Monday, November 19, 2007

Finally, something close to complete

This is a complete revamping of a previous essay I posted. Officially, it's a braided piece with two different stories connected by text and this is the first time I've toyed with this type of essay. I like this format and will probably use it more often since it complies with my erratic nature. It's very close to finished with some minor changes that still need to be worked. Comments, as always, are greatly appreciated.

It's a little long, so I broke into three parts for your convenience. Also, I attempted to format it to make it as easy to read as possible, but blogger seems to have some rule against paragraph indentations which I find quite annoying.


Nanny’s cast iron frying pans are smooth, black and cool to the touch when I scrape the food out and gently wipe a rag over them. Nanny, paternal great-grandmother to my children, is a seasoned veteran of cornbread, sweet potato casseroles, collards and hasty meals thrown together to appease the ever-advancing army of visitors. This meal is one to feed the hordes brought together by the death of her brother-in-law, Claude Junior. Nanny, as I’ve known her since I became part of the family, has always been the most genteel of hostesses insisting I “don’t need to worry abut them dishes” but she and Pa are leaving tonight to sit with Claude Junior’s family. I want to do my part, however small, and insist it won’t take me long to finish up.

I don’t tell her I secretly want to feel her cast iron frying pans. Running my hands across them, I can feel generations before me passed into the skills of their daughters. Nanny’s pans have been well cured.

Standing before a stove for more than fifty years, Nanny has spent her life caring and cooking for the ones she loves most. Her own mother, raised in the hills of north Georgia, brought her daughters to the kitchen in a gentle process – testing their mettle in the heat and steam – slowly applying layer after layer of love to seal the strengths of her children. It was a curing process meant to last a lifetime.

“Joyce,” her mother would say while she was shelling peas or feeding chickens, “Why don’t you go on in the house and make some chocolate pudding? You always make such good pudding.” Joyce – Nanny now – must have basked under the praise and she willingly followed her mother’s suggestion. Certainly she carried this lesson with her through out life. She is always seeking to find the strengths of her family and fortify them with love and encouragement. Nanny never gives up on a lost child, always striving to bring them back in the fold. She has spent a lifetime caring for family and friends; treating their ills with a hug, a suggestion, patience, a home remedy, or a meal and a place to sleep.

* * *

My mother gave me my first cast iron pan when I moved into my own home at 23. It was small, black and smooth – just large enough to sauté onions or prepare an omelet. However, I began housekeeping as a mother to a four-year-old daughter and quickly discovered one pan would not suffice.

After a day’s long search that carried me through every local store, I gave up and called Mama in frustration when all I could find were gray and bumpy cast iron pans. They were not the black, smooth ones I’d grown up with in my mother’s house. Even the gastronomically inept such as me could see these gray imposters would never be worth using. Between gusts of maniacal laughter she said, “You have to cure it.”

“Of what?”

The perplexity of preparing meals had never been one I cared to explore when I lived at home.

* * *

The properties of cast iron make it a natural choice for use in cooking. It retains and diffuses heats evenly across the surface of the pan. It can easily be molded into many shapes including cookware. However, cast iron pans in their natural state are porous and food is prone to sticking to the surface. To create an impermeable cookware, one must cure the pan. Many people prefer to cure cast iron pans by simply cooking with them. By cooking food with a high fat content such as bacon, sausage or ground beef, the pan is cured over a period of several uses.

The process my mother gave me when I bought my first new piece of cookware was to simply coat the entire pan, inside and out, with a thin layer of shortening. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and put the pan upside down on a large sheet of aluminum foil in the oven. Bake it for two hours. Mama said to repeat the process several times.

Generations (part 2)

On the day of Claude Junior’s death, Nanny meets me at the door of her house that began life as a two-room sharecropper’s shack a century ago. The roof is still layered in handpicked cotton under the modern shingles. In her drive to find the light in darkness she calls it her little cottage. Nanny’s eyes are tired and shine with grief. Always, they mirror a lifetime of love and hope and patience.

“You shouldn’t have worried about coming out here,” Nanny scolds as she reaches to hug me. “I know you’ve got too much to do with the babies and school.”

“I couldn’t have not come. You’d do the same for me,” I remind her. And she has many times. Even though John, my children’s father, and I are no longer lovers his family is still my children’s family. My family. It is the way of people who cling to the small criss-crossing maps of kinship. We do it to remember who we are – the molding of ourselves.

She points in the direction of the kitchen. “There’s some dinner –sweet potatoes and collards – on the stove. Lynn brought over some cornbread. Fix you and the younguns a plate.”

I protest because I have not come with needs of my own, but to offer condolences and assistance.

“Go on and fix some plates,” she urged while simultaneously greeting and hugging the children. “We’re about to head up to Claude Junior’s here shortly and there ain’t going to be anybody here to eat it. It’ll just go to waste.” Nanny seems to only use the word “ain’t” when she is insistent and I know a continued resistance of her offer is futile.

