Griffin, Barnesville, Roberta, Fort Valley, Perry. I recited this litany each time my family made the trip to Perry, Georgia to see my grandparents. The list was of the towns we would pass, once we had driven through Atlanta, on the way to my dad’s parents’ house. I’m sure it was compiled, in part, to eliminate at least some of the question about how much farther it was to Perry.
We didn’t go on the Interstate, not for many years. There was no I-75. We rode down Highway 41, the same one referenced in The Allman Brothers Band’s song, “Ramblin’ Man.” I learned from my mom to call it “The Four-lane.” As in, the four-lane, the only four-lane we had back then in Marietta. It took a lot longer than it does today.
The list seemed to help. Fort Valley . . . almost there!
My conversation with my dad this week somehow again includes a list. Not a straight-forward list, but a kind of list that meanders, that stops to elaborate, or explain, or savor.
The list begins with tomatoes. Homegrown, vine-ripened, and especially heirloom tomatoes. Tomato sandwiches, with mayonnaise of course, on some kind of bread that isn’t really all that good for you. Bread that gets kind of soggy so that the whole thing seems to melt in your mouth. BLT’s, too, the bacon crispy.
Butter beans, crowder peas, lady peas. Vidalia onions, so sweet you can almost eat them like an apple. Fried chicken, the pieces smaller in the past than they are now, more flavorful, and rice and gravy. Creamed corn, only we called it fried corn. We are making a list of summer foods we love, most of them things we ate in Perry. The list seems to call forth the memories, or maybe the memories call forth the list.
Peaches. Here we elaborate, reviewing how the Elberta peach, which helped the peach industry thrive, was developed near Perry. My dad’s first job was in a peach packing shed, where he packed bushels, pecks, and quarts, learning to put the best peaches on top. He was twelve.
From there it is an easy segue to homemade ice cream, peach or vanilla. My grandmother’s recipe called for her to actually cook it first, like custard. It was indescribably good.
When we get to fish suppers, we pause again. Remember how Katie, my youngest sister, even as a small child always caught more fish than anyone?! Bream and bass, fried in cornmeal, hushpuppies, homemade slaw. “Ooooh,” my dad says, closing his eyes in blissful recall.
I remember my sister, Patty, and I sleeping on the living room floor on a palett. I liked the ritual of my mom and my grandmother laying down quilt after quilt, then a sheet,then another sheet, and then the pillows. Finally all the grownups came in to kiss us goodnight. Mom, Dad, Grandmother and Granddaddy Ryle, and my great-grandmother, Mama Watson.
A drum-shaped fan close to us whirred all night, moving the air around during the heat of a summer night in middle Georgia. Outside, the cars and big trucks rolled down the highway that ran in front of my grandparents’ house. The sounds were like tree frogs or cicadas for me, soothing, the background music from a childhood memory.
This memory leads to a question and another list. “What was that highway?” I ask. “Was it Highway 41?”
“No, 341,” Dad answers. “It went to Clinchfield and Hawkinsville and Jesup.”
My dad is getting sleepy. His eyes are closing as he lies on the sofa. He will probably nap now. My mom has gone to play bridge, and I will stay here until the wonderful caregiver comes at four.
My dad can’t get around by himself anymore and needs help for many things. But his memories are sharp and clear, his personality, his humor, and love the same. He is good company.
I love that he appreciates things; that he, and my mom, instilled that in us. I’m glad we can still appreciate things together.
I hope lists comfort him the way they do me.
“So where did 41 go?” I ask. “After Perry?”
“Cordele,” he says. “Tifton . . . Valdosta . . .”