I had a great-aunt named Vada, who lived with her sister, Lydia (my other great-aunt) on top of an Ozark mountain, just outside Huntsville, Arkansas. The two sisters were as different from each other as night and day. Lydia took care of the few cows and chickens they raised, driving an old 1950's blue pick up truck filled with hay out to the pastures, and if we happened to be staying the night, my brother and sister and I, along with our dad, got to accompany her on her morning chore, all of us crammed into the cab, bouncing along the dirt track that led to the fields. I remember one such visit when us kids sat in the back of the pick up on top of the hay bales, Dad hopping out of the cab where he was keeping Aunt Lydia company, to open and close the gate, and thinking that this was the life for me. The woods were just starting to leaf out, covering the gentle Ozark Mountains with green lace, dogwoods breaking up the light green ocean with their white and pink blossoms. The morning sun was just beginning to creep through the trees and the dew sparkled with leftover diamonds from the fairy dances the night before. We got to the pasture where the herd was waiting for us and all piled out of the truck and began spreading the hay to the hungry (and to a little girl like me) very large cows that ambled over to eat their breakfast. Dad stood next to Aunt Lydia with a far away look in his eyes, gently talking about the cows, reaching out absentmindedly to scratch one between her ears.
I think he missed his boyhood cows.
Aunt Lydia was what my other grandaddy called "a pistol". She was a firecracker with the red hair to match, gruff in her manner but easy to laugh and tease (if you were brave enough). She was sassy, lively and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.
Aunt Vada was the gentle summer breeze that blew through the windows in her bright sunny kitchen. She was a retired school teacher and had a closet piled with books, old comics and games from the 1940's. She would greet us on the front sidewalk, apron on, as we emerged from the mile long, twisty-turvy driveway, clattering over the final cattle gate. She would greet us each with warm hugs and softly spoken "hellos" and "how was your trip?" and "I just made some fresh lemonade if you like some, or would you just like some ice water?" Her voice would be gentle and kind, but her eyes would be twinkling and merry. She would take my sister's and my hands in her wrinkled and gnarled ones and tell us that there were new kittens to be found around behind the house by the sun porch if we'd like to go try and find them. She always warned us to be careful because they weren't very nice cats and they might scratch us. The two of us would go running to go look for them, the hound dog, Ring, bounding behind.
Vada's specialty, after her gift of making everyone welcomed and loved, was her cooking. She would put on huge spreads for us every night that we stayed, usually because my uncle would make the drive over from Rogers with his wife and two boys and Grandpa Sutton, my dad's dad. I'm not quite sure how we all managed to squeeze in around the table, but somehow we all did and then the food would appear. I can't remember the main dishes too well, (but I do remember eating okra for the first time at Aunt Vada and Aunt Lydia's house and after having thirds, only then did Dad tell me what it was that I was eating. I looked at the brown and green fried concoction on my plate, shrugged my shoulders and said how good it was. And I still love fried okra today).
The main attraction on the dinner table would be Aunt Vada's rolls. Oh good grief, they were so good! I'd put a chunk of butter inside and wait till it would begin to ooze out the sides and then I would devour it. There really isn't anything better than hot rolls and butter, is there? Gosh, I would eat and eat those things till Mom would eyeball me and glance at the rest of my plate, giving me a tiny nod which meant, "Don't fill up on rolls. Eat the other food, too." I'd reluctantly put down my buttery knife and dutifully eat the plateful in front of me.
About a year ago, Mom found an old newspaper clipping that was all about Aunt Vada and included her favorite recipes, including her wonderful rolls. After screwing up my courage, I decided to attempt baking them last Wednesday. It was a beautiful sunny day, with the windows open, breezes blowing in, the mockingbirds and robins singing their songs to the rolling of my rolling pin as I kneaded and rolled out the dough, cutting it with a juice glass into little circles before placing them on the cookie sheets.
I felt a sense of timelessness as I was doing all this, such a part of something bigger. I thought of all the women before me who baked bread as just another part of their daily routine. They baked bread for their families, for friends and neighbors, for baby showers, for church potlucks, for funerals. The memories that washed over me Wednesday as I smelled the yeast dissolving in the warm water, as I mixed everything together, as I let the bread rise in a cold oven (with a pan of hot water underneath) - - - my childhood watching my own mom make bread at the kitchen counter every week; Vada bending over to take the fresh rolls out of the oven, her gentle smile as she glanced over to me as I watched from her kitchen table, the sunshine pouring in through her windows and my own . . . .
I felt her slip in those open windows Wednesday and watch me from my own kitchen table. I wore a smile as I pulled her hot rolls out of my oven.