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11/30/2008

A Gardener's Loss - Update

Update on my gardening friend, Ester, 12-6-08. She's holding up pretty well, missing lots of things from the house, of course. She lost all her houseplants including a very elegant aloe plant she'd had for 20 years. A few fans of this blog have sent contributions to the account (listed below). Any help, especially contributions of checks, going for building materials, are all greatly appreciated by the family. Thank you for thinking of them during this cold winter season. Jim

Ester Shouse is a lifelong friend and an avid gardener. Her late husband, Roy, took me fishing, taught me how to hunt for ducks, and many other outdoor things, when my father didn't have the time when I was a kid. I grew up with Ester and Roy's 9 children, we swam together, fished and hunted together. The kids, 7 of them still living, are all grown, some with children of their own. But Ester's house has remained the central part of this large family's world. Three of the boys, Richard, the oldest, Roy Jr. and Fred, the youngest, all lived at home and drove back and forth to Lees Summit, MO to work.

Ester, now 80, told me last year she had to slow down somewhat with her gardening. She had planted 500 cabbage plants and 200 tomato plants each spring for the past 50 years but this past year she had cut back to only 200 cabbages and 100 tomato plants. "I just can't do that much any more," she said. And nearly all of the produce, plus corn, beans, peas and other things, was all canned, or frozen for their 5 large deep freezes. That, plus the several deer, fish, squirrels and ducks the boys got, was a major part of their food.

I spent a great deal of time in my growing up years at the Shouse's house. When I turned 16 and bought my first 1950 Chevy car (bought with the $75 I'd made raising pigs when I was 13), I would often stop by Ester's house late at night before heading home from a date. There was always something cooking in a pot on the stove and I knew I was welcome to have some. It was Ester who taught me to eat hot peppers and it is to her I give credit to my love for those. My own mother made great chili, but it was Ester's chili that brought tears to my eyes and sweat to my brow. Whatever their household had, it was happily shared and I was always treated like one of the family.

A few days before Thanksgiving in the middle of the night, Ester's house burned. She was upstairs in her bedroom. A grandson, Byron (just back from Iraq) and his wife, Vickie were in another bedroom and Ester's sons, Richard, and Fred were sleeping in their bedroom. Roy Jr. was downstairs sleeping on the couch and it was he who yelled out the alarm that the house was burning.

All got out alive, thankfully. Roy escaped with his billfold and jeans, but suffered serious smoke inhalation and he was airlifted to a hospital in Kansas City. Byron and Vickie didn't even have time to get their clothes, nor did Fred or Richard. Car keys, false teeth, glasses, clothes, all were left behind because the house went up in just mere seconds. Ester's hair was singed, but suffered no physical injuries.

I'm posting some photos here, of Ester and son, Richard, in front of what was left of their old and very modest house. There's a photo of some of the boys sifting through the debris to find anything like car keys or coins. I took a photo of the canning - Ester had canned 157 quarts of tomatoes during the summer and I have no idea how much sauerkraut. The canning sets eerily on some newly built metal shelves that Fred had installed last year in the basement.

If anyone reading this post feels moved to help, the address follows at the bottom of this posting. They don't need clothes or household items, neighbors have been bringing those. Co-w0rkers where Richard, Roy and Fred work took up a collection and bought boots, jeans, etc. What they will need most is cash, to try and rebuild a house for Ester. It won't be the old two story place where everyone congregated, but it also won't have stairs where Ester might fall (she's fallen twice in the past year and broken the same arm, falling down some rickety old stairs from the kitchen). A new house will be built. Pete is a carpenter and cabinet maker; Roy and Fred are welders; all of the boys are hard working and so labor will not be a problem. But buying the materials will be a challenge. There was no insurance on the house.

Somehow out of the ashes another house will arise. This is an amazing family, a family I have been a part of for my lifetime. Not just connected by gardening, but in so many other ways, too. If you want to help, there's an account set up in Ester Shouse's name at the Security Bank of Rich Hill, at Rockville (MO), 320 West Osage Ave., Rockville, MO 64780. (You can barely find Rockville on a map of Missouri; it's in West Central Missouri, near Nevada, Appleton City and Clinton, Missouri. It's a tiny village of about 200 people, a very poor area. Once a thriving town with a railroad and a farming economy, there's not much left any more).

Thank you for any help you can give. Know that your gift is a welcome and badly needed donation to a gardening family who have lost everything and have to start over from scratch.

