Monday, March 26, 2018

Just Pie

We laid my grandmother to rest on August 13, now just 30 days ago. She was 82. I hope I make it past 65 let alone get to 82. It helps to have good genes. My mom has good genes that she inherited from Grandma. My dad couldn’t make it to the funeral. He had a good excuse. He was and still is doing time in Chatsworth Correctional Center, near Montgomery, for fraud. One of the people he defrauded was my grandmother.

It rained on August 13. We had been through one of the hottest, driest summers in east Tennessee in about ten years until maybe a couple of days before the funeral and then it rained torrentially for a week! Streams overflowed. Crawl spaces flooded. All kinds of calamity and in it all Grandma died. I don’t know for sure if Mother told my dad or not. I am not sure I care.

My Grandma was a good person as I think most grandmothers are. She taught me and my mom how to cook ‘cause my mom had to deal with so many problems from my dad she never got the time to teach me to cook by herself. Dad was always wheeling and dealing until he got caught and me and mom were just window dressing for the most part of his life. Grandma appreciated people. She liked to read and explore. She and granddad did manage to get out of the mountains and even off the east coast every couple of years. They liked to travel partly, I think, because as kids they didn’t get that chance.

My grandparents grew up in the Depression days without too much to their family names. Grandma was third of four kids and she was the last to go beyond. Her father had been a druggist and survived pretty well during the depression compared to lots of families. She said she always had a good life. She got to travel a little bit. It might not seem like much to us nowadays but for her honeymoon they went to Niagara Falls. I haven’t even been to Niagara Falls.

One of the stories my mom used to tell me about Grandma was when Grandma was trying to teach my mom how to make a pie. Mom told me this one day when we were sitting in the parking lot at the hospital. Mom was trying hard to talk to relieve her stress, I think of Grandma being in the hospital, but when she’d talk about Grandma she usually wanted to cry.

She, my Grandmother, called all her pies “Just Pie” but my mom didn’t know how you made just pie.

Apparently Gran was going to make a pie for an upcoming church sale, something she did regularly. this was after Pop passed and her involvement with church was how she kept in touch with friends and I think some kind of grounding in the world. My uncle Billy had moved to California and rarely, of course, visited so it was left to me and mom, Grandma’s neighbors, and the church to keep her sane.

I don’t know if Grandma made specific kind of pie. I like cherry and rhubarb myself and my mom is an awfully good baker although to hear her tell it she didn’t start out that way. She is decent at cookies but unbeatable at pie and I don’t know what or how she does it, either. I can do okay, I guess, but maybe I don’t give myself enough credit. I sort of slip out of the habit of baking for one but love the chance to bake for an office party. I don’t always enjoy the party since everyone tends to ask about my dad but I do like the excuse to cook. The apartment smells so nice and there is this older guy, terribly alone, who lives above me and so I make something extra for him. He’s a good joe and makes sure all of us in the building are okay when the power goes off or something like that.
But, sometime ago, I think when mom was carrying me, she and Grandma were preparing several pies for a church function. I don’t know that I know the ‘why’ for sure. Mom said she wasn’t sure what Grandma was putting in any given pie but apparently, sometimes, different ingredients went in depending upon what Grandma had in the kitchen. They, she, had decided that any pie might be better than some requested pie or a favorite pie. What ever she was making it would be good, for sure, and as always, good to look at, too.

The story goes that they were removing several pies from the oven to the butcher block that served as an island in Grandma’s kitchen. They must have done more than just two although I don’t think I ever heard how many, exactly. They were merrily making pie fixings and my mom wants to do it right and follow directions of course but Grandma just madly slings this and that into the filling. That was just the way she made her pies. If they weren’t 100-percent apple that was okay. Sort of fruit pie approach, I guess. Who asks what is the right flavoring for a fruit pie?

Fruit pie? Apple pie? Cherry pie? Rhubarb pie? Peach pie? Apple-cherry-rhubarb-peach pie? Who knew? So, they were working on about four pies, if I recall rightly, two in the oven and two being prepared. The inevitable happened. The story I got was that as Grandma brought out one pie from the oven mom was turning to put one in the oven and they collided. Not just a quick lane change and a giggle and continue but full-on head-on (pie-on?) collision. The way I heard it mom got her pie back under control but Grandma’s did a half-barrel roll and ended up, upside down on the aluminum sheet covering the butcher block island.

I guess Grandma’s pie made a big splat and skidded a few inches really making a mess. Mom got her pie landed safely on top of the oven and turned in shock to help Grandma. Mom said she felt just awful that the pie was effectively ruined. It was flat as a pizza but lumpy and gushy. Her words. It took a moment or two for them to gather up their thoughts and mom apologized and said she didn’t mean to ruin Grandma’s pie. Grandma was unperturbed, of course. She’d been through her share of kitchen accidents as had my mother several of which were a heck of lot worse than upside down pie.

“Dear,” said Grandma. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take it as it. Even upside down and uneven. After all, it’s just pie!”

I think you had to be there.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


“I remember one night,” I said to Jerry Knowles, “like this one, when we were out on the nightjar survey.”

“A what survey?”

“Nightjars. Birds. You know, flying things.”

“I know what birds are. What the heck is a nightjar? Something you use for the toilet?”

