When Cousins Make Pickles, It’s Not About Cucumbers

Cousins are simply brothers and sisters — once removed.

My Hailey cousins all descend from the tiny lady in the rocking chair. Lelia Hailey, lovingly known as Nanow, was our great-grandmother. With her is my sister, my father, and my grandfather.

I lucked out in the cousin department. Because my parents were only children, we didn’t have aunts or uncles to provide us with any 1st cousins. Thankfully, my grandparents’ siblings provided us a slew of 2nd cousins. Our father had five 1st cousins that filled in as siblings. He was the youngest of the bunch, and he loved them completely. He often said that no man could love anyone more than he loved his cousins. Four of those cousins became my “uncles.” While not technically correct, they took on the role without hesitation. The families were close while my siblings were growing up. By the time I came along, though, each family was busy raising teenagers and had full lives. For the most part, I saw them at funerals. But I always knew they were there.

My sister Rita with our Hailey/Dickerson girl cousins at one of their lunches.

Recently, my Hailey girl-cousins have been getting together for lunch once or twice a month. Because they get together during the week, it’s impossible for me to join them. After each get-together, my sister Rita regales me with their antics. My brother has started joining them and often laughs so hard attempting to retell some of their stories that he simply has to hang up the phone.

I recently asked Rita if she thought the Cousins would be willing to get together on a Saturday. Noting that some have family obligations, she said “But you should ask.”  So I sent a Facebook message:

“Dear Cousins, I’ve begged Rita to clear her calendar on Saturday, so that we can all get together and make a batch of Mamaw Vivian’s Bread and Butter pickles. I’ve missed all the cousin lunches and long to see you. Of course, I’m sure that the pickles won’t be any good, but the fellowship will be great!!!”

I’m sure they thought I was crazy, as none of them can or pickle anything. But they eagerly agreed to come.

After work on Friday, I drove home to Brown Road in a car packed with cucumbers and canning jars.  All the way home, I thought about the fact that, of our generation, I am the only one who doesn’t live in Hopkins County. It use to bother Uncle Morton that I left. Every time I would visit, he would remind me that there were houses for sale on Brown Road; surely one would be perfect for me. I would agree, but would then point out the obvious: It would be one hell of a commute. He’d just shake his head and change the subject, perplexed that I could possibly want to live anywhere but Brown Road.

The evening’s last rays of sunshine dapple my sister’s front porch.

When I arrived at my sister’s house, they weren’t home. I have to admit, I was glad to have a few minutes just to sit on their front porch and soak it all in.

Its been a busy, busy summer.

Between home, work, and Tomatopalooza, the summer has slipped away.  Before I knew it, the dog days of August were upon me. August is one of those months that I look forward to and dread at the same time. I love the first day of school.  I love the sidewalk sales. I love that first crisp morning.  I love hearing Roy Weatherly’s voice booming thru the loud speakers telling me that “It’s Football Time in TigerTown!”

However, August also brings a melancholy ache that sometimes makes me feel like my heart is going to explode. My father tragically died in a single-fatality coal-mining accident in August 1987. That is part of the reason I wanted to visit with my cousins. I’m tired of mourning his death. He was a fun loving prankster, and I can’t help but believe he would be disappointed that I’ve grieved this long. It was time to celebrate the things he loved: his family and my grandmother’s pickles.

August is the height of canning season. Jars are everywhere in my kitchen and pantry. At my sister’s house, the bedroom that I use is also her extra pantry. Stacks of jars filled with green beans, soup starter, ripe tomato ketchup, and apple butter surround the bed. Before winter, jars will be under the bed, beside the bed, down the wall, and piled inside the closet. It’s a guest room befitting the reigning Canning Queen of Calloway County.

On Saturday morning, we got up early and went to the Hopkins County Farmer’s Market. We got there just after it opened, and many of the vendors were still arriving and setting up. We walked through the booths and made a few purchases. Then it was time to head home and start getting things together.

It didn’t take long to slice 70 cucumbers, even if Vicki insisted on cutting them by hand rather than using the slicer.

As I washed 70 cucumbers, Rita made the brine. Just as we finished setting out the cutting boards and knives, her doorbell started ringing. The party was starting. Within minutes, we were laughing as Vicki Jean, dressed in a snazzy apple apron, danced her way into Rita’s house, nearing hurting herself in the process. Cheryl, Pam, and Rita started slicing cucumbers using vegetable slicers. Vicki insisted on cutting the cucumbers by hand. Before long, we had half the cucumbers sliced, and it was time to start slicing the onions. Since everybody was happy cutting up cucumbers, that left me to deal with the onions. By the second onion, tears were streaming down my face, and they were laughing hysterically as I attempted to carry on. It took no time to get everything sliced, including the onions. I packed the crocks layering cucumbers, onions, and sea salt until they were full. Then we waited for the cucumbers to “weep” their juices.

