Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Something about Christmas and a new decade

There’s something about Christmas [--] maybe it’s the long, cold nights in front of the fire with family and friends, or maybe it’s the holiday’s proximity to the end of the year [--] that makes us contemplative. Seeing folks we haven’t spent time with in a while tends to bring back long forgotten memories. We like to sit around with our coffee or eggnog and remember Christmases past. And being older often enables us to assign meaning to the events of our past lives.
At least, the collision of memories with the extended time spent with friends and family has that effect on me.
Watching some of my younger family members [--] who shall remain anonymous [--] open their abundant and extravagant gifts on Christmas morning, I realized how lucky I am to have grown up, if not poor, then certainly on the cusp.
The best thing about growing up near poor (I’m sure this is horrifying my mother) is that we didn’t know we weren’t rich. Because we had good food on the table, sneakers and a safe neighborhood to run in with other kids of like circumstances we thought life was perfect.
Thinking back now, I realize we were right. The extravagances we didn’t have, we didn’t miss.
Cell phones? My next door neighbor Jack Roper and I had tin cans connected by a string, one in his room, the other in mine, that we talked to each other on in the wee hours of the night when our parents had finally made us go inside. Our conversations were at least as important as those that kids text 24 hours a day now:
“What are you doing? Are you sleepy? What are you going to wear to school? What can we do tomorrow? Have you finished your homework?”
Like Scout and Jem in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the four Roper boys and I even had a hole in a tree where we left secret messages of vital importance: “Meet me by the pecan tree at noon. Bring candy.”
We had secret decoder rings from boxes of cereal, autographed photos of the Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and even Superman (George Reeves); invisible ink, Whoopee cushions, real metal jacks, caps like Pinky Lee’s.
A Wii with “fake sports” on it? We got our exercise by running full out just because we could and it felt so good, playing baseball, climbing trees, jumping off the garage with a towel around our necks like Batman and Robin, trying to dig holes to China, chasing our dogs ... . Over on Chestnut Street, when Roy Beatson and I got tired, we’d sprawl out on his front porch with coloring books, while his older sister Carole kibitzed and futilely exhorted us to color inside the lines.
Laptop computer? We had notebooks [--] the kind with lined paper [--] pencils, the World Book Encyclopedia, rote knowledge of the multiplication tables up to 12 and infinite curiosity and imagination.
On Christmas morning, we were happy with anything but clothes.
Two presents from Santa Claus stand out in my memory. I must have been 5 or 6 when I opened a particularly large box and found a Dale Evans outfit [--] boots, fringed skirt and vest, hat, even a little toy pistol. You’d have thought I had a box of gold [--] and I did. No treasure would have been greater. I got my daddy to saw off the end of a broom, and Buttermilk and I rode all over.
Another Christmas, I found a brand new, blue bike under the tree. It was small and had tires with smooth, flat treads. My cousin Tim taught me to ride it on the sidewalks of Chestnut Street. He ran behind me holding onto the back fender as I pedaled furiously. Then one day, he let go, and I kept going, not knowing he wasn’t there. I fell a few times, but soon I was riding all over the old neighborhood. Punished once by confinement to the yard, I turned my bike over, and the front tire became the helm of a pirate ship.
And I will never forget that on the day Tim’s pet squirrel Tiny bit all the way through my thumb and I was sick and in pain (mostly from having my hand held in hot water with Epsom salts by Aunt Alma and my cousin Claudette [--] we didn’t go to the doctor at the drop of a hat back then), Tim went downtown to the police department and brought back my bike license. I didn’t consciously realize it when I was lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and wondering if my marble-shooting career was over, but that was my teenage cousin’s way of letting me know he cared.
At Christmas and at the end of one year and the start of another, I wish every kid could be our variety of “poor” [--] to see how our family and friends can enrich our lives and our characters, not by buying us all the latest gadgets and electronic games, but by looking at each other’s faces when we talk, doing the little things that make us human, caring about each other. Maybe that could be a benefit of the recession [--] appreciating each other and playing the Uncle Wiggily game on the kitchen table in the evenings.
The worst time I ever had on Chestnut Street was the day my parents and Aunt Alma decided I was too old (probably 6) to run around just in shorts like my male playmates [--] I had to start wearing a shirt. I fought growing up as long as I could, even after that. I still hate shoes, and I can still do arithmetic in my head.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Unsung pleasure

Mama used to sing "Old Rugged Cross" enthusiastically when she washed the dishes, as if Jesus died on that cross so we could have food on the table and give thanks for being able to clean up after the family dinner. Leading up to Christmas Mama would switch to the hymns of the season.