I give up and walk into the kitchen. The house is already full of her children and grandchildren, but it always seems that way. Nanny said she once counted twenty people walk through her front door on a Monday. She’s never turned away a visitor or a person in need. It is an amazing concept to me – to have people near me endlessly. In my desire to find peace and solitude, my withdrawal from society takes a near hermit-like approach. She must have an inordinate amount of patience and love of people.

Performing a dance between the stove and dinnerware cabinet while weaving between children clamoring for dinner and drinks and popsicles, I savor the way a small kitchen retains the aroma of dinner. The sweet potatoes float in butter and brown sugar in a cast iron pan on the stove. The cornbread, cracked across the top where heat expanded the crust in the baking, is dark and crispy on the sides and bottom, a state of perfection only achieved through cooking it in cast iron.

I sit next to Lynn, Nanny’s oldest daughter, with my plate and a glass of lemonade. We’ve spent a lot of time together this past year - two single mothers seeking to rebuild ourselves and strengthen family relationships not only for our children, but also from a personal desire to tie back into traditions and bonds. “That cornbread probably isn’t all that good,” Lynn warns me. “I ran out of milk and had to water down what I had left to make it.”

I cannot notice a difference in this pan cornbread and any of her previous pans I’ve eaten. She is, after all, of a matriarchal lineage capable of imparting culinary secrets to their children. It is delicious and I eat two pieces while she insists the cornbread is not good.

* * *

“How do you make biscuits?” I asked my mother. Again, my quest to become Julia Child demanded an exact explanation of where I went wrong. My own biscuits always seemed to look fine when I put them in the oven. They came out a dark, crispy brown in approximately the same thickness and circumference of a quarter. The oven, obviously, lacked some important mechanism to make my biscuits rise and expand.

Mama had grown used to my random demands for over-the-phone cooking classes. She did not laugh, but seemed to be suppressing either mirth at my antics or eagerness to finally be needed by a contentious child.

“Well, Marie Taylor likes to use lard in her biscuits then she pats them out with her hands. Don’t you remember how you’d always see the prints of her fingers on top of her biscuits?”
I considered Marie Taylor’s biscuits and only recalled inhaling them, not considering the little pieces of Marie Taylor’s personality and finger prints imbedded on her biscuits.

“No,” I decided. “And where do you find lard?”

“You can get it over by the Crisco, it’s in a white bucket with a green top. But I just use the recipe on the back of the White Lilly flour bag and pat them out. Your brother likes to make cathead biscuits.”

Jesus. My brother could make biscuits and I made miniature hockey pucks. Perhaps if I’d had more patience as a child or if my mother had found patience with me, I would have known how to cook before I moved out. We’d come to an unspoken agreement years before in order to preserve the peace between a woman and her teenaged daughter. Our shared personality traits divided by a generation clashed more often as not in my search to find autonomy. She provided dinner and I washed dishes. It was a minimal conflict approach.

After moving out, I began to realize I’d let something important bypass me. Not only was I incapable of cooking, I had little to pass on to my children in the way of preserving family bonds. In eschewing the skills and small traditions my mother had to offer, I’d taken something very important away from my brood.

“Be sure to sift the flour first,” she reminded me.

* * *

Cast iron pans share a curious connection with food not found with other types of cookware. Curing a pan changes the porous nature of cast iron. The grease seeps into the natural voids and seals them, creating a smooth, nonstick piece of cookware. Each time the pan is used, the pan absorbs a little more from the food and a tiny memory of the meal is sealed into the cells of the pan.

Doctors have recommended cooking in cast iron pans to patients with a history of anemia, an iron deficiency. The food absorbs particles of iron from the pan increasing the iron levels of the meal. The pan takes natural fats, giving back valued nutrients. (Still not happy with this sentence.)

It is a symbiotic relationship.

Generations (part 3)

Nanny leaves her company to pack an overnight bag in the bedroom painted light pumpkin chiffon. She is a firm believer in the value of color therapy and has told me of the many crying and inconsolable babies she brought into the chiffon bedroom to soothe them with those peaceful hues. My own children have slept well there.

Still desirous to be of assistance in their time of need, I gather all the dinner dishes and stack them next to the sink. While I’ve never been touted as a master chef, I am an excellent dishwasher and am determined to provide my services. Washing first the glasses, the cups, bowls, and utensils I finally come to the pans.

While I’ve managed a basic competency in my own kitchen skills, I’ve still not treated my cast iron pans well. The pan my mother gave me so many years ago has lost the cure through my carelessness. The inside is pitted and dull matte black.

I consider the food still left in Nanny’s pans and waver. I do not like washing pans and almost leave them. But a sudden desire to see the inside clean and free of leftovers – to see the finish on the bottom - clutches me.

Hefting the pan of left over sweet potatoes, I am awed by its weight. I’ve relegated myself to simple aluminum pans since the ruin of my cast iron. Aluminum is not as solid and enduring as cast iron. No one bequeaths aluminum pans.

Nanny has been in and out of the kitchen since I’ve been washing dishes picking up one thing and packing away another. When she comes back, I am scrubbing a sticky spot on the sweet potato pan with a metal spatula. She calmly informs me there was a scrub pad in the sink I could use to clean the debris away.

