Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Plots

It all started when we were preparing to move from Memphis to New Jersey. I was determined to tie up every loose end and prepare for every emergency prior to our departure. I sent off for our marriage license since the original was lost before we left for the honeymoon. Notarized copies of all our birth certificates as well as baptismal records were also secured.

There was only one remaining minor detail. I felt strongly that we needed to select funeral plots before we moved. I couldn’t face making that decision in grief. My husband didn’t see the urgency. No problem. I phoned my Great Granny Watts’ cousin down in Cedar Creek, Texas. He was the superintendent of the community cemetery. I learned we could have four at no cost because my family had donated part of the land for the cemetery.

The thought of spending eternity in Texas inspired my devout Tennessean spouse to consider plots in the local Catholic cemetery, and we toured the facility.  The superintendent of the cemetery had a dark sense of humor and loved puns. When my husband remarked on the high cost of the plots, the superintendent replied, “Are you kidding? People are dying to get in here.”

We also learned that all vacant spaces in really old burial grounds are not truly empty; especially if they’re on an incline. Gravity pulls everything downhill. The headstones may be scattered across the hillside, but all the occupants are double and triple parked down at the bottom.

We finally settled on four plots not far from where his parents are buried. A man who had lived two doors up from us for 20 years was buried two plots over. It seemed an appropriate spot. At the time, I didn’t notice anything unusual about the surrounding headstones.

No one in the family gave the matter any further thought until two or three years later when we were all together in Memphis to celebrate Christmas. My husband took the children out to Calvary to put wreaths on his parents’ headstones, and Marie, the cemetery secretary, spilled the beans. Our plots were smack dab in the middle of the Irish gypsy section.

The Irish gypsies are a group of petty thieves who winter in the mid-south. They masquerade as itinerant house painters and specialize in swindling the elderly and naïve. The headstones in their section are huge and ornate. The women burn candles at the base of tombstones and drape them with strings of beads. They argue over the attentions of dead men.

“Well, there went the neighborhood.” My husband wasn’t about to put up with such nonsense, and immediately was on the phone in search of other available plots. And that, friends and neighbors, is how we were temporarily one of the largest land owners in Calvary Cemetery.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Orange Slice Cookies


I was in our local grocery a couple of days ago in search of Christmas candy to use as Bingo prizes. Those of us in our immediate family who are in town will gather for lunch Christmas Eve to exchange gifts, eat lunch and play bingo.

It will be a simple meal of beef brisket cooked overnight in the crockpot and a potato casserole and vegetable salad with plenty of rolls and topped off with chocolate chip cheesecake.

The bingo prizes need to be extra appealing because after swapping gifts and with extra full tummies, our tribe may either be too excited to sit still for a game or too sleepy.

There was an entire aisle of candy treats ranging from M&M’s to foil wrapped Santas. The comparison to what was available in the 1950’s when I was a child made me smile. Back then, we had peppermint candy canes.

Some families had small, table-top plastic trees with points on the branches where gum drops could be stuck to decorate the tree. Mother made drop cookies with oatmeal and chopped gum drops in the batter.

She also made bar cookies with orange slices. The hardest part of preparing this batter is cutting up the orange slices. I tried using a food processor. It created a huge gummy mess that was impossible to use in the batter, but it might help to spray Pam on the knifeblade

Mother would allow the baked cookies to cool before slicing and then roll the cut bars in powdered sugar. The finished product doesn’t look very impressive, but oh, they as so good. Mother always baked well in advance of the holiday and froze the cookies to keep the family from eating everything before Christmas Day.

But she always weakened. It usually happened on a Saturday night while we were all sitting together watching television.  She’d break out one frozen orange slice cookie per person. It might have not been the most respectful way to treat our teeth, but oh, was that frozen cookie good, and it took longer to eat because it was frozen. The recipe for orange slice cookies is included below.
Orange Slice Cookies

1 pound orange slice candy, finely cut                            5 large eggs

2 ½ packed cups brown sugar                                          2 C flour

Pinch of salt                                                                     1 C chopped pecans

Beat eggs. Add sugar, candy, salt, flour and chopped pecans. Bake in a greased 13” X 9” pan at 325° until golden brown and slightly pulled away from the edges of the pan. This is usually about 30 minutes. Cool, cut into finger-size slices and roll in powdered sugar.


Saturday, December 5, 2015


One of the discussion groups I attend recently read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, a Booker Award winning novel. Granted by the British, the Booker is one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of an upright, uptight Englishman who spent a superficial life out of fear of being embarrassed. He never stepped out of his comfort zone to get too heavily involved with another person. Love is a major gamble most of us make; usually more than once. It can be messy and yes, embarrassing. It was a risk this character wasn’t willing to take.

I recently had an all too brief visit with a philosophy professor friend of mine. He spoke of the next book he’s planning to write as soon as he gets his health and other academic responsibilities in order. The topic: shame.

This is one of those times in my life when all too many roads lead to the same destination: shame.

Research on my family lead me to a description of the Scots Irish. From the time the glaciers began to melt in the area that became the region between Scotland and England, the Scoti tribe, who would later become the Scots Irish, were known as a group of destitute ruffians who worked from can to can’t. They loved a good fight and didn’t always feel obligated to obey the law. They were also exceedingly proud. Their sense of self-worth was all they had. 

Pride seems to walk hand in hand with shame. The Scots Irish knew all too well they were the bottom of the social ladder, but the bottom supports the rest of the social structure.

All they had was their own innate sense of their self-worth which pushed them to the extreme in their labors and put a chip on their shoulder when it came to dealing with others.

In Copperhead Road, Steve Earle sings about being drafted for Vietnam. The “White Trash” goes first. The “White Trash” Scots Irish have been the foot soldier in every war this country has ever fought. They’re proud of it.

Self-consciousness and a sense of shame have held too large a presence in my own life. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Berkshires in western Massachusetts where I bought the most wonderful chenille knitted cap. It was outstanding with a great flower knitted on the side and a nice brim to turn down to cover my ears.

I wore it one time in Memphis. Standing in line for a sandwich at the local deli, I realized I was the only person in the room wearing a hat. A woman across the room kept looking at me. Or at least I thought she was looking at me. I never wore the hat again and put it in the clothes drive the next spring.

Now that I have a dog and walk in all weather, I dearly wish I’d kept my hat, but my own insecurities shamed me into giving it away.