China berries and the pressure cooker of death

I was extremely fortunate to live close to my grandparents when I was a child. I spent many summers enjoying the shade of Granny Benton’s magnolia tree with my cousin Che’ Boy, dodging bees and china berries my Uncle Flip would wing at us with a sling shot from the branches of that evil damn berry tree.

Che’ and I spent endless hours walking in opposite directions on a dirt path around Granny’s house with no purpose other than to high-five each other when we met each pass. Of course, there were things to do along the way, like pick figs for Granny to can in the pressure cooker of death, or pluck Catawba worms off the Catawba bush for Uncle Flip and Uncle Bruce to go fishing with.

Che’ Boy’s daddy went to Vietnam, and we weren’t really sure where that was, but we knew it made his momma cry a lot. We were happy when Uncle Danny came home, but then they had to go to Germany and Che’ Boy was gone for a long time and Granny was sad again.

Grandad would load me up into his old, green pick-em’up truck for trips to the Western Auto and Piggly Wiggly. I sat in grocery buggies with ashtrays attached to the handle, so Grandad could rest his Winston cigarette directly in my face while making his full-fat-full-flavor ice cream choices. It was the 70’s, man. I didn’t wear a seat belt, either. Part of the fun of going to the store with Grandad was standing beside him on the bench seat of the pick-em up truck. It was magical.

Not everything was as magical as rides with Grandad. I dreaded canning season, the time of year when we were used as child slaves to snap more damn beans than the world could consume, and deal with the terrors of the pressure cooker of death.

Granny and Grandad owned the house I spent summers in for probably 50 years or more and there was never a time in which I can remember there not being an explosion mark on the ceiling of the kitchen from the pressure cooker of death.

This fucking thing was monstrous. It hissed and steamed and spit hot water like a cobra. And for a week at the end of each summer, it never stopped scaring the beejeezus out of everyone involved with the yearly canning process.

Close to the end of summer break, my entire extended female family would go to the farmer’s market up in Atlanta with the pick-em’ up truck and load that thing with enough stuff to can for six families to eat all winter. For a week after that, it was chaos, bean snapping and canning – and the fiery dragon of death pressure cooker that blew up at least once a year.

Of course, the grown-ups had us scared silly of it. I was afraid my hair would catch on fire if I got close to it. My Aunt Chiquita burned the skin off her finger messing with it. She had a blister that excused her from dish-washing for a month, so everyone teased her about doing it on purpose.

(This is still questionable, because the amount of dish-washing during canning season was almost as horrifying as the pressure cooker. Granny and Grandad had five kids; they never needed an automatic dishwasher.)

I hated canning season back then. I didn’t grasp why we couldn’t just buy a damn can of peas at the Pig instead of doing a week’s worth of manual labor to save twenty-nine cents. I didn’t realize then that those memories would be the emotional flotation devices I would rely on later in life to navigate stormy seas and fragile mental health.

I am so thankful for the memories and the people who made them with me. A lot of them have left the mortal coil, like my Great Aunt Peggy, who was tall, and terrifying and said “shit,” a lot. She was magnificent. She and Granny would conduct that kitchen like maestro’s and every time the pressure cooker blew up, Aunt Peggy would yell, “Shit!” and everyone would scatter.

The menfolk were never in the kitchen, but they did sit around the dining room table in the evenings, cleaning, trading and talking about guns. Of course, most of the gun stuff inside the house ended after the late John Dees accidentally shot a hole clean through my Granny’s new stand-up freezer. All the mommas yelled at John for being careless and the men took their guns elsewhere.

Granny put a piece of packing tape over the hole in the door of her freezer and the damn thing ran for another 20 years, long after John Dees passed from cancer. He was lucky my Aunt Peggy didn’t skin him alive when he discharged a firearm in a house full of people, but she was busy checking the pressure cooker to make sure it hadn’t exploded again.

It was a dangerous, wonderful life during the summers at Granny and Grandad’s. By today’s helicopter-parenting standards, every adult involved would have been arrested for child endangerment, when in fact it was life enrichment. We survived. We figured things out and we entertained ourselves. We drank Kool-aide made with real sugar and water from a backyard hose. We ate canned meat and stood in the sunshine for more than 15 minutes at a time.

And we had it good. Except for the exploding pressure cooker. Fuck that thing.