As long as I can remember, my world included hydrangeas. All of the women before me in my family were avid gardeners. All had hydrangea bushes planted in their yards. Fond memories as a young girl playing with cousins in my grandmother’s yard always conjures up visions of blue snowballs at the end of big green leafy shrubs. Many an arrangement on Sunday mornings placed at church altars contained these lovely flora. Centerpieces for baby and wedding showers adorned tables with these Southern trademark flowers with color indicating which shower theme. When driving throughout the South, it is a given that these flowers will be seen in every neighborhood, if not every yard. The hydrangea is simply a Southern staple for gardeners, for florist, and for decorators. Their budding each year signifies that sweet summer is nigh and all the happy things that summer represents. Lightning bugs, baseball, children playing in sprinklers, family dinners and cookouts, vacation bible school, bike riding for hours, popsicles from the freezer, screen doors slamming shut, fresh veggies from the garden, shelling peas, and lying under the stars as long as you can before the mosquitoes force you back in the house.
Hydrangeas and I have a special connection. Not only do they hold amorous feelings from my days as a youngster, but these feelings have continued throughout my adult life as well. When I bought my own house I knew I wanted to have them surround it. When I married I chose white hydrangeas to be the focus of the floralscape. When my mother passed away I received hydrangea bushes from several friends and all are planted in my yard. Although the color has changed for some, I can still tell you who sent each one to me. Now that I am saying goodbye to that house and moving onto a new one, I am contemplating the options of new clipping and transplants of those meaningful bushes.
I am certain that other Southerners have these same feelings towards this bloom. They just remind us of a time when all was right in our world and the hope that it can be again. The hydrangea is timeless in beauty, simplicity, and nature. I think the world would be a better place if more hydrangeas were planted along the way. It is true that the simple things in life are the best things. So fix yourself a glass of sweet tea or freshly squeezed lemonade, sit out on your porch or patio and enjoy the beautiful view of your hydrangeas.
Hydrangea planted by me in 2011. Love the multi-colored blooms. Sheer luck.
There isn’t a time in my life that I can’t remember Wardell Pennington. This not-so-large man in stature had a larger-than-life presence wherever he went. For nearly the first 30 years of my life his wife Dorothy was usually right along side. The Penningtons, or Money and Poppy as granddaughter Lindsay named them, were fixtures in our community. Everyone in town knew Money and Poppy and they knew everyone. The Penningtons were neighbors to my mother and her family on Stroud Street in the 1950’s. Wardell had a great sense of humor and liked to joke around, but don’t let that fool you, he was always the hardest worker and could always work circles around anyone a fraction of his age. Although he wasn’t the biggest man, he was definitely the stoutest man in the room. Always. He wasn’t one to start trouble, but he wasn’t afraid to end any possibility of trouble showing its face around him.
As a youngster, a trip to the orthodontist meant a trip around the corner for a cheeseburger at Midway Cafe. Always greeted with a smile and a friendly, “Hey Baby!” and a quick hug and a peck on the cheek if circumstances allowed. Always giving a word of encouragement to all, especially young people. My days were lucky if I made it to the sandwich shop early enough to get a piece of Money’s pies. German chocolate, coconut creme, pecan, and sometimes fried chocolate and peach. I can still taste them. In school, if I were feeling especially clever, I could finagle someone into bringing me a hot lunch to school that always came from Wardell’s. All my schoolmates preferred Wardell’s to the golden arches any day. The cheese was always Velveeta. Those real french fries that had been cut that morning or those hand-dredged onion rings were amazing! No one minded the grease that had to be soaked up before you could devour. Those things were like crack! You could never get enough. Always had to wash it down with a Dr. Pepper. The only options were mustard or mayonaise. To put it simply, Wardell’s burgers were magic.
So many wonderful memories of Money and Poppy flood my mind. Once as a college student, I was sitting at the counter visiting with Money while eating lunch. A scruffy dressed and disheveled man came in and sat down and Money asked if he wanted soup and a sandwich. The man nodded. Money fixed him a sackful of food and the man went on his way. Money confided in me that she did not know this man but he had been in the sandwich shop several times that week. She quickly figured out that the man was perhaps homeless and certainly hungry without funds to pay for his meal. Money obliged him without shame and helped keep his dignity in tack. Many would have ignored him or turned him away. She turned to me when he left and said, “You never know when might be feeding an angel or where you might see the face of Jesus.” I have NEVER forgotten those words. I hear her saying those words to me every time I see a begger or a homeless person. Unfortunately, I have heard those words more and more as I see more people in need in recent years. I am also certain that was not nearly the first or the last time Dorothy would feed someone who couldn’t pay for a meal.
