An Amethyst Remembrance Of an Alabama Girlhood

I HAD forgotten, until I unpacked the box of small treasures that had come to me after my Aunt Margaret's death, about the honeysuckle plate. It was among some odd bits and pieces of silver, china, and linen that had once belonged to the aunts, who are gone now, and had become symbols of their world, which is also gone. On a warm, somnolent, summer afternoon, I unpacked the various pieces and placed them carefully on my dining room table. Outside, the muted noises of the city disappeared, and I held in my hands the memories of an Alabama girlhood with the aunts. It was time, caught and captured in what Emily Dickinson would call "an amethyst remembrance."

The honeysuckle plate, white with a patterning of vines entwined with pale yellow and cream blossoms, was not a piece of Margaret's china. I turned it over to see if the name of the china pattern was still visible. It was not, but instead, on the underside of the plate was a small bit of masking tape bearing her initials. Ah, this was the plate on which food was taken to other places, often to the homes of the bereaved for the funeral feast, an old custom that still surprises newcomers to the South.

First, there would be a telephone call. Then Margaret would say, "Take down Aunt Kenny's honeysuckle plate." (Although Kenny, one of the great aunts, was gone, her plate, like all the other things that had belonged to the aunts, remained in the name of the original owner. It seemed to me at the time that every object in the house bore someone's name.) Margaret would be off to the kitchen to prepare whatever food she deemed appropriate for the occasion: a church supper, a funeral feast, a welcome-home pl a

tter for a new mother, or food for those caring for an ill family member.

"I believe I'll make one of Bessie Kate's sour-cream pound cakes," she would say. "It stays moist forever and they have a passel of company coming. Her mother was a Frierson from Mississippi." Or, she might choose to slice a ham and bring in fresh tomatoes from the garden to be served sliced thin and sprinkled with fresh dill.

The food I most hated to see leaving the house, though, was Margaret's caramel cake with its buttery icing that tasted of brown sugar. A circle of pecan halves decorated the top, while under this sweet icing was a "silver" cake as finely textured as powdered snow.

Along with the plate, I now have Margaret's recipe for caramel cake, but not her talent for making it. And make no mistake, baking the way the aunts did is a talent. I can follow a recipe and even come up with one occasionally, but that kind of baking is an alchemist's art and my hand is not light enough.

Those ladies cooked in kitchens where fans turned slowly in the summer heat and the smell of honeysuckle drifted in from the garden. Those rooms were their workrooms and studios, rooms where they produced and constructed their creations. They used their time and their talents for the nourishment of others.

EACHING into the box, I lifted out a heavy, silver serving spoon. It was an odd one, not matching the "good" silver. It was Aletha's spoon, one that had served many a helping of her special sweet-potato casserole at small-town church suppers. At these suppers people would look for Miss Margaret's cake, Lettie's peaches, and Aletha's casserole that was creamy and sweet, filled with caramelized yams, raisins, and pecans.

After the supper was served, the ladies would go into the kitchen to clean up the remains. Calling out to one another, their voices were light as calling birds.

"Your dish is over there, Caroline. Did you have a spoon?"

"Honestly, Lettie, those are the best pickled peaches I ever ate! And so beautiful. You get the peaches from Mr. Culpepper?" Lettie would allow as how she had. "George won't even touch pickled peaches unless they're Indian peaches. He says only the red ones are worth fooling with."

Of course, old George didn't have to fool with them at all. It was up to Miss Lettie to drive to the Culpepper farm over in Pineapple where she'd fill a bushel basket with the small, red-fleshed peaches. Then she'd peel them, cook them, prepare the syrup, and sterilize the whole lot.

When handing Margaret the honeysuckle plate, empty and clean, Miss Lettie would say, "That's the best fried chicken. Of course, you have to fight those children to get even a taste of it. I think they ought to let the older folks go through the line first, then the children."

"You know I didn't fix it," Margaret would say modestly. "That's Polly's chicken." And everyone did know it. Margaret had the best cook in Wilcox County, but was generous enough to share some of the wealth. Polly's chicken was a blessing; tender on the inside, light, and crispy golden on the outside.

On the days when she fixed it at home, I'd go downstairs during nap time when the adults were hidden behind newspapers or stretched out under ceiling fans. In the dim, quiet kitchen that smelled faintly of vanilla, I might find leftover chicken tucked away under a clean dish towel on the back of the stove. On some days, there might even be one of Polly's biscuits left. But generally, leftover rolls, biscuits, and cornbread were taken out to the chicken yard.

Scraps left over were piled into a pie pan for Judge, my uncle's spoiled, liver and white Brittany spaniel. Margaret would stir vegetables, gravy, and bits of meat into a cornmeal mixture to make Judge's hoe-cake which she'd then fry up in a black iron skillet. It looked wonderful.

Judge was a leftover himself from the days when my uncle hunted wild turkey in the fall. When he retired from hunting, Judge got fat on Margaret's hoe-cakes and spent most of his days lying in the shade of the fig tree out back. His paws would twitch, and I imagined him dreaming of past glory days in the piney, Alabama woods.

I unwrapped Aunt Huberta's sugar shell - ornate, Victorian with roses - and her butter knives, thin and worn with age. Wrapped carefully in tissue was a small blue and white pitcher. I remember it filled with narcissus, sitting on a chest in Huberta's room that was papered in pink roses.

The cluster narcissus grows in old gardens in the South. It's called "seventeen sisters" in some places, and in others, "Chinese sacred." Its sweet fragrance smells of jasmine and lemon. Year after year the narcissus blooms in the garden and in the fields surrounding the old house. Planted years before, they are a continuing legacy left by women. They starred the fields and abandoned home sites where only chimneys remain to mark the passage. But the flowers return each spring to show that a woman lived a

nd gardened there.

N the bottom of the box are some linens; napkins, a bridge cloth, monogrammed pillowcases, white embroidered on white. As a child, I'd wake up and find my cheek monogrammed in red from pillowcases smelling sweetly of Argo starch. Some of these are so fine and worn that they meet the aunt's criterion of good linen fine enough to slip through a wedding ring."

The box is empty, but my room in late evening is filled with memories. I cherish the things whose only value lies in their past. Each piece calls forth beloved voices and sun-dappled days when I was young. Things in themselves are not important, but these frail reminders of lives lived and days spent in untold service to others are more than mere possessions.

When that generation of loving women is gone, we'll not see their like again. They were the nurturers and the caretakers. They were jewels; precious beyond measure. What we'll have when they're gone is an amethyst remembrance. -30-{et

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