Food was the center of our lives. Everything we did and thought revolved around it. We planted it, grew it, harvested it, peeled it, cooked it, served it, consumed it--endlessly, day after day, season after season. This was life on a farm--as it had been time out of mind.
The area around Clear Springs, on Panther Creek, was one of the first white settlements in the Jackson Purchase. In the spring of 1820, Peyton Washam, his fifteen-year-old son Peter, and a third man whose name has been forgotten came to Panther Creek from Virginia with a plan to build a cabin and plant some corn. Mrs. Washam and the seven other children, whom they had left in a settlement about a hundred miles away, would come along later. Before the men could begin building, they had to slash a clearing from the wilderness. It was tougher than they expected. They had plenty of water, for the place abounded with springs, but they soon ran out of food and supplies. They sent for more, but before these arrived they were reduced to boiling and eating their small treasure (half a bushel) of seed corn--the dried corn that would have let them get out a crop. Then Peyton Washam came down with a fever. He sent for his wife to come quickly. She arrived late at night and got lost in the canebrake--a thicket of canes growing up to thirty feet high. Frightened in the noisy darkness, she waited, upright and sleepless, beneath an old tree till daylight, according to the accounts. She hurried on then, propelled by worry, but when she reached her husband's camp, she was too late. He had died during the night. Afterwards, she lived out his dream, settling in the vicinity with her children. The area her husband had chosen eventually grew into the community where a dozen branches of my family took root.
This story vexes me. What a bold but pathetic beginning! What careless, untrained pioneers. How could Peyton Washam and his cohorts have run out of food so soon? If they arrived in the spring, they should have planted that seed corn before long (between mid-April and mid-May). Why, in a mild Kentucky spring, did they not get a garden out right away? How could they have run out of supplies before they got their corn in the ground? Of course they had to clear some canebrake, which wasn't easy. But it wasn't as hard as clearing trees. You can even eat cane like a vegetable. In May, there would have been a carpet of wild strawberries. If Peyton Washam was too sick to forage, why didn't the kid and the other guy go pick something? What kind of pioneer eats his seed corn? Why didn't they shoot a squirrel?
Mrs. Washam is the hero of the tale. She survived and her children joined her. She probably could handle a gun. I'm sure she knew how to get out a garden. I picture her coming alone with a basket of corn-bread and fried pies, looking for her sick, hungry husband, trying to follow directions scribbled on a piece of paper. Turn left before the canebrake. Follow the creek to the large old tree. Or maybe Peyton Washam's handwriting was bad--maybe he meant an oak tree.
This was the rough and foolhardy beginning of Clear Springs. The expedition was a man's notion, with a woman coming to the rescue. The men were starving without her. It makes perfect sense to me, in light of everything I know about the rural life that came down to me from that community. When I think of Clear Springs, I think first of the women cooking. Every Christmas we went out to the Mason homeplace for a grand celebration dinner that included at least a dozen cakes. And in the summer we went to big homecoming feasts--called dinner-on-the-ground--at nearby McKendree Methodist Church, which was on Mason land.
One day Mama and Granny were shelling beans and talking about the proper method of drying apples. I was nearly eleven and still entirely absorbed with the March girls in Little Women. Drying apples was not in my dreams. Beth's death was weighing darkly on me at that moment, and I threw a little tantrum--what Mama called a hissy fit.
"Can't y'all talk about anything but food?" I screamed.
There was a shocked silence. "Well, what else is there?" Granny asked.
Granny didn't question a woman's duties, but I did. I didn't want to be hulling beans in a hot kitchen when I was fifty years old. I wanted to be somebody, maybe an airline stewardess. Also, I had been listening to the radio. I had notions.
Our lives were haunted by the fear of crop failure. We ate as if we didn't know where our next meal might come from. All my life I have had a recurrent food dream: I face a buffet or cafeteria line, laden with beautiful foods. I spend the entire dream choosing the foods I want. My anticipation is deliciously agonizing. I always wake up just as I've made my selections but before I get to eat.
