When my uncle Dana was a little boy, he started called his grandmother Big Mommie. She was a mom, but not his mom, so she was the “big Mommie.” The name stuck, and that’s what I call my great-grandmother today. She turned 95 on Tuesday. Big Mommie tells trugars.
I asked Big Mommie where trugars came from, and she said, “Well honey, the kids would always gather up and say, ‘Big Mommie, tell us a trugar!’ So that’s where they come from. They’re just stories that are true. Old-timey stories.” She laughed. “Them kids couldn’t wait for me to tell ‘em a trugar. Their eyes would get big, ‘cause they couldn’t believe the things I did when I was a little girl. ‘Big Mommie, we want another trugar!’ they’d say.”
Last week, I came home to find my three little cousins, Ben, Henry, and Hugh, sitting cross-legged or laying on the floor by Big Mommie’s feet. They listened and giggled while she chattered away. Her hands rested on her big tummy, and her legs crossed at the ankles. She was wearing the new housedress she’d gotten for her birthday. My aunt sat in a parlor chair nearby, pretending she wasn’t interested and laughing out of the corner of her mouth in a very adult way. My uncle was laid back on the couch with one ankle propped up on his other knee, watching the scene with a huge grin, remembering when he and my mom were little, and Big Mommie used to tell them trugars too. My grandma, cooking okra and tomatoes in the kitchen, threw in her own comments every now and then. My grandpa hunched over papers at his desk, closed off to everyone else, probably calculating the rising cost of toilet paper. I started to focus on Big Mommie’s story, and she was saying, “You just tie them down and split open their belly from their chin down to their crotch,” and she demonstrated that motion. My aunt grimaced and shook herself all over as she laughed. My uncle laughed at her and said, “I think we should try it.” Big Mommie continued, “Then you pull out the intestines and gizzards and other insides, and some of them’s good eatin’ so you save ‘em. Then you have to drain the blood out, so you hang them up from the roof of the barn.”
It was hog-killin’ time, 1919, and my great-grandmother was 10 years old. She had watched her daddy fatten those hogs and get them ready for market, and now it was time to butcher. It wasn’t gruesome to her; it was a means of eating and making money. She told us about fresh sausage and salt pork and how you used to use lard back then instead of shortening. We all imagined our hands in the mess and wished we could taste the fresh sausage on a biscuit too.
There’s a picture of three hog carcasses hanging from the rafters of a wooden building, and a little boy stands there, holding one of the hoofs. The back says, “J.L. with Hog Killing. Dady always had real fat hogs to kill.” J.L. was Big Mommie’s brother. She gave me the picture, along with a stenobook full of trugars she had written down for me. “You’re a writer, you see, and you can put the memories down so people can read ‘em.”
One morning, Big Mommie announced, “Honey, we’re makin’ biscuits for lunch.” So we did. Two cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking soda, a teaspoon of salt, a blob of shortening the size of an egg, and a half cup of milk. If we were at her house in Arcadia, we would use the turquoise and white coffee mug with the broken handle. At my house, we used a real measuring cup. “Then you have to roll the raw dough in flour and tuck them under, just so, and lay them on a cookie sheet. They bake at 410 degrees until the tops are goldy-colored. Now before you put them in, honey, you have to brush the tops with oil to make them bake right.” Apparently I didn’t put enough, because they didn’t turn as brown as she wanted them to. I thought they tasted pretty darn good.
The best biscuit I ever had was at a cane-grinding. Big Mommie took me and my siblings there because she wanted us to make our own trugars. “You’ll remember this all your life, honey, and then you can tell your kids how you went to a cane-grindin’.” Her teardrop-shaped eyes wrinkled around the edges while she smiled. One man hooked up his tractor to a press, and another man fed sugar cane through it to flatten it and make the juice come out. The tractor had to go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round to keep the belt moving. In the old days it would have been a mule going in circles instead. We tasted some of the cane juice that they collected in a Styrofoam cup. Then the men boiled that juice forever it seemed, but I kept watching while the little kids got bored and climbed a tree. One of the men handed me a cold biscuit. “Poke your finger in there and wallow it around to make a cave.” I did, and he poured some of that boiling syrup down in the hole. “Be careful now; it’s hot, and you don’t want it to touch your skin.” But man, was it good.
