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Linda Dunnigan – Chapter 2 Curiosity and Uncle Will’s Kitchen

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MidCentury Childhood Memories

April 3, 2018

 Throughout the fall and spring, many sacks and baskets made their way up and down the stairs to Uncle Will’s kitchen until finally, our curiosity got the better of us.   What we needed was a plan, a way to get up those steps without being seen and, once and for all, into that kitchen.  There had to be a way to follow Uncle Will into the forbidden zone without being discovered.   The one thing going for us was the fact that without his hearing aids in, Uncle Will was deaf!  Maybe, if we were real quiet, we could sneak in behind him before that door shut.

The next time Uncle Will returned from the mountains loaded down with baskets we put our plan in action.  We rushed out, offering to help carry the baskets, and thus identify the source of the aromas coming from their mysterious contents.   Although greeted warmly, our offer to help was declined.  “ I can handle these, “he said as he made his way to the house. This time, those baskets wouldn’t disappear up the stairs without us.  Hard on his heels, quickly and quietly, we slipped in before that door closed.  Success!  We were almost there, as we tiptoed up the creaky stairs into that forbidden zone!

Just a few more steps and we were in!  Then Uncle Will  turned to hang his hat and coat on the door and  spotted us.   There we stood, holding our breath, ready to bolt back down those stairs  and out that door double time as soon as he said “Out!”  To our amazement, all he did was frown,  scratch then shake his head.   “Well now, how did you two manage to sneak up those stairs?  Since you are here, you might as well come on in and help,” and with that,  turned and walked into the kitchen, with us right behind him.

It was hard to believe that we were finally in!  What we saw far surpassed anything we had imagined.  This was no ordinary kitchen!  Oh, there were table and chairs, stove, refrigerator, sink, and even a broom, but so much more!  Fishing poles and guns were secured to one wall on specially made racks.   Across one corner, neat tobacco twists hung on a line, adding yet another layer to the smells hanging in the air.  Ammunition boxes were stacked underneath the flour bin on the Hoosier Cabinet.  A   brass spittoon sat in the corner next to an old rocking chair, much like the one on the stoop at the bottom of the steps.  The nearby tobacco stained wall and floor  bore testament to near misses.  Instead of pictures another wall was covered with big evenly spaced penny nails.

Mouths open, eyes wide, we stared first at the room, and then at Uncle Will who pointed at a basket filled with acrid smelling nuts.  “Here” he said, placing the basket on the table and pulling out chairs. Reaching in, he pulled out a small branch covered with leaves, and  tossed it on the table a pile, leaving the nuts in the basket.

“ These here are Black Walnuts.  They’re worth every penny they bring because picking and shelling them is dirty business.  Be sure the nuts stay in the basket, not the trash pile.  When you finish, put the basket on the floor over there,” he said, pointing to the wall covered with nails.  So the nails were not meant for pictures after all, but for his treasure baskets.  “Nuts have to dry before they can be shelled.  When they dry, maybe you two can help.”   Was that an invitation to come back?  We certainly hoped so!

Job completed, we looked at hands stained black and headed for the sink as Uncle Will lifted another basket filled with hickory and hazel nuts   onto the table.

“No sense in washing your hands until you are finished, sorting is dirty work and besides, those stains won’t just wash off.  These nuts need separating, and when you’re finished, the baskets go next to that other one over there.   When you’re finished with those, sort these,” he instructed, pointing to a basket filled with an assortment of earthy smelling mushrooms.  And so it went.   In no time, we had the drill down pat as we sorted one basket after another.

When we came to a basket filled with twigs, we headed to dump it in the trash.   “Bring that on back here, that’s not trash, that’s Witch Hazel.   Brewed and reduced, it has healing power and helps bruises go away.  Works real well on black eyes too,” he said with a smile, looking directly at the shiner my cousin was sporting, thanks to our earlier stick sword fight.

Next up was a basket full of ugly, gnarly, dirt caked roots, so once again we headed to the sink . “No, no! Uncle Will called, quickly rescuing the basket and turning off the spigot.  These don’t get washed.  Just brush off as much dirt as you can and put them back in the basket.   This is ginseng, my cash crop,” he said with a smile, holding it up, then returning it and us to the table.   There, we dutifully shook off as much dirt as possible, returned the roots to their basket, scooped the dirt into the trash, and placed the basket along side the others, waiting to be hung.

