“An’ then this feller, he got drunk on the rubbing alcohol he stole, and he come up to the porch and hollered, ‘Let me in, or I’ll come in!’ And I let him know I had a shotgun pointed at the door. Mama was standin’ near the baby, and he never did try to break down the door. He just sat out behind the shed, and we could hear him just singin’ and singin’ until he finally fell asleep.”
My great-grandpa, Clarence Lewis, was one of the best storytellers I’ve known. Every Wednesday for years, my mom and brother and I would eat lunch with him and Grandma, and he would tell stories. I miss them. I miss him.
Fortunately, at a family reunion sixteen years ago in Camas, Washington, my uncle Dan had a video camera, and captured a two-hour storytelling session, so that years later, when I miss my grandma and grandpa, I can watch the video and reexperience their hearty laughs and their Arkansas twang and their stories. My uncle Jerry, who passed away much too soon, also makes appearances in this video as his goofy self, and I am grateful a hundred times over for that camera that day.
One highlight from my great-grandparents’ collection of stories is the tale of when teenage Grandma Elaine was house-sitting, and the family’s cow died. She paid $2 of her $20-something month’s salary to a couple of guys, to bury the cow – and they buried it with its four legs sticking up out of the ground!
Another good one is when a man near Grandpa’s home shot and killed his wife, and the men in the area got a posse together to go catch him in the nearby woods. They sent eight-year-old Clarence through the woods, on a horse, to tell the neighbors to round up their guns and get on their horses to join the search. My grandpa talking about how scared he was riding alone through those woods, knowing there was a killer on the loose – maybe just behind that tree – gives me chills every time.
Watching my grandparents relive moments of both harrowing danger and inexpressible joy makes me grateful for their persistence, their survival. They grew up in a time that wasn’t easy, but coping with danger and difficulty was just what you did, and they did. They followed the harvest (the income) north, they paid cash for every house and car they ever owned – they even lived under a tree one summer during the Great Depression. Out of their struggle came a big, beautiful family, with no shortage of quirks and imperfections, and with an abundance of love and loyalty and a survival instinct that is surely hereditary. We may not be the prettiest or the richest, but we’re overcomers, every one of us, who are leading worthwhile lives and have the luxury to pursue self-discovery, because Clarence and Elaine paved the way.
Today’s my 28th birthday, and I am thinking a lot about heritage and legacy; wondering what stories I’ll tell my great-grandchildren, if I am blessed enough to live as long as my family tends to do. I may never experience anything like my great-great-grandmother, who moved from St. Louis to California in a covered wagon, and late in life flew back to Missouri on an airplane. But I have a few mildly startling and/or meaningful tales in my repertoire already, and if, in 2075, someone wants to record Joseph and I in a park, the hope is that a life worth sharing will have happened.
In that spirit, I bring you a recipe from my mother, modified to belong to the other side of my family. Perhaps my Dilorenzo ancestors would enjoy something like this salad on hot days in Tuscany.
Cucumber blueberry basil salad with pickled cipollines
5 small cipolline onions (Have you HAD these? There are no better onions.)
1/2 c balsamic vinegar
3 hearty glugs olive oil
2 large cucumbers
2 cups blueberries
1 handful fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste
A few hours before you make this salad, place the cipollines in a short and fat container. Cover them with the olive oil and vinegar, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, cover the container, shake it all around, and refrigerate.
Peel and cut the cucumbers into large bite-sized chunks. Mix them with the blueberries and basil. Take the onions out of their marinade, and cut each into eight slices, like a pizza. Mix them into the salad and dress it with some of the marinade.
Here you have a cooling, inexpensive, delicious way to spend your summer… eating this salad for every meal. Throw some goat cheese and crusty bread into the mix, and you’ve got yourself heaven on a plate.