was it a horse? I saw the splintered wood of the wagon bed… fingered coarse wisps of wet straw poking out around the frozen edges… ran my tongue around a mostly-clean sliver of ice… stuck my sandaled toes in the icy water dripping on the steamy pavement… and watched the driver swing his ice tongs, catch a choice block, and lug it over his shoulder to the ice box in our apartment on West Palmetto Street.

Pleasant memories, mostly.

March 23, 2015
(Adapted; first published October 21, 2004)

Ora Lee’s first taste of iced tea

Ora Lee Cox, 1919-2008

Ora Lee Cox, 1919-2008

Ora Lee Tanner Cox (my mother-in-law) remembered her very first glass of iced tea, when she was about ten years old.  This photograph was taken at her birthday celebration at the Tanner family farm, July 2005.

Ice was a rare thing in my house growing up. Once in a while daddy brought home a load of fish packed in ice. He’d sell the fish off the back of his truck and after being in with all those fish the ice wasn’t good to use for anything else.

On special occasions we’d have iced lemonade to drink, like daddy’s birthday when all his family would come to see him. Daddy had two complete sets of children, eight with his first wife (she died in 1917). All of them were married with families and some lived up in Gastonia, North Carolina where the men could find work in the factories. Then daddy had seven more children with my mother, and we all lived at home.

The ones living up in Gastonia had to drive on dirt roads all day to get here. Mama would take one mattress off of each bed and put down on the floor so at least the grown-ups would have a place to sleep and they’d make pallets on the floor for all the kids. The next morning the children would all go out to play and the women would go over to the kitchen and fix breakfast, then immediately start on dinner.

The kitchen was in a separate room built off a little ways from the house, for fire safety sake. Cooking for that crowd would take a long time in those days, considering you had to start from scratch. Like frying chicken. First you had to catch a chicken, or two or three.

tannerreunionThe men would set up long tables outside, using planks on top of sawhorses. Sometime during the day, they would go into town to the ice house and bring back a block of ice for the lemonade.

Lemonade was made in a big barrel with lots of lemons and real sugar, and that block of ice kept it cold. That cold, sweet lemonade was a real treat. In the afternoon everybody would bring out their fiddles and guitars or banjos and we’d have a lot of music and singing before supper time.

In school (1920’s and 30’s) I was a member of the 4-H Club. One year our club was invited to a 4-H meeting at the high school in Kingstree. I had never been to Kingstree in my life and I was excited to get to go. I had to catch a bus over on the Hemingway Highway not too far from our house and I waited for the bus in front of Miss Grace Stuckey’s house.

She must have seen me standing out there in the hot sun, because she came out and asked if I would like a glass of iced tea. Since I was pretty warm I said yes ma’am and she brought me a glass. I thought it tasted like Black Draught, but she was so kind to bring it to me that I had to drink it. At least now I knew what iced tea was!

When I was in high school the 4-H Club took a three-day trip to Charleston. In high school the club didn’t meet during school hours but you’d meet in a lady’s house after school. I needed to go home right after school so I had to drop out of 4-H. But a friend asked me to go on the Charleston trip with her that summer, so I did.

We rode to Charleston in the back of a cattle truck, a large open-bed truck. There must have been benches down the sides but there wasn’t any roof. I stood up all the way, looking in amazement at everything we were passing. I especially remember crossing the old Cooper River Bridge. I also remember that by the time we got to Charleston I was sunburned.

The club slept that night at the Citadel and the next morning we all piled back into the truck for a sightseeing tour around the city. We went to the Museum and the zoo, and also to the Isle of Palms to swim. I don’t remember there being a lot of houses at the Isle of Palms, just beaches where we could all swim.

And we had lemony flavored cold drinks but no iced tea. That was just as well to me, I remembered iced tea as tasting too much like Black Draught!

Rolling stores and locker plants

RollingStore1939TennesseeI tend to wait till my cats run out of food before I go grocery shopping. Of course, by then we’re nearly out of people food too and by the time I get everything checked off my list, my buggy is piled high.

Back at home I try to find a way to wedge more stuff into the freezer compartment of my refrigerator. Bags of broccoli, boxes of waffles, shrink-wrapped corn on the cob and trays of hamburger — try as I might they refuse to stack neatly. Oh well, maybe the air can circulate better if things aren’t too orderly.

I usually shop in the supermarket closest to home for convenience sake. I don’t have to drive too far, there’s a handy drug store, a gas station on the corner and even a Burger King in case I don’t want to cook some of that stuff I just bought.

