If You Want the Best Fruit, You Gotta Climb Some Trees

I have written in previous posts about the fond memories I have of my maternal grandmother, who lived with us and was instrumental in raising my sister and me while both of our parents worked outside the home. She was a faithful Southern Baptist with hardcore Biblical beliefs that could tame the hounds of hell, not to mention her only grandson out of five grandchildren. At the same time, she had an almost raunchy sense of humor. Flatulence could easily be summoned at just the right moment to break the wind of monotony.

My grandmother had a sister who lived in our town in middle Georgia. They adored each other and shared many lovable and peculiar characteristics. My grandmother didn’t drive, but her sister did. They were ever mobile, always ready for trips to the grocery store, the mall, church events, the farmer’s market, or the countryside to see relatives who had remained outside the city limits where the family’s roots were firmly planted. They both carried oversized, patent leather purses (think an inexpensive version of the Queen Mother’s favorite accessory) that could carry a week’s provisions while also functioning as a weapon that would give even a Central Park mugger pause. Middle Georgia can be miserably hot and humid in the summer, almost necessitating short pants; however, these were two ladies who clearly had not abandoned the practice of wearing hosiery to cover bare legs. They compromised by pairing their shorts with low-heal pumps and knee-high hose – ever fashion-conscious.

The matriarchal sisters were proud masters of the kitchen and faced the challenge of every major meal with the skill and determination of a battlefield commander. It started with the shopping. They didn’t have to give too much thought about what to put in the grocery cart – that would be referred to as a “buggy” in the native tongue of Georgia – because there wasn’t a lot of money to spend, and we generally rotated through a menu of about 5-6 major courses. They procured the staples from the only grocery store in town worthy of their discriminating patronage: Piggly Wiggly. They supplemented the store’s imported produce with indigenous fruits and vegetables from the town’s sizeable farmer’s market, where shoppers could find all the home-grown favorites such as corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, collards, turnips, and of course, sweet onions that are still the pride and economic bedrock of a south Georgia village called Vidalia.

Like all good commanding officers, the sisters would gather the troops, or in this case family members, to assist in the initial steps of the culinary campaign: shucking corn, snapping beans, hulling peas and butter beans, etc. At our house, my mother and sister were quite adept at these essential tasks. I am several years younger than my sister, and although I occasionally attempted to work on the peas and beans, if for no other reason than to be included, I was extremely slow and lost interest quickly. My grandmother took care of the most complicated and dangerous preparatory chores, such as wielding a sharp butcher knife to split the ears of corn on the cob, shear off the kernels, and magically mix them with ingredients to create the best creamed corn I have ever tasted. By the time she finished, her glasses and a good portion of her face and gray hair were speckled with little pasty globs of mutilated corn. She took no prisoners.

Many young boys approaching adolescence from my generation spent considerable time outdoors riding their bikes, playing in the yard, and finding ways to burn off energy. I was a skinny, short kid with long fingers and toes, shaded by the “shadow of forgotten ancestors” with all due credit to the late Carl Sagan. Summoning my recessive hominid genes, I was comfortable climbing small trees. It was fun. In our back yard, we had a small grove of plum and pear trees, and the ripened fruits of summer provided another incentive to defy gravity among the limbs and leaves.

With their keen awareness of all available resources and opportunities, my grandmother and great aunt wasted no time putting my arboreal dexterity to practical use. They both loved peaches. My great aunt had the telltale yellow-orange peach stain permanently emblazoned on the front of practically every blouse she owned. My father was unsuccessful in cultivating this fruit tree in our yard. The grocery store, roadside stands, and the farmer’s market had plenty of peaches available, but the freshest and sweetest ones were still attached to trees and ripened to perfection in several large orchards just a few miles away in the surrounding counties. When I was coming along, Georgia truly lived up to its nickname as the Peach State. Visitors to the peach farms could get the greatest value and the best fruit by picking their own.

Always on the lookout for a bargain, the savvy sisters drafted me to “help” them pick a bushel of peaches at one of the farms. We lit out for the territory in my great aunt’s Chrysler sedan. All the windows were rolled down to welcome in the thick, steamy air typical of a summer in Georgia. Wearing stringy cutoff jeans, my legs stuck to the vinyl back seat like chewing gum on hot pavement. We arrived at the farm wasting no time, marching toward the orchard with the singular mission of finding the most delectable peaches in the southeast. When the ladies identified just the right tree, its branches encumbered with fruit almost to the breaking point, they dropped their peck baskets to the ground and turned their sweet, smiling faces toward me.

