“I’m your youngest daughter,” time and again I tell my grandmother, whom I am named after and whom I decide to call Mother Leigh. I live with my paternal grandparents (I name our grandfather Other Dad) so much in my single digit years that it feels like that to me. She smiles and pats me on the head, never a word one way or the other crossing her lips.
It is she who teaches me to cook, by example. Mom, a teen bride, becomes a great cook but in her early married life years she is just beginning to hone her skills. Mother Leigh never lets lack of a recipe stop her. Once she chases a dressing that a chef refuses to divulge to her until she gets it to her liking. It’s simple but I can understand the elusiveness of it. It’s a sweet and sour combination dressing for a fruit salad. Donny & I both love it.
In my years with my grandparents (Other Dad is a minister on the Methodist circuit so they move a lot) I collect a plethora of amazing memories. Mother Leigh making me white sugar and butter sandwiches on the new time saver, sliced bread. Or scrapping the burnt topping off of breakfast toast and then convincing me that it is perfect. And she sells me on the chicken back. That piece that no one ever wants has a sweet chunk of hidden meat if you know where to look. Being a child of a successful gentleman farmer Mother Leigh learns this secret and more from her practical upbringing. She calls out a butcher if he offers her less than the prime cut of any animal. She knows where to find the best country hams. Usually in some out of the way gas station. She is onto the marvels of gas station food decades before it becomes popular.
A young wife and mother during the depression, she is never one to waste a thing. She has a continuous ball of saved string that she uses and adds to with such regularity that it hardly ever changes size. She gives me the task of turning plain lard packed in a new novel plastic sleeve into a buttery looking color by squeezing the red dot of food coloring tucked inside back and forth. She takes me with her to downtown Farmville, Virginia to buy real butter by the measure for special occasions. We walk. It is a short distance and ladies of her generation do not drive.
Mother Leigh spends her entire life going everywhere she wants to go, and she is a mover and a shaker, without ever getting behind the wheel of a car. Her oldest daughter, also a Leigh (Florence Leigh aka as IG. Go figure where that came from, no one seems to know. Not from me although I like it.) finally bites the bullet and learns to drive when she turns fifty.
I beg my grandmother to take me on a train ride and so she does, not once but over and over. We get our tickets at the tiny station in Farmville and patiently sit in the waiting room until our train arrives. The conductor helps us board, then folds up his steps and with a whistle the train leaves the station. We get off at the first town and take the next train home. It is all so exciting. I never tire of it.
When I am in college she quizzes the young neighbor girls and gets me the new fashion at the time, a wrap around skirt. (How could she know that I am wishing so hard for one.) She has no idea what they are but that doesn’t stop her. She takes the Westhampton bus to LaVogue (a very high fashion store) in downtown Richmond and tells the sales clerk what she needs.
When we live in Whaleyville and there is no heat in the house, save a wood stove in the living room, she bundles me up in blankets warmed by the stove to make going to bed less chilling. And then rewarms the blankets as many times as I ask her. In Farmville she packs cold buttered rolls and the Sunday comics to entertain me while my grandfather preaches his sermon. No nursery for me. I will attend the service. But my young status is acknowledged. She knows the service will not ramble on. She taps her watch if my grandfather goes over his allotted minutes.
And the cooking, oh the cooking. She’ll gladly give you any recipe but it goes something like this. A lump of butter the size of an egg. About 3 cups of flour. Never an oven temperature or time with any of her recipes. She just knows and so will you after enough trials. She rolls biscuits from a huge ball of dough using a drinking glass to roll and then cut. She doesn’t own a spatula. Her knuckles do a better job of cleaning out a bowl than any tool.
She is her own woman. When she is a young adult, my grandfather is assigned to her family church in Alta Vista, Virginia. He pays all of his parishioners a visit. The day he arrives at my grandmother’s house she expresses no interest in meeting the new minister feeling that her sisters can cover the job well enough and sequesters herself in her room. Her mother will have no such nonsense and scoots her downstairs. At this point everyone is in the living room visiting. Slowly descending the staircase (think antebellum home) my grandmother pulls out her best manners for the young minister who rises to meet her, “So glad to meet you Rev Jett.” Her sister Clara’s up coming wedding at which he will officiate on her mind, she continues, “I understand that you will soon have the honor of changing one of our names.”
Already smitten by her charm and beauty he replies, not missing a beat, “I hope so Miss Arthur. I certainly hope so Miss Arthur.” She is teased the rest of her life for ‘proposing’ to my grandfather at their first meeting. She gives me her copy of Evangeline that seals the deal for their courtship. She writes their history on the flyleaf. She is the lead in the show and has gone with another but walks home with my grandfather who proposes to her.
And so there will be no other place for our wedding reception than her beautiful Richmond home. Miles from St James Episcopal Church where Donny & I are married makes no difference. I begin my formative years at her knee and I will enter my married life with her southern charm blessing our path.
With this I give you my last post for 2015 dedicated to the woman who set the grandmother bar for me. It’s a high one. I stretch up to reach it with her hand on my shoulder.