Articles & Stories

Mother's Table Brings Back

Delightful Memories

Myrtle Mowery Heaberlin Had An Open-Door

Policy To Everyone In The Community


By Thomas Heaberlin - 2008

The art of eating began with Adam and Eve. They set a bad example by eating foods they were not supposed to eat. Since their venture into forbidden food, appetites and diets have taken mankind on strange journeys into weird recipes in search of elusive delicacies. For me it is not a search for a new palate pleaser, but only an attempt to recover the pleasantries of my mother's table that linger in the deep recesses of my memory_the delightful tastes and aromas that the modern table seems forever unable to produce. None of today's food chains, gourmet restaurants, or best-selling cookbooks seem to ascend to the level of finesse that exists in my memory of my mother's (Myrtle Mowery Heaber-lin) table.
Mother's table was draped well over the sides with a white linen cloth. It was set three times a day for breakfast, dinner, and supper. The midday meal was not a lunch, it was a full dinner prepared for those who came in from work in the field.

 

 

 

Myrtle Mowery Heaberlin and her husband, Jasper, with one of their great-grandchildren, ca. 1955. The couple were from Greenup County, Kentucky.

(Photo courtesy of Thomas Heaberlin.)

 

 

 

 

 



Each morning the aroma of country cured ham cooking in an iron skillet and buttermilk biscuits baking in the oven drifted through every room. It was not difficult to get us children out of bed for breakfast. We gathered around the table, but we didn't touch a thing until Father prayed. He thanked God for the food and asked Him to go with us through the day. That always bothered me, because I had plans for the day that I didn't believe God would go along with, but I grew up under this daily practice. I'm sure now that it fostered a strong faith in my later years.
Pork was our main meat source. In some form, it was on the table for every meal. All of Mother's cooking was done with pork fat. There was no cooking oil available. We never heard of cholesterol, and fat never worried us. Beef was rare on our table. About twice a year a neighbor, Mr. John Lowe, would butcher a beef. He would lay it on a sheet in the bed of a two-horse wagon and peddle it from door to door. For 50¢ he would cut off a three-to- four-pound piece of choice beef. This was a treat. The stores didn't have refrigeration and could not keep much fresh beef.
As the years passed, people began to visit our home at mealtime. Many people then didn't have a full meal everyday. The government was beginning to have a relief program for the poor, but my parents, Jasper and Myrtle Mowery Heaberlin, had their own private relief program. One day on my way home from school, I passed a small girl. She was crying. She told me she was hungry. I went on home, but my heart was hurting. I had never been that hungry I told my mother. That evening the little girl and her family had a full meal. It was not "Meals on Wheels," it was on my two legs. I walked back home puffed to the brim with joy.
Another time I was playing beside a roadway and a man walked by. He looked so weary, and he asked me if I knew where he could get something to eat. There were many men on the road back in the 1930s looking for work or just one more meal. I told him Mother would give him something to eat. He followed me to the house and sat down on the edge of the back porch. I told Mother there was a man outside who was hungry. She went to the bread cabinet and brought out a plate of bread. She held the plate out to the man, then noticed that the bread was moldy. Bread in warm weather would mold very quickly. She said, "Oh, let me get some fresh bread." He reached up quickly and said, "No, mam, this is just fine," and he ate it all.
Often people would drop in around noon. I remember with fondness one old man who lived with his son in a cabin on the backside of our farm. His name was Ruben Grubb. He had been a friend of my grandfather and my father. He had reared a large family, but now there were only his boy, Tom, and him. The years and the miles had left him tall, rawboned, and gaunt. I'm sure that many times his table was very thinly set. When Mother saw this white-haired old man totter up the path, she would prepare for an extra guest and seat him in the guest chair at the end of the table. He had become very shaky in his old age. His hands would shake so that we children were certain that he could not get a fork to his mouth, but he did. When he lifted his cup of coffee, he would brace his hand on the door facing that was close-by.
Mother's table was ecumenical. Preachers from different denominations were often at her table and not just on Sundays. One of the local pastors, when he was moving to another church, came by for a last visit. He told Father that had it not been for him and Mother his family would have gone hungry many times. People who are desperate will not always tell it, but Mother was quick to discover the needs of others.

The Heaberlin family of Wurtland, Greenup County, Kentucky, in front of a 1921 Dodge touring car. Shown are Ena and Cecil Heaberlin; Goldie Sheets Lowe; Bob Sheets and wife, Mary Heaberlin Sheets, holding their daughter Hellen; Myrtle and her husband, Jasper Heaberlin; Opal Sheets; Bertha Heaberlin; Ethel Sheets Thomas; Paul Heaberlin: and Martha Heaberlin. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Heaberlin.)