“Son, if we point to the ones we want, can you get up in there alright and pick them?” My great aunt almost always called me “son.” Peach trees in a mature orchard are typically 8-12 feet tall, but they are trimmed and trained to have four or five major branches off the trunk a few feet from the ground. These branches project outward and upward from the trunk and support the many smaller branches that bear the fruit each season. So, you can climb into the cradle of the large feeder branches without too much difficulty, but then you must reach from that position to pick the fruit, which can get a bit precarious. Even a scrawny kid weighing 90 pounds soaked in summer sweat could easily snap a tree branch laboring under several pounds of peaches. Doing so would not only cause damage to the tree and ruin a peck of peaches, but it would likely send the tree climber crashing to the ground with scratches and bruises or a punctured eye.

“Sure,” I said with foolish enthusiasm induced by my pre-teen confidence. I vaguely remember taking my shoes off to improve my footing. Again, I embraced my primate taxonomy. I weaseled my way between the feeder branches, and carefully stepped up into the tree’s cradle. The analogy of “low hanging fruit” was not in my lexicon in the early 1970s, but even if it had been, the sisters would have promptly dismissed any suggestion of the kind. They had already set their sights on loftier specimens. After surveying the entire canopy, they began pointing at succulent globes just beyond my reach. Through unnatural contortions and absurd acrobatics that had been unnecessary for any of my previous adventures, I was reasonably successful in satisfying their quest for a bountiful bushel of goodness while managing to escape serious injury or banishment from the property.

My grandmother must have been pleased enough with my aerial harvesting abilities. More than once she sent me scampering up our trees at home to procure what she judged to be the best pears for making preserves that our family and relatives savored throughout the year. If the nuclear holocaust we all feared during those years had materialized, I would be forever grateful to my grandmother and her sister for preparing me to survive in the new stone age as a hunter-gatherer. They loved me more than I could have imagined. They were the sweetest Georgia peaches of all.

Parking Lot Sex and Other Library Moments I Will Never Forget

I spent the first 15 years of my professional career in a medium-sized public library in a town in rural Georgia. During the last three years, I was the library director. Public libraries by their very nature are institutions serving an amazingly diverse audience, a cross-section of the local population. My tenure as a librarian was long before Amazon released the first Kindle, and although recorded books were available, most people in our community were still reading physical books. Our patrons ranged from the poor and homeless to some of the wealthiest people in the area. Our doors were open to people who could barely read, and I am excluding pre-school children here. We also welcomed professors with advanced degrees who were on the faculty at the local liberal arts college. Our children’s programs attracted mothers bringing infants who would have rather chewed on a book than look at the pictures, but we also had regular patrons who were approaching the century mark.

Public libraries have always been used for a whole host of activities that are not strictly reading, and our library was no exception: writing, math tutoring, drawing or sketching, chess matches, napping, restroom use (including makeshift bathing or changing clothes), professional meetings, private meetings, and very private meetings. Another common use for the library was as a holding station for after-school children who “hung out” until their parents picked them up after getting off work. No matter how we tried to convince parents that the public library wasn’t a safe or appropriate place for unsupervised children, our building was too conveniently located downtown next to a prep school for parents to pass up what was essentially free, if passive, baby-sitting service. Considering some of the characters who walked through the doors, the public library was only marginally safer than a bus station. Many of these young students were not mature enough to handle temporary independence and would not spend their time in the library working on school assignments or even reading for pleasure. They were bored and restless and often noisy or even destructive.

When I first started at the library, we had a retired elementary-school teacher working part-time doing some clerical duties and filing about 2-3 days a week. She usually worked in the afternoons when the school children gathered around the entrance and annoyingly traveled in and out of the building. This woman was in her mid-seventies, about five feet tall, and thin as a stick pretzel. But, she had an incredible sense of presence that was hard to ignore. I remember one day a large group of students was hovering just outside the library entrance, and several of us on the staff were standing behind the circulation desk grumbling and complaining about how unruly these children were and how we wished they would find someplace else to waste time.  In short, we were a bunch of cowards not willing to confront the little hellions. Our retired teacher quietly walked around the desk, made her way to the entrance, and walked out the door and right into the middle of the rascals. We watched in jaw-dropping respect as, one by one, the children picked up their book bags and walked in the library to sit down at a table or left the property altogether. After the group was completely dispersed, she walked back into the building and to the circulation desk. I asked her, “What in the world just happened?” She turned her head nonchalantly toward me and softly said, “We had prayer meeting.”

