It was only after I lost my grandparents that I appreciated what disappeared with them. They lived at the foothills of the Ouchita Mountains, rocky knobs of earth that demarcated the western grass plains of Oklahoma and the shallow ridge of hills and forests that stretch east into Arkansas. Likewise, my childhood was spent in an in-between place; on one side were the poverty and scrappy hardiness of people like my grandparents and on the other, the upward mobility and middle class dreams of my parents' and my own generation. The house my partner and I recently bought has central heat and air. I don't think my grandparents ever even had air conditioning. I remember an attic fan that would kick on, pulling hot air upward and pushing cool air back down. In the winter, they used a wood burning stove in the corner of the room.
My grandma was a quiet woman with large bright eyes; dark, wrinkled skin; and long, black hair that defied gray, which she usually wear in a bun on the back of her head. Her wardrobe veered toward opposite ends of the spectrum: she wore either grandmotherly, print dresses or brightly colored slacks and shirts that were the epitome of fashion in the 1970's. My memories of her are wrapped up in the food she cooked. She preferred a wood cook stove and baked in cast iron skillets. Every night she cooked pinto beans and fried potatoes for my grandfather, and for the holidays, she baked home-made pies with golden meringue whipped from egg whites. She was quiet; she left the talking to my grandfather. Unassuming, modest, soft-spoken--my mother says that my grandmother was truly a lady in every sense of the word. She didn't have fancy clothes, servants, or any of the other markers of the elite, but she was a lady nonetheless.
My grandfather was the storyteller in the family. His throne was a green and yellow woven armchair, which sat in the far corner of the room, next to a love seat where my grandmother sat catty-corner to him. I wish I could remember the stories he would tell. But I can't. I do remember his voice though, the look in his eyes as he retraced the stories of the places he'd been, the people he'd known. It was mesmerizing, truly so, in a way that I've not encountered since. A person could sit and listen to him for hours, like a favorite song on the radio. For me, listening to my grandpa was an experience resonant with comfort. Outside, the weather was hot, the locusts were buzzing to kill a chainsaw, and inside, my grandpa wrapped us in the safety and familiarity of his storytelling.
My grandfather loves sweets; my grandmother abhorred them. His favorites were lemon cake and ice cream. I remember we would bring him cartons of ice cream for his birthday. Although far more talkative than my grandma, he was not a loud man, nor arrogant. He liked to laugh, found amusement in his children and grandchildren. He laughed with his mouth closed, and his laughter shook his whole body and twinkled in his eyes. Being the person who made him laugh was a special prize, like an unexpected gift on your birthday.
I could say my grandparents were simple people with simple lives, but I don't think anyone's life is actually "simple." If they aspired to touch stars or see unicorns, I never knew it. They worked hard all their lives and seemed satisfied with the bit of comfort they had accumulated at the end of their lives.
I have a lot of regrets when it comes to my grandparents. I regret their early deaths. My grandma was 59 when she died; she had struggled with diabetes and asthma for a long time. She died about a month, I think, before I graduated high school. I remember she kept an oxygen tank in the living room. My grandpa died several years later, lost and lonely without my grandmother by his side. I regret not listening closer to my grandpa's stories, not writing them down and asking him questions. I regret not telling my grandparents how much they meant to me, the way they shaped every aspect of my life. I regret an incident that occurred when I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven years old; the guilt has plagued my entire life.
It was Christmas. My grandparents never got us presents. They couldn't afford it. They lived on beans, potatoes, and government commodities. But that Christmas, my grandma had bought me a pair of earrings. And when I opened them up, I gave a snort of some sort, and my "thank you" was ripe with sarcasm. I thought I was cool; I'd heard the same sort of contempt come from some character on a Disney sitcom. But of course, I was just being a fool. My older cousin pulled me aside and told me not to act that way, and I told her my ears weren't pierced. I had no need for earrings. Funny that I felt no remorse at that point, but I've suffered from it every day since then.
I guess an adult can excuse such childish behavior as the folly of an immature mind. I guess I can chalk up all my regret that way. But I just can't balance the lasting impression my grandparents' had on my life with my indifference toward them when they were alive. Like most young people, I took my grandparents for granted. I can only hope that the residue of their lives that I carry in my DNA and in my memories pays them the respect that I owe them so dearly.
Watching my two-year-old's eating habits has given me insight into how to eat without getting fat. My little girl is gaining weight, sure, but she's losing her baby fat and getting a long, lean figure. So here is a diet plan based on her eating habits that you, too, can adopt to lose weight:
Eat nothing for the first hour after you wake up. Hold a bottle of chocolate milk in your hand while you watch tv--preferably cartoons--and take occasional sips.
