Here’s an oldie but a goodie, a Rhodes family favorite. And here’s to you, Louise Rhodes — you are missed. And here’s to all the grands who were at the table, scattered now from North Carolina to Tennessee to Texas! Not a Thanksgiving goes by that I don’t remember Louise’s sweet potatoes and Louise slinking under the table because of her Jack Daniels whiskey.
Granny’s Sweet Potato Casserole (published in Pink Butterbeans and also on the Jack Daniels website)
The day was festive—a fresh-cut bouquet of mums and daisies, white tapers, white tablecloth, crisp linen napkins, fine china, and sparkling silver. The air was thick with scents of freshly baked bread, sage, cinnamon, hazelnut coffee, and onion and apple stuffing. People with busy hands scurried about, interacting boisterously, against a backdrop of an oven door creaking, ice cubes clinking against crystal, spoons clanking, and an electric knife purring.
At noon, we all circled the long dining room table, the whole family, gathered to do what all families do on Thanksgiving Day—stuff themselves with turkey and all the trimmin’s. We piled our plates high with slices of roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, corn pudding, green beans with canned French-fried onions on top, and sweet potato casserole. After grace, we dug in.
My younger son must have been building with Legos the day I tried to teach Tact & Manners, for he certainly didn’t exercise either that day. “Mama,” he blurted out, words shot from a cannon, booming through the air, bouncing off the high ceiling, echoing off the white walls, and hovering over the heads of aunts and uncles and siblings and cousins. “Did you put whiskey in the sweet potatoes?”
I knew full well that Granny brought the sweet potatoes. As I glanced across my glass of sweet tea, I glimpsed Granny shrinking, folding up, like a turtle drawing in its head. Her eyes fell, her head sank, her shoulders slumped, and she inched down until her chin was even with the tabletop, silver hair shining under the chandelier. Her face, barely visible, mirrored her holiday burgundy blouse. Very meekly, Granny defended herself, squeaking out a weak, “Well, the recipe called for it.” There you go. It was written up in a book, so it was okay.
With her admission of guilt, young bodies bolted forward, all the grandchildren at once, those over twenty-one and those under twenty-one, surged for a second helping of Granny’s whiskey sweet potatoes.
Seems that Granny had gone on a trip with the Methodist Church XYZ Club—or Xtra Years of Zest Club—to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the nation’s oldest registered distillery and Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. Even though there were a few Baptist and Church of Christ folks along, the XYZ-ers toured the distillery. And Granny bought a cookbook, whiskey being the common ingredient in all the fine Southern recipes from cakes to casseroles. Granny couldn’t buy whiskey at the distillery to put in her recipes, for Lynchburg is in a dry county. They only make it, bottle it, and ship it from there. But Granny slipped away from the other XYZ-ers in another county and bought herself a bottle of the Old Time, Old No. 7 Brand Sour Mash, made and mellowed, distilled and bottled in Lynchburg, population 361. “Whiskey made as our fathers made it for 7 generations.”
Granny sat low in her chair the rest of the meal, for she knew she put a generous helpin’ of whiskey in her sweet potato casserole. And although all good cooks know that the alcohol cooks off and only the flavorin’ is left, the grandchildren were not allowed to drive the rest of the day.
In the spirit of tradition, every Thanksgiving, the grandchildren still ask far in advance, “Are we having Granny’s sweet potato casserole?”
What do I really want to do? After I finished the memoir of loss, grief, and rebuilding, I was spent. I had pulled up my soul again and again and again in the writing and editing process. I walked through the darkness and dwelt there as I lay words across the page.
I haven’t been writing. Well, maybe a blog piece here and there and once, what I perceived as a first chapter of a book. And professionally, I am writing a book on writing, so that should count for something. But it doesn’t satisfy that innate need to see the world in a unique way, to see a story, to see something that strikes me as being significant and memorable. I need to figure this out because it is bugging me.
Maybe I want to return to what I started out doing—personal essays, little stories about things I encounter. Stories about family, place, the past, nature around me. Stories that are nostalgic, thought provoking, soothing; stories that bring a smile and a nod.
Years ago, when I first started sharing my work at Barnes and Noble monthly writers open mic nights, Robbie Bryan, Community Relations Manager, led me to the stacks and pulled out a book titled Due South by R. Scott Brunner—Memoir/Essay. “This is what you’re doing,” he said. “Buy it, read it. You could publish a collection like this.” Hence, Pink Butterbeans, my collection of fifty stories. (Yep. Wacky title. I wanted something feminine and Southern. My husband helped me brainstorm title possibilities on a trip all the way to Boone, North Carolina. He didn’t like this one, but I picked it—pun intended—and I’m still glad I did.)
