Actually, the trip takes us along an interstate that is perpetually under construction (don’t tell me government can’t create jobs), in and out of suburbs with glittering malls, through a countryside still marked by the path of the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa, into the Black Belt with dying, little towns — Safford, Catherine, Lamison, Alberta — then out and into the piney woods to where my mama, Mamaw, waits.
When you read this, my family and I will be there.
I will be somewhere in the house or out in the yard or maybe in retreat to Daddy’s Poutin’ House, while Mamaw and my lovely wife are in the kitchen, where they don’t want me. Those two agree on most everything, and high on the list of the most everything they agree on is that in Mamaw’s kitchen, I cannot find my butt with both hands.
Mamaw’s kitchen is a tribute to the lingering power the Great Depression holds over those who lived through it. Like her late husband, my daddy, “Pop,” she is reluctant to throw anything away — “we might need it one day.”
(I will never forget the look of anguish on my father’s face when my wife and I cleaned out his “Green House” — the storage shed painted green that housed what he had accumulated over the years in anticipation of a need that never materialized and what we were loading up to carry to the gully. “My treasures, my treasures,” he muttered as the cans half-full of dried-out paint and balls of collected twine and jars of seeds unidentifiable and unable to germinate went into the truck.)
Mamaw is of the same mindset, so to navigate her kitchen you must be able to find your way around things that are arranged and stored according to her own mental calculus and system.
Especially when looking for something in a refrigerator.
Mamaw has two — refrigerators.
(Like most things at her house, there is a history behind getting the second one, something about needing more freezer space, and this was the solution, which she now justifies by the fact that the newer one has an automatic icemaker you use without opening the door.)
So it follows that when I go looking for something, I either have to know into which refrigerator she put it, or I need to ask. However, asking usually brings the response, “I’ll get it for you.” Though it is probably easier for her to get it rather than trying to tell me where it is, the idea of 96-year old Mamaw getting up, getting her walker and making her way into the kitchen to get what I am looking for violates so many principles of “son-hood” that my dignity would never recover.
So I go looking as if I know where it is, and she, not wishing to make me appear more clueless than I am, lets me do it.
Thus begins the game of “guess what is in the butter tub.”
(A variation of this is “guess what is in the whipped cream container,” though that one is never as exciting as the other.)
You see, high on the list of things Mamaw does not throw away are plastic containers. When a plastic container is emptied, she washes it out and saves it for the day when she will have just enough of something left over to fit into it.
There is nothing wrong with this — “waste not, want not” is her motto — until I go looking for butter, but the tub with “butter” written on it may contain anything but butter.
Off I go, opening containers marked butter but not containing any. Meanwhile, Mamaw listens with ears unimpaired by age as I open and close container after container until I reach the magic number at which her patience wears thin and she calls out:
“What are you looking for?”
And in a voice edged with exasperation, she replies, “It is in the ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’ container in the other refrigerator back behind the jelly,” which, of course, is where it is. (I decide not to point out the irony of butter being in a container identified as not being butter while the butter containers contain everything but butter — as we say down in south Alabama, some swamps just don’t need draining.)
So the butter is found.
Also found are leftovers sufficient to feed a small developing nation, leftovers I could proudly point out when and if anyone asks, “What’s for supper?”
But I won’t.
That knowledge would only remind Mamaw of my search and how useless I am in her kitchen.
I would not want to do that.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.