If Manna was created by God out of love as a substance for life, then surely liver and onions was penned on a recipe tablet of stone through an emissary of Satan to speed up my death.
While rumor in the community where I grew up truly believed that God leaned heavily on my Mama's talents in the kitchen, neither bribes nor threats could unlock my lips to ingest this nasty stuff. My adorable big brother offered a compromise: he as a my slave for a full week, both at home and at school if I would but dare: prove to him with my mouth open wide (then ) showing chewed liver; swallow, and once more open my mouth for inspection. Tempting as it was - having him grovel at my every need in front of my second grade classmates and friends, I just couldn't do it. Gag every time.
My brother and I grew up in an era where children and dogs exploded out into the open come summer. He was two years older than me, could run faster, throw a ball farther than I; but I shimmied up trees and caused his former teachers (now mine) to sigh in relief, knowing our gene pool still had a chance of survival. He was not dumb, my brother, but my brain shined.
It's hard not to hold a uniformed body in Hero Status, and my expectations were no different for Daddy dressed the part nearly every day as Fire Chief of our town. His renascence approach and hands-on curiosity to most things in life were the norm. He'd hang up his cap on the hat stand he made, and 'what if'' nearly everything God teased in his direction. The only time my Daddy failed at a task is when he accidentally killed 300 baby chicks. I’ll save that story for another day.
Somewhere in my third year of school The Depression reared its ugly head. Grandpa passed away, Grandma moved into my brother’s bedroom, Dougie dragged his bed and accessories to the enclosed porch next to the kitchen. Aunt Mary’s husband hopped the rails in search of employment somewhere and forgot to communicate where he was. My Aunt Mary and eight month old twin girls took over my room. I got the best deal though. Daddy made a cot, and every evening I’d unfold it in the kitchen, cuddle up under blankets and soak up the warmth from Mama’s busy oven.
One of the best advantages of living in a family where your father was the Fire Chief and Mama was famous for her culinary talents was that their collective intuitive, inventive skills created meager handfuls of product into visions of wonder shared. On the downside, this meant that both Dougie and I had to pull our own weight, send the dogs out adventuring on their own with us looking sad-eyed and wistful. I learned to can most anything that could be ingested, stood on a chair to stir chickens to be potted, inhaled the rich aromas of mincemeat, blanched tomatoes for skinning, pickled cucumbers, peaches and eggs. Mama, Aunt Mary and I put out at least 20 pies at a time, wrapped and stored them in the local butchers freezer in exchange for free meals. (This came in handy since he fell in love with Aunt Mary, little girls and all).
If Daddy didn’t see me moving about inside the kitchen, he’d volunteer me for our garden. He was known to have a green thumb and nothing planted dared to stay hidden given his touch. Even apples and grapes which would only grow in cold weather climates stretched up, bloomed and did everything possible to please him. I’ll be honest, though I didn’t often complain aloud, spying a friend or two playing practically right under my nose, I’d mutter under my breath and send spatters of soil flying.
Grandma was nearly blind, deaf as Dougie on predawn mornings, and the most opinionated person I ever knew. Rarely was she without her knitting needles clicking, wrestling over a spool of color. Grandpa used to say that Great-grandma told of her birth trying to knit ther cord into something useful. She never measured a body part figuring out what went where; I’d never even seen her look down squinting to figure something or other out. Magicians with their corny tricks of material pulled from great swoops of their arms were fairly boring after watching long strands of yarn drop palms of soft knitted shapes. The only thing Grandma failed at was ironing. She insisted on taking this task from Mama. She scorched everything she thought she could see. On Grandma’s ironing days, Mama stayed up long nights to rewash Grandma’s volunteer work , and iron wet before morning. I asked her once why she didn’t just ask Grandma to stop. She told me that love directs us down many different paths, and that she didn’t mind pausing on Grandma’s for a visit.
We often had strangers knocking on our door asking for work in exchange of food. Sometimes they got wind that Daddy was the Fire Chief, and hopeful, asked if he knew of any work.
Our wrap-around porch was big enough to settle anyone willing to drag their own chairs over to watch the sun set, hope for a breeze, talk over politics and possibilities. It was when the sun slid down that God often lit the fires of hope. Guitars would come affixed to those whom played, children scrambled over feet and legs and leaped to temporary freedom once the kitchen was squared away. Freedom!
One evening our neighbor, Mr. Andrews stopped by to chat with Daddy. I didn’t think much more about this until later the next day. Dougie was outside repairing the chicken coop and I was struggling to dump the flour from the cloth bag into the barrel when Mama wiped her hands on the kitchen towel hung around her neck. Someone was knocking on the screen door right outside Doug’s porch bedroom. It was hot in the kitchen, and the screen door separating the kitchen to bedroom was closed, but I could clearly see through, past the outside screen.
