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a little SALTY to cut the Sweet
By Sophie Hudson, Stephanie Rische
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC. Copyright © 2013Sophie Hudson
All rights reserved.
Not to Mention That Her Apple Tarts Would Change Your Whole Life
So, I have a theory.
It's not a theory about science or religion or politics. Oh, heavens, no. That would be a complete departure from the very fiber of my personality.
But I do have a theory about memory. More specifically, I have a theory about how we remember people.
Are you ready?
Prepare to be underwhelmed, my friends.
My theory is that we typically have one dominant "fallback" memory that becomes our go-to mental image when we think about somebody.
Now that I've typed that out, by the way, I'm thinking that maybe it's not so much a theory as a loose, unverifiable observation.
But let's just run with it. Because whenever I think about Papaw Sims, for example, I picture him leaning over his deep freeze and asking if I'd rather have chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry ice cream. Whenever I think about Uncle Joe, I picture him dozing in his recliner with a stack of paperwork on his lap—and a ten-key adding machine within arm's reach. And whenever I think about Mamaw Davis, my maternal grandmother, I picture her looking over her shoulder and grinning while she's standing at the stove. Maybe even scooping a little Crisco out of the can.
The mental picture of Mamaw standing at the stove is one of the most enduring images of my childhood, mainly because she stood at that stove so faithfully. She cooked three hot meals a day, seven days a week. There was never anything made from a box, either—no powdery macaroni and cheese or Hamburger Helper. Oh, no, ma'am. There was hot cornbread, beef stroganoff over rice, pot roast with carrots and potatoes, fried chicken, creamed potatoes, fresh peas, fried squash, fried okra (I have to pause for a moment whenever I mention Mamaw's fried okra and give it the reverence and honor that it is due), egg custard pie, pound cake—I could go on and on.
We didn't have all that food at one time, mind you, or else we'd have alternated trips to Mamaw's table with trips to the cardiac care unit, but there was always something delicious and homemade on that stove. Mamaw didn't think she was doing anything special—she was just taking care of her family the best way she knew how—but I think her children and grandchildren can all testify to the fact that those meals she cooked ministered to us like a good Sunday sermon. And she didn't have to say a single word.
For at least one week a summer—sometimes more—my mama and my daddy, along with my aunt Choxie, who is Mama's sister, and Chox's husband, my uncle Joe, would ship my cousin Paige and me off to Mamaw and Papaw Davis's pretty white farmhouse in Moss Rose, Mississippi—about thirty minutes from my hometown of Myrtlewood. Since Paige would have been born in the early 1900s if she'd had any say in the matter, she thrived on Mamaw and Papaw's farm. She was perfectly content to pick blackberries, walk through the chicken coops, amble about in the pastures, and count cows. I, on the other hand, was a total scaredy-cat, wary of tall grass that made me itch and bumblebees that refused to be swatted away.
I had issues when I was indoors, too. When Paige and I would go to bed at night, exhausted from our day's adventures, I'd usually make it ten or fifteen minutes before I'd sprint down the hall and crawl into bed with Mamaw and Papaw. Every floorboard creak sounded to me like imminent danger, so I settled into sleep much more easily underneath the cool hum of the AC window unit in my grandparents' room. No way could the boogeyman get me in there. Not on Papaw's watch. He was broad shouldered, barrel chested, and utterly devoted to his family—a security blanket in human form.
Papaw had some health problems when I was ten, and not too long afterward he and Mamaw decided to downsize and find a smaller house with a lot less land. Somebody later told my mama that Papaw was thinking ahead—he was worried something would happen to him and Mamaw would be stuck with the responsibilities of the farm. On top of that, he didn't want her to be living in a relatively remote area all by herself. So they sold the farmhouse (and the farm) and moved to a blond brick house that was just catty-corner from Moss Rose's Methodist church.
Papaw added a den to the back of the new -to-them house so there would be a nice big gathering place for the family, and when we had our first Sunday lunch there a month or so after they moved in, Mamaw stood at her new stove and carried out the ministry of the homemade chicken pie just like she'd always done. Paige and I missed the backyard of the old house and the pipe swing with the eight-foot chain that hung from the branches of an old oak tree, but there was a barn to explore and plenty of room to roam. That was all we needed.
The following winter Mama and Chox hosted a tea at Mamaw and Papaw's house to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Mama and Choxie's brother, Bill, who lived three hours away, was there too, and in my opinion Bill's presence always elevated a family gathering a couple of notches. He drove a sports car, reminded me of Burt Reynolds, and delivered one-liners better than anybody else I knew. If that weren't enough, Mama and Chox let Paige and me serve the punch, and we were certain such a grown-up responsibility meant we'd hit the big time. Papaw wore his nicest suit, and Mamaw wore a pretty dress that she'd made for the occasion, along with a corsage that Sister had bought for her at a florist's shop in Myrtlewood. They made an adorable couple.
