(publishing summer 2013)
“Survival Rules” Johnny, Arkansas
Johnny lived in town with her family on four acres. They grew or raised everything they ate: collard greens, turnips, lettuce, tomatoes, black-eyed peas, butter beans, green peas, snap peas, mustard greens, and kale. Fruit trees were loaded with apples, peaches, pears in summer and there were lots of berries. Cows, chickens and ducks provided milk, eggs, and meat, and one hog each winter was shared with another family for meat all year. Household trash was burned and mosquitos were kept away by setting rags on fire in a barrel on the porch and sprinkling water over it to smoke them out. Life went along with everyone working together.
Where I lived, the whole neighborhood was like one big nurturing family. We played together, fought together, loved each other, hated each other, all of it. You couldn’t do a thing without a neighbor calling home on you. If what you did was good, you got praise; if it was bad, you got a whooping.
I was taught nobody’s a stranger unless you make them a stranger. It didn’t matter if you knew people or not, it didn’t cost you nothing to speak, a few minutes is all. I would speak to people, but I wouldn’t make conversation. There you’re putting a little bit more out.
My mom baked pies a lot — apple, pear, peach, blackberry, and blueberry pie. If you came to dinner there was always enough left over to take food with you and you had to take a plate and a big piece of pie. That’s just how it was.
Canning time came every summer, and it was an all-day event. In the morning, my mom and dad, two aunts and uncles and a couple of cousins would build a fire in a big pit and put a huge crockpot over it. Someone would get the jars ready. We kids would keep the fire stoked with wood. We’d race to see who could peel a tomato or peach the thinnest and help put the fruit into the water. For blanching you had to move fast once you dropped in the tomatoes or peaches in and transfer them out of there as soon as the water got really hot so the next batch could go in. Then you’d spoon it into the jars. We’d feed the fruit skins to the hogs and chickens.
At Christmas we made stuff for people who didn’t have anything. You’d make what you could, maybe write a little poem or do a play or make a toy or a gift for another kid. I liked making macaroni cigar boxes. I’d ask the man at the liquor store down the street from school for cigar boxes and sometimes got to go home with a bunch of them. You’d lay out your macaroni and get your glue and paint, make the person’s name out of macaroni, glue it down, paint it different colors, and put glitter on it. People seemed to like that gift a lot and I liked to give it. Something else we did at Christmas was buy food and give it to people who really needed it. People put their names in a box and names were drawn for you to give to.
It was a whole new way of life when we moved to North Little Rock in 1968 and the message was be invisible.
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