Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week - Traditions

Traditions. New Year’s Day seems to be filled with them. When asked why people repeat family traditions on the eve or day of a new year, most of my friends tell me it’s because “that’s what my family did.”

But why? Is it because we feel all warm and fuzzy about memories of our childhood and simpler times? Is it because we feel closer to those we love merely because we repeat a tradition? Or do we believe there is some hidden truth in those traditions that compels us to repeat them “just in case” they are relevant to the success or failure of the coming year?

I’ll look at my traditions and see if I can figure it out.

Sunday night, I plan to stay up until the ball drops in Times Square. It's a tradition. I even attended those "dropping of the ball zoos" when I lived in New York City.  I stood in the massive crowd of loud, drugged, drunk, revelers in freezing weather (sometimes in snow) just to watch a giant apple drop in Times Square. Yes, I lived there before the gorgeous high-tech Waterford crystal ball made its first appearance. As an introvert, the crowd was not an easy challenge for me. The pick-pockets and gropers didn’t make it any easier. But, it was a tradition. I admit I can't remember any time when staying up to watch the ball drop added anything to my new year--except that I woke up later the next morning.

Apparently, it is not an important tradition for everyone. Several of my friends admit they go to bed long before the excitement of a ball dropping and people screaming begins. Since I live alone, I sit by myself at midnight, cheering in the new year alone while thousands of New Yorkers scream and kiss beneath the Waterford ball, freezing their tails off. At least I'm warm as I toast my glass of non-alcoholic grape juice.

But there are more traditions than fighting to stay awake long enough to see a ball (or apple) drop at midnight.

Black-eyed peas for New Year's Day
The food. My mother told me from childhood that we must eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. When I complained that I hated them, she pointed out that the more you eat, the more money you’ll have during the year. Then she told me it was up to me to eat as many as possible so that the family wouldn’t end up in the Poor House. How’s that for incentive? It was good enough to guilt me into forcing beans down my throat until I thought I might puke them up.

Being from the mountains of southeastern Kentucky, at least we didn’t have to eat sauerkraut (yuck!) or collard greens swimming in vinegar (double yuck!) like some of my Southern friends. I guess I should feel fortunate I only had to eat black-eyed peas. Of course, my favorite part of it was the fatback used for seasoning.

These days, I still find myself cooking black-eyed peas every New Year's Day. Instead of fatback, though, I use the ham bone from Christmas dinner. I have developed a taste for the peas now. It helped when I turned from the dried peas to fresh ones. So, I spend the day cooking them. 

These days, though, I tend to add a couple of potential traditions (it's never too late to start a new one, is it?) to my New Year's Day meal.

Fried frog legs--a new tradition?
One year, I thought it would be good to JUMP INTO THE NEW YEAR with frog legs. Dad used to go frog gigging often when I was a child. I loved watching my mom fry them in the old black skillet as they jumped around in the skillet. You know they taste like chicken, don't you? Well, I think it's a good tradition to encourage us to jump into the new year full of excitement, expectation, and hope.

Fried green tomatoes

My next new tradition is my favorite vegetable--fried green tomatoes. Okay, so they are technically a fruit. They are green and I will consider them a vegetable for the sake of tradition. They will take the place of the greens most southerners have on January 1st. 

So, why do I celebrate traditions? Perhaps there is something inside me that believes we must continue traditions as our way of not giving up on the promises of our youth. Perhaps it is because the traditions connect me with family members who have already passed. Maybe it’s because traditions are what make me feel connected with my family--past and present. Or, perhaps, traditions are what give us hope that the unknown future of the coming year doesn’t matter as much as the unity, support, and love of our families. Just maybe, traditions solidify hope. 

Whatever the reason, it gives me an excuse to make a big deal out of tradition and eat food I don't usually eat. That makes it special.

Some of you may think you must repeat traditions because your dead relatives will haunt you for the whole year if you don't. I rather doubt that one, but it needed to be said. And some of you may believe you will have bad luck if you don't eat certain foods on a certain day. You are the same people who cringe when you step on a crack (break your mother's back), break a mirror, or panic when a black cat walks across your path. Enough said about that ...

No matter why we honor tradition, there's no harm in it. And it might, just might, draw us closer together with our family, even if only for one day of the year. One thing you can be sure about--tradition will outlive those resolutions you make.

Happy New Year to you and your family. May you enjoy your traditions, old and new, as you celebrate the hope and promises the new year offers.
What traditions did you grow up following? Do you know why? Do you have any new ones you've added to your own family's menu? I'd love to hear your stories.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Mountain Memories -- Steel Saucer Sled

What was it every Appalachian kid dreamed about this time of year? Santa? Well, maybe. But what was the most important thing? Snow!

Snow--and lots of it--meant we could get out of school early for Christmas vacation. Snow meant we could have our fill of snowcream. But, most importantly, for some of us, it meant going sledding on the biggest hillside (or mountainside) we could find.