“Oh,” I reply in ignorance, “I can’t reach it because it’s under all the clean dishes in the other sink. I was just going to get this little bit of brown sugar off.”

“That’s okay. I can get those,” she insists. I am beginning to realize I may have done something wrong. She does not panic, but is possibly a little anxious and I am mulling over the possibility of a faux pas in my dishwashing capabilities.

“Oh, I’ve got it now,” and I rub the rag over the pan and rinse it off.

“Just use the scrub pan next time, if you don’t mind. The spatula might scratch the finish.” The light bulb flashes over my head and I realize I’ve attacked a well loved pan like a barbarian.
We talk several minutes more and I learn to never apply soap directly to the pan since it will take the finish off and the curing process would have to be done over. Nanny is particular in the care of her pans and through a simple mistake in her kitchen, I am learning I’ve committed egregious sins against my own cookware.

* * *
I called Mama. “What are you bringing to the family reunion?” I have not attended a family reunion in years, but lately I’ve been feeding an urge to explore the past and my people.
She considers her list a moment and recites a litany of typical reunion fare: vegetarian hash, butter beans, cornbread, and baked ham.

“You aren’t bringing apple dumplings?” I was disappointed. My mother always makes apple dumplings for any special dinner.

“No. I just didn’t feel like it this year.”

I am excited by the prospect of finally settling on what dishes to bring. “Good. I’m bringing the apple dumplings. Maybe I’ll bring some purple hull peas, macaroni and cheese, buttermilk pie and biscuits.” My biscuits have come a long way.

“Don’t forget to add an onion to the peas,” she reminds me. She had suggested she would simply cook enough for both her own household and mine since I was “still her child.” People are still leery of my food, but I was determined to prove I’d learned something productive in 31 years. That I had listened.

A week later, I carefully cooked each dish one at a time in an effort to allay any mishaps. I am incapable of cooking multi-course meals without disastrous affects. By 2 o’clock in the morning, I’d successfully cooked the dumplings and purple hull peas with the onions. The macaroni and cheese, a recipe highly recommended by an online friend, turned into a five pound hunk of crispy mess when I accidentally set the disposable pan on a hot eye. An attempt to repair the damage by adding an extra pound of cheese was only nominally successful. The apple dumplings from my mother’s recipe and buttermilk pies were exquisite but I’d lost patience after seven hours of cooking one dish at a time and went to bed without making any biscuits.
The next morning, I packed my children into the back seat with pans and foil-wrapped pies packed into boxes insulated with towels and old coats. In a small frenzy, I begged my thirteen-year-old daughter to hold the peas and the dumplings tightly. We lost the peas three miles from the house and I had to stop to scrape them from the floor. I did not berate her. It was my fault for using a flimsy pan. It was a small blow to my tightly-strung pride. No one would taste the delicacy of my purple hull peas. And I’d remembered to add an onion, too.
Later, I stood over the table wondering where all my apple dumplings had gone when an aunt I do not remember walked up to me.

“Honey, do you know who made these apple dumplings?”

I puffed up a bit. “Oh, I did.”

“Well, let me tell you,” she said, “I was talking to James earlier and I told him whoever made these things ought to be either shot are given their own restaurant because they must be a genius in the kitchen. These are the best things I’ve ever tasted. What’s the recipe?”
I was disturbed that someone wanted to shoot me over the apple dumplings. Regrets over claiming the dish began to rise when it seemed my cooking could incense violence. Finally I began to understand shooting the cook for their excellence in the kitchen to be a compliment.
“Well, you just cut the apples into 8 pieces and roll them in cinnamon and sugar and then rap them in crescent rolls and there’s this thing with orange juice and sugar and butter. . . ” I wanted to hold onto the moment, but I couldn’t remember the recipe and I felt every bit the sham for attempting to relay my mother’s recipe as something I did everyday. “I tell you what. My mama makes them all the time and she’ll probably remember it better than me.”

In a short time, my mother found herself surrounded by a covey of little gray-haired ladies eager to replicate apple dumplings for their next get-together. It was my small homage to her for waiting through the years I’d ignored everything she could have shown me until I was ready to listen. I’d cooked them, but she taught me how and I wanted the aunts to know.

* * *

All the families I’ve ever known do not question the value of cast iron. It is an unending belief passed down through some seven centuries, carried across the Atlantic Ocean and Eastern mountains by settlers who finally settled in the rolling Georgia midlands. The proclamation of cast iron goes back even as far as the fourteenth century when King Edward III, sovereign ruler of England, proclaimed iron pots and pans to be a part of the crown jewels.

Edward may have realized the valuable properties of cast iron, but it was the people who understood the history carried in the molecular structure of a pan handed down from mother to daughter. A cast iron pan carries a tiny memory of each meal cooked in it. The cornbread a daughter cooks in a pan that her mother passed down to her carries the faintest traces of her own mother’s cornbread. History and lessons and memories flavor each meal.