When we saw what was in the last two baskets, we decided that it was time to wash our hands.  The dirt came off, but just like Uncle Will said, the stain from the walnuts didn’t. Hands clean, we returned to the table, to await further instructions.  Gnarly roots might be Uncle Will’s treasure, but ours was in the baskets on the table filled with wild blackberries and elderberries.  Tipping  the baskets onto the table  he said,

“Handle these gently.  They bruise easy you know. Get rid of the leaves and any spoiled berries, after you float the good ones in a bowl of water, drain the water off, and tip them onto that old dishtowel on the sink drainer.  Let them sit a while, then put them in the big bowl on the table.  Even though you weren’t invited, I guess you’ve earned a reward for helping,  so you can eat a handful  as you work.   If you don’t get greedy, there just might be enough to take home.   I’m sure your Mama can think of something to make with them.  Once you stack those empty baskets,  you best take those berries and head on home before your Mamas come looking for you.

It had been a wonderful day!  Not only had we satisfied our curiosity about  the baskets and Uncle Will’s mysterious off limits kitchen, but in the process, were treated with stories of the surrounding mountains.  Because he was a great storyteller, it was easy to picture ourselves beside him as he searched for the elusive ginseng and other natural treasures.  We laughed as he described the angry groundhog popping up out of his collapsed burrow, thanks to Uncle Will’s  digging.  Our eyes grew big as saucers when he recounted how he had slipped on the wet rocks  and almost landed in the creek, coming down  eye to eye with a thick old black snake warming up in the sunshine on nearby rocks. Uncle Will’s stories made the mountains and our imagination come alive.  We could almost hear squirrels chattering, rushing from branch to branch,  letting him know they weren’t happy sharing their bounty of nuts.  Until he talked about the rabbits in the briars under the blackberry bushes we hadn’t noticed the scratches on his hands.  Gotten, we assumed, as he filled a basket with succulent berries we now enjoyed.   We sat mesmerized as he described an array of birds, mimicking their calls, and describing the quiet that followed when the jay sounded the alarm that the hawk was in the air.

We were having a great time, wishing we could stay longer.  As we stacked the last of the empty baskets next to the sink,  heavy footsteps pounded up the stairs.  “We know you two are up there!  What were you told about going into Uncle Will’s apartment?  Is this why you haven’t answer when we called.” No hearing aids were needed to hear or understand those loud angry voices.   Our adventure was definitely over.

To our amazement that anger seemed aimed both at Uncle Will and at us. It was time to come clean or risk losing the right to spend time with Uncle Will.  We quickly confessed that we hadn’t been invited, but had snuck up the steps and decided to stay and help sort the baskets even though we should leave.  We told them what we had learned about nature’s treasures, pointing to each basket, and how Uncle Will told the best stories!  Hearing this, although chastised for not sending us right back down those stairs, Uncle Will was forgiven.   The bowl of berries he handed each mom didn’t hurt either.  After all, we were safe.  As they talked, my cousin and I

retreated quietly until the floor boards squeaked.  They turned and aimed  rapid-fire questions at the two of us.

“ So now you’re getting ready to sneak out, just like you snuck in, are you?  You knew it was wrong sneaking up those steps, didn’t you?”  My mother asked.

“Why didn’t you leave when he discovered you behind him?” Aunt Pauline asked.  d Didn’t you hear us calling you? Did you once think we might be worried when you didn’t answer or come home?”

“What do you have to say for yourselves?” they both chimed in together.

Rapid-fire questions didn‘t leave time for answers.  No doubt about it, we were in some serious trouble and consequences would follow, despite the bowl of berries each held.

Seeing Uncle Will with his hearing aids in, we knew a serious conversation was about to follow so we beat a hasty retreat down the steps.  Stopping at the bottom, we turned on the spigot, grabbed the hose and washed our hands and face, as a puddle of dirt and berry juice formed at our feet.  When the water pressure dwindled we knew we were no longer alone.  We dropped the hose,  turned and  headed home, knowing consequences would follow dinner, but it had been worth it.  It  had beenan awesome day!

About those consequences, my cousin and I weren’t allowed to play together, or to go any where near Uncle Will for two weeks, even though we promised to think twice before letting curiosity cloud judgment or actions.  Discovering what was in that kitchen had been well worth the consequences. The one thing we didn’t want to lose was the right to spend time with Uncle Will once the two weeks were over so we solemnly promised that there would be no more sneaking around, or up stairs, or disobeying, or inviting ourselves in where we had not been invited.  It didn’t make us any less curious about what mysteries or treasures the other rooms in Uncle Will’s apartment might hold.  Sadly, we never had a chance to satisfy that curiosity as within the year, Uncle Will was gone, and our adventures treasured memories.

I loved that crusty old bachelor.  He was an important part of my childhood.   The lessons he taught through the stories he told gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the mountains that surrounded us. The aroma of Black Walnuts still brings back childhood memories of stained hands an a childhood adventure filled with curiosity,  mysterious baskets, unknown aromas, and the wonder and excitement of an afternoon spent in Uncle Will’s kitchen.



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