When someone asks if you want oatmeal for breakfast, say yes. Then, when its brought to you, refuse to eat it and start screaming for sausage instead.
Eat four pieces of sausage into crescent-moon shapes and leave the pieces on your plate. Ask for a fifth piece of sausage, but don't eat it. Wipe your greasy fingers on your shirt or on the clothing of the person nearest to you.
When offered a sandwich for lunch, say yes, but don't eat it. Demand fries instead. Eat two fries and a bowl full of ketchup. Be sure to smear ketchup on the table.
For a snack, ask for peanut butter crackers. Lick the peanut butter off the crackers. Then, drop the crackers wet side down on the floor. When you notice the mess, start screaming and crumble the remaining crackers in your hands. Then, wipe the peanut butter and crumbs onto the family pet. If you don't have a pet, wipe your dirty hands on your shirt and in your hair instead.
For dinner, refuse to eat any mixed foods or any foods that are touching each other. Avoid foods with an irregular shape as well. Opt for bland, plain foods instead, like rice. Eat one bite of rice, dropping half of it in your lap in the process. Spill the rest of the rice on the table or tray in front of you and play in it, drawing pictures. Then, swipe the rice onto the floor, on your shirt, and on your lap. If you have a family pet, try to hit it with grains of rice or whatever other food you have left on your plate. Finally, ask for a bowl of cheese.
For an after dinner snack, ask for whatever the people around you are eating. When you get it, don't eat it. Eat out of their plates instead. Whenever they take a bit, whine that they're putting it into their mouths instead of yours.
Don't eat anything else for the rest of the evening. When it's time for bed, don't go to sleep until you're served a cup of milk or a piece of chocolate. Then, spill half your milk on the bed and smear the chocolate all over your face.
The next day, do it all over again, adding any minor changes that you believe will drive the people around you nuts.
Follow these steps, and you're sure to get that lithe, youthful figure you've always wanted!
NOTICE: This diet is not recommended by The American Medical Association, The Federal Food and Drug Administration, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Richard Simmons, Suzanne Somers, NAFTA, PETA, the NRA, the ATF, the PTA, the Chamber of Commerce, or your gerbil.
this child like me
so unlike me
fringed with black lashes
exotic as spider's legs
this child like me
so unlike me
like a waterfall
crashing in curls
around her shoulders
this child like me
so unlike me
that darkens in the sun
like a yellow pecan
this child unlike me
so like me
with piano fingers
palm lines that tell my past,
this child unlike me
so like me
like volcanic magma
that explodes in a shower of toys
like me, my child
so unlike me
My dad and I are a lot alike. Recently he had his truck worked on, and I drove him to the shop to pick it back up. The auto shop was just a few miles from Lake Texoma, and after I dropped him off, I decided to turn left and do a little exploring before I went back home. After a couple of miles, the lake spread out before me and the road turned into a gravel pitted, two lane trail. I turned around to go back to the main road, and what did I see but a giant silver pickup coming along to meet me. It was my dad! I rolled down the window and asked him what he was doing. He said he'd never been down that road and just decided to explore it. And it hit me--I was just like him!
And that made me think--who had made the decision to turn down that road in the first place? Did I consciously make the decision, or did my genes make it for me?
There had been an incident similar to this several years ago when I went my family on a vacation to New Orleans. There is actually a lot of land south of New Orleans, and my dad and I came up with the bright idea to get on the road and go as far south as we could, just to see what was down there. My brother and mom thought we were crazy, but they humored us, and off we went.
While this vacation demonstrated to me that my dad and I share a sense of adventurousness, there had never been a time when given the same set of circumstances, we both made the same choice independently of one another.
Sure, both of us choosing to turn left instead of right just to satisfy our curiosity may not seem like a big deal, but it really hit home for me how much alike we are. And it really made me wonder how much choice I have when making a decision. Am I a unique individual who makes her own decisions based on her own knowledge and wishes, or am I just a collection of my ancestors' thoughts and desires manifesting themselves in a contemporary setting?
Okay, so I know that my own genetic makeup is unique to me--even though my brother and sister and I all inherited our genes from our parents, those genes are expressed differently in each of us, but isn't it our genes that cause our personality and in turn, tell us what to do?