I’ve accumulated three cast iron pans over time – one for each child I’ve borne. Soon, I will repair the damage done and infuse them with small memories. Somewhere along the way, maybe I will teach my children the patience and endurance learned from my mother and their great-grandmother. Years after they’ve left me to forge their own way in the world, it would be nice if they gently rubbed their hands across the smooth blackness of a cast iron pan one day and could feel all the family lessons and history soaked up from years of sautéed onions and cornbread.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

It doesn't roll until the last stanza, but I'll play with it later

Magnolias Stink

So you don't like
my robert plant hair
my inconstant habits
my trailer park stance
my mismatched brood

So you think
I'm a little trashy
a tad bit uncouth
I'm completely of no use
and definitely up to no good

And maybe I am
with my two buck smokes.
I stand by your man
in paint stained pants
and hard edged gutter laugh

Because I am
moved with a drive to disrupt
and divide the cultured cult
to steamroll and undo
to make you pay back my dues.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

So My Unicorn Has Cancer - A writing prompt

This is a writing prompt assigned by my capstone professor: Begin a story with "So my unicorn has cancer." I may stick writing prompts and my response up from time to time. Feel free to try them yourself. These are generally rough drafts I stick up here for amusement. Well. I sort of stick everything up for amusement. There is no rhyme or reason to this blog.

So my unicorn has cancer. Or so he told me today. The week before, he had gangrene in his horn. The week before that was asthma and the week before that he was pretty sure he'd had a stroke. I should have known better than to buy him from Lying Jack.

Lying Jack got his name because he is a liar. Pretty simple, yes? But the problem with Lying Jack is he is a very good liar. Really Good. I guess people call him Lying Jack so we could all remember why not to listen to him, but somehow people still forget. At least I'm not the only pulled in by Lying Jack's fast talk and dead serious eyes.

Toot Knowles bought a bunch of beans off him one time. Lying Jack said they were passed down from his great-great-great grandfather and they were not just any kind of old beans but they historical magical beans; that Toot had probably heard about his great-great-great grandaddy when he was a little boy. People told all kind of stories about him and his magic beans in children's book.

Oh, I know. It sounds ridiculous to hear about it now, but you obviously don't know Lying Jack. He just has this way about him. Some sort of earnestness in his eyes and his voice just seems to soothe doubts into nothing. It's like he truly believes everything he says. Maybe he does. It's hard to tell with Jack.

Anyway, Toot found himself with a handful of historical magical beans and felt pretty confident he'd gotten the better end of the bargain as he watched Lying Jack walk off with his wife's new Kitchenaide Mixer. With the attachments and a meat grinder. It wasn't until late in the bean season that Toot finally decided he'd been had by Lying Jack. All he has was a record setting beanstalk and the new nickname of Toot. You know. Because of all them beans. They did seem to rumble a stomach more than other types of beans. And Toot did get his name and picture in the Market Bulletin. He looked like a man with a sour stomach in that picture. He's been cooking for himself ever since he gave away the kitchen aide mixer.

I wish I could tell you Lying Jack never did take in anyone else, but then I'd be lying. He got nearly everyone in town to fall for some craziness or other. The chef, the baker, the candlestick maker. The mayor, the police chief, the lunchroom lady. All his life, Jack's done what Jack knows how to do and it seems to benefit him fairly well. Finally, I guess my turn came and he reeled me in with his story just like every other fool in town. I don't care to go into the details. It's a frightful embarassment how I ended up with ailing unicorn. My wife calls him a hypo-chondri-ac. She says we need to talk to him some more and show him we care. She watches a lot of that Dr. Phil.

She wanted to try and get us on that show so we could sort our problems with a real doctor of psychiatry for free and maybe get a little vacation as a nice bonus. I can't. How would it look for me to stand in front of the entire world with my head down because I let Lying Jack con me into buying some trumped up creature that don't do nothin but nag and sigh, sigh and nag. I've already got him sleeping in the bedroom because my wife thinks it'll make him have better self esteem or whatever.

I done been poked in the butt by that unicorn horn three different times on my way to the bathroom this week. He don't move, say excuse me, sorry, nothing. I can't. How would it look for me to stand up in front of the entire world with my head bowed because Lying Jack conned the devil out of me, I'm being run out of my own house and then have that Dr. Phil tell me my dog won't hunt. It ain't fittin.

Sure. Everybody around here knows about the unicorn and how I'm being pushed out of my own house. But that's different. Everybody here knows Lying Jack and they don't say much because they have their own affliction to contend with at home caused by him. Nettie finally put that phoenix out in the yard the second time it burned up her carpet. And Carl just does barely seem to tolerate that long haired blonde Jack introduced him to. I told Carl he ought to divorce and be done with the whole thing, but he won't. Says she just squalls every time he mentions maybe she ought to go home to her mama a little while. She goes to wailing and says she can't stand that boy climbing her hair no more. He doesn't know where she came from exactly, but he's just too soft-hearted to send her back to that kind of nonsense.

