Fiction

Sugarberry Summertime and Strawberry Pie

A fine mist dotted the kitchen walls, dripping like tears over the daisy chain wallpaper pattern.  Nothing ever escaped the humidity of Georgia in July.

I’d rather be anywhere but here. Jolene was probably already down at the creek dipping her toes in the dark pools that gathered under the banks by the Sugarberry trees.

There would be no lollygagging with my bestest today, Mama volunteered my services to prepare dessert for the evening’s church supper. An awful topper to a truly dismal day. On my distinct list of “things I’d rather not suffer through,” church socials vied for the number one spot alongside having a cavity filled and being forced to eat collard greens.

Resigned to my hellacious labor, I watch Mamaw rustle through the icebox and cupboards, pulling out a variety of things. Every minute or so, she’d stop to wipe the sweat from her brow with a hand-stitched handkerchief, then continue on until she assembled a mountain of butter and boxes atop the oak table in the center of the kitchen.

Papaw carved the table before he passed on to somewhere Mamaw referred to as “paradise.” For years, I thought Papaw up and moved to some tropical island like the ones I’d read about in our school reading. I sure hope he didn’t have any wild pigs to contend with, or nasty boys like those in Lord of the Flies. Some time later, I realized paradise was just another fancy word folks used for heaven.

Mamaw finally stepped over and placed a wooden rolling pin in my hands. “Now comes the fun part, Sugar.”

I couldn’t see any bit of “fun” past using the heavy pin as a baseball bat, maybe. Jolene would surely be up for rousing a team, lickety-spit. Thinking about Jolene conjured up visions of cool creek water again. Not fair that she got to enjoy the splendors of the world while I slaved away in this fire pit of a kitchen.

Mamaw’s flurry of motion snapped me from my melancholy moment. She plucked a bag of pretzels from her mound of ingredients, ripped it open and dumped them out willy-nilly along the edge of the table. What on earth?

“Come on over here now, Carrie Ann. I want you to crush them with that there rolling pin. Do you think you can manage?”

Boy could I ever! In my short life, I’d never been invited by an adult to do anything contrary to my Mama’s rules of etiquette. I was half-tempted to hug my Mamaw and squeal with delight. As I bobbed my head in affirmation, Mamaw smiled back before she turned to busy herself with some other task.

Eagerly, I jumped into my assignment like our tabby taking to a silver vine until a smear of pretzel chunks and dust blanketed the surface of the table and my hands. Stepping back to admire my handiwork, I was nearly oblivious to the sweat rolling down my back. Almost. As much delight as this mildly defiant act brought, I’d still rather be swimming in the creek.

Mamaw moved over to inspect my handiwork. “That’s a right fine job you did. Now, gather them up in that there.” She pointed towards a blue speckled bowl in the center of the table. “And when you’re done, bring them over to the stove.”

As she headed back over to the oven, I scooped the crumbs into the bowl. Sweeping them off the table wasn’t nearly as satisfying as grinding them to a pulp earlier.

When I filled the bowl and only a thin layer of the dust remained on the smooth wooden surface, I carried the pretzels over to Mamaw. A blast of heat from the gas oven instantly knocked the air from my lungs. Good Lord in heaven, no wonder it was so piping hot in here. Mamaw had the oven going and the front burner on!

I stretched out my hand to pass the bowl, trying to distance myself as much as possible from the blaze.

“Come on over here, now, and pour those into this pot I’m stirring.”

Inching forward a little more, I narrowed my eyes to mere slits to avoid the sting of the heat and deposited the contents of the bowl directly into the bubbly yellow liquid Mamaw swished with a long wooden spoon. Butter, from the looks of it.

“Slow down, child. A little at a time.”

“Sorry ma’am.”

“It’s okay, now. There. That’s better.”

Mamaw stirred as I poured in the crushed pretzels, slower this time, until the bowl emptied. By that point, my shirt was soaked through and drops of sweat nipped my eyelashes. Why in the world did Mamaw go through all this heat and hassle for a church supper?

I stepped back from the oven, but the room boiled up like the interior of a volcano. Or so I imagined it to be.

“What should I do next, Mamaw?” Go outside and fetch some cool water from the pump? Pretty please? Even pumping water in the Georgia-July sun would be preferable to this suffocating hot box.

“Go on over there and start slicing up those strawberries. Use your pretzel bowl to put the tops in and the white bowl over there for the berries.”

Dutifully, I walked back over the table and went about the task. The strawberries were ice cold to my touch. I wished I could bury my body in the bowl to escape the steam of the kitchen.

I cut berry after berry after berry and plopped them all into the mixing bowl while Mamaw hummed a Revival tune. She fiddled near the oven then joined me at the table to make a big batch of whooping cream.

She added something to the cream that looked a lot like cream cheese. Mama liked to spread that on her morning muffins. The concoction just didn’t jive in my 10-year-old mind but I knew Mamaw more-than-knew how to cook the best desserts on the block. Maybe even in the whole county.

Before I knew what happened, I was humming along with Mamaw until my fingers were bright red and my bowl full of berries. The heat in the room hadn’t lightened up one bit, but my mood sure had.

Mamaw slid over to inspect my work. “Child, you did a fine job there. Let me have that.”

“Here you go.” I passed the white bowl over. She poured a cup of sugar over the strawberries and tossed them in the bowl before ladling them into her pie pans already chock full with layers of buttered pretzels and that whooping cream mix.

When she finished, she let out a sigh that shook the windows and fell back to lean against the kitchen sink, waving and flapping her arms around as if to air them out. The effort only served to create another string of moisture across her brow.

“I swear this heat is going to be the death of me yet.”

“It sure is hot,” I readily agreed. Which continued to perplex me. Mamaw could have a simpler dessert. One that didn’t require turning on the stove. She could have even had Mama pick some treats up from the store and spared me the chore of helping! Why all the fuss and bother?

We both rested a moment and I drew up the courage to ask her what was weighing on my mind.

“Mamaw, it’s hotter than a dog in a pepper patch today. Surely, there has to be something else we could bring to the church supper. Mama could have probably picked up one of those fancy cakes from the store.”

A funny look crossed my Mamaw’s face and for a second I feared I’d crossed a line. I figured I was in for a scolding, not being adult enough to ask such questions, but the smile slowly spreading across her flushed cheeks spoke otherwise.

“Maybe, Carrie Ann,” she sighed. “But this here is a right suitable treat for the church supper table.”

Glancing over at the fresh strawberry concoctions, I had to admit they looked divine, although bakery cakes always suited me right fine, too. I still didn’t quite see the difference.

It’s what Mamaw said next that enlightened my child’s view and stuck with me throughout all of my adult life.

“Sugar, let me tell you. You can always take the easy way out. But, there ain’t nothing in life here worth sweat’n over, except the Lord.”

Who would have ever thought that being trapped in the kitchen instead of playing free among the weeds along the creek line would endow me with my most valuable lesson in life?

When times are rough. When things look grim. Or when I’m simply in need of a reminder, I recall my Mamaw’s great words of wisdom.

Then, I pull out my recipe file and whip up a batch of her Sunday best strawberry pie.

It truly is divine.

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Barb Webb is a sustainable living expert nesting in Appalachian Kentucky. When she’s not chasing chickens around the farm or engaging in mock Jedi battles, she’s writing about country living and artisan culture on RuralMom.com and SustainableChick.com