Some of the funniest, most outrageous moments I have ever witnessed happened at this library. For instance, there was the time when a retired college professor wearing a pair of shorts walked out of the restroom, and as he made his way across the reference section, my boss and I noticed that a pair of boxers peaked out of the bottom of one of the legs of his pants until they finally escaped and fell to the floor behind him. He never noticed it. We had to dash back to the break room suppressing screams of laughter. He was among our most affable patrons. Others were not so adorable, like the old cuss who lived at the veterans home in the county who apparently had plenty of money and believed his wealth came with certain privileges, including breaking library policies. He was deaf as a stone and was constantly adjusting his hearing aids while poring over the Wall Street Journal in our leisure-reading section. He never wanted to leave at closing time. We had to almost push him out the door, and he usually cussed at us under his breath as he exited the building. One day near closing time, I walked back to where he was seated and mouthed unrecognizable words to him. He adjusted his hearing aid up. I did this several times, and each time he cranked up his hearing aid until I could hear it emitting a high-pitched squeal. Then, I moved in closer to him and shouted “WE’RE CLOSING. TIME FOR YOU TO LEAVE!” It almost blew him out of the chair. I’m not above juvenile pranks against someone so deserving as that old fart was.

We had another faithful patron who lived at the VA home. He flew planes in World War II and was stationed at some of the sites where nuclear weapons were tested. The poor guy had to have skin cancers removed from his face several times a year. Some of the best dirty jokes I ever heard came from this man, who once told me that he was almost kicked out of the veterans facility because he refused to clean his room. Although he ultimately won that fight, I can’t imagine the condition of his room! We had some real characters who were avid readers, like the woman in her late seventies who came in every week and asked if we had gotten any new “heavy breathers,” her moniker for romance novels with explicit sex scenes. Or, the grumpy, wrinkled woman with wild eyes who devoured murder mysteries like chocolate. I eventually realized that she wasn’t really mean at all but just liked projecting that persona. I enjoyed talking with her when she made her weekly visits. Of course, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she was famous in the community for having murdered her abusive husband, a crime for which she was never indicted or convicted.

I cannot finish without mentioning the young couple who inspired this post in the first place. I’m not sure they ever checked out a book, nor even took the time to read anything from our shelves. They did use our restrooms, which is completely understandable, if not acceptable. Our library was a two-story building constructed of red brick, concrete, and insulated tented windows. Unless the interior lights were on at night, it was almost impossible to see inside these windows from outside the building. It was an oblong, rectangular structure with a second floor that extended out from the first floor by about five feet or so thanks to curved concrete supports at its corners and along its sides.

From our break room, with windows that extended to the floor, the library staff had an excellent vantage point to look out over the parking lot and into the front seats of the cars. Several times a week for a few months, the male driver of a beat up 70s model four-door sedan painted a nauseating color of Fuchsia would pull into the lot and wait. Usually within a few minutes, a small white car would pull in and park close by, and the female driver would get out of the automobile and into the man’s car. After a few minutes of chatting, the fun began. Her head would disappear in his lap, their bodies would contort, and, well, you get the picture. We soon began referring to his car as the “Fuchsia F*** Mobile.” These escapades took place in broad daylight, usually around lunch time. On several occasions we saw people walk right past the front of the man’s car, but apparently no one ever noticed what was happening. But we did. Some of us even took notes.

Southern Word of the Day (Part 5)

Here is the latest installment of my favorite Southern words, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Pressure. Usage: “You can see inside the window better if you pressure face right up to the glass.”

Turnip. Usage: “Will you please turnip the volume on that TV so I can hear what they’re sayin’.”

Mare. Usage: “Billy Bob is thinking about running for mare in the next city election.”

Manure. Usage: “I like manure truck better than my old one “cause it’s got 4-wheel drive and a gun rack.”