Working with food was fraught with anxiety and desperation. In truth, no one in memory had missed a meal--except Peyton Washam on the banks of Panther Creek wistfully regarding his seed corn. But the rumble of poor Peyton's belly must have survived to trouble our dreams. We were at the mercy of nature, and it wasn't to be trusted. My mother watched the skies at evening for a portent of the morrow. A cloud that went over and then turned around and came back was an especially bad sign. Our livelihood--even our lives--depended on forces outside our control.
I think this dependence on nature was at the core of my rebellion. I hated the constant sense of helplessness before vast forces, the continuous threat of failure. Farmers didn't take initiative, I began to see; they reacted to whatever presented itself. I especially hated women's part in the dependence.
My mother allowed me to get spoiled. She never even tried to teach me to cook. "You didn't want to learn," she says now. "You were a lady of leisure, and you didn't want to help. You had your nose in a book."
I believed progress meant freedom from the field and the range. That meant moving to town, I thought.
Because we lived on the edge of Mayfield, I was acutely conscious of being country. I felt inferior to people in town because we grew our food and made our clothes, while they bought whatever they needed. Although we were self-sufficient and resourceful and held clear title to our land, we lived in a state of psychological poverty. As I grew older, this acute sense of separation from town affected me more deeply. I began to sense that the fine life in town--celebrated in magazines, on radio, in movies--was denied us. Of course we weren't poor at all. Poor people had too many kids, and they weren't landowners; they rented decrepit little houses with plank floors and trash in the yard. "Poor people are wormy and eat wild onions," Mama said. We weren't poor, but we were country.
We had three wardrobes--everyday clothes, school clothes, and Sunday clothes. We didn't wear our school clothes at home, but we could wear them to town. When we got home from church, we had to change back into everyday clothes before we ate Mama's big Sunday dinner.
"Don't eat in your good clothes!" Mama always cried. "You'll spill something on them."
Mama always preferred outdoor life, but she was a natural cook. At harvest time, after she'd come in from the garden and put out a wash, she would whip out a noontime dinner for the men in the field--my father and grandfather and maybe some neighbors and a couple of hired hands: fried chicken with milk gravy, ham, mashed potatoes, lima beans, field peas, corn, slaw, sliced tomatoes, fried apples, biscuits, and peach pie. This was not considered a banquet, only plain hearty food, fuel for work. All the ingredients except the flour, sugar, and salt came from our farm--the chickens, the hogs, the milk and butter, the Irish potatoes, the beans, peas, corn, cabbage, apples, peaches. Nothing was processed, except by Mama. She was always butchering and plucking and planting and hoeing and shredding and slicing and creaming (scraping cobs for the creamed corn) and pressure-cooking and canning and freezing and thawing and mixing and shaping and baking and frying.
We would eat our pie right on the same plate as our turnip greens so as not to mess up another dish. The peach cobbler oozed all over the turnip-green juice and the pork grease. "It all goes to the same place," Mama said. It was boarding-house reach, no "Pass the peas, please." Conversation detracted from the sensuous pleasure of filling yourself. A meal required meat and vegetables and dessert. The beverages were milk and iced tea ("ice-tea"). We never used napkins or ate tossed salad. Our salads were Jell-O and slaw. We ate "poke salet" and wilted lettuce. Mama picked tender, young pokeweed in the woods in the spring, before it turned poison, and cooked it a good long time to get the bitterness out. We liked it with vinegar and minced boiled eggs. Wilted lettuce was tender new lettuce, shredded, with sliced radishes and green onions, and blasted with hot bacon grease to blanch the rawness. "Too many fresh vegetables in summer gives people the scours," Daddy said.