"Silent night, holy night," she'd sing or hum, as she stacked the sparkling dishes to air dry on the counter. "Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king" and a verse of "O Holy Night," and she'd be done.

When I was very young, I begged to wash the dishes. Mama would always say, "You're not quite old enough yet," and that just made me want to wash the dishes even more, as if it were a rite of passage like starting school or learning to ride a bike.

Growing up, we didn't have a dishwasher. I still don't, and neither does my mother. I think I know why.

Mama doesn't trust dishwashers to get things clean, and she thinks if you're going to rinse a dish you might as well wash it while you're at it. Like me, she probably doesn't even know how to load a dishwasher. Eat at Mama's house, and you can be confident your dishes and utensils have no food or soap dried onto them, and the glasses will sparkle like disco balls.

When I was about 6, Mama finally let me wash the supper dishes. Her only instruction to me was "You have to be fast as well as efficient."

As mothers often have over the years, she'd outsmarted her child. While I was washing and butchering "Old Rugged Cross," having what I thought was a fine — and very mature — time, Mama sat in her easy chair, read the paper and had another glass of tea.

It didn't take too many weeks before I found myself scrubbing the pots and pans and wishing them "on a hill far away" from the crowded sink.

Things have come full circle over the past decades.

Mama cooks a huge dinner on holidays to feed our extended family of 10, plus friends. Mounds of dressing, rice and butterbeans, macaroni and cheese, squash casserole, sweet potato souffle, turkey, ham or pork loin and all the other dishes we love weigh down the table. There are so many dirty dishes they won't all fit in the sink, and they clutter the counters. They have to be washed and put away in shifts.

Immediately my sister Cindy and I and her adult daughters spring up to clear the table. We start washing the dishes, and Mama says, "Just leave those. I can wash them tomorrow when you're all gone. I don't have to wash them all at once. I can stop and rest if I need to."

We get those dishes washed, dried and put away faster than any electric dishwasher. The glasses sparkle as they air dry — but not as much as Mama's eyes.

I think she's just happy we all love her so much and want to please her and spend our holiday with her — but maybe she's just outfoxed us again?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

New restaurant fills need, stomachs

When my dining companion and I walked into Simply Southern Bistro Wednesday night, we didn't expect a crowd. After all, it was the new restaurant's first evening open. Instead, there were few vacant tables, and four were occupied by people we knew.
And everyone had nothing but praise for Chef Jeff Dennis' food.
We were soon to find out why.
Not starving, I ordered the smaller portion of prime rib, which the Bistro calls the "Queen Cut." The queen in question must be Victoria or Harvey Fierstein, the cut was that big! The King Cut, I'm sure must be adequate for Henry VIII.
It was also tender, medium rare, juicy, and well, just delicious. The au jus was good, too, but the beef didn't need any additional flavor. Dennis' blend of herbs and spices for his rotisserie meats didn't overpower the beef itself, but served to enhance the taste.
I had sauteed spinach and marinated cucumbers and tomatoes on the side. Each was tasty, and the spinach was especially well seasoned, earthy, with hints of sesame oil, one of my personal favorite flavor enhancers.
My companion pronounced his pan seared duck breast "delicious" and "succulent," and his rice pilaf tender and flavorful (He also had the spinach).
The Bistro's wine list is short, but good, with moderately priced selections.My Sterling Vintner's Collection Merlot was smooth, deep, fruity with a slight oak overtone.
The Mirassou pinot noir was a good match for my companion's duck breast. A light, easy-drinking wine with just a little depth, but pleasant fruity flavor and a slight tang.
With the addition of fabric tablecloths and napkins at night, Simply Southern Bistro will be a standout among Sumter's finer restaurants. The food is seriously good, the service was excellent, and the medium-sized menu means Dennis has time to cook each dish to perfection.
We can hardly wait to go back to try his pork tenderloin, fish and grits, salmon, Low County Crab Cakes and more, especially the Bacon Pimiento Cheese Burger for lunch. The Crazy Burger, with fried egg, is intriguing, too.
Simply Southern Bistro is located at 65 W. Wesmark Boulevard, across from Simpson Hardware. Call (803) 469-8502.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bring your own Kool-Aid