Brunner has titles like “Mother’s Greasy Bible,” “The ‘Bless Your Heart’ Rules,” and “Turnip Greens at 33,000 Feet.” Brunner says the South is “not a region, not lines on a map, not stereotypes of belles and bubbas and poverty and racism, but a sense of place. It’s an understanding of who we are; it’s a recollection of the past and a genuine hope for the future; and it’s a set of more widely held attitudes of kindness and civility and appreciation.”
I have titles like “Grandpa’s Watermelon Patch,” “Opa Boof’s Chocolate Chess Pie,” and “Grandma’s Porch.” I say, “Time spent on Grandma’s front porch after vigorous play was a serendipitous part of becoming whole. Time spent in a slowed-down world. Time to think and observe, to fit into the scheme of extended family, to mesh activity with reflection. Becoming happens in the quiet reflective phase . . .
“I yearn for the peace I knew back then. I yearn for time—simple, still, suspended. I yearn to be cocooned at Grandpa’s knee, mesmerized by his slow rocking and tales told in a slow, Southern drawl. To return once again to the summers of yesteryear on Grandma’s front porch.”
Maybe I need to go home again.
December has brought two opportunities for book signings. First on December 7, Currie Alexander Powers and I participated in Davis Kidd’s authors’ night series, Home for the Holidays, featuring the anthology Gathering: Writers of Williamson County. This was our first opportunity to take the book across county lines into Nashville. Several people stopped by to chat, we sold a few books, and we claimed the experience of being an “author” at DK.
December 12-13 brought the annual Dickens for a Christmas celebration in downtown Franklin. Characters from Dickens’ stories dress in period costumes, and folks enjoy music and food and displays of life as it was during Dickens’ time. I was thrilled to eat sugar plums and to watch Irish dancing on the stage by City Hall.
CWW hosted a booth this year for the first time. I’d suggested this during our first publicity committee meeting for the book Gathering: Writers of Williamson County — after all, Franklin is home, and Dickens brings 50,000 people to its streets for this weekend event. I thought we’d be able to sell some books. And we did jolly right well at that!
It started the day before Thanksgiving, 2008, when they had the ultrasound. I’d asked to be a part of it by phone. I won’t say anything, just set the phone on the table and let me listen, I begged. Baby A was a girl. It was quiet as the technician moved the wand toward Baby B. Then, an eruption of laughter. There it is! The wand had landed on the determining factor. Baby B was a boy.
“He’ll have to wear your old wedding-hankie bonnet home from the hospital!” I said before we hung up. My words drifted into thin air and stone walls.
I once wrote a story about that old wedding-hankie bonnet. It was published in Chocolate for a Woman’s Soul II in 2003, and in my own book of personal essays, Pink Butterbeans: Stories from the heart of a Southern woman in 2005.
I’m just a lacy hankie
As pretty as can be.
But with some tiny stitches
A bonnet I will be.
I’ll be worn home from the hospital
Or on the Christening Day,
After which I’ll be neatly folded
And carefully packed away.
Crinkly, aging tissue paper cradles the tiny white bonnet. Delicate batiste trimmed in scalloped lace and satin ribbons to tie under a new baby’s chin, it came as a gift to my firstborn son, along with a poem clumsily pecked out on an old typewriter. He wore the bonnet home from the hospital. Then the treasured keepsake was neatly folded and carefully packed away. . . .
On her wedding day we’re told,
Each bride must wear something old.
So what would be more fitting than unpacking li’l old me?
A few stitches snipped and a wedding hankie I’ll be.
And if perchance it is a boy,
Someday he’ll surely wed,
And to his bride he can present
The hankie once worn on his head.
But what did he do? Eloped! Yes. He and Nicole eloped. I sort of guessed, but they waited two weeks before they told me because she was trying to get up enough nerve to tell her mother and father first.
. . . “You are marr-i-i-i-i-ied?”
“Yes, we’re married.”
“But, but . . . you didn’t have your wedding hankie!” I stumbled over the words.
“Your wedding hankie. It was a gift when you were born.”
“I didn’t know I had one.”
“Yes, you have one. Your bride was supposed to carry it down the aisle.”
“We didn’t have an aisle.”
“Well, she could have held it while repeating her vows. It’s the bonnet you wore on your head when you came home from the hospital. We were supposed to present it to your bride.”
“I didn’t know.”
“She was supposed to remove some stitches and make it into a handkerchief to carry during the ceremony. It has a poem and everything.”
“Our ceremony was pretty without it. We had candles and wrote our own vows.”
“And then some day, your bride is supposed to add back a few stitches and make it into a bonnet again for your baby to wear home from the hospital. It’s an heirloom!” I shrieked.
Ohhhh? I’ve waited twenty-five years for this special moment — never to be.
The bonnet remains a bonnet. Its white satin ribbons hang loose, untied. . . .
