I can still smell the fried chicken that greeted us at the end of our 500-mile journey from Cincinnati to Springfield, Mo. Our car – always some version of a Chevrolet since Dad worked at Chevy – would crunch onto the short gravel driveway of the house that was set too close to the road on East Kearney, about 4:30 in the afternoon.
Before the car stopped, my sisters and I would be opening the car doors, hopping out, and taking the five or so giant steps that it took to reach Grandma's front door. The odor of salted, spiced-just-right, crispy fried chicken reached the door before Grandma did.
We'd start our trip about 4 in the morning, the time Dad thought all car trips should begin. I would traipse outside in my pajamas, climb into the back of the station wagon, and fall asleep until the sun came up.
I couldn't wait until we stopped for breakfast, where I would collect everyone's toast and save it to eat later in the journey.
These trips ?189-144?were way before car entertainment consisted of DVD players, Game Boys, iPods, or other hand-held computer games. We kids entertained ourselves by arguing. I thought pestering my older sisters was a fine game, and I was quite good at it. But then Mother would put the kibosh on that by offering a dollar to the person who would be quiet the longest.
I never collected any money.
By the time we reached Missouri, I had renamed the state Misery. Even my Mother offering up cash didn't prevent squabbles. She would try to engage us in "pleasant conversation," but within minutes we'd be putting our feet in one another's faces or breaking the cardinal rule of getting into one another's space, which had been designated by drawing imaginary lines.
That was the way the whole trip went until about the last 60 miles, when Mom used her "secret weapon" – the one she knew would bring delight to all our thoughts. "I think I can almost smell Grandma's fried chicken," she'd say.
With that proclamation, my sisters and I quieted down and found the reason for being in the car for 12 hours: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, and coleslaw. And oh, yes, we'd see Grandma and Grandpa, too.
The smell of Grandma's fried chicken figuratively pulled us over the hilly roads of the Ozarks during the last leg of the journey. Fighting feet settled down, imaginary lines evaporated, and bickering ceased.
When Grandma opened the front door to the small house that Grandpa had built, it was as though we were enveloped in a world where the fragrance of fried chicken was perfume.
The smell caught onto our clothes and followed us as we brought in suitcases and blankets, and unloaded them into the two small bedrooms that would be our home for the next several days.
I can still picture all of us sitting around the table passing the platter of fried chicken. Needless to say, it was a time before we had been told that we all should be eating broiled, skinless chicken breasts.
I'd grab the drumsticks and volunteer to eat the unwanted crispy skin of anyone else's pieces. But no one honored my request as we all sat there, greasy-lipped from chicken that was crunchy on the outside and tender and moist on the inside.
It has been nearly 40 years since the last time we, as a family, drove to Grandma's house. Grandma's been gone 20 years.
About eight years ago, my oldest sister and I drove back to Springfield, mostly on expressways. When we found East Kearney, we slowed down as much as we could as we tried to find landmarks that would lead us to Grandma's house.
The Fisher's Hi-Boy restaurant that had been across the street was long since gone. Trucks flew by us at fast speeds, letting us know this was no longer a residential area. But sure enough, even with all of the changes that had taken place, we found Grandma's house. It was now a chiropractor's office.
My sister and I pulled our car into the paved driveway, got out, and walked to the door. We told the receptionist that this used to be our grandparents' home and asked if we could come in and walk around. The dining room was a reception area. The bedrooms were now treatment rooms.
And that was as far as I got.
I began to think of the cherry tree in the backyard and Grandma's solarium, where I slept. I could almost hear my dad exclaim that this was the best fried chicken he had ever eaten.
The memories poured over me like Missouri humidity. I heard the lilt of my mother's voice, so happy to be in the home where she grew up. I saw my sisters and me picking cherries and happily whooshing back and forth on Grandma's metal glider. I thought of Mary, the young neighbor girl who never wore shoes.
And I smelled fried chicken – that elixir of life that always brought my family together.
Today, if you mention fried chicken, most people probably think of a Kentucky colonel who used a bunch of herbs and seasonings to make his fried chicken. Many think in terms of 12-piece buckets or snack packs – and that is all fine and good.
But when I think of fried chicken, I think of a 500-mile journey through time that takes me past the hills of the Ozarks and to the little house that Grandpa built on East Kearney.