Lord, honey, they’re all dead now,” my mother says when I ask her to tell me about her family. We are sitting at my kitchen table. My mother, dressed to be company, her short brown hair neatly curled, is peeling green apples for a pie. Her hands are red, swollen, twisted with arthritis. She wears my father’s wedding band; her own had to be cut off a few years ago. But she prepares the apples with amazing deftness. The peels fall in long unbroken spirals.
“They’re all dead long ago,” my mother says, “even my Grandmother Harlan, and 1 thought she never was going to die. Granddaddy Harlan was a veteran of the War, shot by the Yankees in the right leg at Gettysburg. He was up in 70 when he died, and Grand-mother Harlan – your great-grandmother – lived for 30 years after that. Her oldest daughter, my Aunt Eva, stayed with her and took care of her. That was the custom in those days. Just those two old women, rocking along.
“Grandmother ruled the roost. They say once when Grandmother was close to 100 and Aunt Eva was about 80, Aunt Eva was out in the front yard weeding the flower bed. You remember Aunt Eva. She had a big hooked nose and was all humped over. Looked like an old witch, but she was a saint on earth. The Stanley Products man came by and asked her if she needed anything. ’Well, sir,’ she said, ’I’ll have to ask my mamma,’ and went on back in the house. He told it up at the store, laughing. ’I’ll have to ask my mamma.’
“Her name was Eleanor Elmira Judith Ann Gregory when she married my Granddaddy Harlan, and there wasn’t anything about her family that wasn’t the best, in her estimation. She grew up on a farm near Charleston, South Carolina. Her father had a good many slaves. She had her own personal little black maid, who just laced her corset, I guess, and she never let you forget it. She was a braggart and a terrible snob.
“She finally died when she was 102 on the hottest day in July in 1949. I remember some of them saying it looked like anybody who’d lived 102 years could’ve picked a cooler day to die on.
“This knife won’t cut hot butter,” my mother complains, pushing her glasses up and looking down her nose at it. “You ought to keep your knives sharp, sugar. Get you a good whetstone.”
I remember her blade at home, worn tiny and thin by years of faithful sharpening. “Next time, bring your own,” I say. “Have knife, will travel.” She chuckles, and I pick up one of the long apple peel curls and munch it happily.
“I was named Sammie Cornelia for my grandfather – Samuel Cornelius Harlan. The whole family came from South Carolina along about 1898 and settled in Winston County, Mississippi. How they happened to come was my daddy’s oldest brother, my Uncle George, killed a man. He had a fight, just hot-blooded young men fighting, like they will, but Uncle George killed him. He didn’t mean to, and he probably would’ve gotten off, but he was just a young fella, and he got scared, so he ran. He wrote back home, and the whole family followed him. People didn’t want to break up their families in those days. That was real important.
“My mama and my grand-mama didn’t get along. Mama was an orphan when she was eight. Grandmother Harlan didn’t want my daddy to marry Mama because she was old orphan trash. That’s how she talked. Mama said when Daddy took her home for the first time after they got married, Uncle Pos came out to meet them and said, ’Well, Joe, you’ve played hell.’
“My mama was a beautiful girl, with real flashing dark eyes and high cheekbones and hair so long she could sit on it.She used to let us children comb it out and put it up with her tortoiseshell combs. I’ll never forget how she looked when she’d wash it and spread it out in the sun to dry, so shiny black and thick. Nobody could’ve blamed my daddy for marrying her.
“Everybody called her Mitt, but she was named Armita Matilda Johnson for her mother who was Armita Matilda Tulus, and that’s every living thing 1 know about Mama’s mother. Mama’s Uncle Lee was editor of the Neshoba County Democrat, county superintendent of education, and a Baptist preacher all at the same time. So you see he wasn’t trash.
“Mama and Daddy got married on May 6, 1909, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and they settled down on a farm just a little way from my Granddaddy Harlan’s place. That’s where I was born and we lived there until I was twelve years old. There were three of us children. I was the oldest, my brother Ken was two years younger, and Boyd was the baby, born when I was eight.
