Tag Archives: childhood

Chili Dogs and Sawdust Make Me Cry

Last week, I ruined a pan of milk gravy that I was fixing with porkchops. I cried over that pan of gravy, but not because it had too much salt yet still tasted like cornstarch. I cried because I couldn’t call Daddy and laugh with him about how bad I had messed it up. He was the master of gravy. Back when he was feeling like himself, he would have gasped and squawked and cried, “How could my own child not know how to make milk gravy???” He would have carried on the same way he did when I confessed that I didn’t know how to cut up a chicken. We would have laughed about it and he would have told me to put a potato in soup if I ever add too much salt. And we would have talked for a while then said, “I love you” before hanging up.

I ate that damn gravy, every salty bite, because I didn’t want to let it go.


wood-877368_1920We’re replacing the boards on the deck. The day the nice man from Lowe’s delivered the lumber and piled it up in the driveway, I started feeling a little strange. A soft, gray sort of pining in my chest, a little lost echo. After the first day of construction, I stepped out on the deck and smelled the pine tang of freshly sawn wood. Instantly, I started crying. The smell of new lumber–that’s what had stirred up my feelings. My daddy is supposed to be around for construction projects. At least he was up until a few years ago when Joe and James took over. When I needed a fence put up or taken down, or a door hung or a cabinet replaced, it was Daddy who brought the saws and the nail guns and the levels. Now I hire a stranger.

All that sawdust flying around revealed a perfect little cobweb in the corner of the window, only visible once it was covered in bits of wood shavings. In the mornings, I sit on my corner of the loveseat and watch the dew and sawdust sparkle on the fine threads of the web. Memories are like that–here is this fine thing that you never noticed and now it’s visible.

A seed catalog came in the mail on a day when snow swirled outside the windows. I cried over that catalog and the thought of all those tomato plants that won’t get planted this winter. Daddy had a greenhouse and a green thumb. He started his vegetables from seed, in row upon row of white styrofoam cups. He started using those instead of seed trays a few years ago because he could write the variety on every seedling, never confusing a Better Boy for an Early Girl. At Easter, each of us would leave with a tray of tiny plants for our own garden plots. One year, he started 200 tomato plants. That was the year he learned how to can salsa, too.

Daddy and Big Gay waged a quiet battle of encroachment in their garden. It started out as a vegetable garden with one of the large plots set aside for Gay’s flowers. Then the next spring, the flowers had spread to an adjoining plot. Eventually, peonies and antique roses and poppies and larkspur and a carpet of dianthus took up half of the garden space. Just like Nazi Germany (to hear Daddy recount it), the flowers infiltrated borders and claimed land that was destined from the beginning of time for turnip greens and potatoes.

If there aren’t any tomatoes this year, I’ll understand. I can even grow my own but I’ll have to buy a few from the nursery, the week after Easter.

The worst bout of tears blindsided me on a Saturday while I stood over a frying pan of hot dogs. When I was little, there was no greater adventure than a Saturday spent “riding around” with Daddy. Country veterinarians work on Saturdays, too. Riding with Daddy meant going all over the county in a rattle trap Ford pickup truck that smelled like worm pills and Marlboro cigarettes. I felt so proud when he let me hop out of the cab to open and close cattle gates. Sometimes I got to see an actual horse and maybe even pat it on the nose if it wasn’t feeling too poorly. At every farm, he introduced me as his baby.

As we drove along on calls, Daddy listened to talk radio back when it was talking and not shrieking. He’d listen to Ludlow Porch out of Atlanta. I remember one time hearing Ludlow say that something cost “a grand.” I asked Daddy what a grand was and he laughed and said, “All the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.”

de3c02294fe0fa70fb4b5f064f8d71cdAround lunch time, we’d stop at a little gas station/grocery store like Red O’Neal’s or Mr. Connell’s and get us a pack of bright red hot dogs, a can of Castleberry chili, and a bag of Sunbeam buns. Maybe a couple of RC Colas or a grape Nehi. Back at his clinic, which was built onto the corner of a big cattle barn, so it always smelled like manure and fresh hay, Daddy would plug in the electric hot plate and we’d fix up a plate of chili dogs on top of the surgical table. When the chili dogs got good and hot, I’d get the bottles of ketchup and yellow mustard out of the door of the medicine refrigerator. I still remember how the well-sealed door popped open so hard that the little glass bottles of insulin and rubber-stoppered test tubes of blood rattled in their racks.

As I stood there frying up hot dogs for my own kids, I realized how we have no idea which memory will stick. What will it be sixty years from now that brings a tear to Vivi’s eye when she remembers me? Will she have a photograph (or a story on the ancient internet) to jog her memory? If only I had a picture of a hot plate of chili dogs bubbling on an operating table. Or if that clinic still existed so I could go back for a moment to capture its sharp clean smell of disinfectant, its rattling refrigerator, and the baying of a dozen dogs in the kennel wishing for a bite of whatever was smelling so good.

What I wouldn’t give for a Saturday morning driving around the countryside with my Daddy, learning about grand things and simple things and picking out a bag of potato chips from the wire rack by the cash register of a gas station.

I’d give all the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.




We're a little out of focus but our boots look cute!

We’re a little out of focus but our boots look cute!

Yesterday I wrote about Dora; today I’m thinking about Boots.  But not Dora’s blue monkey with the red boots.

One night last week, we limped back to the apartment after walking around New York all day.  My sister flopped down on the couch.  She propped her elegant black leather boots up on the Ikea coffee table.  “Hey, Vivi–come over here for a second.”

Vivi looked up at her from the plastic safari animals that she was arranging on the carpet.  “Why?”

Gay laughed.  “I need you to do me a favor.  Help me get these boots off.”  Vivi gave her a quizzical look and went back to the safari.

My sister managed to tug one boot but it was a struggle.  I stepped up.  I cupped one hand around the heel, braced my other hand across the arch then gave a gentle tug.  The boot slipped right off.  It’s been 35 years since I helped someone take off a boot, but I didn’t have to think.  It’s all about coming at it from the right angle.

I told Vivi, “You have to learn how to pull boots off if you’re the shortest person in the family.  I used to help Papa pull off his boots when he came home from working all day.”

My dad wore real cowboy boots, boots for working around actual cows.  Heavy cows, skittish cows, cows with sharp hooves, cows that manufacture manure.   Boots that spent some nights out on the porch, airing out.  About once a year, he’d bring home a new pair of boots in a sharp-sided square box with the Dingo label on the outside.  Or Justin.  Not Luchesse or Tony Lama, no ostrich skin or Lone Star cutouts.  Brown leather with a squarish heel.  These were boots you could pick up at the feed store.

That reminds me of a joke:  How can you tell the difference between a real cowboy and a fake cowboy?  With a real cowboy, the shit’s on the outside of his boots.

Hey, that reminds me of another joke:  He’s so stupid he couldn’t pour shit out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.

That goes to show you:  I associate boots with manure.  Cow shit is just part of growing up around cows.  No big deal.  Nothing personal.  But here’s the funny part.  A little whiff of cow manure, mixed with some hay and sunshine–that’s one of my favorite smells.  It takes me back to hanging on the side of a cow pen fence or climbing out of the truck to open a gate.  

Helping my sister with her boots made me happy.  It took me back to a time when I was small but useful.  I had a job to do in our family and it gave my dad some relief at the end of a long day.  

What’s the smell that takes your right back to being a kid?