My elementary school teachers referred to today as Independence Day. My family called it the Fourth of July. Businesses closed for the day. Even then, the US flag with 48 white stars on a field of blue flanked by red and white stripes waved in the wind, or hung limp, on flagpoles depending on the presence or absence of a breeze. My family picnicked that day.
Our destination was random, usually beside a gentle river. The men fished. Ladies spread tablecloths while keeping a watchful eye on the children wading in the shallow water. Mothers were prepared with an iron skillet, cornmeal, and grease for a fish fry, but experience had taught them to be resourceful. About lunchtime with no sign of fish, they put fried chicken and potato salad on the colorful tablecloths. And, of course, a homemade birthday cake for my oldest brother’s youngest son. At home later that evening as darkness closed in, a few disobedient children in my neighborhood set off firecrackers. The rest of us waved lit sparklers with mothers chaperoning nearby.
One year, there was no family celebration. Among the many reasons, one of my married brothers owned a farm and another worked at a dairy. “We have to work,” they said. “Cows don’t take holidays.”
For several years, strangers have blocked my street at dusk, waiting for darkness. From tailgate parties to individuals in lawn chairs, they ate and drank and celebrated while waiting for the downtown fireworks to begin. Tonight my street is quiet. There will be no fireworks because of the coronavirus shelter-in-place order.
This morning, I thought of the cows when I tied red, white, and blue ribbons on my door beneath a computer-generated sign that proclaimed Happy Fourth of July. My own quiet celebration.
I grew up in California with transplanted southern parents. I didn’t realize they had accents because they sounded similar to dozens of other families in our small town that had migrated west from Oklahoma and Arkansas. They adapted to California words, as much as could be expected from folks in their mid-forties and fifties. My mother fried eggs in bacon grease and used lard in her flaky piecrusts. She made hogshead cheese, too, but that’s a post for another time. She baked hams, usually the shank portion because they were cheaper. I thought I had heard every southern cooking term, then I married a military man from the South. He spoke of foods I’d never imagined.
Jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo. Yes, foods but words from a song, but I didn’t know that, either, until years later when we relocated to Louisiana. There’s where this greenhorn first heard the words “green ham” one winter when I was preparing a Christmas menu. How would I find it if I didn’t know what it looked like?
“Just ask our butcher. He’ll know.”
Courtesy: Wiki Clip Art
Not a soothing answer, but I drove the few blocks to a full butcher shop where the meats were custom cut, never prepackaged. I plastered a smile on my face, pretended I knew what I wanted, and asked for a green ham large enough for eight with leftovers. Imagine my surprise when he brought an uncured ham from the cooler, a cut of pork my mother called a fresh ham.
And filé gumbo. That’s a seasoning powder made from dried, ground sassafras leaves, sprinkled over gumbo before it is served.
I’m thankful that wasn’t on the Christmas menu. One new southern cooking term at a time was enough for this California transplant.
Our neighbors took their kids to a lake or a far-away beach, visited family or friends, or had a picnic in the park on Memorial Day when I was young. Not my family. We dressed in church clothes for the somber ride to the local cemetery. We stood with hands over hearts when the American Legion color guard marched on the road parallel to graves where miniature flags on veterans’ graves waved in the wind. The mournful sound of taps was a bone-chilling reminder of lives lost in wars and those who returned home and lived a long life buried among the fallen heroes.
My mother called the May 30 holiday Decoration Day, the name it was until 1967 when Memorial Day became a legal holiday. And decorate we did. We had lovely roses in our yard—reds and whites and yellows—but Papa never let us cut a single stem. My mother honored that tradition. Every year after the military ceremonies ended, we decorated my father’s grave with homemade tissue paper flowers.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the celebration of honor from May 30 to the last Monday of May. In December 2000, Congress passed another law—unknown by most people—that all Americans should pause at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day to honor the fallen.
The Shelter-in-Place mandate continues in the San Francisco Bay Area. There were no parades, no cemetery ceremonies. But there is still time for quiet reflection.