In 2001, Wardell’s beloved Dorothy succomed to cancer. Although he tried to retire several times before this, Wardell kept on working. He needed the community and the community needed him. His daughter Betty picked up the slack after Money passed and kept Poppy going in the restaurant. Somewhere around 2004, I traveled with a local group to Italy. The trip was great, but as usual, after being away from home, our habits and comforts were missed. The group arrived back in Memphis very late one Friday night. As expected, bright and early Saturday morning at least ten of us from the trip gathered at Wardell’s for a burger and onion rings. Being halfway around the globe makes you crave the familiar things of home. When Wardell learned we just returned from Italy, he told us that he’d been stationed in Napoli and began speaking to us in Itatlian. He spoke freely of his European missions and shared a great deal of himself with us that morning. While I knew Poppy was a WWII veteran, I never knew to what extent his activity was and that he had spent much of that time in Europe. In my entire lifetime, I had never heard him speak so openly of his service. That day Wardell became even more of a hero to me than he had already been. Not long after this, Poppy lost his beloved Betty to cancer. This took a toll on Poppy and he began to slow down a little in the sandwhich shop. Maybe too many reminders of the both of them working beside him, but this certainly did not stop Poppy.
Poppy became as social as ever. He still attended Newport Greyhound football games always sitting at the top of the bleachers to the left of the press box. He hollered and cheered as loud as possible. Often he and his friend Daveene were spotted out at dinner where he would greet all of his friends with handshakes, hugs, kisses, and a little nudge on the shoulder. All people of all ages loved Poppy. He was mulitgenerational. He was ageless and timeless. He was a fixture and an institution in our community. Just as Dorothy’s sermon she gave me years ago by her quiet example of taking care of people, Wardell continued to live by that too. At the age of 93, he worked tirelessly at the local foodbank each week and had since its beginning. Wardell only knew one speed – full throttle. He went wide open all the time. His failing vision was not an excuse for him to sit down and quit. Ever.
Last week while taking care of his people, in his town, Wardell took a fall at the food bank. The injuries from this fall would not have the outcome we wanted and Wardell is now reunited with his beloved Dorothy in Heaven. But even in the final moments of his consciousness, he was as resillient and determined as ever to continue his work to for his people and demanding to son John, “Someone get me cleaned up! I’ve got work to do! I’ve got finish what I was doing so that I can get folks taken care of!” Never selfish. Always selfless and working for others unitl the end.
I and all of the people of our community are all the better for having Dorothy and Wardell Pennington in our community, in our lives and in our world. Truly another example of what made the Greatest Generation so amazing and made our country so incomparable. Let their sermon, their lives that they lived by example, be a true testimony of how each of us can make that same difference in our community and in our world.
When it’s my time Poppy, I hope to meet you and Money at the pearly gates with your cheeseburger, onion rings, and a slice of German chocolate pie. Until we meet again Arrivederci, Poppy!
One of the questions often asked by city folk is why we live in our small town. Why do you want to stay in such a slow moving place? Why don’t you want to be where things are happening more, hustling and bustling? Some things cannot be easily explained but are certainly easy to understand. I was reminded of why I live where I live and do what I do last week.
My friend Sheridan’s business got an unexpected visitor that crashed into her store front. Luckily, no one was injured and the damage was minimal in the big scheme of things. What happened that followed is the best part. Within minutes of word getting out about the crash, many friends dropped in to offer support and assistance in whatever that needed to be done. This took me back to three years ago when my family’s business, an independent drug store, sustained a devastating fire. It was my friend Sheridan and her husband Jon who met us at the store that rainy morning. We watched helplessly as the firemen fought to salvage our livelihood. Other friends dropped by to offer assistance, support, or just a hug. Those gestures of kindness meant so much and are never forgotten.