This is a crazy idea that's making my head spin. How many of my great-greats had this exact idea before me, and--without a computer or blog to express--wrote it in a diary or journal instead? Or didn't write it down at all?
I am not what you would call cultured. I don’t hang out in art galleries. I hate jazz. I don’t slosh wine back and forth in fancy glasses and extoll its floral bouquet. I think art house movies are annoying. I've never read Proust, and, frankly, I'm not even sure how to say his name. No, I am not cultured.
But I do have a culture.
Culture isn’t about being fancy, or at least, I don’t think so. It is a much more casual thing. It's the everyday happenings that fill up our lives. My culture is paint-splattered shoes that should have been thrown out months ago and t-shirts with bleach spots. It's a dog with a muddy rear end and a bucket full of kitchen scraps.
It’s beans and fried taters.
If there were ever a meal that bespoke the culture I grew up in, that would be it. Beans and taters. They evoke the warm sun of my childhood. They make me wax nostalgic. And it seems I’m not the only one who finds poetry in this meal of legumes and spuds.
I did a little google search to find out what other people thought about beans and fried taters, and here’s just a sampling of what I uncovered:
My grandmother used to make these, and I didn’t get the recipe before she passed away.
We had these often growing up.
I have been trying to make these like my mom did . . . when I was growing up.
I am a true Okie and these were a staple growing up.
When I was a kid, beans and fried taters were as common for dinner as milk is for breakfast. Everybody ate them. Well, maybe not everybody. Just poor people like us. But I didn’t know we were poor. All I knew is that we ate a heck of a lot of beans and fried taters.
So what happened, then, to this simple fare? Progress. Progress in the form of boxes of processed food that is quick and cheap. Before this so-called progress, if your stomach was empty and so was your wallet, what you turned to was a pot of beans and a skillet of crisp fried taters. Not anymore. It seems like nowadays they’re appreciated more for the memories they bring back than their affordability.
I, for one, ate a lot of beans and fried taters growing up. My sister, my brother, and I ate so many, we thought it must be our dad’s favorite food. It was! But, of course, that’s not why we had it every night for dinner. As we grew up, my dad worked his way up the financial ladder until more mainstream foods began popping up on our plates--hamburgers, spaghetti, tacos, macaroni and cheese--and less of the more traditional, cash-strapped stuff.
And like many others whom I found online, when I think of this rustic cuisine, I think of my grandma. For as long as I knew her, she made beans and fried taters every night for dinner. There was never any question about it. Every night. Thanksgiving. Christmas. It didn’t matter the occasion. There was always plenty of beans and taters for everyone.
My grandparents worked hard all their lives. I mean HARD. Not 40 hour work weeks. I'm talking about the kind of work that has you out in the fields before the sun’s cracked open the horizon, the kind of work that soaks you in so much sweat that bugs stick to your skin, the kind of work that builds your muscles and breaks your back. They hauled hay, chopped wood, worked in the broom corn fields, and heaven knows what else. Mind you, it was nothing illegal--no, nothing that would have gotten them rich.
By the time I knew my grandparents, they were old. Or at least, to my immature self, they were. And every memory I have of them, I cradle in my brain as gently as a newborn baby.
So when I say beans and fried taters are my culture, this is what I mean. They are a tradition passed down through the generations. They are my family. They are my childhood. And today, when I fix them for my own little girl, I am not just feeding her dinner; I am memorializing our family history.
You're probably wondering, "Hmm. Alley kids. Sounds interesting. It must be about homeless children living in alleys." Okay, so a confession--it's a catchy title, but what I'm actually talking about is Tornado Alley. You know, that region of the U.S. right in the middle, like the yolk in the center of an egg, where tornadoes and thunderstorms whip up the ground and send cars and cows flying? Yep, that's the one!
I grew up in southern Oklahoma, right smack dab in the middle of tornado alley. Tornadoes have been in the news lately because it's spring, and a massive F5 tornado just smashed its way through Moore, Oklahoma. Very sad. Several children died, and people lost their homes and possessions. I was lucky because all of my family and friends were spared.
I know what it's like to go through tornado watches and warnings. We get them every spring and summer. I live in north Texas now, but it gets its fair share of bad weather. A week before the incident in Moore, a different tornado tore up a neighborhood south of us.
Growing up, we routinely cleaned out the closet and huddled under blankets during tornado watches and warnings. It didn't really seem that scary, as I remember. What is far more memorable are the many times we lost electricity and sat around bored because we couldn't watch television. My mother thought these were prime opportunities for family togetherness though. We'd light candles and sit around making up stories. It was a lot of fun, but whenever the lights would come back on, we'd celebrate and it would be back to tv watching!
