My ears perked up at the familiar thud…thud…thud on the staircase, followed by the slam of the screen door. My brother was fourteen — six years older than I — and we didn’t communicate much, other than to fight and say dreadful things to each other. But I could always count on him to indirectly let me know when it was time to go to our grandmother’s house for lunch. “Tom!” I’d yell, scrambling to tie my sneakers and get through the door before he was out of sight. “Wait for me!”
My grandmother and grandfather lived in our small town “down by the creek,” and even though it was only a couple of blocks, there was a busy street that I was forbidden to cross alone. Tom would allow me to go with him…as long as I stayed at least half the distance to the moon behind in case he ran into one of his buddies along the way. Nothing would be more humiliating to a high school freshman than to be seen walking anywhere with his dumb little sister. It was worth the effort to stay out of his way because at the end of our journey was the promise of a table full of the greatest food in the world.
May Blume Rainbolt and Grover Cleveland Rainbolt planted an “award-winning” garden. Each year they’d grow corn, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, cabbage, fresh mint, and much, much more. But best of all…they grew rhubarb. My grandmother was the best rhubarb pie baker in the county, which was proven by the stash of blue ribbons she kept “inconspicuously” in an old Ball canning jar on the windowsill. Oh pshaw, she’d blush. Those old things? I’m just saving them for quilt scraps. She even made her own piecrust — an art she passed on to me (for which my husband is eternally grateful). Come to think of it, the quality of our grandmother’s rhubarb pie was one of the few things my brother and I ever agreed on when we were kids.
Lunchtime was a real event at her house, especially since my mother worked, which meant I’d usually settle for baloney or tuna sandwiches at home. And besides, Mom insisted I was too young to stay by myself. I wonder what she’d think if she knew my “babysitter brother” threatened, on a regular basis, to hang me by my heels out his second-story bedroom window. I overlooked that since we always managed to arrive in Mamaw May’s kitchen just as she was filling the table with bowls of mashed potatoes swimming in real butter, pinto beans seasoned with country ham, stewed okra, sliced tomatoes — still warm from the garden sun — and cucumbers smothered with onions. Although peas weren’t a favorite of mine back then, I enjoyed the days I watched my grandfather gracefully eat them with a table knife. He’d somehow manage to fill the entire length of the knife with little round peas, then tilt back his head and let them slide into his mouth. I tried this once, to my grandmother’s dismay, and ended up spending the better part of the afternoon picking peas up off the linoleum floor.
More exciting were the August days we’d spend together at the Harrison County Fair playing bingo. Come to think of it, I probably acquired my taste for gambling — without the risk of losing much money — from her. We’d sit for hours under a dusty tent on the Midway, playing two and three cards at a time, and competing for valuable prizes. I suppose it must’ve seemed strange that I preferred playing bingo with my grandmother to riding on the Ferris wheel or the tilt-a-whirl with my friends. I can still remember the excitement of winning a rainbow-striped pitcher and matching iced-tea glasses to proudly present to my mother. After all these years, I’m still not sure whether the tears in her eyes were from joy at the sight of my gift, or from wondering where in the world she was going to store another set of worthless glassware.
My grandmother lived well into her 70’s, but in my family, that’s like being struck down in the prime of life. She should’ve lived at least ten more years, but a freak auto accident was responsible for her early decline in health. My main regret is that, because she died when I was in my teens ― I wasn’t able to truly appreciate and enjoy her company in my adult years. Still, I learned some valuable lessons. For instance, the best piecrust is made with vinegar. Yes…vinegar. And if we’re persistent, the true bingo professionals, like us, will beat the socks off the amateurs every time.
But the most important thing she taught me, is that sometimes, especially on a steamy,
evening, it’s best just to sit on the front porch and rock gently back and
forth in the swing.
Add a slice of warm, rhubarb pie…and it’s perfect.
Mary Cunningham ©2007