Saturday, February 19, 2011

Southern Voice

I awoke at 5 a.m. the other day for no good reason, being winter and all and no garden yet to get out to early. I plopped down on the computer for a bit, read a little bit, wrote a little bit, then decided I couldn't stand it anymore and got moving.

I decided to make breakfast for the family before we headed to the White Mountains for a day of errands, hoping full tummies upon leaving would stave off the inevitable requests for drive-thru "dining," if you can call it that.

Upon entering the kitchen, it became fast apparent that breakfast would be a challenge - we were out of milk and eggs. And bread. And bacon. I was at a loss. Then I figured, "Well, what the heck? Who says breakfast has to be breakfast food?"

So, I set about making herb fried chicken and fried potatoes and onions. (In case you didn't know, if the chicken is fried but not breaded, it's not actually worthy of the label "fried chicken." Especially if it's "fried" in olive oil. How about we just think of this as "breakfast chicken," and go on, so as not to offend my Southern readers. Or family.) I resisted the urge to make spinach, too, because as much as I wanted to redeem my good mother badge by rounding out that greasy meal with something green, I didn't know if anyone would be up for morning spinach that wasn't baked in a quiche or folded in an omelet.


While the chicken was frying, at circa 7 a.m., my Dad gave me a call. I don't get many calls from Dad because he lives in town and I see him pretty often and Mom is usually the communications manager for that duo. So, I was treated to a rare call from Dad. He asked, so I told him what I was doing, and he immediately was smitten with the idea of morning fried chicken. He started talking about fried chicken and potatoes and pan gravy (which I did not attempt) and somehow that led to a story about his childhood in Kentucky with his 11 brothers and sisters. When I walked into the kitchen with the phone to my ear to turn the chicken in the pan, he stopped his story and said, "Ahh, I can hear it. Man, that sounds good," then picked right back up on his thread, and went on to talk with me about the book he's been wanting to put together for Mom for years, full of his songs and snapshots from their 44+ years together.

I tried to talk as little as possible during our call because this was one of those rare occasions when I could hear Dad's heritage in his voice. I don't always pick up his soft, Southern drawl because, well, he's my Dad and I don't think we often notice our parents' accents. Sometimes, though, especially when I'm hearing his disembodied voice through a phone line, I hear it. He doesn't have a heavy accent - we're not talking West Virginia or Georgia here (which are some great accents, I'll tell you what.) No, his roots are in the gentle wooded hills of Kentucky, and his voice is low and gentle, too.

I love when I can hear the echoes of his childhood in his voice. At these moments, I'm reminded that he's part of this big, good family full of men and women who speak with the same gentle accent. Who treat each other kindly, but still rib each other and grin in triumph when they bring up some long ago moment that the other person would gladly forget. His Southern voice reminds me of my Aunt Doris and Uncle Hay, who still live down on Grandpa's farm in Kentucky, where the creek runs through the front yard and the expanse of natural lawn (you don't water grass in this part of Kentucky) runs right up to the wooded hills that we know will mean a "check for ticks" if we venture into them.

It was down in Kentucky where I sat on the porch with Grandpa as a little girl and swatted flies; where the attic has that dusty old smell; where Lynda and I would move the crawfish upstream when we feared the creek was too low to keep them alive; where Aunt Doris would serve "dinner" in the middle of the day, complete with real fried chicken, corn on the cob, fried green tomatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy and blackberry pie. Where the floors creaked and Aunt Doris, with her never-cut, salt & pepper hair piled high on her head, would tell stories of "Mommy," my Grandma who died while Dad was still a teenager; where I'd see my Dad play basketball for the first time with his brothers, using the old hoop nailed to the side of the barn; and where, in the evenings, Mom and Uncle Hay would challenge each other to some serious crossword puzzle competitions.

All this I hear in those moments when something as simple as frying breakfast chicken gets Dad to remembering that even out here in the high desert of Arizona, he is a Kentucky boy, through and through. These rare occasions are precious to me.

Dad's that guy who commands more attention the quieter he speaks. He's the one who let's you know he's worried about you by calling up, talking first about general, safe subjects, then finding just the right pause in conversation to give you that one, succinct piece of advice that you realize was the whole purpose of his phone call.

On September 11, after I had phoned my Mom a few times, frantic with the news of the towers, and the Pentagon and the still unaccounted for plane that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania, I got a call from Dad. We spoke about things for a few minutes, then he said, "Honey, you need to turn off the TV for awhile and just go take care of those kids." I replied, "Daddy, I'm scared." And he simply said, real low, "I know." And with those two words I knew he really did know how frightened I was, how I hated that Adam was a whole mile away from me at his elementary school and that Mike was across the Valley working, and that I have always been afraid of war, and that I felt helpless and vulnerable. He really knew.

When we'd had a particularly uncertain patch with Tanner and tensions had been high and I'd been talking to Mom a lot, and could tell she was worried about whether I was as OK as I tried to pretend to be, I got that phone call from Dad. We talked about nonsense stuff for a few minutes, then he gracefully segued into a place in the conversation where he said, "Now, you know you've got to take care of you, too." He didn't say it, but I knew this was short for, "Your Mom's told me all the things you're contending with Tanner, the uncertainty and fear, the garden, the dang animals, the other 3 kids, financial concerns, Mike working so hard, and the fact that you're not feeling good either, but you aren't saying so to anyone. I know you have a lot on your plate and we're worried about you, and we don't want you to get lost in all this. You need to take care of you and pay attention to your health because there are a lot of people depending on you, but also because we think you're pretty important." I knew that all of that was woven into his 11 words.

These brief little one line directives are always followed by another unrelated comment or anecdote that inevitably elicits a chuckle, then he reaffirms his advice with a simple, "I mean it, now," which I know without him saying refers back to the directive or advice, to which I respond, "I will, Dad, I promise. I love you." And real low he responds, "Love you," and then we're done.

These conversations last about 5 minutes on average, and we don't do a lot of talking in between, even when we're in the same room. But, somehow, there is a whole lot left unspoken that we still hear and it's enough for us.

Dad understands me in ways we've never, ever discussed. I don't talk much about him and Mom, or my sister Lynda, because they are so much of me, and I don't know where to start or stop. But, I cherish them beyond anything I can express. I talk with Mom and Lyn all the time and derive such joy and strength and grounding from them. But it's hearing that low, slow Kentucky drawl over the phone line that will keep me going for weeks.

Dad and I talked the other morning, over chicken, about getting together and writing some silly, over-the-top skits and considering making the kids perform them, like Lyn and I did when we were girls. We promised we'd carve out some time in March, maybe go somewhere pretty to just sit and work out a plan. And get going on Mom's book. And I told him that I'd like to record some oral histories of his life growing up with his family, who are good people, every one of them. What I really want, though, is just to have recordings of that amazing voice that I can play back whenever we go too long between one of our talks.

There really is something about a Southern voice.

Love from the farm,

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