Meander. Usage: “Charlene went with meander momma down to the Wal-mart to look for some curtains for the trailer.”

Entity. Usage: “If you pour a little oil entity pot of spaghetti the noodles won’t stick together.”

Binary. Usage: “I didn’t binary one of them undershirts at the yard sale ’cause they had stains in the arm pits.”

Trauma. Usage: “I’m gonna trauma best to be at the rodeo this Saturday night if I can get back in time.”

Eclipse. Usage: “I like this new barber because eclipse the hair growing out of my ears.”

Pumpkin. Usage: “If the basement floods again, that new pumpkin get the water out in a hurry.”

Southern Word of the Day (Part 4)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 3)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 2)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 1)

Best laid schemes o’ brides an’ doves

We have all been there at one time or another. We spend hours, days, weeks, or even months making plans for an important event. We take into account every conceivable variable, leaving nothing to chance. We play out scenarios in our heads and make adjustments along the way as we try to predict how every second will unfold. We write and rewrite schedules, have meetings with all the key players, and make sure that all participants understand their roles. We even have a rehearsal, a “dry run,” in attempts to catch any last-minute omissions and pave the way for a flawless finish. All of this careful preparation, and still, something unexpected happens. Something goes terribly wrong. This scenario is played out at festivals, concerts, conventions, board meetings, and many other gatherings; however, the one place we all hate to see it happen most is at an occasion that is expected to be nearly perfect — a wedding.

Wedding bands
Wedding bands

As an amateur musician and performer in a small town, I was hired to sing at weddings several times each year for about twenty-five years. I witnessed some unusual rituals in the preparation for and implementation of the ceremony. Brides and grooms are typically nervous as the big day approaches, and some even need medication just to make it through the wedding. I once had a request from a mature bride preparing for her second marriage who wanted to practice standing face-to-face and holding hands with her fiance in my living room while I played the entire song to be included after their exchange of vows. “We need to be prepared for how awkward this is going to feel,” she said. I’m quite sure neither of them felt more awkward than I did at that moment.

Some weddings end up being less than what was planned simply because of unrealistic expectations. There will always be those couples whose wedding fantasies are so removed from the realm of possibility that disappointment is the inevitable outcome. Here are a few examples.

  • Outdoor weddings in the South during summer – everything and everyone melts
  • Weddings on the beach – frat boys on spring break live for this crash opportunity
  • Very young children as attendants – they invariably cry, run, pick their nose, or pee
  • Including animals of any kind – could there be a more unpredictable element?
  • Reciting vows totally from memory – they forget each other’s names AND their vows

Of course, all the careful planning in the world cannot prevent the occasional catastrophe. I have heard photographers stumble and crumble down the steps and land loudly in the bottom of an empty fiberglass baptismal pool ten feet behind the altar where the minister is rendering an eloquent blessing for the couple. We have all seen, either in videos or in real time, members of the wedding party fall out on the floor after locking their knees and fainting. I have seen my share of wardrobe malfunctions, coughing or sneezing fits, uncontrollable nervous laughter, power outages, and the all-too-familiar dropped wedding bands rolling down the center aisle of the church.

One of the funniest mishaps occurred at an outdoor wedding back in the 1970s where I was hired to play my guitar and sing during the ceremony. The weather was pleasant that day with no rain in the forecast. The venue was a lovely public park with a small fountain covered by massive oak tree canopies. The plan was for the wedding party to walk down a series of steps along an embankment leading to the lower level where the service would take place. A groomsman was in charge of bringing Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” on his cassette player, and the sweet, elderly woman serving as the wedding director had the responsibility of hitting the switch to start the song when the bride made her grand appearance at the top of the steps. We all sat and watched as members of the wedding party made their way down the steps without a single stumble or hitch. There was a brief pause, and then the bride, escorted by her father, crested the hill in her flowing white gown, took her place at the top of the steps, and waited for the music. The groomsman’s “boom box” was a state-of-the-art dual cassette player, and for reasons defying all comprehension, he had failed to remove the second cassette from its deck. When the director flipped the switch, instead of hearing the most recognized wedding song in modern history, we were all assaulted with the Blues Brothers’ rendition of “Soul Man.”