Big Mommie wears a pair of scissors around her neck on a red ribbon. She sits and makes napkin caddies out of plastic canvas and yarn, and she’ll tell you that, “there’s a lot of work in one of these things. It takes more than two-thirds of a day to make one. But the Lord told me to see what I had in my hands to do for people, so I make them and give them away.” She’s probably given away over a hundred. Or she knits dishrags. “I’ve made a many a one of these, honey.” And while she does it, she’ll pipe up, “One day my daddy was driving to town with me and my sister. We were riding on the back of the wagon while he drove the horses, and we were letting our legs dangle off the end, trying to touch the dust with our toes. I fell off, but my daddy didn’t notice until my sister yelled. Then he stopped and waited for me to catch up.” And then she goes back to her yarn.
Trugars still happen. Like Hurricane Charley. It blew the roof off Big Mommie’s house, even the rafters and everything. The ceiling tiles were all over the floor, the beds were drenched, and the carpet was destroyed. Honestly, I was thankful about the carpet. It was a green that’s almost brown. The Mennonites came and rebuilt her roof for her, even put new tin on it. But there’s still a lot to do. My cousins loaded up a U-haul with all the furniture that survived, and for now Big Mommie lives with me. That’s another trugar in and of itself.
At Thanksgiving last year, I told Big Mommie that I wanted to write a story about her. I wanted my first book to be a biographical novel about her life, and I wanted to call it Trugars. She was so proud. “Reality is life, honey; reality is life. You want to touch them. You want to show them reality, and that’s wonderful.” I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but I guess she’s right. I do want to show people reality; I do want to touch them. I think her life is a good way to do it. So she sent me the stenobook and a bunch of pictures, and now I have a starting point. But how does one really go about conveying the essence of a trugar? How do you introduce people to a Big Mommie?
I took her to church with me one week. The pastor asked all first-time visitors to stand, and sure enough, she stood. “I’m Louise. I’m a hurricane victim from Arcadia. Charley blew off my roof and ruined everything, so now I’m up here until they fix my house back up. And I’ve got a preacher that lives with me, Brother Clyde, and he used to know you when you were the preacher at Port Charlotte. He’s such a blessing; we just have such a sweet relationship in the Lord together, a good spiritual communion one with another. Audrey’s my great-granddaughter, playing the piano up there, and she started playing because I bought her a piano for two hundred dollars from a concertist, so I knew it was a good piano, and her daddy came and picked it up with his trailor. Would you look at her talent today because of me? I’ll be ninety-five on Tuesday, praise the Lord, and my family is just so sweet to me,” and she would have kept going if the pastor hadn’t thanked her for coming and moved on. Everyone met Big Mommie. I think that’s how the book would work too. She’s just the kind of person you know, whether you realize it or not. And anyone can settle back into the past with a trugar. It’s just a matter of doing them justice.
It’ll probably take me months to decipher Big Mommie’s handwriting in that stenobook, but it’ll be interesting work, unraveling my heritage. One of the pictures she sent fascinates me. It’s Big Mommie’s family piled into a Model T, and on the back, she wrote, “Dady and family a.m. of World War I end on our way to town to celebrate – 1918 ate breakfast at Morrie and Fanul Hollingsworth in Arcadia.” If only I could squeeze snapshots like that into my pen and out on the page. How do I show people the reality that Big Mommie talks about? Sometimes I just want to shake the world by the shoulders and say, “Wake up!” If trugars will waken them, then so be it.
“Honey, I thought of another trugar I haven’t told you yet. One night I went outside the house to see if squirrels feed at night. Whenever I take my shotgun out, this one cat would follow me, ‘cause he knew he’d git himself a squirrel. So then I saw two convicts from the prison creeping around the edge of the 30-foot travel trailer in my yard. They were bent over at the waist, trying to keep anybody from seein’ ‘em, so I snuck around close and yelled, ‘What’re you doin’ around here. You better git goin’, or I’m gonna shoot your guts out!’ Then I shot my rifle in the air, and boy they took off in a hurry. They went on to take some bread and milk from some people who wasn’t home, and one of them stole a motorcycle and wrecked it under a bridge, so he got caught, but the other got into Georgia and went away.” I told her I would have been scared too, and she said, “Oh honey, I wasn’t scared; I had my rifle.” I bet she scared some reality into those crooks that night.
I think reality is all we really want out of life. In “Joe vs. the Volcano”, Meg Ryan tells Tom Hanks, “My daddy says the whole world is asleep, but the few people who are awake live in a constant state of amazement.” That’s what trugars do. They bring back the amazement to life. Instead of pig intestines, you start to smell savory fresh sausage. Instead of living without electricity, you start to see the magic of ker’sine lanterns. People say life was simpler back then. Maybe so. But really I just think more people were awake.