To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Shakespeare’s words have become immortal, reaching from the seventeenth century to the present. “To be” adds a new slant to this soliloquy from Hamlet. The COVID-19 pandemic continues with the Shelter-in-Place mandate for the San Francisco Bay Area. Lines at food stores are long. There are no friendly greetings behind masks of various designs, fabrics, and themes. Heads nod as though in affirmation.
But wait. Those rhythmic motions are from checking six-foot markers on the sidewalk, glancing up when the line moves, looking down at cell phone texts, then repeating the process. If asked a question of how this social distancing protocol is affecting those in line, Shakespeare answers that in Timon of Athens.
We have seen better days.
Questions in comments for my April 30, 2020, “Crash Course from Legal Office Rookie to Expert,” prompts this post.
The office staff welcomed me and returned to comfortable chairs and silent IBM Selectric typewriters.
Yes, the IBM Selectric was a noisy contraption with the golf ball whirling and clicking the paper at the touch of each key. My use of “silent” meant the front office staff was not typing anything. Quite the opposite. One was drinking coffee and the other was buffing her bright red manicure.
Did you finish on time?
My fingers flipped open the paper guard on the antique manual typewriter, twisted the carriage knob, lined up the first blank line of the triplicate carbon form, and flipped the paper guard closed in a robotic motion. I squinted at the handwritten list of dates, times, driver, and load weight. Fear of not finishing on time propelled my fingers on the round keys so fast a couple of the strike bars sometimes stuck together in mid-air and had to be separated with my fingers, so I kept a Kleenex handy to wipe off the ink from the ribbon.
Despair set in about three-quarters of the way through the remaining pages of the list with little hope that I would meet the court deadline. The attorney chose that minute to check my progress.
I flipped through the list to estimate how far I was from finishing. Smeared writing on the lower half of one page caught my eye. “What should I do about those?” I asked.
The attorney’s grumpy look morphed into triumph. “This means the defendants didn’t produce the complete list of evidence requested in my first subpoena.” He grabbed the list and dashed to the front office. I heard him snap, “Copy this quick.” Fortunately, they had the newest copier, not the old Ditto I’d seen in the corner of the law library. He returned and handed me the list and stuffed the completed subpoenas duces tecum forms in his briefcase. “Keep typing until I get back because I’ll eventually need all these to establish my case for gross negligence when an overloaded truck plowed into my client’s vehicle and injured him. This is going to be a big win.”
Filed under Events, Memoir
Sheltering in place with little more than sounds of gears grinding when the robotic arms on the garbage truck—excuse me—sanitation service empties the dumpster and slams the heavy container back to the parking lot isn’t inspirational. Or maybe it is. It invoked long ago memories of a different kind of crash.
My banking careened to a halt somewhat like the sounds of the empty dumpster on pavement when I relocated from California to Louisiana. Bank wages were among the lowest incomes in white-collar jobs. Temping paid more, but assignments were sporadic. I signed on with two temporary agencies and soon landed my first assignment. “It’s just typing forms for an attorney,” the agency placement person said. “You don’t need any legal experience.”
The office was nestled in the historic district of the city two blocks from the courthouse. The office staff welcomed me and returned to comfortable chairs and silent IBM Selectric typewriters. A man who looked as if he should have retired ten years earlier said, “Come with me.” He led me to the law library that was to be my work station. An aging manual typewriter that looked half his age waited on a rectangular oak table above a straight back chair. “Sit,” he said. “You’ve got work to do.” My hands didn’t reach the typewriter keys, so he offered two thick telephone books complete with yellow pages as a booster seat.
“Just forms” turned out to be subpoena duces tecum, a triple layer form with carbons. I stared at the long list of detailed evidence to be requested. I might be able to complete this project if given enough time. I glanced at my watch. Eight-fifteen. I spoke with feigned confidence. “When do you need these?”