I don’t have a separate food freezer in my condo, but I think about shopping for one every summer when all the fresh vegetables are on display at the Pee Dee Farmer’s Market.

When I was growing up, a farmer with a pickup truck came through our neighborhood every week or so. His truck bed was loaded down with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, butter beans in the hull or already shelled and bagged up. Wooden baskets were piled high with cabbages, string beans, yellow squash and ears of white or yellow corn, sometimes even peaches or watermelons.

It was nice to have such a selection to choose from, right there at our front door. Of course, we lived in town so if the farmer didn’t come by we could run right down to the A & P for what we needed.

Listening to Tim’s mom and other folks around town recount stories of their childhood days, I have a fresh appreciation of how easy we have it today.

Shopping wasn’t so convenient in the decade or so before I was born, and especially not out in the country. Many farm families had no automobile and some that did couldn’t afford to drive it.

Trips to town for the things the family didn’t grow or raise might be made in a mule-drawn wagon once every few months, and if you ran out of something, you might have to do without it for a while — unless the rolling store came through your “neck of the woods.”

The rolling store was a big truck with sides built up and a cover on top. Inside, two rows of tall shelves were loaded with staple goods of every kind, a narrow aisle running down the center just wide enough for one shopper at a time.

Cash was short, and not every family had ready spending money to pay for their purchases. So, large crates were attached to the back of the truck to hold live chickens, fresh eggs and newly churned butter, traded to the rolling store for sugar, salt or coffee, maybe dress fabric, smoking tobacco or penny candy.

From about 1947 until 1964, D. C. McFadden operated a rolling store in Williamsburg County, a large speaker mounted on top to let folks know he was coming.

A former bread truck, his store had a feature many others lacked — a cooler for soft drinks and ice cream. Tim’s dad Theron Cox had helped him install it and rigged up a power cord.

He’d leave the cooler plugged in overnight, thus as he made his route during the day the ice cream would stay frozen and the cold drinks would stay cold. It was a popular attraction for all the neighborhood kids to hear Mr. McFadden’s store coming!

Most meat and produce were consumed fresh, dried, canned or salted at that time. There wasn’t any other way to keep perishable food. Only large cities had “locker plants,” refrigerated buildings containing rows of individual meat lockers, rented (and locked up) by folks needing a place to store large quantities of meat or vegetables.

Many Pee Dee area homes still used ice boxes, and actual refrigerators had small freezer compartments, only big enough for an ice tray or two.

After WWII, Theron Cox began putting his refrigeration skills to work. Locker plants began to appear throughout lower South Carolina, and plant owners hired Theron to install the equipment to make them work.

Now a family could purchase a side of beef or bring in their own pork and poultry, rent one or more lockers by the month to freeze and store their meat until needed.

Families could have fresh-frozen meat and vegetables year round, although they might have to travel many miles to get to their locker.

As home deep freezers began to appear, gradually locker plants around the state began to close down. Supermarkets with adjacent locker plants began offering meat cutting services, sausage grinding, hickory smoking or sugar curing for hams in order to maintain their customer base. Jim’s IGA over in Lake City was one of those.

These days an ice cream truck comes through our neighborhood in the summer time. The musical melody that announces its presence brings back fond memories of popsicles and moo bars, vanilla ice cream cups and wooden spoons. But I’d love to see a rolling store come by my house, even if I don’t have any live chickens to trade.

Minding the Store

CountryStoreShelvesMinding the store was one chore I didn’t mind, the summers I spent at Mimi’s house during my teen years. She always kept an ear out for the little bell hanging outside the store, but occasionally it rang when she was busy with more important chores, like removing the innards from a soon-to-be-supper chicken.

When the bell jingled at such times she’d call out, “Betts, go mind the store, please.” I enjoyed the responsibility that gave me, acting as store-keep for a while. It might be a farm wife looking for canned goods or gossip, or one of the local kids looking for an after-school soda pop and penny candy.

CocaColaDrinkBoxMimi and Da had built the little country store next to their house on Stagecoach Road out in Florence County. It served near-by neighbors and farm hands with one gas pump, one kerosene pump, one cold drink box, one large refrigerator, one L-shaped counter, and shelves full of cans and bottles running across the back wall, floor to ceiling.

Pretty much quiet during the day, that small store was the center of attention come sundown. Farm and mill hands getting off from work but not quite ready to head home congregated in the sandy yard between house and store, R.C. Cola or Red Rock in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Job news, family news, girlfriend news, political news, all were topics of conversation as the men wound down from their day’s employments.