Near the bottom of the hill
I will never forget the Christmas morning my brother and I awoke to find a shiny, silver saucer sled under the Christmas tree. Now, we always got gifts from Santa, but they were rarely as awesome as that sled. Also, a deep snow had fallen on the mountain that week and still covered the mountain behind our house. We barely contained ourselves long enough to get bundled up before my brother grabbed the sled and shot out the back door.

My brother, Larry, being six years older, had control of the sled. He climbed up the hill where the garden is planted during the summer. That means it was mostly cleared of vegetation. I said mostly. Unfortunately, there were usually some corn stalks sticking up several inches, partially hidden by the snow. Also, the rows were a bit lumpy where mounds of dirt had been hoed across the hill.

Larry made it to the top, right next to a fence that separated our property from the family cemetery on the other side. He plopped down on the sled, grabbed hold of the handles, and rocked until the sled let go and flew down the mountain.

Coming down the hill
He screamed, "Woo-hoo," as he picked up speed. About that time, he hit one of those aforementioned protruding cornstalks and tumbled head over sled the rest of the way down the hill. I thought he would be a snowman, rolled up into the snow when he got to the bottom.

I squealed with laughter. Mom just squealed.

He built up so much speed as he rolled, that he didn't stop as the yard leveled out. He whammed into the back of the house with a big thud.

That's how our sled got its first dent.

We spent the day hiking up that hillside and sliding down. Often we took flight as we hit a cornstalk. Sometimes, we hit and tumbled. Each time we hit a row or built up dirt under the snow, we bounced on the steel sled. Our rears ached. It didn't matter. We laughed until our stomachs hurt. We mostly laughed at each other.

Taking flight as we hit a bump

After hours of trekking up that mountain, my face as red as Rudolph's nose and my fingers and feet numb from the cold, I decided it was time to take a break to eat and warm up. My brother continued sledding.

As the sun set behind the mountains and visibility became dim, which happens early in the mountains in winter, my mom went to the back door to call Larry inside for the day.

He ignored her.

As she started inside the house, she yelled up to him at the top the hill, next to the fence around the cemetery, "Larry, you'd better get inside before that little boy in the cemetery decides to ride on that sled with you."

He still ignored her as he completed his slide down the hill, grabbed the sled, and headed back up to the top.

Mom shook her head and came back inside.

A few minutes later we heard a loud crash into the back of the house. The door flew open and my brother whizzed into the house, slamming the door behind him. He stood in the doorway to the living room all red, covered in snow, panting, and staring with eyes as big as snowballs. He didn't say a word, just stood there.

He never told us what happened. However, Mom never had to tell him to come in before dusk ever again. As soon as the sun got near the ridge, he was inside, with the back door locked.

Did you have a saucer sled when you were a kid? Or did you use something else as a sled--like a car hood? Where did you ride it? Did you have a fabulous hill to slide down? Were there any wild adventures?

I'd love to hear your stories.

My brother, Larry, at the
bottom of the hill.
You can barely see the fence
to the cemetery 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mountain Memories -- Ice on the Window Pane

This week, instead of doing an Appalachian Word of the Week, I'm going to share with you a Mountain Memory. I hope you like the change and you will share your Mountain Memories with us, too.

I live in the South now, but this past week vividly brought back memories of my childhood in Harlan County, Kentucky. We had a snowstorm that dropped up to eleven inches of gorgeous wet snow on a normally snowless area of the country.

Unexpected snow delighted me for over 24 hours straight, piling up on the trees and bushes and weighing down the branches until they nearly touched the ground. I had never seen so much snow this far south. It was beautiful and exciting--that is--until the juice went off and the temperatures plummeted inside my unprepared house.

We piled quilts on our bed to stay warm
Memories of winter in the mountains quickly returned as I piled more blankets on my bed, donned my furry robe and wool socks, and attempted to keep my nose warm enough to sleep through the night.

Do you remember those frigid nights in the mountains when all we had to heat the house was a stove in the living room, fueled by coal? Some families were fortunate enough to have fireplaces in their bedrooms. We weren't. It was like sleeping outdoors.

Coal stove
We warmed ourselves in front of the stove until our skinned tingled and then ran into our room, where the heat could not reach, and slid under the heap of blankets and quilts. We could barely move under the weight of all those blankets.

In the morning, we awoke to the dread of having to slide out from under the covers. We ran back to the stove to warm ourselves enough to take care of toileting and getting dressed for the day.

Ice on the windows
Sunlight filtered into the house through ice-encrusted window panes. On the inside! I loved seeing the designs each morning and how intricate or thick the ice formed. It reminded me of the fancy glass in a church, all bumpy and wavy. Those windows were our thermometer of how cold it was outside.

Breakfast usually consisted of hot oatmeal with raisins. Mom figured it would warm us and keep us strong as we walked nearly a mile to school. In high school, my favorite breakfast became Chicken Noodle soup. At least we survived.

I had my doubts about survival last week during our surprise storm. I sat huddled under blankets during the day, trying to keep warm enough to survive. It made me wish I had the old pot-bellied stove to warm me. Of course, the one big difference was that I had no juice to run my heat or the microwave. I couldn't even fix my morning Keurig hot tea! And taking a shower was out of the question. I've become soft in the South.