Is there one particular wedding disaster that rises to the top of the pile in my memory? Well, of course there is. I was hired to play the guitar and sing two songs for another outdoor wedding at a National Historic Landmark in middle Georgia. It was late July.  At 6:00 p.m. when the ceremony began, it was hot and humid enough to wilt silk flowers. The wedding party was large, and they all had to walk across an expansive grassy lawn. The minister decided that weddings, like all religious services, are an opportunity to give an abbreviated version of the gospel message, which he did with all the fervor of a tent-revival preacher. My musical contribution was to take place after the exchange of rings, and my cue was the release of two white doves from behind a drape that served as the backdrop for the minister and the bride and groom. Just before most of the guests expired from heat exhaustion, the rings were exchanged with the appropriate promises and proclamations. I waited for the doves to ascend to the scorched heavens. And I waited. The guests began to turn to one another, realizing that someone had dropped the ball. I felt several hundred eyes staring at me as I sat on my little stool over to the side nervously waiting for an aviary extravaganza to commence. As my face began to turn an even brighter shade of red, I saw a young man come running from behind the drape, around a long privet hedge. He skidded to a stop beside me, leaned over, and whispered loudly, “The doves died! Sing the damn song!”

Southern Word of the Day (Part 4)

Here is the latest installment of my favorite Southern words, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Ratified.  Usage: “I could have killed that ratified had my pistol with me in the kitchen.”

Fertilize.  Usage: “Earl’s gonna pay dearly fertilize he’s been telling about Billy Bob and Charlene.”

Barn.  Usage: “Times have been tough lately, and we’ve been barn money from my parents just to make payments on the truck.”

Bayou.  Usage: “Do you mind if I sit bayou at Thanksgiving dinner?”

Canopy.  Usage: “I know we’re in a hurry, but canopy before we go?”

Nominee.  Usage: “I fell off the four-wheeler and nominee is swollen and hurts something awful.”

Doctorate.  Usage: “Billy Bob cut his hand, and Charlene needs to doctorate before it gets infected.”

Commodious.  Usage: “Quick! Somebody run in there and tell Billy Bob that the commodious on is clogged up!”

Shawls.  Usage: “This casserole dish left from homecoming at the church last Sunday isn’t ours, so I guess its shawls.”

Automated.  Usage: “It’s almost midnight. Billy Bob and Charlene automated home by now.”

Benefited.  Usage: “Billy Bob’s already benefited for his tux, and he’s a-getting real excited about being the best man at my wedding.”

Coffin.  Usage: “This summer cold has got me coffin up a storm!”

Southern Word of the Day (Part 3)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 2)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 1)

Election Obsession

You might have election obsession (with all kinds of apologies to Mr. Foxworthy):

If 9 out of every 10 posts you share on your Facebook page are “breaking news” stories designed to “expose” the “truth” about one of the candidates, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you can’t have a conversation about something as benign as your last vacation without eventually referring to a political party or a candidate, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If your Facebook page has turned into a news feed from sources that have titles including words like liberal, conservative, left, right, progressive, or patriot, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you are convinced that everything that is wrong with America is embodied in one candidate while everything that could be right about the country can be achieved through the efforts of the other candidate, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If photos of candidates show up on your Facebook feed more often than your family members or your pets, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

If you know more about the personal life and background of a candidate than you do about some of your best friends, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

And finally, if you have contemplated leaving the country if your candidate of choice doesn’t win, yoooouuuu might have election obsession.

Southern Word of the Day (Part 3)

Here is the latest installment of my favorite Southern words, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Iota.  Usage: “Just heard from the accountant that iota IRS some more money for 2015.”

Fawn.  Usage: “I never woulda believed it could happen, but I think Billy Bob is fawn in love with Charlene.”

Defensive.  Usage: “The deer ain’t able to jump defensive you make it high enough.”

Napkin.  Usage: “If I get drowsy after lunch, taking a quick napkin usually get me through the rest of the day.”

Conjure.  Usage: “Billy Bob, I can’t believe you conjure way out of going shopping with Charlene this weekend. What kinda story did you make up this time?”

Urinal.  Usage:  “Charlene heard about us going out last night, Billy Bob, and now urinal lot of trouble dude.”

Foamy.  Usage: “It’s gettin’ cold in here.  How about shuttin’ that door foamy.”

Avenue.  Usage: “I heard they avenue ride at the fair this year that’s making everybody puke!”

Southern Word of the Day (Part 2)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 1)