by Deborah Miller
Gernie and Rachel Wagoner, AKA my grandparents, had a small tobacco farm in Yadkin County. Brooks Crossroads, to be exact, a scant 7 ½ miles west of Yadkinville. And on this farm they had a duck … and an old mule, chickens, a couple of grapevines, a huge vegetable garden, and a rat terrier named Bobo.
Even though we spent lots of time with them as kids, for a long time I wasn’t exactly sure what Pawpaw did for a living. I didn’t think of farming as a job, even though I now know it was something he did every single day of his life and was what put food on the table. What I knew of work was that my Dad left every morning with a briefcase and came home every night in time for supper and all the “wait ‘til your Father gets home” idle threats.
Pawpaw and Grammaw also cleaned the Flat Rock Baptist Church every Saturday to get ready for Sunday. Grammaw was sure that since “cleanliness is next to Godliness” this was her ticket to heaven. I’m sure she made it and is dusting heaven down with a rag even as I type.
The sign in the photo reads: FLAT ROCK BAPTIST CHURCH One of the oldest Baptist Churches in Western North Carolina. It was constituted as Petty’s Meeting House on June 10, 1783. The name was changed to Flat Rock Baptist Church in 1802. Under the leadership of William Petty, the first pastor, Flat Rock helped establish many other Baptist churches and became known as the “Mother of Many.”
But Pawpaw was a barber who also worked at the one gas station in town, both of which were at the corner of Old US Hwy 421 and Hwy 21 across from the Boxwood Motel. Sometimes he took us with him to get us out of Grammaw’s way.
Now it takes little more than a sultry summer afternoon to bring up a handful of sensory memories of sitting out front of that old service station. The smell of motor oil and gas. The laughter of men working in the stifling garage while various children played out front or laid around reading comic books.The hum of the old rotating fan as it danced and swayed trying to reach every corner. The buzz of flies that had gotten too near the fly paper that hung near the front door. The burn of the concrete stoop on the back of my bare legs. And the almost quiet vacuum-sound of the top being lifted from the Pepsi machine and the ratcheting sound of a bottle being pulled through the tracks followed by the pop-fizz when the top was removed. That summer the discovery of an ice cold Pepsi was the first time I really remember my taste buds taking over every other sensation and sending them well into overdrive. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was just the first of many flavor profiles that were about to be added to my memory bank. Little did I know just how many would originate from my Grandmothers’ kitchen.
She was a stern, God-fearing woman, and nothing, but nothing, got in the way of her church time or her ironing while watching her “stories” on TV. She prayed over me for months after I turned heathen and got my ears pierced. She could reduce you to hell and back with one look. You better believe all us kids knew just which bush in the backyard had the least painful “switches” on it.
She was also frugal, and even though her dishes came from the inside of Duz soap boxes, she had enough for a whole matched set.They had a divan, not a sofa. A Frigidaire, not a refrigerator. The kitchen table, now considered fashionably retro, was metal with red trim and there were matching metal chairs with red Naugahyde seats that stuck to the back of your legs.
Grammaw worked all day cooking and cleaning. In between, she fed chickens, shelled peas, strung beans, sliced tomatoes, shucked corn, made jelly, and made sure us kids learned the right way to do it. There was always something cooking on the stove. Always. I only wish I had her recipe for chicken and dumplings. It seemed like there was cornbread with every meal and half the joy of supper was going back into the kitchen later for a glass stuffed full of cornbread with milk poured over it. Pawpaw always had his with buttermilk, but I was never a big fan of clabbered anything. Just the word scared me, and still does.
Summer was also tobacco priming time on the farm. I wasn’t more than ten or eleven years old, but Granddaddy used to pay me a nickel a day to help. I sat in the pack house at a table swatting flies and tying bunches of tobacco leaves to long poles that would then be hung overhead to “prime.”
Grammaw used to make strong coffee for the adults who had come to work. I wanted to be just like the adults and one morning pitched a holy terror of a fit for a cup of my own. In order to get me out of her kitchen and down to the pack house, Grammaw pulled out a big speckled tin cup and splashed some coffee into it, then filled it to the brim with Tang. Not being a coffee drinker, I couldn’t tell the difference and off I skipped proudly out the back door with my morning “coffee.”
Tang was new then and became famous after it was used by the astronauts on space missions. It must have been cheap because Grandma found lots of ways to use it, making a Russian Tea drink (using Tang and instant tea) and she tossed a cup full into every pitcher of iced tea she made.
I had forgotten all about that until one day standing in the coffee department at A Southern Season, a gourmet specialty store in Chapel Hill, NC. I was lifting lids and performing my own version of aromatherapy, when I was suddenly transported back to those mornings standing in my Grandmothers’ kitchen with my tin cup. Surprised at how warm and fuzzy the memory was that grabbed me, I looked down to discover I was having a moment with Seville Orange flavored coffee beans. Yes, I bought some and yes, every now and again on a Sunday morning, I’ll brew up a pot and enjoy a “cast my memory back there, Lord”* visit with my grandparents for just the briefest of sweet aroma-filled memories.
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Deborah Miller is Program Administrator with the North Carolina Folklife Institute. *With apologies to Van Morrison from a Brown Eyed Girl