“My mama and daddy were real hospitable people. We always had extra people at the table. Mama loved to tell about one poor old man who wanted to thank her nicely. He said, ’Miss Mitt, that supper was mighty fine, what there was of it.’ Then he realized that didn’t sound just right and he said, ’I mean, there was God’s plenty of it, such as it was.’
“Almost every Saturday night during good weather we’d have square dances at our house and people would come from miles around to dance. Uncle Ben was the fiddler and my daddy would call the sets. I can still hear him singing,
Ida Red, Ida Red,
I’m a big fool about Ida Red.
Ida Red, Ida Green, Prettiest little gal I ever seen.
Ken and I would dance just like the grownups. When we got hot and tired we’d eat homemade ice cream so cold we’d have to wrap up in quilts to finish it.”
My mother smiles to herself for a moment. Then she sifts some flour on the table, lays her ball of dough on it, and looks at me expectantly. “Where’s your rolling pin?” she asks. I haven’t seen it in ages. Hurriedly I rise and shuffle through the cabinets, the drawers. Behind me the silence registers incredulity: How can you lose a rolling pin?
I sight a half-full bottle of Pinot Noir and turn to her, inspired. “Can you use this?” I ask. She nods skeptically. It is a sight to see my teetotaling Baptist mother roll out pie dough with a wine bottle. The cork twirls lopsidedly as she rolls the bottle, and inside the red wine sloshes. Suppose the cork comes out, and the red wine splashes the white dough, I think.
“Mama and Daddy weren’t much hand at farming. 1 never remember seeing Daddy plow but twice in my life. He had sharecroppers to do the real farming. One time one of them, old Jim Rash, offered Ken and me fifty cents to chop cotton. Well, we were Daddy’s children. We didn’t know chopping cotton meant chopping out the weeds in the cotton. Old Jim watched us for a while, then he slipped up to the big house and told Mama, ’Ole Miss, I done offered them children fifty cents to chop cotton, but I’ll gi’ you two dollars if you’ll get ’em to stop.’
“I was twelve when Daddy had an opportunity to run a sawmill for Fair Lumber Company, and we moved into town. We really weren’t more than twenty miles from the farm then, and Daddy had bought a Model T. He always kept Mama a good way to go. On Sundays after church we’d get in the car and just drive. Drive up to Alabama and get honey. Drive out to Moon Lake to see the people fishing. At least twice a month we’d drive back out to the farm to see how the old folks were getting along. I’ll never forget how when it came time to leave they’d walk back down to the road with us – it was a good piece from the road to the house – with all three of them just crying and taking on because they might never see us alive again. We’d hug all around, and Aunt Eva and Grandmother would cry, and Granddaddy would shake hands with Daddy, and they’d all cry and kiss us. It made Mama real impatient every time.
“When I was sixteen my folks sent me to boarding school at Noxapater for my last two years of high school. I took French, history, algebra, sewing, and elocution. Oh, and biology. I liked biology because Professor Webb bragged on me. Said I saw things better through the microscope than anybody else. He’d hold my drawings up for models. I was so proud.
“While I was at Noxapater, Ken got run over. He was sixteen and riding on the side of an old truck, just hanging on with one hand. Well, the driver stopped short, and Ken fell off and the truck ran over him. They took him to the hospital in Meridian and the doctors made an incision in his side six inches square to try to straighten things out. One lung was punctured and his stomach was pushed up and his heart shoved over to the other side.
“He lived on for six or seven years. He finished high school and he could drive a car, so he helped my daddy, managing trucks for his sawmill. But Ken never was well again. One day he drove up to the house. Mama looked out. She saw his car, but she didn’t see Ken. She waited a little bit, but he didn’t come in, so she walked on out. Well, sir, he was crawling up to the house. He never could walk any more. He was 23.
“He knew he was going to die. Uncle Lee Breland was in town, on his circuit-riding, you know, and staying with us. Ken told him, ’Uncle Lee, it’s about over for me. I think you can preach my funeral before you go this time.’
“I was sitting right by his bed when he died. He called Cliff Reid over – your uncle Cliff was his best friend – and he said, ’Cliff, did you ever feel of anybody dying? Feel me: My legs are already getting cold.’ Not long after that he told us he didn’t have a pain in the world. Then he said, ’Raise the windows,’ and he died. That was in 1935.