In addition to nine mouths to feed everyday, Mother took in another three-week-old baby girl. The girl's mother died shortly after giving birth. There were five other small children left. The father, George Grubb, had to work. There were no programs then in 1926 to help the poor. The only help was the county "poorhouse." Mr. Grubb would not have let his children go there. He asked Mother if she would take the baby for awhile. The little girl grew and did well in Mother's care. Mr. Grubb thought it would be well if we kept the baby. He helped financially. The little girl, Ann, was now our sister, but her blood brothers and sisters who grew up separated from her never forgot her. Sixty years later, they included her in the settlement of Mr. Grubb's estate. Ann had a family of her own. She is now deceased.
Another family had a small girl suffering from malnutrition. They brought the child to Mother. In a few weeks, Mother had nursed the little girl back to health. The mother came and took her home. In a short time, the mother brought her back, but this time it was too late. The child died. Mother prepared her for burial while the men built a coffin.
Another neighbor lady gave birth to a baby boy, and she became very ill. Death seemed imminent. The lady made her husband promise to take the baby to Mother if she died, but she survived, and we didn't get a new brother.
The fame of Mother's table continued to expand. There was always something for everyone who came to eat, and they came.
Father, along with the help of his two mules, raised everything we ate, except salt, sugar, coffee, and baking powder. Father bought salt by the barrel. He kept it in the barn and fed it to the livestock. When we needed salt for the table, we would brush the hay off the barrel and dip out a cup of pure white coarse salt. That coarse salt from the barrel had a flavor enhancing quality that surpasses any commercial salt today. Mother used this salt to make brine cucumbers, pickled beans, pickled corn, and kraut. We kept the large barrels of pickles in the cellar behind the kitchen. Visitors liked to go to the cellar and get into the pickles.
The concrete cellar had shelves around three sides. One year, at the end of harvest, it had 200 jars of fruits and vegetables. One day we heard a rumbling coming from the cellar. One set of shelves had fallen and started a domino effect. The other two shelves fell, also. On the concrete floor lay 200 jars smashed to pieces; a whole summer's work of canning was gone. We knew that Mother was terribly hurt, but she never said anything. That winter you would never have known the loss by the way the table was set. There were apples, potatoes, and pumpkins in the barn cellar, and Mom was a good improviser.
Fresh whole milk was a large part of our food supply, providing, in addition to sweet milk, cream, buttermilk, and fresh churned butter. This we had every day, except for the day "Ole Bess" got drunk. One day at milking time "Ole Bess" came down from the hills "a-bawlin' and a-kickin'." When Father finally caught her, he smelled mash on her breath. Father took an axe and his 12 gauge Winchester shotgun and went up into the hills looking for the moonshine still. He found it and destroyed "Ole Bess's" loitering place.
Mother had an Opal wood-burning cookstove that had four burner plates, a baking oven, a warm water reservoir, and an overhead warming closet. There was a well outside the kitchen door. It had a handpump mounted on it. It was supplied by underground veins of pure water. This supplied all of the needed water. Travelers on a hot summer day would come out of their way to get a tin dipper full of the cool, sweet water.
On all holidays and weekends, my uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, and, on at least one occasion, an outlaw came to eat at Mother's table. Our doors were never locked. One evening there was a knock at the door. Father called, "Come in." The door opened, and the man who stepped in was so large he filled up the doorway. He introduced himself as a Ramsey from Virginia. Father's grandmother was a Ramsey from Virginia, so they spent the evening getting acquainted. Mother prepared a good supper. After they had eaten, Father showed Mr. Ramsey to the guest room, and they all retired for the night. Next morning Mother was up early and prepared a good breakfast. She sent Father after the guest, but he was gone. He had slipped away during the night. Mother and Father could not understand. The next day some bounty hunters came by looking for a Ramsey from Virginia who was wanted for murder there.
Another incident brought a young insurance salesman to Mother's table. We had a good neighbor, Mr. Johnson. Father liked him, but he was a man one would not want to offend. One morning he came over the hill and killed a rabbit. It was not in season, and a couple of game wardens were close by. They came and asked Father if he knew who it was who had killed the rabbit. Father said, "It was Mr. Johnson. He lives over the hill there and you had better not go over there." They didn't go. Mr. Johnson worked at a bar and gaming house where some tough men hung around. Father went and talked to Mr. Johnson about changing his dangerous way of living. Mr. Johnson said he had been thinking about doing that, but he went on out to work that day. There was trouble in the gaming room and some shooting, and Mr. Johnson was killed.