“I’m due at the courthouse with all these,” he swept his hand toward the large stack of blank forms, “at nine-thirty.”
“Could you asked one of the others to help so we can meet your deadline?”
“Why do you think you’re here? It took both of them all day yesterday to type half this many regular subpoenas and they were full of mistakes.”
After that assignment, the temporary agency added “Legal Experience” to my resume.
Filed under Events, Memoir
Mama loved Easter when her children and grandchildren gathered to celebrate. On Saturday, Mama fried chicken or baked a ham and made mashed potato or macaroni salad. For dessert, she alternated between pies and cakes, depending on what food supplies she had. She boiled eggs, at least two dozen. We colored them while Papa worked outside. Before my twin and I arose on Easter Sunday, Mama hid those eggs in the yard. We had our first egg hunt dressed in our Easter outfits for church.
After church, Mama packed the food with utensils in an open cardboard box and covered it with a tablecloth while we waited for our ride to the family picnic. Most years, the gathering was near Raymond, California, about a half-hour from home. Cars parked on the roadside, and we climbed down the rocky hill to a clear stream.
Papa went to the picnic begrudgingly because he didn’t celebrate Easter. He went to church that Sunday because he went to church every Sunday. Every year as Mama sewed new dresses for my twin and me, Papa reminded us that Easter Sunday didn’t deserve any attention because it was a pagan celebration.
At the picnic, we loaded our plates with food and perched on rocks or sometimes found a flat place. Mama offered Papa a plate, but he always declined with a silent shake of his head. After lunch, all the kids played in the water.
At home after the Easter celebration, Mama removed the plate of food she had prepared for Papa from the refrigerator and placed it on the kitchen table. While he ate, she hid Easter eggs in our front yard, away from his view, for our second hunt of the day.
The following week, Mama peeled away any hint of Easter and served those boiled eggs with our meals. Papa never suspected they were part of the Easter celebration that Mama loved so much. Or, if he did, he pretended not to notice because one of his frequent admonitions to the twins if we asked questions about leftovers was “Eat and hush.”
“Limit 1” is a familiar sign during the Shelter-in-Place mandate in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Limit 2” for eggs and milk is like winning a door prize. Watching someone else take the last package of toilet tissue is a reminder of the biblical ten commandments my father repeated every time I wanted something like the neighbor’s kids or my classmates.
I turned the pages of the Sears & Roebuck catalog with longing, a faraway look in my eyes as I imagined myself in one of the frilly Easter dresses. “I wish, I had _____” was always met with a stern look from my father. “Thou shalt not covet.” I considered his words. “But, Papa, I wouldn’t have to covet if you let Mama order it for me.”
For my parents who had endured the World War II rations, a chicken pen full of laying hens, a garden and fruit trees, and an infrequent trip to Red’s Market for Mama’s cooking needs of flour and sugar and lard were sufficient. The butcher always greeted my parents by last name and waited while they surveyed the meats behind the glass. Mama usually chose pork roast for a special meal or pork steaks to fry in the evening. Baloney was a requirement when they had work picking cotton. Papa added a small slab of salt pork when the home supply dwindled. His eyes roamed over the wheels of cheese and hesitated only a moment—not long enough to covet—before he asked for a small wedge of cheddar. Mama asked the butcher if he could spare a few feet of clean paper. I savored the sound of the paper ripping against the black metal tear bar.
At home, I flipped pages of the latest Sears catalog, folded down the top corner of a page, and waited until Mama was alone. I flipped the page open, pointed to the dress I wanted, and handed her the book.
I smiled and skipped away. I knew Mama would buy similar material from the local five and dime store and cut a homemade pattern from the butcher paper. I would have a new Easter dress without coveting.
Things are not so different now. Instead of an Easter dress, my “Thou-shalt-not” test is to wear a home-sewn face mask without coveting the last package of toilet tissue being wheeled away in another shopper’s cart.
Filed under Holidays, Memoir