Twins of a sort. She was born on March 25, 1925, to Tempie Savannah Taylor Smith and Jewell Smith who were married on April 2, 1924. Every two years or so thereafter,Tempie gave birth until she had a hysterectomy in the early fifties. I was born in 1942 when Mama was forty, the tenth of twelve children.
Although there was no shortage of family names since Grandpa Taylor alone had fathered twenty-seven children by two consecutive wives, few of our twelve were named for family. Annie Bell’s middle name was the name of Jewell’s sister, and my first name was the first name of his mother, Mary Josephine. Ironically, she and I are more like Daddy than any of the rest, including the boys.
We both got his looks, his build, his thin chin, his short hands and fingers (along with their arthritic joints), his sometimes-sharp tongue, and, mercifully, his love of a good laugh and a ready wit. We both are verbal learners, so a radio works just as well or better for us than a television. Toward the end of Daddy’s life, he had three radios: one for the weather, one for the “funerals,” and one for the Christian “stories,” which had taken the place of “The Lone Ranger” and “Sky King.” Those I used to adore listening to as we sat in straight-backed chairs which Mama had caned with White Oak strips.
From Mama Annie Bell and I both possess a love and sensitivity for young children—any young child—so strong that we will not stand by for anything we consider hurtful to one. And for our grandchildren—well, we’d take a bullet for any one of them without question. From Mama we also learned the art of making do in—in the kitchen and elsewhere. If you don’t have this, then you can use that. I’ve heard this over and over again about ingredients for recipes, about scraps for quilting, about fertilizers for a garden. We learned the art of preservation, something Annie Bell has generously fine-tuned for me because the abundance of summer and fall harvest season must not be allowed to go to waste.
Annie Bell and I do have our differences. When I told a friend in the eighties that I, too, had grown up as poor as a church mouse and that we were sharecroppers, she said, “You’d never know it. You’ve managed to squeeze out any signs of the country you had in you.”
What a pity, this standardization and burden brought on by education and college degrees. Annie Bell still has a lot of the country in her. She has a colorful vocabulary and pronunciation of words I’ve nearly forgotten from our family. A snake quoils up (pronounced like a long i); one grabbles taters; grass is as thick as hops; thinning corn with a hoe; turnip greens juicy with their pot likker; brars, not briars; tars, not tires; tote, not carry; lids are leds; one sleeps in a shimmy-tail and wears step-ins, not panties; one weighed a sack of picked cotton with the big or little peas (I finally learned peise).
I picked very little cotton: another dear sister, Lennie Bell, babysat me and Marie in a shady spot at the end of the field. Later I would beg my siblings to give me a ride on their cotton sack.
Annie Bell has mastered an art which I struggle sometimes to emulate with my writing: making something from nothing. After her husband died and her daughter built a new house with a basement apartment for her up in the country near Phillips Chapel and the intersection of Northside Road with Mormon Road, she decided she wanted some water oak trees like the one she had in her front yard in Northport. She planted acorns from that tree in Northport and now she has at least three water oak babies which are about knee-high started at her new home.
At her home in Northport when we walked around her house, she would point out to me what the flowers were and who had given them to her to root. She had taken several limbs from shrubs at my home in Prattville to root and they looked wonderful. She had also rooted hostas from that yard. She had a camellia from Len, a hibiscus and a trumpet from Ree, and day lilies from lots of sources. She never seemed to buy anything, including fertilizers. Horse manure worked best.
When she moved up into the country with more room to plant things, she wanted a few fruit trees planted. So after just a handful of growing seasons, this past summer she picked blueberries and the first Golden Delicious apples. I got some of the blueberries for pies and she dried and froze the apples for future fried apple pies. Her little orchard stands in a straight row at the edge of their property—the blueberry bushes and the apple tree plus two fig bushes (very tricky—must have a male and female in addition to a fig bee to pollinate the bush); a red apple tree, and a pear tree.