While we waited, we explored Rita’s canning stash. We’ve all made fun of her hoarding green beans. But who could blame her? If you’ve ever eaten freshly canned green beans, you’d hoard them too. Rita showed them the guest room where I’d slept the night before. With stunned faces, they walked in and stared at the stacks of jars. Unless you’re a canner, you can’t comprehend the space it takes until you organize your stash. We were delighted as Rita started handing us jars of her precious green beans, ripe tomato ketchup, and newly made apple butter. SCORE!!!

Then the doorbell rang again; Cathy had arrived. Cathy is the Hailey cousin that I was closest to growing up. Four years apart, she never made me feel like I was a pest. She always had time for me. She and my grandmother were big buddies.  We both cherished my grandmother Vivian’s adventurous spirit and were greatly influenced by her. Cathy recently took a big tumble out her garage door, and just like kids, we all had to inspect the bruises and offer our “expert” medical advice. Then the cucumbers were ready to start cooking.

My precious cousins easily learned how to make Bread and Butter pickles.

We all landed back in Rita’s kitchen and declared Vicki Jean the designated “pickle cooker.” After all, she had the apron. With each of us having an assigned duty, we got down to business.  Cheryl learned how to use the jar tongs (it was touch and go there at the beginning when she handed Pam a jar upside down.) Pam filled the jars perfectly, then would hand the filled jar to Cathy for the 2-piece lid assembly. Since Cathy’s right hand has 10 stitches, it was decided that Vicki would take over putting lids on the jars. Then Rita would wipe the jars and hand them to Cathy for tightening and cooling. Just like children, they picked and snapped at each other. Then they would collapse into fits of laughter. I stood back and soaked it in. My cousins were learning how to pickle on a perfect summer day because I couldn’t mourn anymore.  My heart swelled with love for them all. It isn’t ever easy to give up a Saturday. But they did because I asked them. And they were having fun and were planning another canning adventure with green beans.

As we sat and waited for the last jars to sterilize, we taste-tested some of Rita’s other pickles. Vicki and Cheryl quickly consumed two jelly jars, digging in with their fingers to grab the last pieces of sweet pickles.  Then Cathy’s daughter and son-in-law knocked on the door. Hailey and Nathan told us that the house smelled like pickles (from their tone, they didn’t think that was a good thing!). They’re expecting their first baby. Another cousin on the way, a new life to join the family.

Vicki insisted that we label the jars as Cousins Bread & Butter pickles. Cathy insisted that they wouldn’t last long enough to have labels.

In the end, we made 35 pints of Bread and Butter pickles. We divided up the lot and set back jars for Brenda, the one girl-cousin who couldn’t be with us.

After lunch, we kidnapped my brother Bill and visited our great-grandparent’s farm. The log cabin they lived in (that had belonged to our great-grandmother’s parents) still stands surrounded by the fields that my great-grandfather tended with a team of horses. That cabin is a strong reminder of the hard life they experienced and the strength of their character. From the farm, we went to the cemetery. The day couldn’t end without us visiting the graves of those who have gone before us. We each retold the story of how, when Daddy died, Mother bought 16 lots. Then she called Uncle Morton, who bought 32 lots. Then he called Uncle Jim, who bought another dozen over by Uncle Ink and Aunt June’s lots. In death, as in life, they wanted to be close to one another.

As I stood on the hill behind my father’s grave, I looked across the hundreds of stones that surround Providence Rural United Methodist Church, many of which belong to one side of my family or the other. That sight has always given me solace, even when I was a child and played in the cemetery during Young Adult Sunday suppers. I know where I come from. I know who I am. I know the sacrifices that were made for me and for the generations to come. It is not a sacrifice that I take lightly. And while I may live away, my heart will forever be a part of this place and these people.

I think Daddy would be proud of how I chose to celebrate his life. Even if it took me 25 years to finally get it right. Before we each headed home, we visited Uncle Morton. At 95 years young, his brilliant blue eyes have watched us all grow up and have families of our own. With obvious delight, he welcomed his nieces and asked about the pickles, chuckling at the thought of us canning together. But then he, more than any of us, understands what cousins can accomplish. After all, we’re really just brothers and sisters — tied together by the hearts of those before us.

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