“By then your daddy and I were married, and nobody was left at home but Boyd. He was a wild one, liked the girls, drank some, I expect. But he was just the apple of Mama’s eye. What Boyd wanted Boyd got where Mama was concerned. They had sent me off to boarding school and then to Blue Mountain College, but not Boyd. He got a basketball scholarship to East Mississippi Junior College, and he stayed three days. Came home and said, ’Daddy, I’ll offbear at the sawmill, I’ll haul lumber, I’ll even plow, but I won’t go to college.’ Mama let him stay, coddled him something awful. I’ll never forget how he used to fight with you over the last of the banana pudding, and you just a little thing.
“He got killed when he was 21, stabbed in the groin by one of your granddaddy’s millworkers, and lay all night in the Lan-trip schoolhouse. My daddy always blamed himself because he asked Boyd to carry the man – his name was Ballard – home. We always figured they got to drinking. Ballard killed Boyd and took his money, and just went on home to wait for the law. When they picked Ballard up the next morning, he confessed right away. Said, ’I was raised in Mr. Joe’s mill, been there all my life. I only had two friends in the world, and I’ve killed one of them.’ He went to the pen and served twenty years or better before he was paroled. But Mama was bitter. She wanted the death penalty.
“They laid Boyd out in the living room in his dark blue pin-striped suit and a dark red tie. He was six foot three, and they had to send to Memphis for a big enough coffin. It was raining and cold the day they buried him, just before Christmas. Mama was too sick to go to the funeral – her heart, you know.”
She slips in the round bottom crust without a break, not like my pathetic patchwork. Pouring the apples into the crust, she dots the high mound with small pats of butter and sets the plate aside.
“Oh, they got over it – people do. But Mama never was the same again. I don’t believe I ever saw her really happy after that till the year she died. After Mama had that stroke, her whole disposition changed. She was so happy. She was paralyzed on her right side, you know, and I had to care for her like a baby. But I’d go in to look about her and she’d smile and tell me all the places she’d been that day and who all she’d seen. She’d call me Emma, my daddy’s baby sister. Sometimes she’d say she’d been riding old John across the fields and through the woods back of the farm. Or she’d gone to visit Grandmother Harlan, and Grandmother had been dead six years. Once she said to me, ’’Sammie, where is Ken? I don’t feel like I’ve seen him in ages.’
“I sat down by her and I said, ’Mama, don’t you know Ken is dead? He died a long, long time ago.’ She just cried and cried all day, like it had just happened.
“But most of the time she was happy. She died in December of 1954 and my daddy died the next July. All he did those last few months was read the Bible. Read it so much it affected his mind. The Bible can do that, you know.”
Rolling out the large new circle of dough, she cuts long strips for the latticework top, placing the strips precisely on the pie in a fancy design through which the apple glints. When all the strips are on, she cuts evenly around the edge. Then with her thumb and forefinger she flutes the edge in rhythmical flourishes as personal as her signature.
“You know what I just remembered? The Webbs, who lived near us back on the farm, had mineral springs on their place. They put up some little summer houses in their woods near the springs and people would come to stay all summer for the waters. We loved those people.
“On the Fourth of July, we’d always have a big picnic down there – fried chicken and tubs of pink lemonade. We’d have egg races and eat watermelon and listen to electioneering. One time I remember Judge Pat Harrison making a speech, saying, ’If I’m not a Democrat what am I?’
“Nobody answered, so he said it again, ’If I’m not a Democrat, what am I?’
“Still no answer, so he tried again, ’If I’m not a Democrat, what am I?’
“And somebody way at the back spoke up and said, ’A durn fool.’ “
She laughs till tears come at the memory. Then she moves slowly to the stove, adjusts the thermostat, and carefully pushes the pie into the oven. “There,” she says, “it’ll turn out all right, I guess.”
Straightening, she brushes her hair back with one floury hand, leaving a smudge. She takes off her steamy glasses, wipes them on her apron, and for a moment turns on me her naked human eyes.
“We had a lot of fun,” she says to me.”1 had a letter from Cousin Louella a whileback, and she said what good days thosewere. They were so simple. People livedsuch simple, uncomplicated lives.” Shesmiles and replaces her glasses. “No problems.”