“I can’t be-lieve you got married without your wedding hankie,” I sputtered under my breath. “Well, we’ll just save it for your first child to wear home from the hospital.”
My head whirling, I started folding up my frenzied sentiments, packing up my foiled schemes, and setting my sights down the road a bit. By golly, when the first grandchild is born, I’ll personally deliver that bonnet to the hospital, place it on the newborn’s head, and loop the loose ribbons into a neat bow. And this new child will surely make it to the altar with the hankie once worn on his father’s head.
By golly, my moment came April 18, 2009, when Winston Hardy, ten days old, was set to come home from the hospital.
His twin, Jillian Dawson, had come home two days earlier.
“Now, you’ll have to follow us in your car,” my son said. “We’ve got two baby seats in the back and don’t have room for you.”
I collected two cameras, my purse and keys, my Chocolate for a Woman’s Soul II book, and scurried to my Outback, breathing hard. My son drives fast, and I wanted to stay right behind him. I wanted to take a picture of them driving to the hospital to get this special bundle of little boy. “Nicole, do you have the wedding-hankie bonnet?” I yelled before I closed the car door.
“Yes, I’ve got everything.”
At the hospital’s NICU unit, my son and I went through the customary three-minute scrub, keeping an eye on Nicole over our right shoulders. She couldn’t wait. She rubbed in some hand sanitizer and went straight for the baby.
The place was abuzz with nurses and a doctor, having to say good-bye to little Hardy, now four pounds eight ounces, a favorite of the staff. Those who could gathered around to watch Nicole dress him. The place was full of comments, stories, laughter, oohs and ahs.
Nicole put the soft white fancy sleeper monogrammed with the initials WHB in blue on the baby.
Then came the moment.
She — the mama, the bride who didn’t get the opportunity to be presented formally with the wedding hankie or to carry it during her wedding ceremony — with her own delicate hands, placed the tiny white batiste bonnet on Hardy’s little head, looped the satin ribbons into a neat bow, and stepped back admiringly.
“There he is.” She smiled. A precious boy, wearing his Poppy’s pen name, his great-grandfather’s surname, my maiden name, and the bonnet worn by his father 35 years ago.
The moment was rich in emotion. It was hard to hold the tears back, but I had to work quickly. I placed the Chocolate book in his isolette, focused, and snapped a few pictures, while trying to explain the significance of the unfolding scene to the staff circling us.
This new child wore home the hankie once worn on his father’s head.
Lee Gutkind sent me a signed copy of his book Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather because it sold out at our “5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction” workshop last Saturday before I could buy it.
Anyone who knows me knows I do not approach things in an ordered way. Even books. I will first hold a book in both hands, cup its spine, squeeze it somewhat for depth, caress its front, hug it to my chest. I know that what’s inside the book will have an impact on me, will change my life in some way. I will look at the book’s front cover, the back cover, the back flap, the front flap — maybe not in this order — and then I will glance at the Acknowledgments and flip through the pages, stopping on a sentence here and there. I breathe in the smell of the pages and let my eyes land on words as though they are pieces of a puzzle…and really they are. I can get a feel for the work just by taking in random words. Then I go to the Contents page. I get a sense of the book and the author by the titles there. I will first pick a title or two that might interest me, read those stories first, and then go back and approach the book from the beginning.
Anyone who is familiar with the contents of Lee’s book and who also knows me knows exactly which title I picked first to read. “Dog Story.” Of course. I have my own dog stories, two about Molly and one about Chaeli in Pink Butterbeans, my book of essays. You don’t know a person until you have read his words, his thoughts and feelings and until you go through with him the experiences he has lived and hurt and pushed through and feel the impact of those. This is true of anyone, even the Godfather.
There’s a thread that links the reader to the writer, the reader feeling the emotions, identifying with the writer in similar situations and picking out the pieces in her own life that spark the same feelings as those of the writer.
The writer of creative nonfiction must strike a universal chord to make his personal work relevant to others. We all write because we have an idea inside our hearts that what has happened in our own lives will have an impact on others. Others will take our work to heart and be affected by what we say and how we say it. Readers will naturally feel close to us, one with us, they will feel as though they know us in a personal and intimate way, and because of our expression in words and works, they will have a better understanding of themselves and their horizons will be extended.
In “Dog Story” Lee shares his experience with Icy, a beloved German Shepherd who changed in personality after Lee’s divorce from his first wife. Icy displayed aggressive behavior, attacked a child, then an adult friend. Icy couldn’t be trusted. Icy went to work with a K-9 unit, grew more vicious, and had to be euthanized.
As the reader, I found chords in the story that linked me to the author, experiences I could relate to, things that brought feelings surging to the surface.
