Back before aioli and tzatziki were household words, back when our condiment choices were Duke’s mayonnaise and French’s mustard, my two best friends and I played hard outside and drank cool sweet well water from a faucet in the yard when we got tired and thirsty. Our mamas would hook the screen doors, locking us outside — “stop slamming that door!,” “you’re letting flies in!” — forcing us to revel in Imagination and the simplicity of the natural world that surrounded us in Jernigan in the late 1950s and 60s.
Even though our eight-party telephone lines opened our ears to some titillating community gossip a few times, and Joan’s mother’s boarding house provided some eye-opening tidbits as well, Lynne, Joan, and I were, at heart, innocents in our Russell County Garden of Eden that offered a bounty of honeysuckle blooms and wild plums, blackberries, and sour grass.
The pies and jams and jellies our mothers made from fruits and berries were delicious, but even better was scavenging, barefooted and barelegged, in briars and overgrowth, to eat the juiciest wild plums and sweetest berries right off the tree or vine. At school, we faced polio shots and practiced bomb drills, but at home in Jernigan the only danger we were aware of was the ever-present threat in warm weather, and even cool weather, of “getting on a rattlesnake.” “They’re coming out now,” Mama would say in the early spring. “They’re crawling,” she’d warn in the summer months. “They say they’re still crawling,” she’d stress as summer turned to fall. Being children, we were fearless and oblivious to danger as we tromped barefooted or in flimsy flip-flops into briar patches and ditches to find our bounty all summer.
When summer ended, just as the berries and plums dried up, fall brought its own offerings. Local farmers would start harvesting peanuts, and usually offer us the ones the pickers left behind for a peanut boiling. Over time, the wild plums we loved disappeared. A little research reveals that many became “collateral damage” of timber companies, right-of-way protectors, and power line crews that used herbicides to keep ditches clean and to control underbrush. But I can still see in my mind’s eye, three young girls in elastic-waisted shorts, barefooted as yard dogs, standing under a wild plum tree, juice running down our arms, and eating to our hearts’ content. I can also see Mama, young again, chasing down the Rural Electric Authority truck for cutting her dogwood trees and poisoning the daffodils in the ditch by our house. “Leave my ditch alone,” she’d yell. I think I inherited that gene, and wish on all the twinkling stars that we could bring back that unblemished world.
Marian Carcache welcomes
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