Food was better in town, we thought. It wasn't plain and everyday. The centers of pleasure were there--the hamburger and barbecue places, the movie shows, all the places to buy things. Woolworth's, with the pneumatic tubes overhead rushing money along a metallic mole tunnel up to a balcony; Lochridge & Ridgway, with an engraved sign on the third-story cornice: stoves, appliances, plows. On the mezzanine at that store, I bought my first phonograph records, brittle 78s of big-band music--Woody Herman and Glenn Miller, and Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra playing "No Name Jive." A circuit of the courthouse square took you past the grand furniture stores, the two dime stores, the shoe stores, the men's stores, the ladies' stores, the banks, the drugstores. You'd walk past the poolroom and an exhaust fan would blow the intoxicating smell of hamburgers in your face. Before she bought a freezer, Mama stored meat in a rented food locker in town, near the ice company. She stored the butchered calf there, and she fetched hunks of him each week to fry. But hamburgers in town were better. They were greasier, and they came in waxed-paper packages.
At the corner drugstore, on the square, Mama and Janice and I sat at filigreed wrought-iron tables on a black-and-white mosaic tile floor, eating peppermint ice cream. It was very cold in there, under the ceiling fans. The ice cream was served elegantly, in paper cones sunk into black plastic holders. We were uptown.
The A&P grocery, a block away, reeked of the rich aroma of ground coffee. Daddy couldn't stand the smell of coffee, but Mama loved it. Daddy retched and scoffed in his exaggerated fashion. "I can't stand that smell!" Granny perked coffee, and Granddaddy told me it would turn a child black. I hated coffee. I wouldn't touch it till I was thirty. We savored store-bought food--coconuts, pineapples, and Vienna sausages and potted meat in little cans that opened with keys. We rarely went to the uptown A&P. We usually traded at a small mom-and-pop grocery, where the proprietors slapped the hands of black children who touched the candy case. I wondered if they were black from coffee.
In the summer of 1954, when I was about to enter high school, my mother got a chance to run a nearby restaurant on the highway across the train track. My parents knew the owner, and one day he stopped by and asked Mama if she'd like to manage the place. She wasn't working at the Merit at that time, and she jumped at the opportunity.
"Why, anybody could cook hamburgers and French fries for the public," Mama said confidently. "That would be easy."
I went with her to inspect the restaurant--a square cinder-block building with a picture-window view of the highway. There were no trees around, just a graveled parking area. It was an informal sort of place, with a simple kitchen, a deep fryer, a grill, some pots and pans. There were five or six tables and a counter with stools. Mama saw potential.
"Catfish platters," she said. "Fish. Hush puppies. Slaw. French fries."
I was so excited I couldn't sleep. Running our own little restaurant could mean we wouldn't have to work in the garden. I wanted nothing more to do with okra and beans. Besides, the restaurant had an apartment above it. I wanted to live there, on the highway. Marlene was still running her frozen-custard stand nearby, and now I too would get to meet strangers traveling through. Mama and I inspected the apartment: a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. It was all new and fresh. I loved it.
"Oh, please, let's move here," I begged, wishing desperately for novelty, deliverance, and an endless supply of Co'-Colas.
Mama's eyes lit up. "We'll see," she said.
A restaurant would be ideal for her. "It's a chance to make big money," she told me. She told the owner she would try it for a while, to see how she liked it. If she became the manager, then she would rent it for a hundred dollars a month.
"If it works out, maybe I could make a hundred dollars a week," she said.
I tagged along with her when she worked at the restaurant. I felt important waiting on customers--strangers driving along the highway and stopping for a bite to eat right where I was. I wanted to meet somebody from New York. When I drew glasses of foamy Coca-Cola from the fountain, the Coke fizzed over crushed ice. I made grilled-cheese sandwiches in the grilled-cheese machine. I experimented with milk shakes. I was flying.
Most of all, I loved the jukebox. The jukebox man came by to change records and insert new red-rimmed paper strips of titles: Doris Day and Johnnie Ray duets, "Teardrops from My Eyes" by Ruth Brown, and "P.S. I Love You" by a Kentucky vocal group called the Hilltoppers. I listened avidly to everything. I was fourteen and deeply concerned about my suntan, and I was saving pocket money to buy records.
The restaurant had a television set, which sat in a corner with something called a television light on top--a prism of soft colors which supposedly kept people from ruining their eyes on TV rays. I had hardly ever watched television, and I was captivated by Sid Caesar's variety show and I Love Lucy. When the evening crowd came in, Mama trotted back and forth from the kitchen with her hamburger platters and catfish platters. She would stop and laugh at something Lucy and Ethel were doing on the screen.
