My Earliest Memory

It is very dark. I am lying on my back in my crib. I have said all the words I know but one. I cannot remember one word. I say them all again, but the same word still will not come to me. I try again. Mommy, who always tells me the word I cannot remember, is in the next room. I know that, because it is dark and she is always there when it is dark. But she is not telling me the word.

I say all the words again, still missing the one.

Mommy speaks. “Hush!” she says. “Be quiet. Go back to sleep!”

She does not tell me the missing word.

I am upset and frustrated.

Why doesn’t she tell me the word like she always does? What is wrong? How will I know what it is? Is it lost forever? What if I lose more words before she tells me?

I cannot go back to sleep. I think, “If I were big, I would help, even in the dark.”

I was ten months old. My mother recorded the event in my Baby Book, which I still have.

Dickie Conducts Himself Well

The PTA meeting ended and assorted parents and teachers returned from the Home Economics building to the Chapel in the High School; they towed the little children behind them. The elementary and high school kids were already there; we’d been treated to a movie. All of us waited to hear a concert.

That year, the Methodist Church of the North sent to Pittman Center a bonus teacher, a second music teacher. Poor Miss Wakeman must have felt sad indeed to think the Elders had to send another music teacher, because for years she had been the only one needed. But there we were, graced with Ms. Yokum. Miss Wakeman continued to teach the high school chorus. She gave me piano lessons as well, but I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what she did with the rest of her time.

Ms. Yokum directed the marching band (another quite wonderful story, indeed). She taught some music over in the elementary school as well, especially a rhythm band. And that is where we came in, that night.  For our concert. The rhythm band soon would play.

The parents, little tykes in hand and still talking to each other, came into the Chapel and found seats in a clutch. The elementary students ran down to the front rows. They flapped the seats up and down, moved from one to another, not sure of the greater importance: to be able to see better, or to be next to the most popular person. Seventh and eighth graders inched in almost sideways. They had no difficulty with that question—obviously, proximity to the popular person held priority, but who was it, that minute? The young adults of high school age either sauntered in alone, as they looked for prey, or oozed through the door molded together, already hunted down and lost—they thought—forever. Finally, the faculty closed ranks and shut the doors to signal silence.

All eyes front. Silence ruled beyond the dark, dusty curtain. I’d been there in that beyond; I knew the floorboards creaked, the dust rose up and filled your nostrils, the curtain actually stunk. But when it opened…. When it opened….  It didn’t matter….  You were….  On stage!

Creak. Groan. The curtain slowly rose. Two rows of chairs stretched primly across the stage, eight chairs in each row. A music stand stood before the rows. It seemed so short, that music stand. Not on a long stem, like the one at the festival in Knoxville….  Shhh…. Rustling off to our left. Here they came!  The Rhythm Band.

Sixteen elementary school students. Tambourines, tom toms, sticks, rattles—all those little things I do not know what they are called. I had never been in a rhythm band. Each kid stood before a chair, silent. When they were all in place, somber, the final kid walked in. Eight-year old Dickie. In The Blue Suit, with the white shirt I’d ironed that afternoon and the red bow tie, and not a golden blond hair out of place. He looked so somber, so dignified, so smooth, you would think he wore a tuxedo. He strode up to the music stand, dipped his head, lifted his hands, held them up, and then lowered them until his band all were seated.

I had goose-bumps on my arms so big my sleeves trembled.

It was one of the few times that Chapel knew absolute silence. When he felt sure, Dickie raised his arms again. The members of the band stood and lifted up their instruments. At exactly the right moment, Dickie made that little flick of his wrist, and the music began.

Music it was! I sit here now, fifty-seven years later, to tell you I have been in great concert halls. I have heard famous people play famous music. I have seen famous conductors. I have even sung under the direction of one of them and been good friends with another. But I have never seen nor heard a more professionally conducted performance in my life.