Two things happened Sunday that somehow got connected in my head. First, I read an article in The New Yorker about how a Christmas stocking should be “all Cracker Jack surprises” but no food.
Later that afternoon I found a marble. I was walking through the old neighborhood and spotted a small, round, blue and white object embedded more than halfway in the ground on the right-of-way between the sidewalk and Hasel Street. I used to get them in my stocking.
Every time I find a marble, I pick it up, take it home, wash it off and put it in a sock. I've got quite a collection, even though this is the first one I've found in years.
I've been thinking about marbles a lot lately. When I pass 13 Chestnut on my strolls, I look toward the back right corner of the house and picture the bare dirt where the gang used to play.
Sometimes Aunt Alma would sweep the area, the flattest we could find in the neighborhood, and sometimes she'd hand one of us the broom to do it ourselves. Once it was cleared to our satisfaction, I'd take a stick and draw a large circle, then each player would put an agreed upon number of small marbles in the center. We thought cat's eyes were great.
Buckshot Bradley always used an old ball bearing as his shooter, and he was pretty good. My shooter was glass, like most of the regular marbles, just bigger.
We'd take turns shooting the big marbles off the knuckle of our thumbs, the object being to knock the smaller marbles out of the ring. Kind of like billiards, I guess. The winner was the player who had won the most marbles that way. Usually, we'd take back our marbles and start another game, but sometimes we'd play “keepsies.”
Now, you didn't play keepsies often with Buckshot, because you'd wind up with an empty sock, while his would overflow. He was that good. My cousin Harry could shoot a mean game of marbles, too. But you'd always be able to find plenty of stray marbles that fell through holes in pockets all around the neighborhood and in the old Elks Club playground on the corner of Salem Avenue and Broad Street.
Marbles is a simple game that takes skill and a lot of luck, plus some time to harden your knuckle. It also seems to help if you sort of bite your tongue as you stick the tip of it out of the corner of your mouth, get as close to the ground as you can, close one eye, concentrate and aim. The dirtier your knees, the better.
You never see kids playing marbles any more. I even tried to find a computer marbles game, but none of them resemble the real game we played on Chestnut Street.
When we've used up all the world's energy resources, and our computers and Nintendos don't work, I'm ready to resume those marble games. Buckshot's not around any longer, but I'm sure there are plenty of other baby boomers who'd be happy to participate in another never-ending marble tournament. The crack of marbles hitting marbles and of our knees popping as we get down on the dirt should be pretty compatible.
Maybe Rose Ford over the recreation department will get together a tournament. We don't even have to play for keepsies.
I'll sweep the ground.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Does it bother anyone besides me that we seem to have taken a shortcut straight from Halloween to Christmas? Sometimes I want to walk into the stores already bedecked with holly, decorated trees and images of Santa Claus, shake the managers and say, “What about THANKSGIVING??!!”
Some radio stations have already gone to their all-Christmas music formats, for heaven’s sake. We need some Thanksgiving carols. With apologies to Charles Wesley:
Hark, the hungry clan arri-ives,
Bearing bread and ‘lectric knives.
Macaroni’s hotly steaming,
‘Taters wait for gentle creaming.
Turkey takes the center spot.
Everybody eats a lot.
(And so on ...
I did see an inflatable turkey in a Pilgrim hat in the front yard of an Alice Drive home last night. It was bobbing slightly in the wind, its head swaying from side to side as if admonishing us, “Don’t forget about me! Don’t forget about Thanksgiving and thanks giving.”
Now maybe I’m a little bit crazy for attributing an attitude to a plastic turkey, but I tend to like my holidays one at a time; even if it seems this one is all about the food, there’s still the gathering of family and friends, the traditional viewing of the Macy’s parade and the nodding off during the football game to make the day special. And you don’t have the pressure to buy gifts.
Besides, everybody knows it’s not the Christmas season until the Hickory Farms kiosk appears in the mall.
United Ministries of Sumter County reminds us that there are many in our own community who won’t have the traditional Thanksgiving feast because they can’t afford it. Each year, UMSC tries to provide a dinner for 150 families, but as of last week, the charity had only three turkeys in its freezer.
Mark Champagne, executive director, said local congregations have provided all the side items needed; however, without a turkey or ham, the food boxes would be a little sad. He and UMSC’s volunteers are hoping individuals and businesses will be able to contribute enough to make the boxes a true feast and give some needy families much to be thankful for next week.
People will pick up their Thanksgiving dinner boxes on Tuesday, so if you’d like to help UMSC feed the hungry by donating a turkey or a ham, Champagne asks that you take them to the UMSC office at 36 Artillery Drive by noon Monday. Call (803) 775-0757 for more information.

There are actually some non-Christmas events scheduled around town over the next few days. On Thursday night, the Sumter County Museum presents its much-anticipated Carolina Backcountry Oyster Roast. This feast of oysters, barbecue, drunken collards and more is a perennial hit with Sumter’s oyster lovers, and the proceeds benefit the museum. There may be a few tickets left. Call the museum at (803) 775-0908.

