By Ken Root
My mother was a fast-moving little woman who had joy in her heart even though she kept it concealed most of the time. Outwardly, she showed the cares of the world as she worked from early to late, keeping a farm family together physically, emotionally and financially. But when we were going to have visitors for an extended period, she would cast off the stern exterior and become a delightful hostess. In my youthful memories of the Christmas holidays, we would get a telephone call from her sister, who would say she was driving over from Wetumka, Okla. It was only an 80-mile trek but that was far enough to keep them apart except for two or three visits each year.
Mom would clean the house from stem to stern and throw me out of every room where I tried to play. I would find refuge in a chair and watch her go by with dust rag, broom and mop. The house would begin to take on the smells of pies baking that mingled with the smell of a red cedar tree that dad had cut in the pasture and brought in to be decorated with bubble lights and ornaments. Mom was very careful with those items that went on the tree as there weren't very many and they held special memories for her.
Living in the country with few lights showing on the horizon, I'd watch for cars heading down the road a mile away and then see if they went on by the corner or turned our way. There were no other houses on our mile so most cars that turned north were headed to our house. My Aunt's late 1950s Plymouth would pull in and the cousins would pile out. That is when my mother's demeanor turned joyous as she hugged her sister and all her brood, which included grandkids and dogs. Mom was the youngest of her family and I was her youngest, born after 20 years of marriage, so my equivalent age group of relatives were a generation removed. It didn't matter as they would come in and explore the quaint Oklahoma poverty that contrasted sharply with their homes in Florida or Texas.
Once everyone was in the house, we headed toward a meal. This was where she shined as home cooking was her specialty. No frills, just good food from fried chicken to fried round steak with mashed potatoes and cream gravy with a few boiled vegetables. She would lament that she couldn't cook as well on a gas stove as she had been able to do on the old wood stove. I found it amusing that one would miss a wood stove and the work it took to keep it going.
There was no alcohol in the house but we would have soda pop. That was a big thing as it was in very short supply for the rest of the year. Dad would bring home a case of mixed flavors of pop that cost six cents plus deposit on the bottles. I loved the look of strawberry but hated the flavor. I loved orange but the real thing was Coca Cola. She would open the 10- or 12-ounce bottles and having a whole one, by myself, was a great thrill.
We'd finish the meal with dessert and that is where the deep dish apple pie would come out. Mom made her pie crust with lard, and she sliced tart apples that she mixed with brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and milk then laid the top crust over it and mashed down the edges with a fork. It was good hot, especially with a little cream on it, but room temperature later in the day was even better.
All during the meal and late into the evening, the visiting went on. They talked about everything. If you wanted to know history, you'd get stories that would go back to the teens and move through both wars and into the modern era of supermarkets and automatic transmissions. My aunt would tell about her first experience of going to a store with an automatic door. She walked up, reached for the door and fell into the store! Great laughter would erupt and they would move on to another topic.
My cousins, looking back, would talk of those visits to our home in winter and summer. One told me that it was the only place he could go where he wasn't judged. He lived with us for a summer when he was in high school and my parents made him a welcome guest and farm worker. He responded well and never forgot their compassion.
When the visitors left, after three or four days, mom was exhausted. The house was a wreck and she would sit down and remain silent for an extended period. I don't know if she was recharging or just trying to hold in all the good memories before she resumed life with Oren and me. The rules went back into effect as soon as the last of the soda pop was gone and the fried chicken and pie was eaten. We aligned our lives with the realities of income and expenses, dad's job, my school and daily chores on the farm. But we had a little more pep in our step as we recalled the days of joy when company came to our house.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.