When faced with such unexpected adversity, you never know what you’ll do until you have to look those demons in the eye. In moments like this, you just have to kick into gear and stay on track. The fire at the drug store began at 7:00 a.m.. By 11:00 a.m. Sheridan and I had confirmed a temporary location to relocate the drug store. We were open for business three days later, the following Monday at 8:30 a.m. It was a stressful weekend of crazy preparation and lots of hours from friends who very generously volunteered their time to make it happen. Forty-eight hours of sleeplessness was worth it to know that we did it. We were able to open and not let anything devastate our business or our spirit. This determination is not derived from selfishness, but rather comes from community and the people who shape our community. Those who depend on you and appreciate the role we each play in being a part of something greater. I saw this determination come into play last week in Sheridan and her employees who switched into gear without even realizing what they were actually accomplishing in the midst of this unexpected storm. The overwhelming support from our locals who refuse to let you give up is all the reassurance you need should you even have time to doubt your desire to move forward. Moments like this truly demonstrate that it does take a village and that village is like family.
One thing is for certain, no matter how much pettiness may go on amongst us all during times of ease and comfort, when one of us is under fire, we all rise to the occasion to help. We may argue and fuss among ourselves, but let an outsider come into threaten and Katie bar the door! The fight is on to protect our own. As an older friend once said, “Ours is the kind of town that will talk about you all day and stay up with you all night.’ Totally true and totally a great place to be.
It is all of those little details, the mundane, the boring, the expected, and sometimes the surprises that make what you do so worth while. Knowing you were able to do something to make others feel special gives you the nod that you’re answering your calling. Those homemade goodies prepared with love in a customer’s kitchen and calls and visits to share family news are just a few of the priceless gestures that warm your heart each day. Gifts and acts purely from the heart make working and living here completely worth while. I am glad the rest of the world doesn’t know what I do about this place.
As I spent this Labor Day evening near sunset in the garden many memories flooded my soul. The cool breeze reminded me that summer was drawing to to close and the mornings and evenings of gardening were coming to an end. Thoughts from my childhood came back to me from mornings spent with my parents and grandparents picking corn, cutting okra, shucking and bagging corn to freeze and picking and shelling peas. Back then I often dreaded the wake up call to go to the garden at daybreak, but I always enjoyed it once I was in motion. Even as as youngster I knew that I was a part of something. This way of life was all my grandparents had known. Even before the Depression, a garden wasn’t an option, but a necessity for survival.
Scott’s Okra Blooming At Sunset
My parents built the house I spent the majority of my upbringing when I was five. It was built between my grandmother’s house and her sister’s (my great aunt) house on what I remember as a tiny youngster as being a very large garden spot. So growing up next door to my grandmother, I had the luxury of the luscious garden at my disposal, although I didn’t appreciate it as such at the time. In all my years, I have never known a time when at least one person in my family has not had a garden. It is a staple. My grandmother passed away in May 2001, the garden she planted with my Daddy that year was in full growth. She meticulously cared for it daily. She was three weeks shy of celebrating her 90th birthday when she passed. While my Daddy still plants the garden in the same spot each year, I can honestly tell you that the garden has never looked as meticulous and neat as it did before May 2001. My Daddy would agree. My favorite finished product to come from the garden each year were my grandmother’s homemade pickles. While I was quite fond of freshly sliced cucumbers chilled in a mason jar filled with vinegar in the icebox, nothing like those fabulous crisp dills that were not only divine to my taste buds, they were pretty as a picture with their large dill heads in the jars.
The family dill pickle recipe submitted by my great-aunt and published in Tuckerman Cookbook 1958 Edition.
My husband is a farmer of rice, beans and corn. He has spent endless hours planting, dangerously ventured out into the fields during obscene hours to turn pumps off or on while watering the crops, spent long hours harvesting by combine lights, and tireless days and evenings spent sitting in line and waiting for his time to empty the harvest loads at the mill. Yet in all his years of successful farming thousands of acres, I have never seen him more proud of a crop than from his garden this year. Tomatoes, peppers, okra, melons, peas, cucumbers, cabbage, eggplant, and more. No crop has brought him as much pleasure as this year’s bounty from the garden. With a plethora of picked cucumbers overtaking the kitchen and other moments when the garden runneth over, I am sure Scott wondered briefly what in the world he’d gotten himself into and then with a deep breath, he regained composure and fell in love with the idea of being a simple gardener all over again. Scott’s labor of love in the garden reminded me of all the pureness that comes from the garden. I once again realize why my Daddy still plants his garden each year. All the lessons in life that come from such labor, all the memories to me that are priceless. As a rural Southerner, raising a garden is a rite of passage. It doesn’t have to been fancy with raised beds, it doesn’t have to be large, it is as if it must be from the heart. Proof of this is found in our “trading” of the bounty and the simple gesture of gifts from the garden. What a gift of love. Nothing so wonderful and treasured as fresh vegetables brought to you from another’s garden. The only way you’d be luckier would be to receive a home-cooked dish from the cook’s garden.