I understand. I don't know what to do with this unicorn. I got unicorn patties all over the house and a sore butt and my wife things I'm some sort of horrible person for not wanting to get therapy on national TV. I can't. Those people don't know Lying Jack and I just can't abide by being made more of a fool than I already am. Maybe I ought to do something, though.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Rough Draft

Nanny’s cast iron frying pans are smooth, black and cool to the touch when I scrape the food out and gently wipe a rag over them. Nanny, paternal great-grandmother to my children, is a seasoned veteran of cornbread, sweet potato casseroles, collards and hasty meals thrown together to appease the ever advancing army of visitors. This meal was one to feed the hordes brought together this time by the death of her brother-in-law, Claude Junior. Nanny, as I’ve known her since I became part of the family, has always been the most genteel of hostesses insisting I didn’t need to “worry about them dishes” but she was preparing to travel with Pa to tend to Claude Junior’s family and see about arrangements. I want to do my part, however small, and insist it wouldn’t take me long to finish up, and besides, no one want to come home days later to dirty dishes. I don’t tell her I secretly want to feel her cast iron frying pans.

Mama gave me my first cast iron frying pan when I finally set up house on my own at the age of 23. It was small, black, and smooth – just large enough to sauté onions or prepare an omelette. However, I began housekeeping with a family of three already in place and needed more pans. After a days long search that carried me through every local store, I gave up and called my mother in frustration when all I could find were gray and bumpy cast iron pans. They were not the black, smooth ones I’d grown up with in my mother’s house. Even the inept such as myself could see these gray imposters would never be worth using. She laughed at me.

“You have to cure it.”

“Of what?”

My mother had neglected most of my culinary education. Or rather, it seemed a mutually agreed decision to preserve the tentative peace between a woman and her teenaged daughter. Our shared personality traits divided by a generation clashed most often as not in my search to find autonomy. Many women of my grandmother’s era seemed to hold housekeeping close to them they way some may hold hard earned doctorates as sign of their abilities and importance. I cannot say my mother learned any of these skills from her mother and most likely learned to cook on her own or from her stepmother. My uncles will still laugh about the biscuits my mother made when they were growing up and claimed they once knocked down a wall with one. It seems she was sandwiched between a mother who had no skills to pass down and a daughter who did not want them.

Cooking was not a bonding experience in my family. In fact, my mother’s people have never been ones to bond in the traditional sense. Instead, we fight and argue and sometimes seek alpha dominance. Love is not a topic we feel the need to discuss or routinely exhibit. Instead, love seems to be expressed through a certain oddness where arguing is equated with love. Arguing shows concern and an effort to bring a certain loved one to the appropriate decision. Love has not so much been a pussyfooted kindness, but an unspoken demand from each of us. In exchange, we stand beside each other in the lean times, the stronger caring for the weaker ones. We push our own worried and fears aside when one is sick or in trouble. We do no cry then. Then we are poured from a cast of metal spines, clear heads and mildly hot tempers. Love is not expressed through words and hugs, but a level headed determination to find all the answers and provide the best solution possible to a problem. Love is a strong shoulder to lean on and a clear voice ask what needs to be done. At other times, we are all oil and water and cannot be mixed well enough to find peace in each other’s company for too long. In a family stocked with outlaws and inlaws left over from marriages gone bad, love is more of a loose confederacy. Even now, there is an awkwardness between us when my mother or I say “I love you.” It as if we are turtles deprived of our protective shells and we find ourselves unshielded before the world. It is expression enough in her gift of a frying pan and curing instructions. We know.

When I first began dating John, my children’s father, Pa and I had not yet been familiar with each other enough to hurl our now customary insults: “Good lawd, Ugly! I was havin’ a damned good day till you come along and messed it up. I do believe I done gone blind.” Pa is a big man, standing well over six feet with white hair and twinkling blue eyes that express too much mischief for a man his age. Like many men of his generation, he is missing more than one finger – lost in an effort to provide a home and meals for his family. On one of those summer days in the beginning of my relationship with John, Pa sat in the shade of a large tree in the unraked side yard of the house tending to a fire whose purpose I could not determine. I did not know him well in those days and was too shy to interfere in his business. Then he simply called me “Guhl” as he called most of the other women around him instead of my Pa-given nickname: “Ugly.”

I met up with Nanny in the shared yard between one of her daughter’s homes and her own small white house that began life some hundred years ago as a two-room sharecropper’s cabin. The roof is still layered in hand picked cotton under the modern shingles. Her eyes easily tell her lifetime of guiding her loved ones and she explained to me Pa’s decision to cure a frying pan in a handed down method of curing it over an open fire with bacon grease saved in an old coffee tin. He sat over the heat of the open fire gently turning and wiping the pan until the process was completed.

For some five decades, Nanny has stood in front of a stove providing meals for the people who mean the most to her. First, under the tutelage of her mother raised in the mountains of north Georgia and then in her own home while children stood under her feet in a kitchen not large enough turn around in. She raised and fed and tutored grandchildren in that same kitchen and now her great-grandchildren come in search of cornbread, popsicles, hugs and sweet tea. She has never turned away a child in need and shared more than would seem feasible to those who hold on tightly to their private stores and hearts.

