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Grace in a Tin Can

After our editor's mother passed, he relied on his Aunt Mary — the boss of the Reece family kitchen — to show him how to live.

Only one house felt safe to me then, the one that belonged to my Aunt Mary and my Uncle Efford. From 1972 forward, it was a refuge right next door, a place where I could drop in anytime. Its own doors were never locked — not a concession to my need to find solace there, but because its doors had never been locked, a testament to the country life of North Georgia. Aunt Mary’s leftover morning biscuits always lay in a stone crock, carefully wrapped in a clean kitchen towel, a jar of grape jelly next to the crock, because a kid who walked in shoes like mine can find great comfort in a simple jelly biscuit. 

What kind of kid walked in such shoes? A kid without a Mama. My mother, Flora, died in February of 1972, barely a month past my 11th birthday. Her death from ovarian cancer was a torturous affair, spread over six months and three long stays in a hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It wasn’t until we were nearing Christmas of 1971 when Dad told me that we would all get to go home for the holiday for a few weeks, then we’d have to bring Mama back to the hospital and that she would, absent a miracle, die there.

From that conversation forward, I lived inside fear of the darkest order, so terrified I could rarely muster the courage to visit Mama’s room in the hospital, to hug her, to touch her, to comfort her — or allow her to comfort me — in her final days.

Mama’s funeral was like none I’d ever seen, every inch of the tiny church’s wall space covered in wreaths of flowers sent by those who loved her, who numbered in the hundreds. The church itself could not hold all the mourners that day, thus many of them stood outside the open doors of the church, trying to hear a country preacher muster the words to pay tribute to the love she brought to our mountain community. And everyone, inside and out, sang along to the hymns. The one I remember most from that day was called “Love Lifted Me.”

Love lifted me, love lifted me
When nothing else could help, love lifted me.

When the ceremonies and celebrations of Mama’s life were finished, it took me no more than a week to learn that Dad’s life had shattered into a million pieces, and that I would be left to parent myself. But when I walked every day to Aunt Mary’s and Uncle Efford’s, I could find the comfort Daddy could not give me. 

Uncle Efford was in his late 70s by then. He raised chickens and hogs, cured his own country hams, and was one of the few working blacksmiths still plying that trade in our county. I often helped him in the shop, squeezing the giant bellows that kept the coals in his forge glowing bright red. But I had always been a bookish kid, and I preferred the kitchen work Aunt Mary offered me. Her big kitchen was the buzzing heart of the entire family’s canning and putting-up operations at harvest time, even though glaucoma had long since taken her eyesight. She operated giant canners on her stove without seeing the pressure gauges; she regulated the pressure with her ears, the urgency in the sound of the steam. 

My fondest memory of working with her through the harvest that followed Mama’s death wasn’t the canning, but the most delicate work of putting up: the fermentation. That fall, I was still too short to work comfortably over the big drain boards on either side of her cast-iron sink, but Mary put me to work, anyway.

“There’s a little footstool over yonder in the corner,” she said. “Go get it and bring it over here by the sink so you can stand up tall enough to do this.” I did as I was told, and she presented me with a tin dishpan filled with fresh cabbage, each head cut into quarters.

COMPRESSED-cabbage-D50DEBBE-6303-4B36-8821-D3715F62AE9E

“I need you to cut kraut for me,” she said. With that, she grabbed a tin can. She had emptied the can with an old-fashioned opener, the kind that did not leave the rounded safety rim intact, but took off the entire lid, leaving a sharp edge.

“Be careful with that now,” she said. “It’ll cut you bad if you ain’t careful.”

Then, she pulled a pocketknife from her ever-present apron, put the sharp edge of the tin can down on a wooden cutting board, then unfolded the knife and punched several air holes in the top lid. “She’s blind,” I thought. “She’s gonna jab a hole in her thumb.” She did not, of course; she had done such work for years in her darkness.

“Okay, see here,” she said. “I made you a kraut-cutter. You hold it in one hand, and put your other hand on the rim of the dishpan, and chop up all that cabbage until it’s about kraut-size. You eat my kraut. You’ll know when it looks right.”

When I finished, I told Aunt Mary so, and she felt around the dishpan’s contents with both hands to make sure I'd done the job right. Then, she said, “Follow me out to the back porch now and don’t spill none of it.”

She sat down in her chair in the corner of the screened porch, the one opposite from where Uncle Efford indulged in his favorite vices, Kent cigarettes and Mountain Dew in green bottles. Near Aunt Mary’s chair was a stoneware butter churn, in which she made her own butter. She pulled out the wooden dasher and lid, unneeded for making sauerkraut. I watched her carefully take double handfuls of the cabbage and drop them into the butter churn until my dishpan of work disappeared.

“Now, we’re gonna add some coarse salt and a little water to this,” she said, and then did so. On the floor next to her chair was a smooth, heavy creek rock, eroded to just the right size to fit through the churn’s opening without being so big you couldn’t reach in and pull it out when the fermentation process finished and the cabbage became sauerkraut. Then she pressed a clean dishtowel into the churn’s opening and spread it around to cover the rock and the cabbage it weighed down.

Aunt Mary did not, that day, tell me one thing about what fermentation meant. All she said was, “We’re gonna let that sit there for a few days, and we’ll have some real good kraut to eat.”

Now, a century later, I still don’t know if Aunt Mary was trying to teach me any lessons that day. Maybe she just included me in her work because I was there, like I was most days in the months since my mother had died. Still, I like to think she did mean to teach me a few things she thought a kid like me needed to know, like the fact that there is healing grace in simple work, that activity alone can heal even the deepest wounds if you can just find the patience to let nature do what nature does, and that maybe — just maybe — a motherless child needed more than hugs and words of love to learn how to navigate this world. Maybe she thought he needed to learn how to sit still and just breathe, waiting for love to lift him.

This story originally appeared on Down South House & Home in September of 2020.

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