Country Store Checker Game Scene from historical country store Western Reserve Village on the Canfield Fairgrounds CanfieldLots of daylight left in the day meant time for a checker game. Pulled outside for more elbow room, an upturned barrel made a handy table top for the checker board. Pepsi-Cola or Red Rock bottle caps served as checker men (the real ones had vanished long ago). Potted meat and packs of nabs made do for pre-supper snacks during those sometimes extended games, the honor system keeping up with who ate what.

When supper had finished cooking indoors, Mimi and I kept a watch from the environs of the front porch. It just wasn’t lady-like for us “women folk” to mingle with the smelly, sweaty, sometimes laughing, sometimes swearing crowd of working men out in the yard. But, eventually they called it a day and headed home for supper, and while Da locked up the store Mimi and I headed for the kitchen to put our own supper on the table.

Mimi’s store to me was a fascinating place, so different from the A&P in town. Most of the eye-level shelf space housed canned soup and beans, vienna sausages, sardines and tuna, hot sauce and vinegar, boxes of salt and large cans of black pepper. A variety of smaller cans contained allspice or cinammon, sharing space with tiny bottles of vanilla, lemon or almond extract.

The counter-top level included a variety of health remedies like Stanback, BC or Goody Headache Powders and bottles of horrible-tasting black SSS spring tonic. I can still taste that dreadful stuff – Mimi insisted my brother and I partake of that tonic teaspoon by yukky teaspoon every year, until the bottle was mostly empty. (Or lost. Or missing. Or something.)

Next came bottles of rubbing alcohol and liniment, mercurochrome and iodine, band-aids and square packs of rolled bandages and strapping tape, assorted sewing needles and spools of black and white thread. Bicycle tire patches were somewhere along in there, as were the tubes of rubber cement to go with the patches.

cigarettesPipeTobaccoTinsPrinceAlbert

For safety-sake (to prevent pilfering, that is), tobacco products were kept on the higher shelves and included Lucky Strikes, Camels, Old Golds  – and my mother’s usual brand, Chesterfields.

Adjoining those you’d find sweet-smelling loose tobacco for pipes and cigarettes in thin oblong containers, alongside convenient packs of cigarette papers for folks who liked to “roll your own.” Of course, the favorite kid’s joke of the day was “Do you have Prince Albert in the can?” “Yes…” “Well, you’d better let him out then!” Hahahaha!!

HoopCheeseThe refrigerator always contained a wheel of red wax-coated hoop cheese and a long tube of bologna, accompanied by a heavy and mostly-sharp butcher knife. Cartons of fresh-laid eggs, heads of cabbage or collards, occasionally a few other vegetables shared space from time to time with the cheese and bologna. A large scale for accurately weighing out the cheese and meat occupied the short counter, close by a roll of white butcher’s paper for wrapping the slices or chunks.

On the longest counter were huge glass jars containing assorted food stuffs. The best seller were large round cookies many of us used for “sandwich bread” on either side of hunks of cheese or bologna. Another good seller was pickled pigs feet. Little metal racks contained single-serving bags of pork rinds, potato chips, dry-roasted peanuts and packs of nabs. Other glass jars offered jaw-breakers, for the heartier kid’s sweet tooth.

Out in front of the store building were the gas and kerosene pumps, but customers pumped their own stuff, then came inside and notified me of how much they’d got.

CashRegisterAn old-fashioned non-electric cash register sat in the middle of the longest counter, for the benefit of the very few customers who paid immediately for their purchases. The register wasn’t used to actually register anything, you did the adding yourself on slips of paper, then mashed a button to open the drawer, took their cash money and counted back their change.

A receipt book lay next to the register, with a page or two to record transactions of individual credit customers. That was most of the store patrons, actually, seeing that they worked on the farm or at granddaddy’s sawmill.

Come payday they would try to settle up their bill, a chore only carried out by Mimi herself. Many regular customers couldn’t pay the entire amount due at any one time, Mimi said. Better let her decide how much was reasonable, how much could wait.

Bad weather days meant no work, she pointed out. No work, no pay, and so the balance didn’t quite balance during many summer weeks. Sooner or later they’d catch it all up, she wasn’t worried about it.

Still and all, that was the life, I thought. Mostly laid-back and worry-free, I thought. And compared to what goes on in the world today, it sure seems as though it was. I miss that little wood building.