by Glenda Walker St John
"There'll be no sitting or lying down on any of Minnima's made-up beds," I remember Mom telling me from an early age. "So, if you do go into the bedrooms, walk right back out," she sternly ordered, in her no-nonsense voice. Of course, that invited me to do just that very thing, but I didn't dare to do so.
Momma remains a person who wastes no time nor words in letting you know that what she says, goes. With her brown eyes twinkling and her mough chattering, I typically never quite got a word in edgewise. Through my own aging process, I've experienced more of life's lessons, so I no longer see many reasons to question her actions. In the cycle of things, I think Mom really knows best, just as she must have reached the same conclusion about Minnima. In addition, her declining health requires that I now provide the "leg work" Mom can no longer do; just as Mom cared for Minnima the last couple of years of her life. Truly, this care affirmed love in action-- never regretted; I only wish I could spend more time with her. "I have to work, but my heart is with her," I can remember Momma sighing.
Mom's parenting came directly from Minnima, and just a tad from Pa Conner. Children were considered life's treasures, and we never doubted that. Times were hard, and to sustain this precious life, the whole family had to pitch in. Mom tells me of her two brothers and two sisters, arising well before sunrise, eating a hearty breakfast, and then trudging to the fields to work until suppertime. Gazing at the pages of her past, she recalls how much she detested chopping cotton, with her eyes stinging from the salty rivers of sweat that drained into them. Next came the back-breaking chore of picking it with gloved hands, and filling the tow sacks, time and again, day after day, until the fields had row after row of stalk-soldiers with tufts of white here and there serving as sentinels.
Minnima definitely didn't agree with her three daughters slaving in those fields. "My daughters will stay at home with me where they will learn to cook, clean, do washing, ironing, and keep our house ready for guests at any time," she'd pledge to Pa, with both hands gripping her hip bones and not a hand needed to be raised in gestures, either. Not every time did she get her way, life often overruled her.
Desperate times called for Minnima to send her daughters to the fields with the boys, with her lips grimacing, but her tongue held still. The family sacrificed to send the oldest son to college, for surely that determined the route toward the destination of a better life. Glenn planned to teach school upon his graduation, and he aspired to send the next-to-oldest sibling to college. Young love dominated, however, for he opted for marriage and eventually contributed to his sister-in-law's education, instead of his own brother's. No one ever told me that life had to be fair.
Minnima never had much of an easy time in her life. Pa had to struggle to keep food on the table, for their well-worn farm land never knew modern-day cultivation and other preparation methods. In spite of their lean budget, Minnima always had her "fried tutters" for me. Considering my current size, those delicious grease-laden, brown-crusted "fried tutters" must have been a really good reason I had for my choice.
Hymns, sung and hummed, floated out of her kitchen as she cooked, and drifted to where I played with my Sears catalog paper dolls at the dinner table. I sat on the children's wooden bench where all the grandkids, in shifts if necessary, were always fed before the grownups. I regret that I never got the opportunity to sit as an adult at Minnima's table.
Minnima served what we know as down-home cooking. Today's health conscious people would absolutely cringe and want to do a power work-out immediately if they had to sit down to such a platter of heavy fare as my grandmother prepared. Biscuits and cornbread, both products of Clabber Girl Baking Powder and such home-supplied ingredients as fresh milk and henhouse eggs, accompanied every meal. This meant that one of the girls had to deliver the milk for Minnima to use after it had been cloth-strained from the bucket which had earlier been placed right under Bossie that very morning. If luck had it, the bucket hadn't been kicked over, or the milk flavored by the sudden swish of Momma's bossy bovine's tail swatting at a fly. Foaming raw milk thus brought into the kitchen, colorfully-shelled eggs gathered the day before from squaking, pecking hens' nests from the henhouse, and home-churned butter made from this raw milk put the scratch in Minnima's from-scratch bread. Pa Conner felt his meal was incomplete if he didn't put away at least half a dozen biscuits or pieces of cornbread. His six-foot, three inch frame never showed evidence of his hearty appetite because his continual motion burned those calories.
It fell upon Momma to gather the fresh eggs for Pa's bread, and she claimed two favorite hens. After having been shooed off their comfortable nests, these two fowls had foul dispositions; and more often than not, when my Aunt Rosie or my Aunt Faye tried to rob their nests of those treasures of pure golden eggs, these hens decided it was definately time to call themselves beak cops and do some serious pecking! Mom laughed at her sisters' sudden shrieks as those enraged birds ruffled all their feathers, and spread their wings like a 727 coming in for a landing. The pair of hens struck once or twice, scratched the henhouse dirt and regrouped to attack again, and finally chased the two trespassers from the coop.
