Friday, September 9, 2016

Neighborly


Our little farm is nestled at the end of a dead end road that is probably about a mile long and densely wooded. There's a good possibility that there are more deer living on our street than humans but since neither are often visible I'm really just guessing. Three other houses sit down at the end of the road and I believe there might be two others hidden deep into the woods at the end of long, winding dirt driveways. I assume a dirt driveway must lead to something or another but who really knows? I'm certainly not brave enough to find out.
We haven't officially met any of the other people who live on the street unless you count the couple about 1/4 mile up with the crazy loose dogs that jump out in the road and chase your car as you drive by. There's about 4 or 5 of them with a large snarling boxer as their ringleader. The woman just helplessly throws her arms in the air if she happens to be outside when the boxer leaps out in front of you. Meanwhile, you hardly notice her because you've just had a mini heart attack that has dislodged your heart and pushed it up into your throat. As you are choking on it you pray your car comes to a screeching halt so you don't hit the son of a bitch. This dog is lucky that it would be socially awkward to hit him right in front of his owner because he is such a menace that it has actually become tempting. A man who must live with the woman and said dog has actually given us permission to "just run him over" but we don't because he only yells it if he happens to be standing in the road when one of these incidents occurs. We realize he is probably just frustrated and embarrassed that the menace refuses to listen when called. And as tempting as it might be in that moment to lay the pedal to the metal, as fellow dog owners we couldn't imagine living with ourselves if we hurt one of them even though I've sometimes wondered if the world wouldn't be a better place without that boxer and his gnashing teeth and nasty growl. 
Naturally, these run ins don't count as "meeting" the neighbors and the people whose homes are in closer proximity to ours just mind their own business. In the first few weeks we would wave if we happened to be out front as someone drove by but our house is set off the road a bit and you can't really see well enough to know if they waved back. After a while we just stopped because it felt stupid. It doesn't bother us that no one has stopped over and I wouldn't say these people are unfriendly. Fact is, our driveway is gated and the gate is always closed. Not because we are unfriendly, but because we have three dogs and four free range hens and prefer to keep them from wreaking havoc upon the neighborhood. We feel it is the neighborly thing to do. Besides, let's give these people the benefit of the doubt: how would you feel if a Subaru Outback with New Jersey license plates came rolling down your bucolic Tennessee backroad? There goes the neighborhood indeed.
Truth be told, I was embarrassed about the Jersey plates myself because I didn't want these people to think badly of us. Jersey people have a bad rap and sometimes rightly so. Since I was born, raised and spent the first 40 years of my life living there I have no shame in saying that. People are different out here. It's a kinder, gentler place. Except in the isolated case of a loose, roaming boxer. I know when I see New Jersey plates driving around Nashville I gasp a little and say a quick prayer that if they're moving here it's because they love and appreciate this place like we do. I don't want anything about it to change and I will singlehandedly build a wall around Tennessee if I need to in order to keep that from happening. I hope you know I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. 


A few weeks back a small black pickup truck came languidly rolling down the street. There were two pit bulls hanging out in the back and an elderly gentleman up front who had a longish grey ponytail hanging from the backside of his baseball cap. He stopped at our house, got out and introduced himself to Charlie who just so happened to be outside. He shared how he and his wife live right at the end of the road in the exact spot where our street forks off sharply to the left. It's a tidy house nestled in a grassy knoll with a front porch and picket fence both painted a white that has seen brighter days. They have numerous outbuildings and a gazebo with a swing. We knew exactly what house he was talking about. Their place exudes a coziness that had caught our eye many times.

We were driving back from running errands in town a few days later when we spotted the two of them sitting on the front porch. It seemed like the perfect time to stop. They introduced themselves and somewhere in the introductions felt need to make mention that they are "just simple country folk". Maybe the black caftan I was wearing over my skinny jeans or the stack of bracelets on my arm looked fancy to them. I'm not sure. I may finally live in the country here in Tennessee but I still feel the need to accessorize most days. I did silently thank the Lord however that I didn't wear the navy maxi dress with the long caftan sleeves that looks like I should be serving drinks poolside in Palm Springs. That would have been a bit much. But fancy or not, it was without hesitation that they invited us right inside their humble abode because people here don't look at you funny with one eyebrow raised assuming you have an ulterior motive for being there. People out here still drop by unannounced to see how you're doing and invite you in to sit for a spell. Back home I wouldn't even do that to my parents or siblings. Back East you just don't.


