I always get a bit nostalgic in the fall. I think back to my childhood and then compare it to children growing up in today’s world. I also think of a quote by Charles Dickens that began, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” I think that was true of my childhood now that I look back. Life was simple and pretty much the same for all the families I knew. I didn’t know times were hard nor did I know it was good until becoming an adult. Children of the 1950s and 60s were not spoiled. The extent of getting spoiled back then was taking every opportunity to raid a grandmother’s candy dish. My grandmother always made sure her dish was full and my sisters and I could count on getting that treat at every visit. We were happy.
Children weren’t exposed to politics, drugs, Internet dangers, or the myriad crimes so prevalent now. Curse words were a rarity, not normal conversation. Elders were to be treated with respect and bullying was punished on the spot. Children of today just don’t know how carefree their realities really are. My reality was that children worked. It was expected, so we spent summers working in tobacco so there could be new clothes for school, heading shrimp on humid summer afternoons after dad’s returned with the catches of the day, or hanging around adults as they went about the business of preparing hogs to supply food. Children of today just don’t know that kind of life and I honestly can’t decide if that’s a good thing or if they are missing out on something. The following story explains a bit about what they are missing while growing up in today’s world.
Hog killings and chicken murders ...
There wasn’t a lot of cussing done around me as I was growing up. But, when the pigs got out of the pen and ran crashing into the woods, or left and right at a bend in the road, Granddaddy’s language grew colorful indeed. The cussing was grand in those days and I thoroughly enjoyed each word.
I would never have told my Granddaddy, but I was rooting for the pigs. (No pun intended.) “Hurry!”
“Hurry,” I’d whisper to the ones that squealed and ran in circles. “Don’t stop! Lift up those snouts and go! What the heck are you waiting for?”
And then, “Well, I guess I’ll see you at the hog killing!”
Even the hogs that had seemingly vanished on “cussing day” showed up. There they hung, upside down and their feet bound to sticks balanced along the tops of backyard gallows. Hogs doomed to be drained of life, their blood staining leaves and forming puddles on the ground. But that was nothing!
Those hogs that had been so faithfully slopped and nurtured – and fed on peanuts to fatten them up – were to succumb to destiny. Their skins would be scalded and the hair scraped away. By nightfall those hogs would be hams hanging in the smokehouse, and loins that would someday be fried, smothered in onions and gravy. They’d be sausage, among other things.
Nothing went to waste. Their brains were soon to be scrambled with eggs and their feet piled and pickled into glass jars. Pig fat would be rendered into lard for baking biscuits or making lye soap.
Fires under cast iron pots sent embers and fragrant smoke upwards into the faces of the women. Women with their scarves tied over the ears and under the chin, talking quietly, or not at all.
There would be no cussing today. As Granddaddy sang his version of “The Old Rugged Cross,” he and his neighbors stoked fires and butchered hogs. Today was Granddaddy’s hog killing day – tomorrow would be his neighbor’s. This would continue until every families’ butchering was done, and then, a celebration! There would be enough food to sustain them through yet another year.
As if hog killings weren’t brutal enough for a child to witness there were also chicken murders. Every Sunday after church we all gathered at Granny’s house and sat down to a dinner of stewed chicken and dumplings. Granny’s chicken had a unique flavor and was delicious. How I enjoyed that chicken – until the day of revelation.
One early Sunday morning I encountered my first chicken murder. I secretly followed Granny outside and watched as she walked slowly among the chickens. The next thing I knew she had a chicken by the neck swinging it up and around as the more fortunate chickens scattered about. I’d never heard such a racket! How pitiful! She wrung that poor chicken’s neck, plucked its feathers, and scalded it in an iron pot over a fire, all in a jiffy, it seemed. She then brought it inside and had it cooked to tenderness by the time we left for church. That morning I knew I had eaten my last stewed chicken.
I’ve often wished my eyes had never seen the reality of hog killings and chicken murders. Sometimes I’ll think I’ve forgotten; and then, on a cold winter’s day I’ll see puffs of smoke rising, and catch the scent of smoldering wood and burning leaves. For a moment I’ll feel that old, yet familiar, sting of sorrow that I often knew as a child growing up in the early 50s and 60s. Reality.
Adulthood has sharpened the knife of reality and carved into my heart feelings of respect long past due. My grandparents grew up and lived their entire lives in the small coastal community of Bear Creek. They fished the local waters just as their parents did. They farmed and grew their own food. They both worked so hard for everything they had and provided for themselves, and often for others. Survival was their reality, and they always did what they had to do without complaint.
Well, there may have been a little cussing every now and then.
Carol Hartsoe, a former Tideland News columnist, is an author who lives in Bear Creek. A portion of this Commentary appeared in the 2015 edition of “Shoal,” the Carteret Writers journal.