My grandfather, Minice Butler Huffman (I knew him as Pawdy) was born in Catahoula Parish, Louisiana around 1911. I say around because he was born at home, had no birth certificate, did not celebrate birthdays, and no one really knew how old he was. His father was an obese moonshiner who did not care much for him. The story that Pawdy told me most often was of a time when he was about ten years old and his father sent him out into the bayou after dinner. He gave Pawdy a shotgun and two shells. He said to him, “Minice, our family’s dinner depends on you. You have two shots here; I want you to come home with two ducks. If you don’t get two ducks, don’t come home.” Predictably, he merely wounded the second duck and had to chase it through the swamp until twilight. By the time Pawdy was 12 he had left home and his father’s heart had given out.
He fell in love with Louisiana/French girl Clara Leona Chevallier in the neighboring town of Jonesville and regularly walked the twelve miles to court her. They got married in 1937, (they were old by the standards of the day, at twenty-six and twenty-eight) had nine kids, and scratched out a living farming a small patch of ground. In 1959 they moved to Tulip, Arkansas, and purchased the farm where my mother grew up and left home.
By the time I was old enough to know him, Pawdy was a seventy year old curmudgeon, living near Arkadelphia and helping to farm 360 acres that my uncle Hidle (read: the feddle gummit) owned. He left the house every morning at daylight and worked until after dark. Sometimes Granny could get him to come in for lunch by yelling for him out the back door. She eventually got sick of that and started running a dishtowel up the chimney as a signal flag when lunch was on the table. Every night when he came in from the fields after dark, he would crumble up leftover cornbread in a glass of buttermilk for supper. He called whole milk “sweet milk” and refused to put it in the refrigerator. He left it sitting out on the kitchen table and drank it sour. When we would make disgusted faces at him he would say. “You’d do the same if you knew how healthy it is!”
Granny could cook. I mean she could really cook. Her baked duck would melt in your mouth. There was always a perfect bundt cake sitting on the table. She put the urp in purple-hull peas. She could make squirrel and dumplings that would drive a vegan to carnivorous fits. She could do the fried squirrel and gravy thing too, but don’t reach for the head. Pawdy’s got dibs on the squirrel brains. When we had a holiday meal and Granny and her girls would get in that kitchen, the resulting tablescape was such a vista that someone would have to take pictures before the kids were allowed to dig in.
Pawdy raised hogs, cows, and chickens to eat and sell. When he and Granny would butcher an animal themselves, nothing much got thrown away. I can remember cranking the hand powered meat grinder and feeding sausage into the natural casings they had harvested. When my dad and I came back from fishing or a hunting excursion, Pawdy would watch and shake his head in disapproval as we cleaned our game. When we were finished, he would take our bucket of scraps and use them to make dinner.
When Pawdy went hunting it was because the family needed meat; not for “sport,” which he despised. He always rode his old black mare on these hunting trips and refused to wear the blaze orange vests and hats that the law prescribes. His horse was very skittish and he was the only person that she would let ride her, but Pawdy could shoot a gun from her back without spooking her. This was an effective hunting method, too. It turns out that animals that are keen to a human’s presence don’t even notice a horse coming around. One deer season he rode right up to a monstrous twelve-point buck and blasted it at point blank range.
He walked behind this same horse dragging an ancient spade to plow a garden, just like it was done in the middle ages. This even though Hidle (read: the feddle gummit) had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of high tech farm equipment that he could have used, and my dad had repeatedly offered him use of his gas powered tiller.
He was part owner of the mineral rights on an oil producing lot back in Louisiana. Every year when my uncle Ronnie came up to Arkansas to visit, he would bring Pawdy a quart jar of crude. Pawdy would hold the jar up to the sun, then screw off the top, dip his index finger in the crude, and take a taste of it. His interest in the mineral rights was a very small percentage and it did not make him any money, but it was worth it to him to get to taste fresh earth every spring.
Around 1990, the feddle gummit finally came to collect the copious amounts of money that my uncle had borrowed. When he could not pay, they took the farm instead and he ran away into a north Arkansas whiskey bottle. Granny’s health was getting pretty bad, and by chance the house next to my parents was empty, so she and Pawdy moved in. Granny continued to deteriorate, and Pawdy spent the last several years of her life as her private nurse. He cooked for her, bathed her, moved her from the bed to the chair and back, and generally kept her out of a nursing home – which was where she would have been otherwise. Neither of them left the house for a long time.
Granny died on a Wednesday afternoon in the hospital in Arkadelphia. She took her last breath with my family standing in a circle around her, holding hands. We got home that night and Pawdy said, “Well I reckun’ I’ll go home and go to bed. I got to go there sometime.” And he did. He just walked home and went on with his life.
The next spring he discovered my dad’s gas powered tiller. He never had used a tiller before, why bother when he had a good horse and plow? But he quickly found out why everyone had embraced the gas powered tiller. Pawdy proceeded to plow up his entire yard and plant it in vegetables. When that was finished he plowed up my parent’s yard. By mid-summer he had the grandest suburban vegetable garden the world had ever seen. There were okra plants twelve feet high. The surplus was more than we could eat and more than we could give away.