We were sitting on Jerry’s back porch watching another glorious sunset, on a warm June night, the lightning bugs were in full light, and one or two night insects were tuning up their hind legs. Jerry’s wife was shopping on the town with my wife and between the two would probably expand the national debt by a significant factor.

He knew I liked to go on bird watching forays with the local club but apparently he’d never heard this story before.

“A nightjar is a common name for whip-poor-wills and chucks-will-widow. Night birds that fly with their mouths open and round like a jar and scoop up bugs.

“But,” said Jerry, “you can’t see a bird a night, right?”

“Well, yes, but what we really is listen for their calls. Like you would an owl, for instance.”

“I bet that makes for some interesting questions from the natives,” said Jerry.

“Yes,” I said, “well, there’s a story that goes with that. But I gotta get a refill first.”

We both groaned our way out of the deck chairs, those Adirondack back-killers that makes you sit way back in the seat and impossible to get out of, gracefully. He kept a bottle of Old Quaker or Young Granddad or some kind of cheap hooch next to the sliding screen door so we didn’t have to go back inside. We both liked our booze with a splash of water but no ice. Jerry’s deck looked out towards the west but his back yard was full of trees which dappled the shade for about an hour before sunset but now was backlit only by a glow. Along one side of his property someone had planted a solid row of pine that were very mature and really tall. He had said more than once he didn’t know what to do or think about when those pine decided to lean over some day and start knocking on his roof!
Along the other side, that neighbor had built a fence in the last few years to keep out prying eyes watching his pool. The neighbor didn’t quite understand that Jerry had been under no obligation to remove his deck as a sign of cooperation. The pool didn’t get used much, apparently, after that.

“So, you go out in the night to count birds?” said Jerry.

“Sort of,” I said. “We do a regular, predetermined survey for only one class of birds. The night jars.”

“Which are?”

“Whip-poor-wills, mostly. Didn’t you used to hear them when you were a kid?”

“Not me. I grew up in Charlotte. Not a nightjar in sight. Or sound. As far as I know.”

“Out in the counties they call in early summer or late spring. They call then and mate then and when mating season is over they’re quiet again. We know from earlier surveys where whips and chucks have been found before and we follow that route. Wait for them to call and record the times.”

“What if they don’t call?”

“Then we note that they didn’t call.”

“I suppose once in a while the sheriff shows up and wonders what is going on?”

“Now that you ask,” I said.

“They do? They did?”

“Better than that,” I said. “We were at Hatcher Cemetery which is actually in Carter County down below Milligan College. Our second stop of the night. Full darkness. Full moon but it was overcast. The cemetery is up on a hill top. No farms really near so no lights at all. I suppose there were eight of us. Two cars, I think. We’d pulled into the back of the cemetery because that gave us a better chance to hear from more open farm land rather than in front near the road where a passing car really throws off listening. I mean, it was dark, so I guess that was the idea. Like I should know the difference.”

“Wouldn’t the locals notice your headlights?”

“I suppose but most of them are inside watching TV. You can see sometimes the glow of a television or a computer screen. And there’s people who drive all over the place at night. You wouldn’t believe the traffic in the most remote places sometimes. For a mid-week night, about eleven o’clock, out in the middle of nowhere, along comes a bunch of cars as if they knew we needed to have quiet. That sort of thing. Or you run into a string of people who insist on asking if you need help. It’s nice but strange. You know?”

I got myself a second refill.

“So, we’re out at Hatcher Cemetery. In the back. Lights out. Listening. We can hear dogs and cars and even a whip calling. Count of one, so far. We mill around. Not much happening. The clock is winding down. Into the cemetery comes some headlights. Two cars. Carefully. Together. I’m thinkin’, oh, boy, it’s the cops. Or worse, it’s some good ol’ boys and they’re looking trouble and we’re it.

“They pull up and we sort of nervously await to see what’s to happen. Even though it’s dark, we have a flashlight or two, but we can tell it’s not the sheriff. This is gonna be trouble, I’m thinking. They get out, I think there were only about four of ‘em. Real quiet like. No rumble. No yelling. Whatcha doin’, they asked. Just as friendly as you please. Listening for whip-poor-wills said our guy in charge. We’re on a survey for the USDA.

“Oh, this one guy says, in a really nice voice. We were just wondering. We’re with the UFO club in Jonesville and thought maybe you’d found something.”

“UFOs? Really? X-file guys?” said Jerry.

“I know, it sounds weird. It sure threw me for a loop.”

“What happened after that?”

“Oh, they were polite and all but not terribly interested so they left.”

“And that’s all?”

“What’d you expect? They were going to whistle up a flying saucer? It’s squirrelly enough being out in the dark at some cemetery listening for birds let alone team up with some space junkies looking for aliens. I mean, who’s weirder? Them or us?”

Jerry didn’t say anything. He was still awake, I knew, I could see him slowly take a sip from his drink.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “they’re a bunch of UFO nuts up here in the mountains. Along with every other crazy human being?”

“No,” I said. “I think these guys were just a bunch of fellows with a common interest and havin’ fun. I don’t imagine they require secret handshakes or oaths of allegiance or roast live chickens over a bond fire.”

Jerry said, “Yeah, but, they were out there roaming around in the dark looking for something nobody hardly ever sees.”

“You don’t say?”

I smiled into the dark of my drink.