If oysters aren’t your thing, check out the Morris College Gospel Choir Fall Concert at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Neal Jones Auditorium. Admission is free. The college is located at 100 W. College St., just off North Main. For more information call (803) 934-3200.

Works by four of Taiwan’s most renowned photographers go on exhibit at the Patriot Hall Galleries on Friday. These photographs are noteworthy both for their artistry and for their insights into the culture, history and landscape of Taiwan. Friday night’s opening reception from 5:30-7:30 p.m. is free and open to the public.

Sumter’s House of Classic Movies presents Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife” at the Sumter Opera House. Grant plays an angel named Dudley, and David Niven and Loretta Young are the bishop and his wife. There is some Christmas stuff in the film, but that’s not the central focus of this classic. The movie starts at 7:30 p.m., and the admission of $2.50 benefits the children’s department at the Sumter County Library. Call (803) 436-2640 for more information.
Saturday brings the fall edition of the community’s indoor garage sale at the Sumter County Exhibition Center, 700 W. Liberty St. It starts at 8 a.m. and continues until 2 p.m. There are thousands of bargains to be had, and it’s still not too late to get your own table to sell your treasures. Just call (803) 436-2270 for more information.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Books a'plenty!

Holy cow, I'm just rolling in books like Donald Duck's Uncle Scrooge rolls in his piles and piles of money!
And who's richer?
I think I am, because I got so many great deals at the Friends of the Library book sale. It was a dilemma at first, because I couldn't decide what to read first. I got a great hard cover book on the history of women in comic strips, which is fun to read and look at, but also gives great insight into our changing society. From almost no political correctness to perhaps too much?
The sale offers a great opportunity to try those authors you haven't invested in yet because of the high price of books. I've got a David Baldacci mystery in addition to several by one of my favorite mystery writers, Jonathan Kellerman.
I also picked up a couple of classics to fill in some spots in my home library, Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Alice Munro short stories, poetry by Bennie Sinclair and Robinson Jeffers, a '70s book on contemporary S.C. artists, including Robert Courtright and Jasper Johns, some Roald Dahl and a ton more, and I only spent $14.50.
I'll be back at the Sumter mall next weekend to get more. The sale goes on Friday night and during the day on Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday, you can fill a grocery bag for just $4. And they keep adding books to the tables each day.
Now back to my anthology of MAD magazines Spy vs. Spy ...

Friday, October 23, 2009

if music be the food of love, let Pandolfi play it!

What a treat from USC Sumter today! Along with an impressive crowd of USC students, faculty and staff, plus lots of us civilians, pianist Thomas Pandolfi put on a master class of virtuosity in the Nettles Auditorium. Billed as a lecture-recital, the concert was more recital than lecture because of time comstraints; however, Pandolfi's brief remarks about each of the four pieces were enlightening, interesting and even amusing.
When he sat down to play Franz Liszt's "Apres Une Lecture du Dante," I expected some of the younger audience members -- particularly the students who were there for extra credit -- to lose attention. Instead, most sat up straighter and seemed intent on listening to Pandolfi's interpretation of Liszt's fantasia, which he wrote after reading Dante's Inferno.
Pandolfi explained that Liszt wrote at the top of his composition, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."
"Of course, there are two interpretations possible," he said. "It refers to Hell, but it also might be a warning to any pianist trying to play. It's extremely difficult."
You'd never have suspected just how difficult the piece is, because Pandolfi's technical ability and his sensibility were both spot on in the diabolically technical work.
As I, a non-pianist, was applauding his wonderful performance and sitting there marveling at how anyone could play two such different and difficult parts at the same time -- one with each hand -- Pandolfi announced he'd play a Scriabin nocturne for one hand. Then he made the piece sound as if he were using both.
Three Chopin etudes led nicely into Pandolfi's performance of the solo version of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
He said his task was "to make 10 fingers and two hands do the work of 80 people" (an orchestra plus piano). And he did!
It was a foreshadowing of Pandolfi's all-Gershwin concert set for the Sumter Opera House at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 24).
I'm sitting here now listening to his recording of Gershwin's Concerto in F, purchased after the USC Sumter concert, and anticipating tomorrow night's concert. I promise you'll be impressed and have a great time if you attend. Tickets are only $10.
And thanks to USC Sumter, the USC Sumter Korn Trust and hostess Jane Luther Smith for such an entertaining and enthralling lunch.