Delighted in being able to upstart her older sisters, and shuffling and clucking like an old mother hen herself, Mom chicken-walked right up to the nests and ran her fingers around and around the straw before suddenly, carefully snatching the treasures. Her retreat was just as effective, although hilarious, to anyone who was watching. Since out of necessity, there was the strutting rooster in the henyard, these eggs were probably fertile; but since they were gathered daily, they were unquestionably used.
Watching Minnima prepare the meal's gravy held such fascination to my childish eyes. Continuing to use her favorite cast-iron skillet that she'd cooked the meat in, she would pour up most of the frying lard into a metal can she specifically used to save grease drippings. Minnima wrote the book as a pioneer recycler--everything had to be used time and again, until every last drop of product had been squeezed and wrung out from it like the washcloth she squeezed and wrung out to use to clean a child's face of the rivulets of sweat-streaked dirt paths. She especially searched and destroyed with her trusty washrag her grandkids' grit from the ring-around-the-neck collection. No patches of brown earth missed her scrutiny.
Directly across the kitchen from her cookstove, she'd open the flour bin at the bottom of her wooden cabinet, and sprinkle and stir four heaping tablespoons of flour. She diligently retrieved any flour spills in the palm of her hand as she made the distance from the cabinet back to her cookstove. After she had stirred and stirred out all the lumps in the grease-flour mixture in the skillet, she added dashes of salt and pepper to the bubbling mass. Content that she had dissolved all the flour balls to her satisfaction, she would again call upon her supply of fresh milk collected that morning to pour into the pan. A whirlwind of stirring followed, until the boiling mixture was creamy and thick to her quality standards. Sometimes she had added too much milk, or in times when the cow was almost dry she'd stretched the milk supply with too much water, she would have to make a thickening paste of water and flour to add to the cooking gravy. She always told me that this was where the saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," definitely applied. "Always try to get it right the first time, for the remedy for the problem takes away from the perfection," she lectured.
Much to my astonishment, I found out that Minnima wasn't as perfect as I thought she was. Boonsville is about thirteen miles from Bridgeport, where the family had to travel to obtain their staples. The grocery store they used was Spot Cash, because the owner was a man who truly knew the ways of country folk. Otis Meek always knew his customers and their needs, and because he had a heart of gold, many of his payments were bartered goods and money paid when it was available. Otis was wise, for he knew to look to the inner person, not just their material worth.
Minnima required a certain brand of snuff that Otis always tried to have on hand. Garrett Tobacco Company manufactured snuff in a brown glass bottle, sealed with a stamp covering the hole in the top, and the particular snuff batch Minnima insisted on had four raised dots diagonally placed on the bottom of the jar. Three dots would not do, Otis learned. "Oh, Lee, we are all out today," Otis related to Pa Conner one Saturday morning.
The effect of his words on this hard-working customer immediately set Mr. Meek into action. He went to his competitor, Mr. Kaker and bought the jar of snuff himself to give to Pa to take to his wife. We grandkids weren't allowed to ever see Minnima take her dips of snuff. Once my cousin Patti whispered to me, "Watch what she's getting out of her pocket. It's that little tin she has wrapped in her handkerchief." I was all eyes, and sure enough, she brought a bit of snuff out of that tin, pinched it between her thumb and her index finger and placed it between her gum and cheek. A small brush she'd derived from a hickory bush accompanied her dip. We were beside ourselves, for by hiding and observing from our vantage point under the table, we had finally proved our suspicions! I suppose even back then, she didn't want to set the wrong example of a female using tobacco.
Minnima was the first human being I ever laid my eyes on. February 26, 1946, was a day that proved the groundhog had seen his shadow two dozen days before, for there was a blanket of white snow on the ground, brisk air touching that fluffy blanket, and Momma's labor pains had begun. Jacksboro is about twenty miles away from Boonsville, and Daddy had to borrow a car to take Momma to the hospital, since their old hoopy wouldn't make it. My grandmother accompanied my parents.
Only five miles away from home, I arrived into that cold-weathered Texas scene, but was immediately surrounded with all the warmth in the world. Although Daddy was beside himself because Momma apparently waited too long to begin the journey to the hospital, he was as delirious as any new dad would be, even though I was his third-born child.
Minnima took care of me, and every time I would ask her to tell me just one more time about my birth, she would patiently relate it and end with this: "You were a good baby; you just lay there on your mother's tummy and looked around at the world." How often I've wished that I could hear just once more those soothing, loving words from my grandmother!
So I guess I loved Minnima and Mom from my first drawn breath. I always knew they were there for me anytime that I needed them. It's my hope that my own children and grandchildren may feel this same love that binds all generations together--the love of family.