Oh the dog days of summer, so many years ago. Watching the lightning strike at night takes me back. The summers at my grandparents, the lessons learned and events that bring me here to where I am today.
Judging by the skies illuminating like a blinking caution light, makes me think the folks up around Brunswick must be “getting hammered.” That’s what my granpa use to say about the folks in Waycross in the late summers of my youth, when we were watching the far off lightning streaking across the sky.
Summer nights during the rainy season we would all sit on the front porch and watch it rain. For medicinal purposes my grandparents would sit and rock, taking turns sipping dandelion wine from a mason jar, that granny had put up last spring. “Taste bitter,” I heard Granny say, to which Granpa replied, “It’s probabaly just the iron in the water.”
I remember watching her brew up a batch in a two gallon crock pot. Dandelion blossoms, raisins, oranges, lemons and their peelings thrown in the mix. My brothers and I had picked the dandelions special for her at Aunt Lena’s.
Granpa was a farmer, his whole life he’s been tilling the red Georgia clay. His favorite saying was like a second breath. “Lord knows we needed this rain.” Everytime I heard him say it, I wondered what in the heck does he mean by that. I guessed it was because he wasn’t the one emptying all those pots and buckets and moving them around to catch the drippings every time it rained.
I remember some of those leaks were probably my fault. Granny took the switch to me for cussing when Aunt Irma pinched me one day. I shinnied up the drain pipe to the roof to get away from Granny. I pulled off the wooden shingles that Grandpa had nailed over the tin, throwing them at who ever tried climb up to get me down. That is until Granpa coaxed me into changing my mind, promising he would make granny put up her switch.
Soon after, Granny volunteered us to go stay with Aunt Lena over in Uvalda for a week or so. Granny and Aunt Lena were second cousins. Before she married Granpa, they were rivals for the same boys at the square dance. I guess the animosity lingered on. My cousins, Cindy and Linda were visiting and staying with her. Granny must have been mad at Aunt Lena I suppose. When we climbed into the back of Granpa’s old truck she didn’t kiss us good bye, rather she shooed us off like varmits with a motion of her broom, while she was sweeping the porch.
Aunt Lena lived near downtown Uvalda, just across the bridge. She had a 20 acre parcel, 10 acres on each side of the highway. The land around her house now a lush green meadow, once produced large crops of Vidalia onions. Her men folk long gone now, it just produced dandelions and provided a place for her goats to graze.
The other side of the highway she let lie fallow and it had grown into a largely wooden thicket. In the spring and summer she would rock on the porch and stare at the beauty of the lightening bugs and fireflies across the way. So many, aw so many. Their bio-luminescent glow would light up the woods like a bunch of fairies full of mischief. Much better than watching TV. Hundreds of thousands of the airborne beetles would remind us of the awesome power of Mother Nature.
My cousins were glad to see us. The more the merrier. Cindy was my age, Linda a little older. Linda was always large and in charge, she reminded me of Granny when she tried to boss us around. All she had to do was squint her eyes at Cindy and scrunch up her nose to make her cry.
Sunrise meant that the goats had left us a mess on the porch. Linda would see to it that it would be our job to draw water from the well to wash it off. I had gotten use to the taste of Grandpa’s iron water but I never could get use to Aunt Lena’s. I can still taste the sulphur. Just thinking about it makes me want to spit. The goats were all over the place, they came and went as they pleased. Aunt Lena, even in her advanced years would milk them to make cheese. We helped her turn the crank on her new churn until she turned her back to us and then we would be gone, off to play by the creek.
Goat’s cheese, yuck. I know people must have really liked it, because they would stop in to buy or barter for her product. Folks on the way to the market in town would bring her greens from their garden or when they killed a hog, links of sausage or a cured ham. I wouldn’t even try any of her cheese because all I could think of was the goat crap I had to wash off the porch every morning.
When it came time for a bath, Aunt Lena would hang up a sheet on the back porch for privacy. Then she would heat water on her stove to fill the wash tub for my cousins to take a bath. When it was mine and my brothers time to get clean behind the ears, the sheet would come down and we would bathe in the same water as the girls. We were told that we didn’t have anything they hadn’t seen before and that girls don’t get as dirty as boys, so the bath water was still clean.
We pretended not to mind so much, knowing that once we got our bath, Aunt Lena would tip the wash tub full of soapy water, over the edge of the porch to drain it. Then the ground surface would pop up dozens of big earthworms trying gasp a breath of fresh air. We would collect these worms and put them in an old bathtub we used for our worm bed, kept in the goat barn.
My brothers and I made a sign “Worms for Sale,” nailed it to a tree by the road near the creek. When the water wasn’t rushing past after all the rain, folks would fish off the bridge, we made a lot of sales. Just as soon as we had enough coins in our pocket to make a jingle, we would rush to the General Mercantile only a few blocks away, to fill our mouths full of candy.
My cousins, my brothers and I watched Aunt Lena brewing up a batch of dandelion wine, we wanted to help. She told us to go across the street and pick the dandelions that grew on the side of the road and just this side of the woods. I asked her why not just get them from meadow behind her house. She said that goats probably peed all over them and made the wine taste nasty. Then she said she “was saving them for our granny.”
She had us gather the blossoms on a bright sunny day when the blooms were at their best. Wanting to be helpful, we would grate lemons into what she called “zest,” the same with the oranges. We watched her add cane sugar and raisins, then slice up the lemons and oranges to add to the mix, along with a packet of yeast. After boiling the mix for a few hours, she would spread a cheesecloth over the top of the crock pot and put in a closet to ferment for a few days. Once the concoction stopped bubbling, she strained the pot and poured the contents into mason jars and empty wine bottles. She placed the jars and bottles on the shelf in her pantry without a lid to make sure the last bubbles of fermentation had escaped before she put on a lid.
Country people being thrifty Aunt Lena added the left over squeezings to the mix when she made fruit cake. It was delicious. Aunt Lena would hold up the jars to the sunlight and tell us that, “the best parts of summer, are right here in this jar.” Like works of art she would place the mason jars in the sill of the kitchen window, on display.
After two weeks of our lives without granny, Cindy and Linda went home to Jacksonville. Soon after, Granpa showed up with is mules pulling the wagon behind. He was coming to town to get supplies. Granny told him to get a case of mason jars and to tell us boys to pick her some dandelions.
Hearing this my brothers and grabbed a bushel basket and started to head on across the street. Aunt Lena hollered at us, “you boys listen here, there’s a lot more blooms in the field beside the house.” I often wondered if Granny could taste the goat pee or was it just the iron in their water.
Bringing my thoughts back to the present, after glancing up at the night sky, I thought to myself, “That storms getting closer.” Judging by the color of the sky and the frequency of the lightning strikes, those folks in Fernadina must really “be getting hammered.”