Mama turned her back to the door, and in a funny voice, ordered me upstairs to retrieve a basket of apples stored under the bed. I looked up at her, confused. We’d just finished using up the apples a week ago. Before I could open my mouth, she squeezed my arm, hard. Whispered for me to go upstairs immediately, and not come down. Before I could respond, she squeezed hard enough to draw tears in my eyes. Something was wrong. I didn’t want to leave, but she locked eyes with mine, and I knew she meant business. Whatever the danger was, I had to go. She whispered that as soon as I went upstairs, before I went into the bedroom, to call her. I didn’t understand, but shaking, I turned and went down the hall and up the stairs. At the top, I called for my Mama.
“I’ll be right there!” She flew to my side and shoved me in the bedroom, locking the door. She hurried over to the dresser, opened the top drawer and pulled out Dad’s gun. Fishing through the same drawer for the key, her hands shook as she quietly opened the closet and retrieved the locked box on the shelf above the clothes. With her back to me, I swallowed, listening to the mechanics of the gun being prepared. She whisked around, kneeled down, and clasped my hand in one of hers. “When I leave, lock this door. Do not come out unless you hear me or your Dad. Understand?”
My eyes danced with tears, and my lip trembled. But I nodded. She drew me in with a huge hug and said, “It will be all right. Trust God, sweetheart.” Quietly, she slipped through the door, and tapped on the wood to remind me to lock it. I did, and then crawled beneath the bed.
Sometimes heroes don’t wear uniforms. Sometimes when news travels of escaped convicts, (complete with descriptions) the information gets carried away from tongue to tongue and miraculously stays correct. When our neighbor shared this information with Daddy the night before, he in turn shared it with Mama as they were preparing for bed.
When Mama spied the dangerous convict outside our home, she chased me upstairs, grabbed the gun, hid it behind her skirts, stayed in the shadows to make her way into the living room and called the Sheriff. She entered the kitchen with a smile on her face, listened as he shared that he was looking for a job. My Mama pulled out a chair nestled next to the table and then showed him the small end of the gun.
When the hoopla of news got bored with Mama’s bravery, things settled back down, until Aunt Mary got word that Uncle Barry fell victim to influenza. Our butcher, Mr. Joe stepped in, and wooed her. Didn’t stop at the “I-do” but continued until 1987 when God called him Home.
I opened the door one day to a parade of kids shorter than myself. Six of ‘em, (only one of them old enough to be considered school-aged), were staring up at me. The two youngest were sucking their thumbs and even though the weather was preparing for a harsh winter, all were barefoot. They were trying to find their Mama who went looking for food or a job.
They didn’t look familiar. I asked where they came from. The oldest pointed behind him. “Down there, a long ways. We walked some then snuck inside a church. He described the church at the corner of our town. They were scared, and wanted their mother.
My Mom rushed past me and hustled them inside. She ordered me to heat water to clean these babies up. I pushed Dougie’s bed out of the way in the enclosed porch and dragged the tub over. While I filled the tub, Mama hunted for the quickest food to cook. Joe brought liver over earlier that morning. Mama rattled the freed stove burners with heavy iron skillets, sliced onions thin, and pulled still warm bread from the pantry. She opened a jar of peaches and ordered me to watch what cooking. She bathed the children, and outfitted them with baggy rolled up clothes from our wardrobes.
Quietly they reassembled around the table and Mama nudged them to the chairs. I plopped the liver on chipped plates, smothered them with onions, and added a spoonful of peaches. Mama said, “Cut the meat up, honey, into bite-sized pieces.” Finished with the first plate, I placed it down for the oldest child. He said thank you, then paused, sliding it down for the next one. The plate kept going until it was in the middle, but no one reached out.
“Don’t like it?” I asked. They nodded.
“We got’s to say Grace...”
“Oh! That’s right!” I gave a quick prayer so they could start eating and I turned back to cut the second plate. Carrying it over to the table, the first plate was still in the middle, but empty. Not a scrape of food left on it. “Wow!” You really were hungry! Who’s next?”
All eyes looked up, and again the oldest child spoke. “We done shared. Just put it in the middle ‘gain.” I did, and watched as with each bite, the plate moved, pacing even. One bite. Shift. One bite. Shift.
“I’ve got plenty here. I can give you each a plate.”
“No thank you. We’s used to only sharing.”
Mama smiled and patted the chair next to her. “Hand me some of those plates, and I’ll help cut the food. Come sit with us.”
I grabbed the rest of the plates, refilled empty glasses, and slid in next to my mother.
While that morning, plates danced across the table, the children’s mother was tracked down. She was panicked after discovering her precious cargo gone.
With no income, Irene and her children took up residence where Aunt Mary and her girls formerly stayed. Aunt Mary and my cousins moved in with Joe following a simple blessed marriage.
Now days my Dr. has all but made me promise on the Bible to steer clear of liver. Says it’s bad for the heart. But when my extended family gathers, one request proves that the medical profession needs further studies on what is truly good for the heart.
We consider our words over bent heads during Grace, and pass the plate, sharing.