From inside the refrigerator I remove the Tupperware container filled with cucumber salad. As I open the lid and begin filling the serving bowl, the pungent aroma of vinegar and onions fills the kitchen. I am taken back to my childhood when I first helped Grandma fix this salad.
The summer heat of Kentucky radiated from the wood walls and furniture in the old farm house, blending with the constant scent of wood smoke. The cook stove took up most of the kitchen. In the summer heat a small electric hotplate took its place. Next to the stove was a wash basin with no plumbing attached. Water was poured into the basin from one bucket, only to run out the drain into another.
Grandma walked through the back door carrying a wash pan filled with freshly picked cucumbers and sat it on the large wooden kitchen table. One end of the table was pushed up against the wall under an open window through which a sultry breeze blew. The curtains rustled, giving the illusion of coolness. Dampened salt sat clumped in the shaker. Butter pooled in the bottom of its dish.
“Here, Ann, go fill this bucket with water.”
I pushed open the rickety screen door and walked on the flat stones that formed a short path to the well house. Setting the bucket under the spicket, I pumped the handle which eventually led to short bursts of cool water spurting into the bucket. I cupped my hand under the last trickles and washed the sweat from my face.
Returning to the kitchen, I sat the bucket beside the table were Grandma was already at work. She pointed with her paring knife at the wash pan of cucumbers as she paused from slicing onions.
“Those all need to be washed.”
I covered the dusty cucumbers with water from the pail and began to scrub each one, removing the red garden clay and placing the clean ones into the bucket of water for a final rinse. I piled the vegetables on the old towel Grandma had placed on the table to catch the dripping water.
I watched as Grandma finished slicing the last of the onions into thin, even slices and poured them into a large bowl filled with finely diced green peppers and celery. Meticulously, she cut each cucumber into thin slices to add to the bowl. Her hands, wrinkled and swollen from work and age, trembled slightly as she sprinkled salt over the vegetables.
“The salt will draw out the water and help make the dressing,” she explained.
A small trickle of sweat ran down the side of her face and she swept her graying hair away from her eyes, pushing it behind her ear.
She walked onto the screened-in back porch that overflowed with forty years worth of housekeeping accumulation. From inside a yellowed metal cabinet she pulled small containers of dill and mustard seed. The jar of vinegar sat on top of a dusty shelf over the window. Along the back wall were rows of shelves filled with canning jars. Some contained green beans or corn from years past, while other sat empty waiting for the next harvest. She poured the spices, vinegar and a cup of sugar into one.
“This needs to be stirred for ten minutes,” she said, handing the jar to me, along with a battered wooden spoon.
A few minutes later she returned from the living room with a deck of cards.
“The cucumbers need to soak for about half an hour more. Let's play a game of gin rummy while we're waiting.”
She deftly shuffled the deck of well-worn playing cards with those wrinkled, swollen hands. Giving them to me to deal, she pulled a yellowed sheet of paper out of a drawer, along with a hand-sharpened pencil.
“You keep score,” she said.
“Okay. But it's your play.”
“I know. Let me get my cards in order.” She took the six of spades and laid down a jack of diamonds. The game was on. She won as usual.
Some fifty years later, I sit at my kitchen table and take a bite of salad. The crunch of the tangy, sweet cucumbers is as enjoyable today as that day so long ago. A wistful desire rises within me for a day when I will teach a granddaughter to make cucumber salad and play gin rummy.
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