Papaw's personality came alive in a big group of folks, so he was in his element that afternoon. Mamaw, on the other hand, was much more introverted and soft spoken. Every once in a while Papaw would put his hand on her back and whisper, "You doing okay, Lucy?"
She'd grin and say, "I'm fine, John."
But even at eleven years old I knew it was hard for her to be the center of attention. Her sweet, servant spirit shone just fine without the aid of any limelight, and part of me wondered if she wasn't going to sneak out of her own anniversary party so she could get in the kitchen and make everybody some chicken and dumplings. She hung in there with the socializing, though, and she stood by Papaw's side until the front door closed and Mama and Chox practically raced to see who could be the first one to take off her high-heeled shoes.
What none of us knew at the time, though, was how much Mamaw was struggling with her health. Then again, not even she knew how sick she was. Having been plagued by a general feeling of weakness as well as liver problems during the past several years, she initially thought that she was dealing with more of the same. Over the next few months, however, she and Papaw traveled to Myrtlewood almost weekly for doctor's visits, and early that fall—about eight months after their fiftieth anniversary—Papaw told the family that the doctor had confirmed their worst fear: cancer. Other than helping Mamaw manage her pain and keeping her as comfortable as possible, there wasn't much the doctors could do.
Mamaw was admitted to the hospital in Myrtlewood right before Thanksgiving, and for the next two weeks Mama, Chox, and Papaw rarely left her side. Mama would pick up Paige and me from school—we were fourteen and twelve at that point—and we'd do our homework in the waiting room down the hall from Mamaw's room while we drank Cokes and ate Dolly Madison fruit pies from the vending machine. Mama or Chox would take us downstairs to the hospital cafeteria for supper, and we'd eventually go home whenever they felt Mamaw was settled for the night. It broke their hearts to see her in pain, and they took their role as her advocates very seriously. It wasn't quite like Shirley MacLaine at the nurses' station in Terms of Endearment—Mama and Chox were far too polite to make a scene—but in their own Southern ways, they didn't mess around.
By mid-December the weather had turned windy and cold, and Mamaw showed no signs of getting better. One Tuesday night Papaw needed to drive back to Moss Rose to get a change of clothes and a few other things, and since Mama and Chox didn't want him to stay at the house by himself, they suggested that he take Paige and me with him. We had school the next day, but they were far more worried about Papaw than about our missing an hour of social studies. So off we went.
The ride to Moss Rose in Papaw's Oldsmobile 88 was a quiet one, and by the time we arrived at Mamaw and Papaw's house, we were all pretty worn out. It was the first time I'd walked through their back door without immediately seeing Mamaw standing at the stove, and while we didn't stop and take time to vocalize our feelings or anything like that, I think it's safe to say that we all felt her absence.
Paige and I brushed our teeth in silence that night, standing in the guest bath that always smelled like a combination of rubbing alcohol and Mercurochrome. We walked down the hall to tell Papaw good-night and found him lying on top of the bedspread, staring at the ceiling with his arms crossed over his chest. Paige and I sat down beside him, not really knowing what to say. Papaw spoke up first and uttered six words that have stayed with me for more than thirty years.
"She was mighty sweet, wasn't she?"
It struck me as strange that he used the past tense, but Paige and I certainly didn't correct him. We tried our best to comfort him as his shoulders began to shake and the tears started to fall. And while I don't have any idea what time it was when Paige and I finally fell asleep, I do know that Papaw's quiet sobs were the last sound either of us heard.
Early the next morning, around five o'clock, there was a knock on the door. Mama, Daddy, Chox, and Joe had come to tell us what Papaw's heart had told him the night before.
Up to that point in my life—and I was every bit of twelve years old—I'd been all about ballet lessons, my snazzy new Merlin game, American Top 40, and Nancy Drew mysteries. So for me, Mamaw's death was my first glimpse into what family life looks like in the midst of sadness and grief and heartache. I couldn't have put words to it at the time, I don't think, but somehow I could sense that there was beauty in all that brokenness, that there were little patches of light that permeated the darkness. Yes, there was sorrow and pain—but there was also love and comfort and laughter and joy. There was a confidence that something bigger was at work, an assurance of "an eternal glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV).
So while Mamaw's death certainly isn't my happiest memory, I can honestly say that it will forever be one that I treasure. Because that memory, by God's grace, continues to teach me.
And even now, more than three decades later, I hold that memory in my heart real tight.
And I watch.
And I listen.
Excerpted from a little SALTY to cut the Sweet by Sophie Hudson. Copyright © 2013 by Sophie Hudson. Excerpted by permission of TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC..
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