Winter was a game of survival in the mountains. And survive we did. As I look back on that life, I'm amazed at one thing most of all. We didn't spend our days sitting in front of the fire, doing nothing but trying to stay warm. We went about life.

Yes, it was tough. Walking to school and back is beyond my comprehension now. Also, having to go outside to gather coal and lug it inside to stoke the fire would challenge me beyond my ability today. But, my mother did it every day. She also stayed up late on an exceptionally cold night to keep the fire going and making sure it didn't overheat and burn the house down. I remember many times when the stovepipe glowed red. Scary.

There are good memories of winter, too. A heavy snow meant fun for a kid. We stayed home from school and played outside, building forts and having snowball fights. Living on the side of a mountain, a favorite pastime was sliding down on a saucer sled, if you were lucky, or any other item that would slide across the snow. A friend's family used an old car hood.

Building a snowman
It seemed to be a requirement to build a snowman, no matter how much snow fell. We rolled the balls around the yard, getting them as big as we could manage to keep rolling them. Unfortunately, having dogs meant we usually had tainted snowmen. We would grab some clean snow and pack it on top of any "dirty" snow.

That dirty snow is why we were extremely careful when we collected snow for our most favorite winter activity--making snowcream. It's also why we collected that snow first thing before we did anything that could possibly add undesirable ingredients to our snowcream.

That concoction of fresh white snow, sugar, cream and vanilla flavoring is one of my favorite memories. We filled a bowl with a huge scoop and sat in front of the stove to eat it. Even with the stove, our fingers and faces numbed. It was worth it.

Do you have memories of winter in the mountains? What was the hardest part of it for you? What's one of your favorite activities when it was cold enough to freeze your snot?

I love hearing your stories.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week -- CHIFFEROBE

I'm sure you've heard of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but have you heard of a CHIFFEROBE?

A CHIFFEROBE was commonplace in the homes of Appalachia as I grew up. I remember them being a place of wonder and mystery. They had a key, you see. Only the possessor of that key was allowed to open the CHIFFEROBE.

Oh, the surmises my brain came up with about what was inside. What secrets could possibly be hidden behind that locked door?

I remember the one Granny had. I couldn't imagine what a granny would hide in that CHIFFEROBE. Unfortunately, I never discovered its secrets. I can only imagine.

Did she come from royalty and her jewed crown was hidden inside? Were there amazing ball gowns hidden away from a former life? Had she hidden a stash of money in there?

It nearly drove me crazy as I stared into the mirror on the door and wondered what lived on the other side of that keyhole. And where did she hide that key?

Daddy had a CHIFFEROBE, too. Many times, I tugged on the door, hoping he had forgotten to lock it. No such luck.

What in the world would a man hide inside a locked CHIFFEROBE? What could he possibly hold so dear that it required a lock to keep everyone else out?

After the huge flood of 1977 swallowed our house and destroyed almost every possession we owned, I finally got to see the inside of Daddy's CHIFFEROBE.

Disappointment. Behind one door, he had a rod hanging with most of his clothes. Apparently, Mom took up all the room in the big closet with her clothes. On the floor of the CHIFFEROBE, he had his shoes stored.

Behind the clothes, in the corners, he had his guns--shotguns and rifles--for hunting. Of course, what I remember most is the day he came into the backyard while Mom was reclining in the sun and shot two HUGE black snakes out of the tree above her. She wasn't happy about that.

The other door of the CHIFFEROBE hid more interesting items. Instead of a rod for clothes, it had shelves and drawers. Papers, family photos, a few books, all his notebooks detailing every penny he ever spent and all family data (births, deaths, full names, some genealogy). I am fortunate enough to have one of those notebooks now. On the bottom shelf, he had some Mason jars of homemade wine he made from the grapes that grew wild on Laden Trail on Pine Mountain where he grew up. I had never seen my dad take a single drink of his wine.

The drawer on the bottom contained all kinds of trinkets and items he deemed necessary to save. Loose coins, screws and bolts, and things I didn't recognize. I did recognize his Greyhound safety awards, though. Each pin had a Greyhound dog (their logo) on it, the year he earned it, and a diamond, ruby, or sapphire under the dog's tummy. A few years after the flood, Mom took those pins to a jeweler and had the stones removed and reset into rings. I got one of the rings. It's my most prized possession.

The CHIFFEROBE Daddy built
When I was born, Daddy built a kid-sized version of a CHIFFEROBE just for me. He crafted it himself, in the apartment he and Mom lived in at the time, with a handsaw, sandpaper, and a hammer.

My CHIFFEROBE survived the flood and then a fire in my first apartment. It has lived in Kentucky, New York City, Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee, and now in Georgia. It bears a few scars and smoke stains, but it still has most of its original glass knobs Daddy placed on it over 60 years ago. I still use my CHIFFEROBE every day.

Did you grow up with a CHIFFEROBE in your house? Do you have one now?

I'd love to hear your stories.

*Special thanks to Kay Ball for the top photo of her CHIFFEROBE.