Mama had to give up the restaurant even before the trial period ended. She didn't do it voluntarily. Granddaddy stepped in and told her she had to.
"We need you here at home," he said. "Running a eating place out on the highway ain't fitten work."
Daddy didn't stand up for her. "How would you make anything?" he asked her. "By the time you pay out that hundred dollars a month and all the expenses, you won't have nothing left. First thing you know, you'll get behind and then you'll be owing him."
Granny said, "And who's going to do your cooking here?"
That was that. Afterwards, Mama cooked her hamburger platters at home, but they weren't the same without the fountain Cokes and the jukebox and the television. I thought I saw a little fire go out of her then. Much later, her fire would almost die. But my own flame was burning brighter. I had had a glimpse of life outside the farm, and I wanted it.
I can still see Mama emerging from that restaurant kitchen, carrying two hamburger platters and gabbing with her customers as if they were old friends who had dropped in to visit and sit a spell. In the glass of the picture window, reflections from the TV set flicker like candles at the church Christmas service.
And then the blackberries were ripe. We spent every July and August in the berry patch. The tame berries had spread along the fencerows and creek banks. When they ripened, Mama would exclaim in wonder, "There are worlds of berries down there!" She always "engaged" the berries to customers. By June, she would say, "I've already got forty gallons of berries engaged."
We strode out at dawn, in the dew, and picked until the mid-morning sun bore down on our heads. To protect her hands from the briars, Mama made gloves from old bluejeans. Following the berries down the creek bank, we perched on ledges and tiptoed on unsure footing through thickets. We tunneled. When Mama saw an especially large berry just out of reach, she would manage to get it somehow, even if she had to lean her body against the bush and let it support her while she plucked the prize. We picked in quart baskets, then poured the berries into red-and-white Krey lard buckets. The berries settled quickly, and Mama picked an extra quart to top off the full buckets. By nine o'clock the sun was high, and I struggled to the house with my four gallons, eager to wash the chiggers off and eat some cereal.
From picking blackberries, I learned about money. I wouldn't eat the berries, even on my cereal: I wanted the money. One summer I picked eighty gallons and earned eighty dollars--much more than Mama made in a week when she worked at the Merit. Granny said food was everything, but I was hungry for something else--a kind of food that didn't grow in the ground. Yet I couldn't deny that we were always feasting. We ate sumptuous meals, never missing dessert. Once in a while, Daddy brought home exotic treats--fried oysters in little goldfish cartons or hot tamales wrapped in corn shucks. At Christmas, the dairy he drove for produced jugs of boiled custard, and we slurped gallons of it even though it was not really as good as Granny's, which was naturally yellow from fresh country eggs. Granny complained that store-bought eggs were pale. When the cows needed feed, Daddy took a load of corn from the corncrib to the feed mill and had it ground and mixed with molasses and wheat and oats. He brought it home and filled the feed bin, a big box with a hinged lid, like a giant coffin. I would chew a mouthful now and then for the sweetening.
One spring I rode the corn planter behind Daddy on the tractor. He had plowed and disked and harrowed the ground. Sitting in a concave metal seat with holes in it, I rode the planter, which drilled furrows to receive the seed. At the end of each row I closed the hoppers so they wouldn't release seed while he turned the tractor in a wide loop. When he nosed down the next row, I opened the hoppers at his signal, so that the seed would trickle out again, evenly spaced, behind the drill. The planter covered the seed behind us. We didn't talk much in our awkward caravan. As we rode the long hot rows, rich floods of remembered music accompanied me as vividly as if I had been wearing a Walkman. Top Ten numbers like "Ruby," "The Song from Moulin Rouge," and "Rags to Riches" rolled through my head with the promise that I would not have to plant corn when I grew up.
As I look back, the men recede into the furrows, into the waves of the ocean, and the women stand erect, churning and frying.
Excerpted from Clear Springs by Bobbie Ann Mason. Copyright © 1999 by Bobbie Ann Mason. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.