“Some memories are realities and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
I can still remember vividly the incredible smell of plump raisins buried in the belly of my Godfather’s gingerbread muffins. These extraordinary muffins were baked in his piping hot wood stove oven in a tiny, very cluttered kitchen filled top to bottom with newspapers, boxes, and knick-knacks.
Saturdays at my Godfather’s house were very special. The day started early as I walked the half mile down the quiet country road, lined on each side with dense woods, a few houses, and an occasional open field filled with wildflowers. When I arrived at his house, he would be out in the yard chopping wood for the stove, no matter what season.
I would sit on the wooden steps just outside the kitchen, humming as he chopped and stacked one piece of wood after another – enough to last for a few days. I would routinely grab the smallest bucket of wood, take it inside and set it next to the stove. Then I watched as Godfather, so skillfully, grabbed the coiled handle of the stove lid lifter. I worried that he might burn himself, but he never did. He would use his shirt or a dishtowel and grab it so fast I barely saw the lid come off the stove. From my small bucket, he would push in one piece of kindling after another until the stove was good and hot.
All during this prep time, I really don’t remember Godfather saying much – he wasn’t a talker, just a worker. He was always busy doing something – all day long. He would plow the yard, chop ice from a big block on the porch that he kept in an old icebox, sitting on a table almost hidden amongst a hodgepodge of tools, old chairs, fishing poles, boxes, and bags.
Although he was, generally, a loner, almost reclusive at times, he genuinely seemed to enjoy my company. I knew not to get underfoot or be too chatty. I also knew the routine and stuck to it religiously. Our time together was simply magical – filled with familiar sounds and smells of our routine – wood chopping, ice chips flying against the ice bucket, banging pots and pans, wind whooshing up the chimney, smoke from the wood burning and crackling in the stove. It was all warm and wonderful and the best was yet to come.
To most people in our small town, my Godfather, “Uncle Arthur”, was one of those “Boo Radley” kinda characters from the story “To Kill a Mockingbird”. To them, he was an oddball of sorts, interacting with people in the neighborhood only on an “as needed” basis. Stories told around town about “Uncle Arthur” had him drowning cats and shooting dogs who wandered accidently or on purpose through his property. Just short of drowning or shooting, he was known to chase neighborhood children off in terror if caught taking a shortcut across his cherished land. I did witness that a time or two, or more. Godfather was not an educated man, but he was good at so many things. Without even a high school education, he never had any trouble keeping his home, his truck, his tools or food on his table. He hunted whenever the season allowed him to do so and grew all kinds of vegetables in his half-acre garden. Generously, he shared what he had with his sisters, a handful of associates and with my family as well.
My dad was a singer and was always on the road, traveling most of the year. In his absence, it was “Uncle Arthur” that took us to the doctor, to the movies, or anywhere else we had to go outside walking distance in this small community. He was not a church going man, but despite his reputation of perhaps being a little ‘different’, he was a very kind man. He only wore bib overalls, a long sleeved shirt, a cap, and boots. I never saw him in anything else. He was always a little disheveled, but he was always working. Right next to his kitchen was a really big tin tub where he apparently bathed at the end of each hard working day – drawing water from the pump right next to the back porch, heating it to a comfortable temperature for a moment of relaxation after being up and moving from sun up to sundown.
Music at Godfather’s came from the birds chirping happily just outside the kitchen window where he lived. My memory might be fuzzy, but it seems that the birds never left – they lived outside that window all year long, serenading us as we made happy memories year after year in that kitchen. My visits were confined mostly to the kitchen and the back porch, as it was almost impossible to maneuver through the rest of the house. It was apparent that at one time, the house was really lived in. The room where the tin tub sat had remnants of what appeared to be a living room – there sat a couch, a curio cabinet, and lamps that looked like they had been selected by someone with a softer touch. I had heard stories that “Uncle Arthur” had once had a wife, but grown folks never talked about those kinds of things in front of us children. For me, despite his being known in the neighborhood as peculiar and somewhat distant, “Uncle Arthur” was one of the most loving and thoughtful men in my world.
Back in the toasty warm kitchen, anticipating the highlight of my Saturday with “Uncle Arthur”, I waited for the magic to begin. With the stove nice and hot, the ice chips ready for our glasses of sweet lemonade, the real joy for me and my Godfather’s afternoons together began. Under the instruction of the master gingerbread maker, I gathered the sugar, molasses, spices, flour, baking soda, milk, and eggs. Godfather would bring the stove to just the right oven temperature – adjusting each piece of wood left, right, up or down, as if adjusting a modern day thermostat. How he got that oven temperature just right is still a mystery to me. It was like magic. As he poured all the ingredients together in his giant yellow porcelain mixing bowl, each addition of an ingredient released level upon level of incredible aromas for the best gingerbread in the making. Individually and collectively, I could smell the molasses, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. But the very last ingredient added was the piece de resistance! The raisins!! “Uncle Arthur” soaked his raisins while mixing together all of the other ingredients. As he added the raisins, they seemed to float endlessly down into the yellow mixing bowl. Their smell was so incredible that I believe he soaked them in some magic potion – perhaps some of that dandelion wine he used to make and bury in the ground next to the back porch. The finished product was an unbelievable and indescribable treat.
My magical Saturdays with my Godfather continued until I turned eighteen and went away to college in 1965. I truly missed those magical moments with a man who didn’t have to say that he loved me – he showed me, my whole life. And even in college, I couldn’t wait to receive my care packages from him – seemingly still warm from that wood stove oven in my Godfather’s kitchen – instant love from the Gingerbread Man.