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Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Tale of Charlie and Mary

I mentioned in the previous post, the one about porches, my neighbors who used both of their porches. I didn't tell you their names. They were Charlie and Mary. They had been married for more than 60 years when Charlie passed. Mary followed him a couple of years later.
When I was just a kid, probably six or seven, I began visiting and hanging out at their house. They lived just a house away, in a white block house that Charlie built. It was stuccoed on the outside, but you could still see the outline of the cinder blocks in some areas. They had a building just a few feet away from the back porch that they called the smokehouse. It had not been used to smoke anything in years, but it still had that smell that was somewhat offensive to your nose, but familiar to your senses. They had another building they used to smoke meats in. It was at the back end of their property. It was the old outhouse. I know, who would smoke meats in an old outhouse? Well, they did. It did not sit over the hole anymore. They had moved it thankfully. And, Charlie did not smoke too many meats as the years went by.
I'll just refer to the building near the house as the smokehouse since that's what we called it, and you can just forget about that smokin' outhouse. So, the smokehouse was a bit of a catchall for garden tools. It also had the wringer washer in it. There was a workbench and a huge chest freezer. It was always dark in there. There was a small window and the old wooden door for light. Mary had curtains at that little window, even though it was just the smokehouse. You could see it from the road, so appearances were important.
There was a wash day to observe each week, and it was still a chore. They used that old washer every week. They never had a modern washing machine or dryer. All the clothes were washed with Borax and anything white was bleached regularly. The clothesline was up next to the huge garden, which was shielded from view by a row of boxwood. Mary would always be wearing her apron when she was working and she had a huge bag of clothespins.
The freezer in the smokehouse was full of wild turkeys, squirrel, dove and deer meat that Charlie would hunt. He never hunted for sport, it was always to provide. I went hunting with him once, and once was all it took. I think he knew before that day even came that he was not going to bag one single animal. This was just to take me out for the experience. I had shot a gun before. We had guns in the house growing up. Today I don't care for them much and you won't find one in our house. I respect them and they had their purpose back then. Anyway, Charlie had me out in the woods at 5 am and we had to wait quietly and patiently for the sun to come up. That old phrase "It's always darkest before the dawn" is true when you are squatted down in the woods at 5 am and the temperature is hanging somewhere around freezing. It was one of the darkest moments of my life. I prayed that we would not see a thing. I appreciated the sacrifice but did not want to be part of it. I understood it, and I respected it, and I never went again. We left the woods about 7 am and headed home for some breakfast. Charlie never asked me to go again either.
Mary was always busy around the house. She never stopped much, until the evening. Then it was time for a cup of hot tea and a cookie or two. We could sit for hours talking then, or retreat to the living room to watch Jeopardy and Wheel Of Fortune. Mary taught me so many things. I had two incredible grandmothers, but being with her was like having a third. Charlie was a wealth of knowledge too, but he had strong opinions and they did not always match mine. Even as a kid, teenager, and young adult, we did not see eye to eye on lots of things, but I respected him and I rarely challenged him. It was not worth it. He was not going to change, and he was not going to change me.
I would help Charlie outside with mowing the yard and helping put out the garden. He loved passing on what he knew about growing corn, potatoes, squash and such. He taught me how to use the tiller, how to make a potato hill and how to tie off the rows to make them good and straight. They always had a huge garden. We would be working away and if he got tired he would always say "Whew! Boy, I am all petered out!" Rarely would we run the water hose up to the garden. Most of the time we would drop the watering can down in the cistern and fish out as much as we needed, which was always a lot. I would help him put the garden out, and I would help Mary put the garden up. She taught me a little about canning. Although when she used the pressure cooker, she wanted everyone out of the house. It was not until I was much older that she would trust me to stay. She passed on her Bread & Butter Pickle recipe to me. I make them every year now and there are some that wait for me to put a new batch up. I give her all the credit, but I have to admit, they are pretty darn good. She first showed me how to make refrigerator pickles. I made some that year and canned them myself. I entered a jar in the Shenandoah County Fair and won first prize in my category. I don't remember if my category was just pickles or pickles made by a 13-year-old boy, but I won. Today I pickle just about anything that will hold its own in a jar of vinegar.
She also passed along her secrets to making fresh homemade bread and rolls. She would make it all the time and it looked so easy. She even told me how her grandfather taught her how to make bread and this was his recipe. She said that he made bread for the soldiers in his camp during the Civil War. Well, I was honored to learn the trade, but something got lost in translation. I still have that recipe, but I have tried it several times and I never got more than a door stop out of mine. She also taught me how to make pie crust. Now that I can do. The secret to that is ice cold water, cold fat, and even cold hands. You don't want your dough to become warm while you mix and work it. Also, don't overwork it. Be very careful to just knead it only as much as necessary to  incorporate all the flour, or it will be tough. Then chill it again before rolling it out on a cold surface. If the fat in the mix warms up while you mix it or it rests; your crust will be greasy. You want it flaky and tender. There now you have the secrets to the best pie crust in the world! I bet you thought I was going to pass on my prize winning refrigerator pickle recipe or my now famous Bread & Butter Pickle recipe. That might come, but you will have to wait.
Their cellar was truly a root cellar. They would lime the potatoes to keep them from going bad. They had wooden shelves that lined the right-hand side as you got to the bottom of the stairs. The shelves were always filled with jars of whatever she had put up. There were beans, corn, peas, carrots, squash and soups that she would make and can. To get all of that ready, we would sit for hours on the back porch snappin' beans, hullin' peas, shuckin' corn; you name it. There was lots of work to growing and putting up your own food. But, it was a way of life that they knew. It was not part of a movement for them, it was merely what they knew for survival.
Charlie and Mary taught me lots of other things as well over the years. Things that you only learn by observation, not by doing. Well, at least not until doing on your own some time later. Like when Charlie was sick and in the hospital, just a couple of weeks before he passed away. I was there with his daughter and we were off to the side of the hospital room while Mary was by his side. He was about to go into surgery and he wanted to talk to her. He apologized for not building her a bigger house, for not giving her more things, for not... and the list went on. She listened for just a minute and told him she had all of those things with him. The house was bigger than they needed, and they never wanted for anything, that they had all they ever needed. As he went into surgery, they both said what they needed to say and heard what they needed to hear. He came out of his surgery fine. He just didn't have the strength to come back home after that, and he passed the day before he was scheduled to go into rehab.
What they taught me there was that life is not about the what, but the who. It's not about the how much, but what you need. I learned that even more when my parents were both gone and we had to clean out the house. My brothers and I each took a few things that meant something to us and the rest was just stuff at that point. It wasn't useless, but it wasn't necessary. For me, even a while after bringing stuff home with me, I found myself realizing that some of it was just more stuff. I packed some things up, to pass on one day. It does have meaning, and that is its usefulness now. The rest is all stuff, and you don't cherish those things as much as you do the moments and memories that you have.