"Memories from Earlington: Recollections of a Grandmother"

by Faye Cothran Gipson

Grandmothers are a strange lot. They are a mixture of recollections. When I think of my grandmother, I am reminded of leisurely filled days of fishing on a pond bank, of ghost stories which had me checking over my shoulder for days at a time, and of some of the best food in the entire world.

My Mamaw Byrd maintained that she was named Martin May Madera Ashley although her birth certificate listed simply the name May Ashley. She always claimed (and, of course, I believed) that she did have the prominent cheekbones associated with the American Indian. But with Mamaw you could never really be certain about anything because she could spin a yarn better than any sailor ever dared. In the early days of her marriage to my grandfather Jess she was a camp cook for an IC railroad construction crew. My grandfather was foreman for the crew, so they were allowed to live in a (railroad) camp car. It is probably from the men of the construction crew, who were mostly drifters with no families, that she gained her knowledge of story telling. She claimed that many a drifterís body was buried alongside the railroad tracks. When one of the crew died who had no known kin to notify, other crew members just dug a hole along the track where they were working. It wasnít necessary to notify the authorities, so the men took care of their own in the best way they knew.

It must also have been her experience as a camp car cook that made her the best cook Iíve ever known. Her food wasnít gourmet fare, but it was down-right mouth-watering (even to think of it today). I donít believe Mamaw owned any small pans. She cooked in kettles and made banana pudding in a metal dishpan. Some pans were smaller than others, but even the smallest would have fed a family of twelve. Part of the key to her cooking was her seasoning. Doctors, Iím sure, would frown at the amount of hogback that went into a pot of her turnip greens. Yet Iíve never tasted better. Of course, there would be hot cornbread baked in an iron skillet, stewed tomatoes or squash with a dash of sugar, black-eyed peas, and green beans on her table. I can remember those withered green beans always had huge potatoes cooked with them. The potatoes were usually halved, but never the short way. "Potatoes halved the short way would cook up hard," sheíd advise. I have to admit she must have been right because her potatoes were never hard even if they had been warmed over several times.

Even with all her chores, Mamaw always had time for her grandchildren. She only had five at that time (and I think I spent more time with her than any of the others). In the summers I would spend days at a time with her. I remember best those times spend on a pond bank of one of the many houses in which she lived. Maybe it was a throwback to her camp car days, but Mamaw had a tendency to move around. This on particular house I remember had a pond on one side and a small lake on the other. Mamaw kept plenty of catfish bait for just such occasions. When she killed a chicken, she would always freeze the intestines. It was an evening ritual to bait the hooks with those slimy half-frozen entrails and stake our poles for the night. I was the first one out to the pond in my gingham or flowered dress and brown sandals (as we girls werenít yet aware of Leeís jeans or Keds). I would run to check for bobbing corks, a sure sign we had been lucky. On one such occasion Mamaw had been slow to circle the pond bank where the end of one cane pole was frantically bouncing up and down. Excitedly I leaned too far forward as I grabbed the jerking pole. Fortunately Mamaw was close enough to catch my sash and dress tail. Her quick strong grasp kept me from falling off the bank into the murky water. I was only five or six years old and had never learned to swim (Öand still havenít). But I can still remember the pride when, with my Mamawís assistance, I pulled that eight pound catfish a-jerking on the line out of that pond.

Itís been more than 20 years since my Mamaw left us at the age of 82. But until that last year of her life, she continued to cook in quantities that boggled the mind (even though she lived alone). I was doubly blessed in that I was fortunate to have grown up with both grandmothers, but thatís a whole Ďnother grandmother-story.

12/06/01 Ann Gipson