King Edward III, sovereign ruler of England for half of the fourteenth century, proclaimed iron pots and pans to be a part of the crown jewels. The belief in the unending value of cast iron cookware has passed down through some seven hundred years, carried by settlers across the Atlantic Ocean and Eastern mountains who finally settled in the rolling Georgia midlands. Nanny, like women in my family (myself excluded), knows the value of a cast iron frying pan. She would hold them only in a slightly lower position directly under her loved ones in her casket of jewels - family being the only thing of greatest importance in life and the true reason for gently caring for her cookware. She does not berate me the day I wash her frying pans and attack one with a metal spatula because I cannot find the scrub pad. She does not even seem overly concerned, but tells me it would be better to use to the scrub pad and to not let the pans soak too long in water or put soap directly on the surface. I finally begin to understand why food still sticks to my own cast iron pans.

Unlike women in my family, Nanny is not opposed to crying openly in the face of uncertainty. It seems my children’s family wears their hearts on their sleeves and it is not in the slightest bit unusual to hear Nanny say, “I love you, son” to an adult grandchild. Expressing such personal emotions in the open was different from anything I’d ever known in my life. While it had never been directly stated by anyone close to me, attitudes told me it was a sign of weakness - emerging from this protective shell we don in our day to day interactions with each other and the world that has run against us since anyone can remember. It has taken many years for me to understand to walk through life without a permanent armor is a courageous act in itself.

I’ve amassed a collection of three cast iron frying pans since I began my time as an adult. In these years I’ve cooked with aluminum, anodized aluminum, nonstick, glass, and stainless steel in a vain hope my dinners would be palatable instead of just a serviceable meal to stave off the pangs of starvation. Slowly, I’m learning it is not necessary the fault of the pots and pans I choose to employ, but my own impatience with the intricacies of domesticated life. One cannot speed estimated cooking time under the premise that turning the burner to high will cut time spent over the stove in half. Years of personal experiments have confirmed this for me. My pans have also paid the price for my gourmet inaccuracies. The cast irons have sat in an ignoble place on the bottom cabinet shelf for quite sometime because I’ve ruined the finish and have only recent brought myself to the truth: their failures are of my own making. Washing Nanny’s pans was an affirmation that my own pans can be useful again with a little care. I plan to cure them again soon. They are growing older and are not going to always believe that Cajun blackened chicken noodle soup is a real meal.

I would like to pass them down to my children – one pan for each child; well seasoned with years of family meals and little lessons taught in between. Maybe somewhere I will be able to teach them it’s okay to cry in front of others and it is okay to stand up and defy the world when the cause demands it. These lessons are easy, it’s knowing when to choose the right course of action that life can work itself into knots. Years after they’ve left me to forge their own way in the world, it would be nice if they gently rubbed their hands across the smooth blackness of a cast iron pan one day and remembered life and family and love can be complicated, but every day is worth the effort knowing someone else will find small joys in their efforts. Hopefully, they will remember their mama loved them enough to cook even though I never seem to master the mysteries of a kitchen.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A truly ridiculous sort of poem created when asked to describe my muse

My Antagonist Muse

Bleached blond gum cracker
Loud and obnoxious lip smacker
"Kiss my grits"
Good god. She's a transsexual Flo
Talking out of all sides of humankind
Telling me to write about underbellied life

Good Lord? God Almighty? Somebody?
Why send me this one?

She . . . He . . . ?
is all kinds of in my ear
nattering over the gum
about men and women and women and men
about war and peace and children and gin

Shut her up so I can hear what she is saying

just once.

A bit of childhood mystery for you

(As a side note, a lot of things I post will be rough drafts from class. I welcome constructive criticism and fawn under praise. However, if you don't like my shit, just kiss my cracker ass. Thanks! -KAR)

When my oldest child was a toddler, I found an old Fisher Price record player at a yard sale and something from my own childhood called me to buy it even though the world had long moved onto CDs by then. We listened to a few records I’d bought with the record player but Rain never showed any real interest in it and over time I realized I’d been attempting to pass my Fisher Price memories on to her.

My record player was a small brown deal decked out in the wonderful late 70s colors of brown, orange and more brown. A plastic technological wonder of my very own, my record player was an untouchable to all other children, including my brother who still wet the bed. It was mine and was the one thing I ever bothered to take care of except for the Grimace cookie I once kept in the top dresser drawer as a pet. (The Grimace cookie was specifically chosen for its potential long shelf life after I was horrified to discover Grandaddy longleg spiders did not keep very well in a dresser drawer.) Grimace and I spent a lot of time jamming to our records in my little room of closet proportions fashionably decorated in 1978 trailer wood paneling.

We listened to “This Old Man” and sometimes I shouted out the lyrics so the Doberman out in the yard could hear them:





I knew this old man had a lot of problems and obviously drank to excess otherwise he could walk home instead of having to roll. For days, maybe even weeks or months, I’d come home from my kindergarten mornings, grab Grimace out of the dresser drawer and crank up This Old Man while I contemplated his life. I kicked off my shoes and sometimes danced around on the gritty bedroom linoleum my mother seemed to have given up on or possibly forgotten about in the struggle to keep body and soul together. It was a very catchy song.

