This month I share two more stories that appeared in my third book, I Wish You Had Been There.
Snow Cones and Pot-likker
(Valdosta, Georgia, circa 1940)
Three or four months before we slaughtered the hogs for hams, chops, bacon, and chitterlings, Daddy supplemented their diet with store-bought feeds. Those rations contained minerals and other growth-enhancing additives. Ordinarily our hogs had a steady helping of corn. But at least twice each week they were treated with scraps from our table, floating in the residual liquid from meat or a mess of greens. It was pot-likker, collected in a special “slop bucket” placed conveniently near the back porch. Some days the hogs ate only pot-likker; we ate the scraps.
When Daddy asked his mother to save her slop, he promised that either my brother Curtis or I would collect it at least twice each week. Her house was approximately two miles from our hog pen. No matter how carefully we handled the pail during the walk from her house, enough slop splashed out on our legs and ran down to our bare feet, so that soon our trail was marked by wet foot prints. Curtis and I hated that assignment.
My route took me past the large brick icehouse, which stood at the junction of the east-west bound Atlantic Coast Line Railway and the north-south bound Southern Railways tracks. It was a convenient location, affording access to ice for the refrigeration boxcars of both lines. It also was where we could purchase a ten-pound block for a nickel if we needed ice before the weekly delivery by the iceman.
One day I delayed my slop collecting errand and stopped at the icehouse. In typical form I started asking questions about somebody else’s business. To explain, the manager, a tall lanky white man, invited me inside the frigid building and showed me how ice is made. Then he demonstrated how large blocks were guided into a giant electric saw, which cut the ice into sizes to satisfy each customer’s request. What especially attracted my attention was the mound of snow that resulted from the cutting. My guide invited me to make a snowball to lick and cool the rest of my journey and further issued an open-ended invitation. Suddenly, without telling Daddy why, I started volunteering to make the slop run.
As I approached the icehouse one very hot day, the manager beckoned me to follow him inside the building. This time he scooped up a heaping mound of snow, packed it into a pint jar, then reached into his pocket, and withdrew half a dozen little wax containers shaped like bottles. Each piece of wax held a strawberry or grape flavored liquid, which he opened and poured over the snow packed jar. Even though I nodded thank you, neither of us said a word, for we were not sure if the mist in both of our eyes was caused by the cold—or how a moment of happiness changes one’s appearance.
Neither of us had what we needed.
We just promised to always do our best with what we have.
It was not uncommon for my mother to work in the middle of the night ironing clothes that she delivered to her employer the next morning. The extra fifty cents she received for washing and ironing last week’s laundry helped to pay for this week’s groceries.
One night I offered her my company. I sat in a corner and studied my textbook by the light of a kerosene lamp. She moved the cast iron over shirts and sheets to the rhythm of a hymn to ease her burden. My textbook bore the names of the two prior owners, both white children. After two or three years at the white school, the books were delivered to our colored schools, along with a few used desks.
When I told my mother that two pages were missing in my text, she stood motionless for a spell, and then calmly asked, “Do you know everything on the pages you have?” Before I could answer, she put her gentle hand on my shoulder and said, “I can’t replace the pages for you, but I will do this. I’ll promise to do my best for you with what I have, if you’ll promise to do the best for yourself with what you have.”
She resumed her tune. I studied what I had.