Cucumbers And More Cucumbers
As the garden winds down, so does summer. The combines have hit the fields. Harvest begins. Soon we’ll trade the warm weather for cooler evenings and mornings. That religious season we love in the South – Football begins. On those cold days this winter when I long for comfort food and reach into the freezer for the okra for gumbo and tomatoes for soup, I’ll be thankful for the hours of sweat my husband put into his garden and long for warmer days and the growing season to start all over again. There’s just something about a garden that gets down in your soul and is the best medicine to feed your soul too.
I can’t recall the first time I went to Cowlake. I am certain it was as a very young child and the first occasion was one of celebration in some sort of fashion. Perhaps a birthday, perhaps a friendly visit or a potluck dinner. Whatever the occasion, I am certain it involved family. Family by blood, by marriage, or an extended family. This remote locale isn’t a place most would happen upon by chance. It is almost as if it is at the end of the trail. Peaceful, serene and perfectly shaded by a conglomeration of trees on a slight incline. The perfect place for a picnic or celebration.
As I grew older, the visits to Cowlake usually came with another purpose, often to bid farewell to a loved one. As a freshman in high school, a trip to Cowlake meant the burial of an infant cousin. As a freshman in college it meant farewell to a precious aunt. Two years later a trip to bury someone far too young for his time. As the circle of life has continued, so have the frequency in my trips to Cowlake. What has been so special about this spot is that the final earthly resting place of each loved one is dug by hand. On the days of their loved ones’ homegoings, family members meet early to do the task at hand. Everything is precise and pristine. After the service is over and final goodbyes are said, the tent providing shelter from the weather is removed. The loved one is lowered in the ground and the final act of love begins. A collection of shovels stands on the pile of dirt removed from the ground and waiting to cover the earth again. One shovel is always placed higher than the rest in honor of the recently departed. The family begins the duty. Usually the children of the loved one begin, then the brothers, nephews, grandchildren, nieces and so forth. All take part in this ritual, this amazing ritual that holds so much love and respect. As a young girl, I remember witnessing this for the first time and commenting to my mother about it. I was in awe. I had not witnessed such in my young life. I remember my mother’s quick response, “Maddens take care of their own.”
As I made the trip to Cowlake again this weekend to say goodbye once more, my heart swelled with precious memories of those who were lying beneath the shade trees and those who lived and now rest not so far from this place. These were the people who shaped my childhood, who made amazing memories with me as a youngster, who taught me lessons of faith, love and family by example that I will always cherish. These were the people who blessed me by showing what amazing things come from big families, extended families with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and neighbors in small rural places. As someone reminded us all while standing in the shade Saturday, great people have come from small places like this influence many other places around the world. The people from this place are no exception. And while we were still standing there among the trees the phrase was once again repeated, “Taking care of our own.” Through the years I have witnessed these shovels throwing dirt in agony and despair, in bittersweetness that the loved one is no longer suffering, with deep sadness, but always with an unwavering love. What a wonderful tribute to know that your family literally takes care of you from the cradle to the grave. What a great act of love. To watch this literally stirs my soul with such emotion I can barely contain. As the final shovel is thrown, the refreshment begins. Cool watermelon is cut and shared. It is as though the fruit serves to soothe the soul of its pain on this day. Some may view this a macabre, but this simple act is so pure and true to signify the deepest of respect. I am sure this tradition began in the days of old when we were not so accustomed to air conditioning and other creature comforts. You can feel this ritual is steeped in history in this place.
As a drove away I had such a sense of gratitude for my family, my extended family, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my big family. How special it was to come from such a family that celebrated so many holidays and special occasions together. How lucky was I to have come from people who endured hardships with unshakable faith in The Maker and undying love of family.
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