This Old Man was also a very deep song about alcoholism and stalking. I knew this even then. They weren’t fooling me with that knick knack paddywhack business. The man played it all over the place. He played knick knack on my thumb, my shoes, my spine, and my gate. He gave the dog a bone to shut him up when he went on the knick knacking spree and then he rolled on home drunk as my Uncle Timothy Paul. Only a drunk would have to roll home. Normal people walk or drive. I guess paddywhacking was a very stressful sort of life and This Old Man had to drink himself into a stupor to deal with his own existence.

This Old Man captivated me. He was an alcoholic. Possibly a pervert. Maybe he was a few bricks off of a full load and just more child-like than perverted. The answer stood in the actual meaning of knick knack paddywhack. I was captivated and Fisher Price was the key to discovering the truth of This Old Man.

I lost Grimace because it turns out McDonald’s cookies do not have an exceptionally long shelf life . Life, however, moves on quickly for a five year old and I found a new record: Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City.” It was my most favorite song, even more so than the disturbing This Old Man. The 45 single, with it’s blue paper and butterfly symbol, expressed mysteries of wild and unknown places like cities where hungry children were shaped up like something wild and all the young boys wanted to take her home.

Fisher Price introduced me to what I thought was the idea of real freedom, of discovery by young girls of the world and their place in it. We rocked, pigtails and jelly shoes or not, we could be cool just like those kids at the roller rink. I’ve spent a lot of time as an adult wondering about what kind of people my parents were to let a child listen obsessively to a song about child prostitution. My favorite movies were Lady Sings the Blues and Barbarella so I can assume they were not ones to monitor the media content of their children.

I lost the record player sometimes after my parents divorced. I’m not sure what happened to it. Maybe I unknowingly lost it when they split the meager assets. My father often had a habit of taking bits and pieces of advanced technology and taking them apart to create something else. It is entirely feasible my record player became part of a fisher price/RCA/duct tape concoction used to hold a car engine together or play Atlanta sations on the radio. I was 13 before it was ever properly replaced with a wood paneled dual tape player, turn top, subwoofer system bought from the JC Penny Christmas catalogue. I slept between the speakers most nights.

My children still have the record player I picked up from a yard sale all those years ago. Only my youngest has ever expressed an interest in listening to it. He seems to especially like Puff the Magic Dragon. But we don’t ever listen to This Old Man. The guy’s a pervert.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Look ma! No Rhymes!

Fairy Tales

When she said the front yard was haunted

we believed her

because the sky was never blue there

and it seemed on the long drive up

you could see the rocking chairs had

barely visible occupants

only seen by the slightest movements.

So we would not go there

and relegated ourselves always

to the back yard to play,

the freshly plowed dirt in the fields,

and the bales of hay in the barn

where we would sneak away Lewis’s

little bottles of whiskey.

We would avoid the tire swing

beckoning us to come and sit

under the arthritic limbs of the solitary

gallows tree in that front yard.

Only the living had abandoned it –

Instead, we made a playhouse

in the abandoned hog pen

and locked Lewis in the chicken coop

with an angry one-legged rooster -

Always laughing loudly at our own antics

To keep the boogeychild away.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

There should have been a picture of my very first campfire here, but my scanner has moved on to the greener pastures of technological death.

A campfire may not seem like much, but there was hella lot of aggravation involved in its creation. In 1998, I was a single mother of a beautiful and terribly precocious four-year-old daughter. (Who is still very beautiful and precocious. But now she is 13 and I'm oft inclined to spit and roast her because precociousness just isn't very amusing on a 13 year old who thinks I am an idiot. However, I digress.) 1998 was the year we went camping with my best friend and her three year old son who was very handsome and also very precocious. If you ever put two terribly precocious small children in a car for a five hour joy ride, then that's a whole lot of precociousness in a very small space and never enough Valium to go around.

At that time, my best friend and I were right tight. Our kids played together, we went out together and over that summer we lived in her Mimi's lake house. We were both decidedly manless and were women set on conquering the world. We didn't need no stinkin men! Men were hell! Men were useless! They didn't help with kids! They couldn't keep jobs! Or they were dead! Let's go camping!

At the time, camping seemed like the logical thing to do when you were setting out to prove women could do everything men could do a million times better. We were mostly right in the assumption. Except for the campfire.

We set up camp in a light rain the first afternoon we arrived. Or maybe I set up camp because I was much more anti-man and infinitely determined to prove I was just as handy as any testicled-being. I taught my friend how to lay old blankets on the ground to absorb some of the moisture before setting up the 6000-pound 8-man tent I'd borrowed from my parents. Then we created a windbreaker and a porch-of-sorts from the plastic canvases we'd purchased from the evile, world-dominating Walmart.

