Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day

Grandma Hardy knew labor.
I mined her for stories when I was little,
until I learned that she only had three or four
retold over the years
emphasizing the ironic pride and bitter love
that she wore like a badge over her heart.

"When your great grandmamma fell sick,
my daddy turned a washtub over and set it next to the stove
and told me to make biscuits.
And so I did."

"With no one to show you how?"

"Oh I had learned from helping,
but I was on my own.
Those first biscuits were as hard as rocks!
Your GreatGrandDaddy spanked my bottom and told me,
'Don't you ever make them that way again.'
and so I never did."

Grandma Hardy was always a good cook,
but the habits she learned in the farm kitchen of her youth
would make health inspectors sigh.
Late in her life, when the doctors forced changes on her,
she served her beans with an apology,
"There ain't but a bit of lard in them beans..."

When her eyesight was failing and the phlebitis was taking her legs,
her sons refused to till her garden for her,
demanding, good-heartedly in their stinginess, that she stay inside and rest
but they didn't consider what that kind of rest does to a laborer's soul.
She stood up at church one Sunday morning and asked for prayers,
"I ain't had a vegetable in the past six months that didn't come from a can!"
and the congregation murmured in horror at the thought.

One of her favorite stories seemed to go back to the Garden of Eden in its innocence:
She told about the time she was running back from the tobacco field
in her summer dress, and how she jumped over a branch that slithered away
and how the serpent nearly took her breath away
and how her brothers warned her that it was the kind of snake that "threw its sting!"
and I'd try to show her my Peterson's Guide to Reptiles of North America
to dispel the myth,
but knowledge had no weight in the guiding light of her upbringing.

She showed me how to make creamed corn,
slicing the tips of the kernels with a hundred-year-old knife,
honed so that its original edge must have been an inch away
from the steel that bit and sliced across the fresh juicy cobs of sweet corn.
She'd turn the blade and use the thick back to squeeze the remaining juice from the corn,
and bits of sweet corn splashed and dried on our forearms and faces and the smell of the earth's
richness filled the tiny dining room where we worked,
and I felt the ties that bound us to the field and the sun and the bounty
of labor.

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