We spent a good hour that afternoon chatting with them. Turns out they've lived right here in this pristine hamlet all seventy of their some odd years. They are as passionate about the state of Tennessee as they are this neck of the woods and they don't have to explain on either account for me to understand why. They have a cabin on 10 acres about an hour from here that they like to escape to because I guess that even when you live in a small village with just over 600 residents you must still feel the need to get away sometimes. I get it. Their kids are grown with families of their own so it's just the two of them in that sweet little house filled with over 40 years of memories and collected mementos. When they heard that this was our first summer without vegetable gardens the wife disappeared through the back door and returned with her arms full of tomatoes and cucumbers. I sent Charlie back down with a dozen eggs from our hens later that day. It seemed like the best way to reciprocate.
We've been back to visit with them again. Turns out the wife and I share a love of books and cooking. She's welcomed me into her kitchen where she's shared her well worn cookbooks and handwritten recipe journal with me. My heart skipped a beat looking through pages and pages of gracefully scripted dishes. We were standing over her recipe for Chess Pie when I told her I had never had it before. Like Southern hospitality, it doesn't really exist where I'm from.  I couldn't tell if her reaction was of pure shock or pity that I have been deprived of something like Chess Pie. She immediately went to the sideboard and lifted the dome from a pretty glass cake stand.
"I have one slice left of a Chess Pie I made." she said and then she looked slightly embarrassed. "Of course, it's a few days old now and I don't make my own crust anymore, but you really need to have some."
She grabbed a fork from a nearby drawer, carried the pie tin over to where I was standing, cut a generous chunk from that remaining slice and literally fed it to me. Like, actually spooned it into my mouth. I chewed slowly. It had a custard like consistency mixed with a crisp, sugary bite. It was not too overwhelmingly sweet and reminded me of brule but with a pie crust which in my opinion made it even better. For me, sometimes something very moist needs something dry to balance it. It was a delicious combination and she was thrilled I thought so.
Before we left she insisted that I borrow one of her cookbooks so I picked one she had mentioned was a favorite. It's nothing fancy or specifically Southern, just a soft cover spiral bound cookbook where she has lovingly drawn green hearts around certain recipes that must have proved their worth at her table. I thought of the hundreds of hard cover cookbooks I have at home with their lush photography, inspiring covers and was a little uncomfortable at how extravagant they would seem to someone who confessed she buys all her books at Goodwill. She doesn't turn her nose up at soft covers the way I do or choose cookbooks based on whether or not the images are so striking that they make her gasp for air or if the recipes use only the finest seasonal ingredients. She's looking for the tried and true ~ simple meals that not only fill the belly but end up filling the soul with comfort and a peace that all the aspirational visual imagery in the world cannot provide. Best part is, she doesn't even realize it.
Once upon a time I used to dream of spending a week or two taking cooking classes in the heart of Tuscany or Provence. Now I think I would sell my soul for a week spent by her side in that modest kitchen hearing the stories of our little village, growing up in the South and learning how to make proper biscuits and other classic Southern fare. And let's not forget that amazing Chess Pie.

Oh, and by the way they told us they don't often drive down our street. For one it's a dead end and for another there's those damn dogs. 

She also loaned me this amazing book about the history of our village. There aren't words to describe how awesome this is and how hard it will be to give it back.





5 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this story! It's so good! You're so lucky to find a wonderful place that fits you perfectly! I hope someday that we will too!

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    1. Thanks Johanna! You will ~ I know how much you love Montana but there's something ahead for you in CO and I can't wait to see how it unravels! Everything happens for a reason. :)

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  2. Love this! You know how much I love the south. It never ceases to amaze me that time really does move slower down there. One of my goals is always to become more casual. Exude an air of "it's okay! Stop on by" and then someone gives me less than nine months notice and I freak the fuck out. I think the big thing for me is keeping my house cleaner so now I want a smaller house and a bigger garden. And then of course a barn for china.
    Love that you're loving your new home so much. It's so great to have town history!

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    1. The South is truly magical. In some ways I think I was born just to someday live here. We've had a few last minute, casual gatherings here and by last minute I mean I had the entire "alternate" scenario already set up in my head so I was able to execute with precision. ;) I've gotten better in my old age, I used to be like a drill sergeant ~ my husband and children marching around with mops, brooms and dusters all cursing me under their breath and giving me the death stare all in the name of flawless entertaining. I'm finding that the impromptu times are also usually the best times.
      Speaking of gardens, I'll have to do a post ~ there's some exciting things about to go down!

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    2. and by best times I also mean because no one in my immediate family is trying to assassinate me. ;)

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