After putting our things away in the tent, there was really nothing left to do that evening. Except build a campfire. No camp is complete without a fire and I wasn't about to let my camp be outcamped by those mancampers around us. Hell no. Of course, we didn't bring firewood with us on a five hour trip to go sleep in a dirty tent in the rain, but that was okay because the camp store gladly offered firewood for a relatively low price. I purchased my wood and set about creating my little campfire. I cleaned all the debris from the previous fires created by mancampers, arranged my little fire rocks in a nice circle and set up my firewood in a nice stack that I deemed to be worthy of a woman campfire.

Now in truth, I'd never really played with fire of any kind before other than the bic lighter necessary in lighting my cigarettes. My house burned down when I was 17 and I'd always been a little cautious in dealing with fire. But I wasn't about to let a little psychological disturbance stand between me and the perfect campfire. I gathered up a few pieces of pine straw that had managed to stay dry through the summer shower and twisted them up into what I considered a nice, tight little bundle. (I'd learned this bit of a trick from my Little House on the Prairie books when I was seven and had filed it away for future reference.) I lit up my little straw bundle and placed it under my stacked firewood and waited with all the confidence of a 22-year-old woman who knew everything.

When that bundle didn't work out, I lit three more bundles and strategically placed them under and in my firewood and blew gently. When I'd worked my way up to 8 bundles of pine straw, a few pieces of scrap paper and an empty toilet paper roll, my friend suggested I should ask the guys across from us how they started their fire. I gave her a firm, but polite, grunt and a"hell no" and went about my business of Creating Fire. There is something very neanderthal about Creating Fire and I found myself in favor of protecting my fire and my fire-starting secret. Except I had neither a fire nor the secret to creating fire. Yet, nearly every campsite around me had a fire. What in the hell were these idiots doing that could possibly be smarter than my pine straw bundles learned especially from Pa Ingalls? WHAT?

Some 45 minutes later, with our young and terribly precocious children waiting with their bag of marshmallows and straightened coat hangers, I swallowed my very unevolutionary pride and walked to a campsite just across from us.

"Hey, uh, so how did you start your fire?"

And that is when I learned about Magic Fire Sticks.

This guy, with all the calmness of an experienced fire starter, pulls out this . . . thing and told me he used it to Create Fire. In all my years of camping as a child, no one had ever shown me this Magic Fire Stick. I knew from its magnetic pull and the special glow of the yellow and red greasy paper wrapping the Magic Fire Stick that it had to be very special.

This Master Fire Starter explained to me that the Magic Fire Stick was a quick way to create the perfect campfire and walked with me back to my own cold, dark and miserable camp to show me how it worked. He showed me how to stick the Great and Mighty Magic Fire Stick under my little logs and light it. I Had Fire. Then he left me with my very own Magic Fire Stick for later use.

My friend clapped in giddy delight over the Magic Fire Stick as I calmly filed it away for future reference. Never again would I be fireless. This man, this fellow compatriot of humanity, had shown me the light. While I was still pretty anti-man for some months after that, it gave insight into my own stubborn attitude and I spent some time marveling over how I have spent my entire life determined to never ask for help, spending hours, day, weeks, or even months proverbially creating useless straw bundles to prove myself right when all I really had to do was admit I was wrong and let some guy give me a Magic Fire Stick.

That sounds a bit dirty rather than thought provoking.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

To Blog or not to Blog?

To blog. Yet, what bloggest I?

A year and a half ago, I began a blog in an effort to amuse myself. Two entries into it, I lost interest and it molders in the world of livejournals gone bad. It was funny. I was amused. And then I grew bored and frustrated.

The eternal question of my audience rendered me incapable of deciding anything for myself. Would my audience be amused by my antics? Did they want to read about a grown woman occasionally hiding in the closet and screaming in the pillow when her children were clearly developing a mutiny that would certainly overshadow any smalltime schemes of Fletcher Christian?

Should I espouse my political agenda? What is my political agenda? Oh. George W. Bush sucks donkey balls. I think many other people have cornered that market and made much better use of the material than I ever could. I’m not politically inclined. I’m not socially inclined, either. Quite frankly, I’m pretty happy sorting out all the little introspective voices in my head without some war-happy jack ass invading my personal time.

Should I take a religious approach? And who would be thoroughly interested in redneck cracker transcendentalism? I once told a friend that Ireland is truly God’s country. (According to the pictures I’ve seen because I don’t get out much.) “Which God?” she asked. Hell. I don’t know. Pick one. I don’t care. God is another name for yourself. Or the part of yourself you aren’t prepared to accept responsibility for because it’s too large for you. God is a woman. God is a cat. God is a transsexual Elvis impersonator. Believe what you want. I don’t care. You’re right. I’m right. We’re all right until you tell me I’m wrong. And then you can fuck the fuckity fuck off.

And this brings yet another question. Should I submit to my fondness for base language? Certainly it lowers the overall intelligence of whatever argument I am submitting to the public at large for consumption. And yet, it’s coarse and I am an earthy, barefoot, three-second-floor-rule sort of chick so perhaps it will be fine.

Welcome to my neurotic rants and random things that seem to happen only to me. Strap in, because I have no agenda and no idea where in the hell we’re going.