A few days after this, my father butchered a hog for Mr. Johnson's widow. That evening Mr. Johnson's son, the insurance salesman, came to our home. When Father took his coat the young man said, "Be careful with it, Mr. Heaberlin." Father said he had a gun in each pocket. He was looking for the man who had killed his father. Mother asked him if he would like something to eat. She was cooking the feet and ears of the hog, preparing them for pickling. He asked her what she was cooking. She said, "The ears and feet of your mother's hog." He said, "Give me one of the ears," so Mother put an ear on his plate, and he ate it all. I have heard of gourmet restaurants where they served all kinds of exotic foods, but I have never heard of a place that served hog's ears. The son never found his father's killer, because the men at the gaming house would not talk.
Mother's fried chicken was a notch above Colonel Sanders', and that is good. A chicken fresh from the flock, prepared in the iron skillet, was unbeatable. The pieces dipped in buttermilk, rolled in flour, salted and peppered, and placed in an iron skillet of hot pork fat and fried to a crisp brown on a wood-burning stove were a delicacy not available on the modern table.
Mother's potato salad was made from homegrown potatoes. She would gather wild lettuce and chop it up, boil the potatoes and eggs, cut them in chunks, add the lettuce, salt and pepper, a little chopped green onion, and a few spoons of sour cream. The enjoyment of the resulting treat is now found only in memory.
We had quince trees on the farm, and I have not seen any of them since. The quinces were about the size of a medium apple. They were yellow with a wrinkled skin, but they were not edible raw. Mother would grind them up and add equal amounts of sugar and cook them to a texture of preserves. If you like honey, you would like the quince preserves. They are in a class with honey but far better when eaten on hot biscuits with fresh churned butter.
Have you ever heard of schmierkase? Well, I never heard of cottage cheese until I was a grown man. Schmierkase is the German name for what English Americans call cottage cheese. Mother made schmierkase. She would put clabbered milk in a clean cotton feed sack and hang it up until all the whey dripped out. Then she would dump the curds on a table, chop them into small pieces, and add a little cream and salt and pepper. Our schmierkase became cottage cheese.
Mother's table provided "cracklin bread," stack cakes, gingerbread and whipped cream, vinegar pies, blackberry cobblers, hominy, and much more. For a novelty as well as food, Mother would gather thick pumpkin blossoms and wash them, dip them in buttermilk, roll them in flour, place them in a skillet of hot pork fat, and fry them to a crisp brown. If you like fried oysters, try pumpkin blossoms.
A dessert that we children liked was a mixture we called egg butter. Mother would beat a bowl of eggs and bring a pan of sorghum to a boil, then slowly pour the hot sorghum into the bowl of beaten eggs while stirring. The mixture would fluff up, and with vanilla flavoring it was a delight.
Christmas was Mother's favorite time of the year. When she hung the little green wreath in the window, the spirit of Christmas filled the whole house. For several days the preparations were the order of the day. The baking, cooking, and decorating excited us children, and we tried to be good, but when Mother made large platters of homemade candies and placed the platters on a bed in a back room to cool, it was more than we could resist. Even when Mother told us to wait, she still understood. When a child married, each Christmas he or she still got a large box of candy at Christmastime.
Mother died in 1982. She was 96, but the year before, at age 95, she was still living alone, and she made her last batch of Christmas candy. I received my box, my last box, and it had a lot of walnut shells in the pieces. Mother was almost blind. I put the precious gift in a jar and set it in the freezer. I kept it 25 years and recently gave it to my niece, Vonda Ivester in St. Cloud, Florida. She will cherish it forever.
Mother was with my sister, Martha, the last few days of her life. I was sitting by her bed one day, and she, still not wanting to be a worry to her children, told me that if I came and found her lying there not to worry. She said, "All I do is just lie here and talk to Jesus." Shortly after that, I was called to come home. When I arrived by her bed, she was dying. I spoke to her, but the lips that so many times had spoken words of encouragement and comfort to me were silent. Mother was gone.
I was standing near her casket on the evening of the viewing. A nephew, Woodrow Mowery, had come 1,200 miles from Felsmere, Florida, to pay his respects. He stood and looked for a long moment into Mother's silent face. I heard him say, "Had it not been for Aunt Myrtle my brothers, sisters, and I would have gone hungry many times." His mother, Aunt Mary, would bring him and his seven siblings to our farm. They walked from Worthington to our home in Wurtland, and Mom would feed them. Uncle Joe, Mom's brother, Aunt Mary, and their eight children lived on the banks of the Ohio River at Worthington, Kentucky. Uncle Joe ran a little rowboat ferry. For a quarter he would take a passenger over to Hanging Rock, in Ohio, but the few quarters that he earned didn't put much food on their table.
Woodrow was one of many who remembered. Most of the aunts, uncles, and cousins are gone now, but the memories of all the wonderful times when they gathered at Mother's table will live on.
"Someday, beyond the reach of mortal ken. "Someday, God only knows just where and when" we will see our beautiful mother again.

Thomas W. Heaberlin, 503 Virginia Street, Wurtland, KY 41144; 606-836-5781, shares this article with our readers.


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