How fragrant the dough! How nimble the old fingers that worked it. Soon we would have fresh bread spread thick with home-churned butter, dripping with honey. Or taste summer’s sweetness baked into mulberry pie, and refill the elephant cookie jar—one ear chipped—with orange frosted carrot-cookies, or a batch of the rich dark caramel-corn.
Breathless with anticipation, I scrutinized each measure and stir from my private perch atop her old steamer trunk, next to the window. The same spot where in springtime, I spied the first blossoms of tulip and daffodil, and in winter, marveled at intricate kaleidoscopes of crystal frost—peering through at five foot drifts, long pointed icicles drip, drip, dripping, and diamond glints of sun on snow.
Her lap was soft and warm; I was happy there. This beloved Mama Judy of my childhood—apron-top pinned to her raggedy dress. She called me ‘doll,’ gave me a puppy, taught me to play dominoes, and how it feels to be loved unconditionally. We had no hot water, indoor toilet, or television set in this tiny two-room house, but “it don’t bother,” she said, “because we got a good stove, a lot a’ love, and two good legs to get out to the shed.”
Pa was a colorful old coot—fur-trader, hunter, and champion cat-fisherman by profession. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes, drank coffee from a saucer, cursed like a fool and lovingly called Mama Judy “woman.” From my earliest memory and, “no biggern’ a grasshopper,” he’d say about my size, I stood beside him in that smelly dark shed, looking up—pot-bellied coal stove glowing red in winter—mesmerized, transfixed, and without the slightest comprehension of what I observed as he harvested pelts from beaver, raccoon, muskrat, and fox. All I knew was that I loved the old man…dirt under his fingernails, hair parted down the middle, dressed in worn-out overalls over long-johns and a tattered flannel shirt, singing, “a-ridin’ ole Paint and a-leadin’ ole Dan….”
Owning little, he gave me everything. Rides in his beat-up forties’ red Chevy truck, with the ‘coon-dog box in the bed and holes in the floorboard, so I could see the ground as we rolled along. A baby raccoon in a box, fresh clover to feed my bunnies, and a tire swing. He took me to the Sale Barn on Saturdays. Every day of my young life, until he was too sick with cancer to leave the house, he handed me a nickel to buy my own Hershey bar or a bottle of NeHi, grape or orange. Mama Judy said his last words were, “Where’s my girl?”
Through the worst of times and the best, these precious memories have sustained and comforted, empowered and enlightened me. I loved them so, My Pa and Mama Judy. Watching her cook, from that old blanket-covered trunk by the window—crispy fried rabbit, catfish, frog-legs, side-pork and turtle pancakes, hot possum-pie. If Pa brought it home, she made it delicious. I loved curling up in the big iron bed on hot summer nights…lulled off to sleep by the mind-numbing trill of locusts, or the mournful whine of trains passing in the night, three blocks away. I felt cocooned and safe there. Cherished. Always forgiven. Good enough.
Today, Mama Judy and Pa still live in that tiny house at the north end of town, if only in my memory. She’s cutting fresh bread, he’s sipping coffee from a saucer. Hired to babysit when I was but four weeks old, I like to say that they saved me.
At the very least, this loving old couple made a powerful and lasting generational impact on the life of one thankful little girl. How appropriate that Mama Judy’s birthday—November twenty second—always falls close to the official day we call Thanksgiving. And so today, some sixty years later, I remember… and say thanks. Her lovely garden of tulip and daffodil, peony, bachelor button and hollyhock blooms forever…in my heart.