Ellie S. Thomas
© Copyright 1998 by Ellie S. Thomas
He came along just before dark. Grandma was busily clanking her iron skillet across the top of the cookstove, setting the diced potatoes on a cooler griddle so they would brown all crispy-crunchy. The old hound barked his signal that a stranger was here.
We'd already been to the pasture to round-up Spot and her calf. Grandma had wrapped the baby in her voluminous apron and pulled a shawl across her shoulders. Taking my hand in her calloused one, she hoisted me along the path through the sugar bush and over the great patches of shale where I loved to play King of the Mountain. Sure enough, Spot was waiting for the gate to be let down. She and Troy stepped through and plodded up the pock-marked path toward the lean-to barn. Even though we walked directly behind, she knew where we were every step of the way. She swung her head first to one side and then to the other, those big, bulbous eyes missing nothing. Grandma got down the three-legged stool and milked her. The calf was barricaded in a corner with a few boards. Later, it would receive some of yesterday's skimmed milk but now, our supper.
There'd been no hog meat all spring. The fall's sow had barely lasted the winter, and there was nothing left now but a few cracklins and the hunk of fat that Grandma had saved to grease her pans with. She called it her "greaser," and it had long ago turned black from days of service. Each morning when Grandma made our buckwheat cakes, she heated the huge pancake griddle until a drop of water would hop, skip, and jump over its surface. Then she would tenderly rub the greaser over the griddle with a long-handled fork.
Next came the batter, and how it would sizzle and sputter. When it got dry and crusty looking around the edges and broke out with a rash of tiny bubbles it was time to flop them over. As the tantalizing odor came up, the glands in my throat would constrict until I was near paralyzed. A stack of five or six would complete my breakfast. I never cared if they were served with bacon grease, maple syrup, or honey. They always tasted first-rate to me.
At lunchtime, Grandma would call me out of the fields to sit at the table piled with fluffy scrambled eggs, cowslips or dandelion greens, baked beans, and thick, crusty slices of freshly baked bread. Once again the greaser had done its duty around each of the pans. I often wondered if that was why everything was so delicately browned, so amply crusted. Buttermilk and doughnuts completed our pleasure. My appetite was always a compliment to the delicious food turned out by Grandma's deft hand. Poor soul knew how to make-do and use leftovers to the best advantage. And Lord knew it was necessary when a body had two orphans to raise.
Life was anything but easy on the rocky mountainside. The land was cleared, but so closely did we live with our wild brethren that livestock could not be trusted outdoors after dark. It was sometimes unsafe even by daylight.
The foxes and hawks would run off with our poultry, and with the coming of dusk, Spot would low uneasily at the pasture gate, eyeing the shadowy woods where the wolves would soon be howling. All wood and water must be carried in before nightfall and, indeed, I recall the night when Grandma had to burn feathers in the fireplace to keep a catamount from coming down the chimney. Well, Grandfather should soon be coming down out of the lumber woods to begin spring planting.
The old hound bellered again and Grandma cast off her apron and stepped to the door just as the stranger called a loud "Hello." Grandma allowed as how he was just in time for supper in the best country tradition. Strangers were always entitled to hospitality. He followed Grandma inside, with the dog sniffing at his boots and the old mackinaw that he dropped into the woodbox.
I showed him the shelf by the back door where the wash dish, soap, and towel were placed and soon he was splashing and rubbing the water over his stubbly chin and the back of his neck. He came up snuffling and shaking the water out of his eyes. Carefully he dried and then sat at the place Grandma designated.
She dished up the potatoes and offered some of her own cottage cheese, salted string beans, and cold chicken from the Sabbath meal. She had decided to sacrifice one of her flock to celebrate the Lord's Day and, fortunately, there was a bit left so we needn't be embarrassed before company. After he'd had his pipe and Grandma'd redd up, he retired to the lean-to and we to our beds. Daylight and its attendent chores would be on us soon enough.
In the morning Grandma had barely got the chickory coffee going and the mush bubbling on the stove when our guest appeared at the door with an arm-load of wood for the box. He washed up while Grandma brought the hot muffins from the warming oven. She laid the greaser on the table beside the muffins to cool. We bowed our heads for the Lord's blessing and after we'd finished, the man was on his way. We watched him down the path while Grandma cleared things away and prepared to set her bread for baking. She turned to grease her pans, but where was her greaser? Heaven help us, the stranger'd et it!
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