Don’t guess too many boarding houses even exist anymore, but let me tell you: the best food I’ve ever eaten was in a boarding house setting.
The cook? My dear, beloved, departed mother. In one of my books, I mention that she is up there with angel ‘Clarence’ ringing a bell when some earthly creature does something good — you will all remember ‘Clarence:’ he visits us each year at Christmas time in a re-run of the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
It might seem strange to sing the praises of a boarding house cook in a post, but the mind can carry you to some memory stations that leave a faint, sometime tearful, wisp of nostalgia.
The sleeping room in Mrs. Lester’s Boarding House my Mom and I shared was just across from the big kitchen, and, as a small eight-year old kid, I sat in one of the two rocking chairs in that room listening on the radio to a broadcast of a baseball game or football game, and the smells from that kitchen at dinner time would get me really hungry.
Just before Mom served the boarders at the long large dining table in front of the house, she would bring a heaping plate of food to me in that bedroom across the hall. Didn’t matter what it was, meatloaf, pot roast, pork chops, corn bread, biscuits, mashed potatoes with gravy or home fries, it was always the most enjoyable food I would ever remember eating. And Mom would always smile, give me a kiss on the cheek, and say something like: “You’re the best little boy in the world…”
My Mom was a boarding house cook during some of the most troubled times in our economic history…during the great depression era in Appalachia. East Tennessee would be more precise. Knoxville, Tennessee would be most precise. Mom and Dad were divorced, and my sister was living fifty miles away with my maternal grandparents because of the bad times. Mom worked long hours seven days a week and she always made the time for me, made the time to make me feel like all was really right with the world. Even in my little pea-brain I knew all was not right in our world, that there were things happening in our lives that were beyond my scope of understanding. But Mom tried and she did make me feel loved and very much wanted in her life.
So, when that big plate of food was all consumed and wiped clean with the last bit of biscuit or cornbread, the ballgame ended, I would become wistful about my Mom’s boarding house existence, feeling that she really did not have much of a life. I would sit in that room, stuffed with good southern cooking, Mom doing dinner clean-up duties, and I would try to write a poem…try to write a poem that would convey the love I felt for my Mom, try to say in words on paper what my tiny voice could not say.
My Mom always encouraged me to follow my heart, to sing my songs, to write my verses, and it was there in those days during World War Two when I first took pencil to paper. Yes, the words were the mutterings of a young unsettled mind, but they meant something to me then.
Today, perhaps my mind is still unsettled, still searching for some ultimate truths, and that is okay. The words still mean something to me. Whatever my writing comes to be, somewhere in those sentences and paragraphs, in those characters and plots, there will be parts of me, and, actually, they are pretty easy to find. I am not a very large mystery in the scheme of things.
My Mom gave me the great gift of writing, the wonderful gift of expressing myself with words. It doesn’t matter so much that the words will or will not ring so many bells down here.
It does matter that Mom and ‘Clarence’ might occasionally ring their bells for me.
Billy Ray Chitwood – 9/25/17 and 8/06/12
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