Oddly enough, I've never experienced a proper tornado even though I've lived all my life in this region. But there was one time when something whipped through our yard that was either a small tornado or the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil passing through. My brother, my dad, and I were out in my dad's garage, which is not actually a garage but more like a storehouse for all the "useful" junk my dad has collected over the years. I don't remember what we were doing out there or how old I was. I must have been about 8 or 9. Suddenly, we looked out the door and saw pieces of wood and old ladies on bicycles flying past. I picked up my dog Toto, and my dad grabbed our hands. There was a slight lull in the atmospheric shenanigans, so we took off across the yard. Now, my parents live on five acres of land. Not that we actually had to cross that much territory, but still, it was a bit of a jog. We dodged pieces of wood, tree branches, sheep, and other flying debris, and slammed through the back door of the house. Panting and excited, we ran into the living room and found my mom reading a book. She looked up at us, puzzled as to why we were breathing so hard. Yeah, we just ran through a tornado, Mom. She had no idea! Another example of the power of a good book!
The upshot of the whole thing is that we lost a barn that had been on the property. We didn't have anything of value in the barn, thank goodness. If I remember correctly, there was a family of cats that lived inside, though. I think I saw the mama cat a few weeks later pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans down the road.
My parents now have a storm shelter in their front yard. We've all moved out; it's just the two of them still living there. I suppose they figured it'd be more comfortable hunkering underground without us brats around to bug them. My dad stores huge cans of peanut butter in their shelter. He has a year's supply and keeps up with them by writing the purchase date on each one. I'm not kidding. And they're those big honkin' ones like the kind you need if you're opening an army barracks or something. So if a tornado tears through their property or the undead begin to rise, you'll find my mom and dad sitting underground having a fiesta with their cornucopia of peanut butter. They'll get lots of protein and will hardly have to go to the bathroom at all. A double advantage!
Today is James' birthday.
James is my first cousin. His mother and mine are sisters. We grew up together on a hill in Stringtown, Oklahoma where my grandparents lived. My family and I didn't live in Stringtown, but we visited every weekend.
I remember James was always a sweet guy, ready with a laugh. My cousin Rachel and I used to run up to him, wrap our skinny arms around his chest, and scream, "Daddy!" whenever we saw him. That's the kind of guy he was--the kind you'd want to be your dad.
I say "was" because James passed away almost a year ago after a long, arduous fight with cancer. He fought for years, and I honestly thought that he was going to make it. But God had other plans for him.
Today I am remembering James because it is his birthday, but this is not the only day that he crosses my mind.
James was a nice guy, a genuinely nice guy. It seems like everyone has some sort of shortcoming, and some people make you wonder if their friendliness is authentic or if it's coming out of some sort of self interest. But not James. He was just a good guy.
He worked at the Sonic in Atoka, Oklahoma, and whenever I would pass through, I would often stop there just to say "Hi." He would always come out with a big smile lighting his face and give me a hug. "What ya'll up to?" he'd ask. Even though we didn't see each other much as adults, there was never any awkwardness. It was hard to be awkward around a guy who exuded such friendliness.
Sonic has a program to fund teachers' projects through donorschoose.com called Limeades for Learning. When I was working at Ardmore as a librarian, I decided to try to get a project funded, but I needed to collect those stickers they used to put on the cups. The stickers each had a code you could use to vote online for your project. I knew there was no way I'd be able to get that many people to vote for me, and I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to get my hands on as many stickers as I could when I remembered that James was the assistant manager of Sonic in Atoka. So I called him up and made a bald-faced plea for sticker codes. It didn't matter that it had been months since I'd last spoken to him. "No problem," he said. He was happy to help me out.
Okay, so I'm a cheater (I prefer "go-getter.), but that's not the point here. The point is that James was a great guy, loyal, humble, and gosh-darn sweet. How could you not love a guy like that?
He took care of his family. It seemed like he worked all the time. I know every time I stopped by Sonic he was there. I wondered if he ever took time to sleep. He sure didn't let cancer slow him down.
It makes you wonder why bad things happen to good people. But for me, I am just grateful that I knew such a good guy and that I happened to be related to him.
I suppose he's somewhere else now...a place where there's plenty of beans and tators like we had when we were growing up, a place where Grandma is still baking biscuits and Grandpa is still drinking a mason jar of milk every night for dinner and telling his stories.
We miss you, James.
Word and Book Lover.