This time of year, when I set my geraniums on the back deck after a long overwintering, when I finally get my little pepper and tomato seedlings tucked tightly into their beds, when the herbs are all in a row in their window boxes like tiny soldiers, I think of my grandmother Muddy. She did all these things. Now I do. I think of her flowers, her way of saying things, the way she made peanut butter toast. And most of all, I thinks of her coconut cake.
Muddy grew up in Dooms, Virginia, of all places, just north of Waynesboro. Her father owned a farm, and when Muddy married, my grandfather lived there and worked every acre. Both my mother and aunt were born in the unheated front bedroom. Momma had a pet duck. When they sold the farm and moved to town, Muddy was so happy, just because the new house had a furnace. My sis has a picture of Momma and her sister Shirley from this time. They're so young, holding hands out in front of the old farmhouse. I wish I had a copy.
I've been out to the farm, which still stands. The big white house, the fields, the rolling hills of the countryside. It's beautiful. We never bothered the present owners to go in the house, Granddaddy would always make damn sure we realized he had worked every acre. "As far as your eyes can see!" he'd proclaim, sweeping his arm like a circus ringleader, or a salesman promising riches.
The farm is near a purple cow. Yep, you heard right. A purple cow. We never made a visit out to the old homestead without stopping to pay our respects to the purple cow. It stands alone on Route 340, the only remnant of a hamburger joint that closed in 1963. People use it as a landmark. There's even a Purple Cow Road. When giving directions, you say things like "Well, you drive past the purple cow apiece..." or "If you got the epizoodiks, go see Doctor Collier. His office is five miles past the purple cow."
"Epizoodiks" is southern slang for short, persistent coughs. The kind of cough you can't get rid of. Something stuck in your craw that won't go away. Except Muddy called every sickness "the epizoodiks." You've got a cough? Must be the epizoodiks. Sore throat? Epizoodiks. Fever? Definitely the epizoodiks. It was her quirky way and we loved it. Just one of her quirky sayings and ways of saying things that filled our ears with kooky music growing up. No one talked like Muddy. It was one of the things we loved about her.
Like, she always said, "Heck" when you told her an amazing fact or an unbelievable story. She'd put her hand underneath her chin, and as she listened she'd shake her head back and forth in disbelief, breathing out the word, "Heeeeeeeeeeck" every so often. As if to say, "Well, I never!" or "Nu-UH!" (which I'm too often guilty of). No, with Muddy, everything was "Heck!" It was her little way of letting you know she heard you, she sympathized, and doggone it, what was this world coming to anyway?
Muddy always spelled out stuff too, as if we didn't know how to spell. Of course when we were younger, it was a game to see what Muddy was spelling because it was probably something we shouldn't be hearing. She'd say, "You better drink that a-fore it gets as warm as P-I-double S!" In our minds we'd spell it out, see the letters, and register the fact that our Muddy just cussed! We'd yell, "Muddy! That's a BAD word!!!!" before collapsing into hysterical laughter. She'd laugh too.
And EVERYTHING we drank was a "Pepsi". It might be iced tea, Dr. Pepper, Coke, Sprite, or Mr. Pibb (remember that?) but to her it was Pepsi. "You want a Pepsi?" she'd ask. We always did. I remember her wiping down the oilcloth draped over the red formica kitchen table before she ever served anything. Swish-swish with the dishrag on the oilcloth. It's a sound from my dreams, a promise of good food to come.
We hung out at that table most of the time. Her kitchen had an old swinging door which creaked, and we'd walk through and tuck ourselves in at the table which sat in a breakfast nook, a tight squeeze. She'd wipe off the oilcloth before serving up cherry vanilla ice cream, homemade coconut cake, and Pepsi. Homemade. From scratch. Coconut cake. That cake must've had 8 layers. It was gigantic and light as air.* She'd serve it up, then sit on one of those high kitchen step-stool chairs that lived in ever kitchen in the 1950's. It was like she wanted to be ready at a moment's notice to get us another slice, another scoop, another Pepsi.
For breakfasts, she always cut our peanut butter toast into 9 small squares. It was something my sister and I always looked forward to on every visit. It was our special "Muddy" way of having peanut butter toast. When Momma tried to do it at home, it just wasn't the same. The peanut butter toast always tasted better in Muddy's kitchen.
When we were thirsty for something other than Pepsi, Muddy had one of those yellow, plastic fiesta-ware pitchers with a flip-top lid full of ice water in her fridge. It tasted so good, so much better, more special than water from the tap. And as she poured, she'd tuck a rebel strand of grey hair back up into her jet-black wig. Muddy had a long grey braid down to her waist, but always kept it pinned up underneath her "Jackie O-style" hairdo. I loved her grey hair, the thin braid she tied up around her head and kept hidden like a forbidden secret. I used to marvel at its length and always wondered why she kept it hidden. I imagined it growing and growing under that wig, the braid growing ever longer under that giant bouffant of hers.
As I grow older, I appreciate and adore these little epizoodiks of Muddy. Those little coughs, those little quirks of hers I'll never forget. I bake things for my family, my friends. Then serve them up on my own red formica table (no oilcloth) and sit on my high kitchen step-stool chair and watch as they enjoy it, and laugh, and talk. Always at the ready to serve up another helping. Or get them a Pepsi. I look in the mirror and realize I'm starting to look more like her which I find scary, and yet comforting at the same time. Well, would you look at that? Heeeeeeeck.............
*The last time I ever ate her coconut cake was my last year of college. I had not eaten it in years, and was too full on that visit from her other good food, but she'd wrapped up a piece for me to take back and enjoy later. On my first bite I started to cry. I had forgotten how good it was. It reminded me I was no longer a kid. It reminded me of how things change, how time passes. My own little Proustian moment...