First of all, there was Buffy, my family’s first dog, when my boys were little. Buffy was a mix of Collie and pit bull and was the smartest dog I have ever known. She was playful and happy and chased leaves in the fall and fire sparkles on the Fourth of July. She came into season before she was a year old, and I was unwise then and put a pair of my panties on her to keep her safe and left her tied up outdoors one night. The next morning she was gone, and the panties were crumpled on the grass. She had gone to the creek with Bullet and Chainsaw. She was like a child; she played with us when we played. And then one day as I was gently swinging my one-year-old around in circles, Buffy nipped at his feet. I thought she wanted to play, so I picked her up and swung her around, too. From then on she seemed jealous of the baby. She didn’t want me to carry him. We lived in a town where there were no leash laws, so Buffy wandered the neighborhood. One day she lost patience with a barking dog on the next street and lit into him. It took hundreds of stitches to repair the dog. Buffy started barking at children who came to play. I began chaining her on the patio, so she could be outdoors but she wasn’t a threat to people. One day she barked viciously, jumping and thrusting and pulling at her leash, all her teeth bared, her voice straining in a new and different way, trying to get to Chad and Chan who came over to play. She would have killed them both if she had broken loose. I knew then that Buffy had to go. My yard was often filled with little children, and I couldn’t take the risk. We found Buffy a home way out in the country with an older couple. I couldn’t watch her go, I couldn’t follow up, I hoped she did okay, but I had my doubts, and it hurt.
Lee says that Icy was more loyal than his first wife, who cheated on him. My first husband cheated on me, too. I know the feelings associated with that and even though I determined he was weak and insecure, it was not enough to negate my feelings of being unworthy and of being not enough.
I had a dog euthanized once, too. Molly, my beloved golden retriever who got cancer at the age of eleven and couldn’t swallow, was put to sleep to end her suffering.
The doctor arrived at noon. I spread a blue flannel blanket on the patio, looked into her weary eyes and said, “Come lie down, Molly. It’s time.” She knew. And she lay down on the blanket beside me. My husband held me, and I cradled her in my arms. The next seconds were a teary blur of pink fluid injected into her leg and my repeated assurances: “I love you. Go rest.” I wanted her to go hearing my voice and feeling my touch. I was the first human she ever heard or saw and I wanted to be the last. The doctor said her heart had stopped. She died right there in my arms. Death came quickly and quietly. As significant as life is, I couldn’t tell when hers ended. There should have been a spark, a flash of light, the sound of a trumpet, an indication that her soul had departed and drifted heavenward. How could she slip away so easily and peacefully without my knowing? [Pink Butterbeans]
Personal and private stories become public stories, writer and reader sharing a common bond, common emotions, common feelings, magic moments and those that are bittersweet or poignant or gut-wrenching.
“Three months of high summer — July, August, and September — I relish fat, red, and ripe tomatoes off the backyard vines. Homegrown Tomato Red with the smell and taste of the sun and earth packed inside.” This passage is from my essay “Tomato Red” in my book Pink Butterbeans: Stories from the heart of a Southern woman.
Yet it’s almost August and the tomatoes are still green. I have six plants and no fat, red, and ripe tomatoes. I can hardly wait, though, and I will begin my watch for green to turn to yellow, then orange, then a fine ripe red. I know lunch that day will be a tomato sandwich, along with a few chomps on the little banana peppers planted beside the tomatoes in my tiny backyard garden, and maybe a few slices of cucumber, soaked in a vinegar/sugar mixture.
The recipe for a tomato sandwich, as described in Pink Butterbeans, is as follows:
Pick one garden-grown, softball-sized tomato, still warm from the vine. Place it on a cutting board. Cut a 3/8″ slice crosswise into slippery, orange-red pulp, through a sunburst of yellow, as seeds and juice spill out. Smother two slices of white bread with swirls of creamy mayonnaise. The slice of tomato should cover the slice of bread, touching brown crust on all four sides, leaving only slight triangular corners. Salt sparingly. Savor the first bite and let the juices trickle down your chin. The season’s first tomato sandwich is worth the wait, worth sweaty garden travail — a reward for suffering through sweltering, simmering summer days in the South.
Wednesday, I drove through cloudbursts of snow flurries, west from Nashville, to Jackson, to Bolivar before the flakes subsided. It’s always good to cross that Mississippi state line! I arrived in Oxford about three, checked in at the Inn at Ole Miss, and took the shuttle to the Square. In bitter cold temps, I walked and window-shopped around the entire Square and snapped a picture of Faulkner to prove I’m really here. I ate at the Downtown Grill, then browsed through Square Books. I bought Haven Kimmel’s second memoir She Got Up Off the Couch and Dinty W. Moore’s memoir, Between Panic & Desire. I’ll be heading to Dinty’s workshop in about fifteen minutes. Dinty will be on Thacker Mountain Radio tonight.
Hey to Currie and Colleen! Gotta run to class!