Monday, July 4, 2016

Mama's Kitchen

Mama’s Kitchen

Mary Vandever

March 2015


            When I think of Mama, now more than 15 years after she died, my memories take me to her kitchen.  Our Mama’s kitchen was the gathering place for family and friends.  We shared our problems--successes and failures, happiness and tears—in her kitchen.  Mama listened and sometimes gave advice, as well as treated skinned knees, bee stings, bumps, and bruises.          

            My earliest memory about her kitchen was a wood-burning, cast-iron cook stove, a table with a bench along one side for us kids to sit on, and two cane-bottomed chairs for Mama and Daddy.  When the chair seats needed repair, Daddy re-caned them.  The table, which Daddy probably made from rough lumber, was covered with oilcloth. 

            I don’t know why it was called oilcloth.  It was as a common covering before the days of plastics.   Stores had rolls of oilcloth for purchase by the yard, and it was available in many colors and designs.  Mama chose white, printed with small flowers. It was study and could easily be wiped clean of food spills.  Until after 1940, we sat around that table playing games and doing homework with light from a kerosene lamp.

            I remember standing on one of those chairs and helping Daddy stir a mixture of cornbread.  It must have been an evening when Mama was not feeling well because she scolded us for stirring the batter too much.  I was surprised to hear her speak sharply to Daddy because I had never heard her do that.  Very likely, it was almost time for Dr. Dooley to bring baby Maxine to us in his little black bag. 

            A wood box, which Daddy kept filled with the correct lengths of wood to fit into the firebox, sat beside the stove.  As we girls got old enough to carry a few of those sticks, bringing in the wood was our job.  In later years, we knew to have a scuttle of coal in place so Daddy would not have to do it after he came home from work. 

            The stove had a warming oven.  In it, we could usually find a snack, often slices of fried sweet potatoes, which were Mama’s favorite, and biscuits.  On that stove, Mama could make the best biscuits and fried chicken I ever ate.  Without a thermostat, she knew when the oven was the right temperature to bake cakes, cookies, and breads.  A cast iron kettle and two flat irons sat on this stove.  The irons were always hot enough to press the wrinkles out of little girls’ dresses.  At bath time, a large round tub was placed near the stove, and hot water added from the kettle made a nice warm bath.

            When Cleta and I were about 5 and 7 years old, the job of washing supper dishes became ours.  After Mama finished cooking, she placed a dishpan of water on the stove to warm while we were eating.  Even though Cleta had to stand on a chair, she wanted to wash the dishes, and I dried them.

            By the time we finished the dishes, the water was beginning to cool, but the iron skillet still had to be washed.  I was the one who was guilty of putting it in the oven and “forgetting” to wash it.  If we began to argue, Daddy would say, “Girls!”  That is all it took for us to decide to work together peacefully.

            Then, there was the butter churn, always sitting near a chair, waiting for me to work the dasher up and down.  I thought that churning butter was a waste of time until I spread fresh butter on a hot biscuit and covered it all with molasses or homemade jelly.  That made the routine worthwhile.

            The cast-iron cook stove was in Mama’s kitchen from my earliest memories until I was married.  She kept it, she said for heat, after getting an electric stove.  Even then, she was caught baking cornbread or biscuits in it.  Years later, the stove was in the back yard.  Daddy fried fish on it, and Mama complained that he did not clean and oil it to keep it from rusting.  What finally became of the stove?  I have no idea.

            A white cabinet, typical of the era, was a functional part of Mama’s kitchen.  Half of the cabinet base had space to store pots and pans.  The other half had drawers, which, in our house, held not only kitchen tools, but scissors, pencils, and usually whatever item one of us looked for.  The upper part of the cabinet was likewise divided into two sections.  The more important side had a flour bin with a built-in sifter and a place for her milk bottle rolling pin.

            The milk bottle would have been a perfect container for wild flowers, but we knew its use  was not for anything except rolling biscuit and cookie doughs.  It was the only rolling pin Mama ever had.  She did not want one of those crafted wooden ones with handles.  Her milk bottle now sits on a shelf in my kitchen, waiting for one of her granddaughters to claim it.

            Behind the upper doors in the other half of the cabinet, Mama stored her staples.  The top surface of the base cabinet was a metal tabletop, which extended twice its depth when pulled out.  There, much good food was prepared.  In later years, after Mama had a more modern kitchen, that efficient, self-contained kitchen cabinet was moved to her utility room where it remained in use for the rest of her life.

            I do not remember an icebox being in mama’s kitchen until I was about 10 years old. Then, the iceman drove a regular route by our house.  He used a large hook to carry a block of ice and put it in the top of the icebox.  In that way, he made sure that the bottles of milk, which were delivered to our door, were kept safe.  Before we had an icebox, I remember going to a spring in the edge of the woods to get milk and butter. 

            In those years, men called hobos, walked from place-to-place trying to find work and often asking for food.  Sometimes certain ones found our little house.  Mama did not turn them away, but she would bring us girls into the house whenever strangers appeared, and then she would give them something to eat. 

            I especially remember one hobo.  While she baked biscuits, fried eggs, and opened a can of peaches to make meal for him, he cut wood to pay for the food.  Until this day, Cleta is unhappy that we did not get to eat the peaches that Mama fed the man.  He went on his way with a full stomach.

            That evening, Cleta and I went to the spring to get the milk and butter for supper.  The butter was not there.  It seemed that as the hobo was leaving, he walked by the spring and took the butter with him.  Mama was not upset about the loss of the butter, but his taking her little blue crock made her angry.

            The last house we lived in, before I left home, had a room off the kitchen that served a few years as a dining room.  Then Dr. Dooley brought brother Carl to us, and the side room became a bedroom.  The dining table was moved back into the kitchen, and the icebox was replaced with a small refrigerator.

            Sunday mornings were very busy.  Mama cooked breakfast and helped get us ready for Sunday School, then she cooked dinner and joined the family for church service.  Afterwards we came home to a fried chicken or a beef roast dinner.  She made good use of every minute of her time, taking care of her family.

            Within a few years, grandchildren appeared upon the scene, and they were welcomed into Mama’s kitchen.  She sat at the table and played games with them.  Parents would find their kids making biscuits out of her leftover scraps of dough, flour all over themselves as well as on the table and floor.  Mama most likely would be leaning against the sink, drinking tea out of her special china cup, enjoying watching her grandchildren, and waiting to clean up their mess when they finished playing. 

            She had many little bird magnets on the refrigerator, and little hands moved them around, making trains and other designs.  A corner shelf by the kitchen window was off-limits because it held her special collection of miniature ceramic pitchers.

            Mama’s kitchen was full of love, and recollections of her being there have a very special place in my memories.