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Girl with horse.

Girl with horse.
I was like this girl. Long ago. On an Arkansas Ozark mountain, far, far away.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Train to Adventureland

Thinking about what I wanted to make for desert, I remembered the pound cake I used to make often when I was a teenager. I do recall some of the ingredients: a handful of lard, which was the perfect proportion in my smaller, girl's hand. How could I measure it now with a woman's hand? The recipe called for a whole lot of eggs and sugar. The ingredients don't seem different from any other pound cake in existence, other than its antique measurements, but in my memories it was delicious beyond other cakes.

I am curious—was the cake genuinely that good, or does memory give the cake a seasoning that cannot be recreated? I wanted to call my mother for the ingredients; the cake must surely be in her special, handwritten collection of recipes. But she's off on a wonderful trip, so I cannot call her and ask.

My mother taught me how to cook. Not like a chef or a gourmet, but with a practicality common to the women of her era who grew up in Arkansas during the Depression, when food had to be filling and stretched to feed a large, hardworking family. She taught me how to boil, fry, bake, grate, and mash potatoes. How to scrub off garden dirt, peel and chop the vegetables we grew, and make them into a meal that kept body and soul together.

She taught me how to slaughter chickens, though I could not bring myself to twist their heads off like she did. It took a stronger stomach than mine to spin the chicken in a circle and snap my wrist so the head popped off and the body flopped a bloody, headless dance on the ground. Later in life, when I was a Little Rock police officer, I saw steaming fluids flow thick from a dead man onto the frozen ground. I did my job and didn't throw up, despite the awful coppery smell--but I never learned to be as tough as my mother killing chickens.

She showed me how to dunk the decapitated chicken in steaming hot water, yank it out, and pluck until my aching fingers were reddened and caked with stinking, wet feathers. This activity brought on discussions of the wicked carpetbaggers, who invaded the South after the War Between the States.

"When those evil carpet baggers, those fat deceivers, were caught by the townsfolk, they'd be tarred-and-feathered-just-like-this." We held our hands up in the air and shook them, laughing as the feathers stuck like glue. And so I learned Southern history while I plucked chickens. I didn't miss TV or want to play a game. The game was work, and it was fun.

I grew up in Northwest Arkansas, which may be a southern state, but the wet winter wind hacks you to the bone, like cutting a chicken with a wide-bladed cleaver into pieces for frying. The wet cold is worse than Anchorage's snowiest nights, which is where I live now.

When the wind howled and the trees cracked from shackles of ice, we made hot chocolate to warm us from cheap cocoa powder and milk, stirring and stirring so it didn't scorch on the bottom of the pan. We made chocolate and peanut butter fudge the same way, stirring with patience and a long handled spoon. My mom's always kept her patience in bushels and baskets full, while I don't possess half as much.

I called Mom long distance a couple of days after her eighty-second birthday this April, and she started talking about her childhood and parents.

"When I was a little, I didn't know there was a Great Depression, because I had everything I needed. My parents made mistakes, but I always knew they loved me. Even when I ran through mud puddles in my good Sunday shoes and dress, ruining them, and they got so mad, I knew my mama and father loved me. Back then," she explained, "most children, the lucky ones, had clothes and shoes they only wore on Sunday, which were carefully preserved until they were outgrown. But I was a careless girl, and ran through mud puddles again and again in my shiny black Baby Doll shoes despite Mama's yelling. My frustrated mother, your grandmother, picked a slim branch from a peach tree and had at my legs in a fury until my legs bled in a dozen places. I cried and promised 'I'll never do that again.' And then my Mama cried," my mother laughed in her old woman's raspy voice, "and promised 'I'll never to do that again'—because she'd picked a switch from a peach tree in her haste. Everyone knows a green peach switch cuts the skin. She didn't switch me, much, after that."

That awful punishment became Mom's fond memory of her mother's faithfully sworn word. Forgiveness was at the heart of my mother, in the same way stubbornness is at the heart of me. I got more from my father than my mother in that regard, but I'll not talk about him just now.

On Mother's Day, my mother called me and we resumed our chat.

"One night, I went out with my friends and we sang around a bonfire. This was before I dated your father, and it was a lot of fun." A chill breeze ghosted over my skin as I listened to her descriptions of the blazing fire in front, and the icy cold creeping up her back during an autumn evening spent with people who had old-fashioned names. People she'd never mentioned before.

"You used to sing with a women's group, the Sweet Adelines," I said. "How long did you do that?"

"Oh, a few months, but you don't want to hear about that."

I always got the same answer. I am fifty-one years old, and I still don't know much about my mother's short singing career. I think my father disapproved. Her parents raised her to be an obedient wife, so she quit what she loved and went back to raising babies and keeping house. That was the way of her generation. My mother seldom sang in my childhood, and I cannot remember the exact sound of her singing, only the haunting beauty of it.

Mom's memories turned to thoughts of her own mortality. She feared being helpless and forgetful. "I pray God will take me in my sleep," she told me.

"That's something we all wish," I said. "But with your comparatively good health, that can't be soon. You're eighty-two years old, and still independent--still mow your huge lawn and keep your house neat as a pin. You drive your old truck to church, the store, and doctor's appointments. Geriatric horses should hope to be so healthy."

She laughed again, but it held notes of sadness.

"Will you ever have horses again, do you think?"

"I don't know," I said, now sad myself. "Not if I stay in Alaska. Too much snow."

"I wish you lived close by."

"I would like see you, but I can't fly out right now," I said, instead of also wishing to live close by. Even if my family and I moved away from Alaska, I didn't want to live in Arkansas--crawling with snakes, and chiggers in the boiling hot summers. The knife-edged winters were no better.

"You should fly out this summer. I'll take you on a nature cruise out of Seward, where you can see whales and seals," I offered.

"My bones are too old for that long flight," said the woman who mowed an acre-sized lawn every week.

I resolved to save up enough to fly out this fall and see her. That is the time to visit, when the heat of summer has cooled and the leaves turn red, gold and yellow, more vibrant than autumn here.

After we hung up, I believe she decided a trip of her own would be the thing to make her feel better. Mom made plans to take the train to Adventureland, ordered a ticket, and packed her bags without telling anyone. When it was time, she waited all alone for it to come into the station. I'm sure it arrived just as she'd expected it, not a minute late--the train wouldn't dare do differently. She stood straight, climbed in, and though I wasn't there, I am sure she sat in her seat, folded her hands in her lap, and didn't look back.

Yes, I think Mom told God how she wanted to go. He listened and granted her prayers. She had a brain aneurism on a Saturday. She passed out, was found unconscious that evening, and the ambulance took her to the hospital. She never woke up, and died on Monday. My mother went soft, and my gratitude for her gentle passing resembles happiness, though I am truly sad.

I know Mom's having fun out there, on her great adventure, seeing old friends while trying new things. I miss her, though she probably hasn't missed me yet.

I wish I could remember how to make the pound cake of my childhood. But I can't call and ask her for recipes or advice, because there aren't any phones out there.