Dickie, that Golden Boy brother of mine, had music in his soul. It had to pour through his veins and filter through his bones as it did through those of our father and it does through mine. I do not know about my other brothers. They do not speak of this, and none of them have acted on it. I know only what I saw that night. Dickie had found his element. Not only did he stand and wave his baton, he called in individual instruments and players. He leaned into the task; he begged them for more. He held out his hand to a section, to ask them to show restraint, and his restraint evinced perfection. When the time came to go a little bit faster, he enthused (he would!), and they all were happy together.

At the end of the third piece, he bowed to the band and seated them, then turned to us, his audience. He bowed with such courtliness we found it impossible to believe him anything but a prince. He turned and, with a small smile, walked proudly off stage. The applause of the audience of fewer than fifty deafened even the youngest among us.

After an hour, my sleeves relaxed and my cheeks were dry. I sat tall and proud of that Golden Boy. Richard!

The Best Fried Chicken

During WW II, before I grew old enough to go to school, we lived in a suburb of Detroit, MI. For summer vacations, we vacationed in Gatlinburg, TN. Gatlinburg then remained a tiny village. You could stand at one end of town, look up the street toward the center of town, and not see a building or person.

It took two days to drive just over 600 miles one way. Both ways, we spent the night at the Colonial Motor Court in Corbin, Kentucky. We ate dinner and breakfast at the Colonial Kitchen.

We always ate fried chicken and biscuits for dinner. My brother Jimmy and I didn’t know there was anything else on the menu. For breakfast, Jimmy and I always ate pancakes. The grownups ate eggs, bacon, and biscuits.

On the wall, at nearly head-height for a grownup, small shelves like sconces held Depression Glass bowls full of honey, honeycomb, and a few deceased flies. Waitresses used glass ladles to dip honey into smaller Depression Glass bowls they placed on tables. I always watched with mixed emotions. I wanted them to get a goodly-sized chunk of comb, but I wanted them to miss all the flies. 

Often, we were among the last customers there. The chef usually came out from the kitchen, pulled out the end chair at our table, sat backwards, and talked with my parents. He took the baby’s bottle back into the kitchen and returned with it warmed to just the right temperature. Once, he took Jimmy and me in the back to see a real restaurant kitchen, even the waffle machine!

While he talked with our parents, he bounced the baby on his knee or held Jimmy or me on his lap. He made sure he talked with us, too, so we didn’t feel left out or completely bored.

For me, the stop in Corbin was the high point of a long, tedious trip, filled with squabbles, boredom, at least one flat tire, several detours, and other uncertainties we children did not understand.

Just as WW II ended, my grandmother bought a cabin, outside Gatlinburg. In 1950, we moved to Tennessee. We didn’t have vacations, and we didn’t stop in Corbin.

Years passed. I joined the ranks of snobs who believe fast food is in the category of evils made up of bad health, bad ecology, bad economy, and bad sense. One day, I made a particularly rude comment about Colonel Saunders. My father whipped around and glared at me. 

“You mind your manners, young lady! You used to sit on that man’s knees and love it!”

I stopped dead in my tracks. 

I blush to say I’d never made the connection. It never occurred to me the wonderful man who wore a chef’s hat—who sat in the turned-around chair, laughed with my parents, bounced me on his knee and kissed the top of my head, showed me the wonderful kitchen full of what I would come to covet as cooking tools and toys—that wonderful man was one and the same as the Colonel Saunders whose image I saw nearly every day as I drove around on my errands.

I felt dumbfounded, more than embarrassed, and dreadfully ashamed.

I’m also so grateful I cannot tell you. I can admit I crave Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’d not been able to explain it, but the smell always stirred a vague memory I hadn’t been able to put my finger on. It had stared at me all that time. The memory is real. The craving for something I’ve always loved is real. I can go home again! 

The commercials are right. Kentucky Fried Chicken really is the way Colonel Saunders made it. I remember eating that fried chicken. It tastes and smells today the way I remember it.

Recently, I learned my kidney function is poor. I’ve changed my diet. I rarely eat animal protein. But I learned a long time ago moderation is a good thing. There’s not a single absolute in my life, except I do not have any absolutes. 

I confess. I don’t inhale, but I am again a KFC user!