Judy, Annie Bell’s only daughter with whom she lives, dropped her off here two days ago so that she and her husband could drive to Destin to check on her brother-in-law who had a medical emergency. It didn’t take Ann long to spot Daddy’s old shoe last sitting on a high shelf in my small laundry room. I have kept a few of the old country things that survived Mama’s early demise. As the baby, I somehow ended up with the family’s cotton scale and the peise, both big and little. They sit there, too, with the shoe last which Daddy repaired shoe soles on, a small rub board Tommy used in college to wash socks on, a dasher from a churn—the churn broke long ago, some quart-sized blue canning jars with glass lids and metal fasteners, and some early Coca-Cola trays.
How quickly she recognized everything that was there, and we reminisced about some other things Mama used and didn’t know where they had “got off to.” Mama’s circular sifter with wooden sides that she used each morning to make several large pans of biscuits for her hungry family; the battling board that she used to beat clothes with or stir them in the black washpot when she was boiling them to get ground-in dirt from the knees of denim overalls; the big rub board; the old trunk that had sat in the sideroom all of my life holding the few remnants of our Taylor and Smith grandparents; the kitchen table with the bench made by Grandpa Taylor—how do concrete things simply dissipate we wondered?
Most of the time now she calls me Sister, and I call her Ann. She remembers more about the old days than she does about what I told her five minutes ago about making chicken salad. We tackled that project to keep ourselves happily busy in the kitchen while she was here. I had planned to make a batch and take some to my daughter, Teresa, because she loves it. We would bake some blueberry muffins and have a fine little lunch to take. When I called Teresa the night before, she had a surprise announcement: she had to make a vat of chicken salad the next day to take to Nicholas’s school. How fortuitous that Ann and I were poised and ready to take on that project.
We shopped for some chicken breasts at Publix. Bone-in, of course and skin on. That way we could drop in an onion, a stalk of celery, and a carrot and have a delicious stock left after we boiled the breasts. We would freeze the stock for soups, standard operating procedure for both of us.
I asked Teresa to choose a recipe. She had planned, without thinking it through, that she would used the recipe we always use with mandarin oranges, grapes, and nuts. We all three laughed when we thought of smearing two slices of bread with oranges. Not possible. The recipe Teresa came up with was from the Barefoot Contessa—a tarragon chicken salad. Tarragon happens to be one of our favorite herbs—I make my own vinegar with fresh tarragon and use it with salad oil for a simple, but delicious dressing. We also like the tarragon chicken at Continental Bakery. Since we liked it, I guessed Ann would as well, and she did.
The recipe called for baked chicken, but we ignored that suggestion and did our usual boiling. The addition of tarragon, celery, a little mayo, salt and pepper was all the cooked chicken needed.
But I can always gild the lily when it comes to kitchen projects. And Ann was right there with me all the way: we made two loaves of light brown bread for Teresa to use for the sandwiches. She assembled them right before taking them to the school early the next day.
Ann remembers the day I was born. She and the other children were sent away from our house at Bryce Logan’s place to Monkey Sanford’s birthday party. He was an old cousin of ours on Mama’s side. Doc Guin would bring his son, J.C., that day and ask Daddy’s permission to deliver me for practice. I was his first baby. Ann remembers coming home from the party and hearing me cry before they reached the house.
Ann has been diagnosed with hardening of the arteries, dementia, or Alzheimer’s this summer. She has a history of a stroke, and more recently a hemorrhagic stroke. She may lose a lot of her memory, but I’m counting on hearing the old stories over and over again.
One of my favorites is a story she told about her oldest brother, William Eura, who was just under her. She and William were walking with Mama to the spring to get some water down under a hill and William got tired of walking.
“Mama, tote me,” William cried.
“I can’t. I’ve got a bone in my leg,” answered Mama.
“Give me a pin, Mama, and I’ll pick it out,” William said.
We both had a good laugh imagining that scene again, remembering those we love now gone. We finished washing and drying the bread pans, cleaned the counters, took dish cloths to the laundry room, and made the kitchen tidy. Twins to the end, we would never leave a single dirty dish in the sink.