11/23/2008

Chili Suppers at a One Room School

The Ozarks Herbalist
for The Ozarks Mountaineer
Jim Long
Chili Suppers

It’s funny how the smell of something can bring back a memory long forgotten. You can pass by a person while walking down the street and catch a whiff of perfume or cologne and immediately flash back to the memory of your first date in high school, long ago.

The smell of chili powder does that for me, not remind me of a date, but of an event and a time in my life. One whiff and I’m reminded of the chili suppers at Taberville School. The P.T.A., an acronym for the Parents and Teachers Association, which predates the P.T.O., would hold chili suppers in the winter months to raise money for the school. Profits went to buy maintenance items like chalk, toilet tissue, floor sweep for the wood floors and coal or wood for the stove.

In my memory, chili suppers were always on Friday nights. We kids would have to finish our lessons and homework early in order to clean the room before we left for home. The blackboards had to be washed, floors swept and trash cans emptied and their contents burned behind the school house.

The envied job to get on that afternoon was dusting the blackboard erasers. There was always a race to see who could get their hand up first to volunteer for dusting the erasers, and everyone else wanted to go along to help. For some reason it was always a two person job, which was strange because we only had about ten erasers. First, you’d have to wash the blackboards with water from the well outside. Then you’d work on the erasers.

The job of dusting the erasers consisted of carrying them out in a bucket, then spending several minutes on each eraser, pounding two against each other, then one by one on the back of the school house. It was a dusty job, but made more pleasant because you were out of sight of the teacher, and you were outdoors.

The teacher was usually so occupied with overseeing the floor cleaning and straightening up, she would forget about the eraser cleaners and you could count on being outdoors, goofing off for a half hour or more.

After the kids went home at 3:00 p.m., the teacher checked over the room one more time. She’d put away all of her desk supplies and check to see each student had not left anything out on their desk. By that time, the first of the P.T.A. ladies would be arriving and start putting out the tables for cooking and serving.

The school owned a double burner hot plate and the ladies got to work making the chili. Other women unloaded the pies and cakes from their cars and placed them on a cloth covered table.
First, coarsely ground meat, ordered from Motts Locker in Rockville was started browning in big kettles. Just as soon as the meat began to brown, packages of chili seasoning went in, along with lots of chopped onions. The ladies stirred with big wooden spoons as the meat browned, the smells quickly filling the building.

Another pot of vegetable soup would begin to simmer. Most of the ingredients for that had been prepared ahead of time. Celery, onions and potatoes would be added, along with well water and the whole thing brought to a slow simmer to be ready for serving for those who didn’t want chili.

All afternoon people stopped by with donations of pies and cakes. Big bowls of crackers were laid out and a block of cheese cut up. Onions were sliced in thin slices, bottles of catsup and vinegar were placed on the serving line.

I loved the chili suppers because it was always fun for me to see how the school house had been transformed from the everyday drab smells of coal, floor sweep, white paste and children, into a makeshift kitchen of interesting smells.

When people began arriving about 6:00, the first smells they encountered before even entering the school house would be the coffee, freshly brewed, and the spicy chili. Then as you walked in the door of cloakroom, you’d notice cigar smoke, a pipe or two and whiffs of after shave and perfume. But above it all, the smell of freshly made chili predominated.

Chili suppers always included entertainment of some sort. Small children recited poems or stories they’d written. One of the parents would play the piano while the children performed a musical number, usually a song memorized from one of the old song books in the library cabinet. Sometimes a local fiddle or guitar player would play or sing.

But the real reason for being there was to make a donation to the P.T.A. by buying a bowl of chili and a piece of pie or cake. Soft drinks or coffee were sold for 5¢ and the adults visited with each other while they ate.

Kids, of course, ate fast, then went outdoors to play. The one outdoor light was a hundred watt light bulb above the building’s only door. Under that light, kids played games on the old concrete porch. The older men, after eating, went outside to sit on the porch, or lean on their cars and smoke.

That smell, of chili powder, reminds me of all of that, every time I open a package of chili seasoning. I can see the faces of the P.T.A. ladies as they stirred the pots of browning meat. I remember the smell of the school room, of the pies and cigar smoke. That’s what comfort food is, I suppose, a dish that evokes not just the smell and taste of the ingredients, but a time and place when that smell predominated, when you were happy and comfortable. One whiff of chili seasoning and I’m back in the third grade, excited about going to the chili supper at our school.