Photo by Marc St. Gil

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My Place is in the Kitchen

Girl children born in the 1960s were not taught how to shoot. Even the most progressive-thinking of fathers didn’t consider it a rite of passage to stand his daughter up against a board fence so she wouldn’t get knocked on her backside, point to a target of straw bales in an open pasture and tell her to pull the trigger. I walked past the gun cabinet a hundred times a day, begged an uncle or grandfather to hold me up so I could reach the deer head mounted on the wall above it. It was the one corner of the dining room that belonged to men. It held none of the things the women cared about—a great-grandmother’s Haviland china or Aunt Maude’s cut-glass butter dish. No one let me near any of that stuff. I could pet the deer, though, could be part of that sacred corner, but only with the help of a man.

My father was an excellent shot, and everyone in the county knew it to be true. I don’t remember anyone having to tell me how straight his aim was. I just always knew. There were trophies in a case he built for himself, trophies of his countless wins at trapshooting events. He let me play with those sometimes, rearrange them, read the inscriptions when I was older. Freezers stayed packed full of turkeys and hams, his winnings from shooting. Neighbors, too, shared in the spoils. When a pig got out of a fence and was hit by a car, maimed but not killed, those same neighbors came to get my dad to put it out of its misery. It was his job to do the killing of the steers on butchering day. My papaw bought him a gun special for the task. My daddy could shoot.

I remember standing at his side many times during his never-ending battle with groundhogs. He explained to me that the holes to their tunnels were a danger to the horses and a danger to me if I was riding. I’m pretty sure he just plain hated them, their holes as good an excuse as any to shoot them dead. He would rest against the board fence and whisper, “Hold your ears, Sissy, I’m fixin’ to nail him to the cross.”

Shootin’ things was men’s work. I never thought to ask why.

Truth is, I didn’t want so much to kill anything as to be a part of it all, the ritual of cleaning the guns, the packing for the hunting trips, the loading of the shotgun shells and that Holy Grail, the tackle box. My dad had a tackle box bigger than anyone who fished with him, and in my mind and in reality, you could have survived Armageddon using what was in that box. Four tiers of compartments splayed out on each side of the thing when opened, and because my dad and his dad, and I for that matter, carry a tradition of being resourceful types, that tackle box contained genius.

Dad discovered—I don’t know how but suspect it originated in dares due to alcohol consumption—that a container of Old Spice stick deodorant was not only airtight and watertight, but that the damn thing would float. Once it had served the purpose of keeping him from stinking, it was cleaned out and fashioned into a holder for matches. “You never, ever, want your matches to get wet,” he would say to me as he filled it and put it in exactly the right compartment. My people tend to lean toward the obsessive.

An empty pill bottle held cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly so those desert-dry matches could be put to use. Knives were so sharp I was not allowed to hold them, even in their sheaths. Dad put his name on everything using one of those label makers, the kind you had to dial to get the right letter and then squeeze with both hands to make an impression on black tape.

I loved to see him get out the tackle box and prepare for a trip. I would sit on the floor watching, listening to him talk about this lure and that reel. I cannot remember one valuable piece of information, nothing that would be of any use in catching a fish or shooting a deer. I just loved hearing him talk. Before he left, I would say, “If you find an orphan deer, will you bring it home for me?” and he would promise to do exactly that, and then they would be gone, all of them, and I would be stuck with a family full of women.

They talked about people, the women in my family. They didn’t speak of how straight their rows of corn were or how clean they kept their toolsheds. They never commented on the weather, never held a hand over their eyes for shade and said, “I believe that one is a redtail.” They didn’t sit on the porch in the swing, cigarette glowing in the coming darkness, listen to the quail in the orchard and ask, “Can you hear them? Listen, now. Can you hear him say, ‘Bob WHITE, Bob WHITE?’ ” No, their entertainment was a full-throttle thrashing of everyone living that they could think to name, and when they ran out of breathing folks, they moved on to the transgressions of the deceased. The women in my family never forget anything.

In a week, sometimes two, the men would be coming home, and I would stand at the window, staring down the gravel road, until my grandmother would say to sit down, I was worryin’ her to death. Any sign of a vehicle meant it was more than likely the men. Heavy traffic was not an issue on our road. Soon, but not soon enough, there they’d be, unloading the take, carrying in the coolers.

That’s when it got good.

If you were a quiet girl child, and I learned to be just that for this purpose, you could sit on the top steps of the basement and listen to the talk. They knew I was there. They must have. I don’t recall much swearing. (It was my great-aunt Marvel, a fine, fine old woman, who taught me to cuss like a sailor. She chain-smoked, had a high voice to prove it, and mailed me books wrapped in brown paper.) There was excitement in these first hours home. I had to be patient, wait for them to settle down and get to the real storytelling. It was always, every time, worth the wait.

They did not teach me to shoot. Instead, I learned to measure flour. Biscuits, that’s the first thing a girl on the farm learns to make. After my debut batch, my daddy said he believed those were the best biscuits he “ever eat,” and not being a stupid child, I kept baking.

As long as food was brought to the table, they would stay there and talk. If you brought glasses of tea to the toolshed, they would take a minute to drink and talk. I could listen because I had to wait for them to finish so as not to leave my grandmother’s glasses on the workbench. Only I forgot. Often. So when I was threatened with violence if I took anymore of her precious Tupperware to the barn, I learned to open the refrigerator in the basement, the one that held only small bottles of Coca-Cola, stand on a chair to use the bottle opener bolted to a wooden block on the concrete wall and tote as many Cokes as there were men fixing something somewhere.

Grandfathers died, uncles divorced their way out of the family, and a stroke took from my father his gift for hitting anything at which he pointed a gun. Men don’t come home from the hunt anymore. I don’t hear their footsteps on my porch stomping off the mud, putting down the coolers. That is gone, and I miss it.

My father didn’t write any books about his adventures. He was too busy working eighteen-hour shifts in the factory and coming home to help his father and his father-in-law work their farms, my maternal grandfather’s own children being too sorry to be much help at anything, the root of my hatred for laziness. There are no written pages with the stories my father told, the stories he lived. Instead, his guns serve as his books, and I have them. I cannot shoot them, but I have them, and they tell me the story of the log that was sticking out of the water in a lake in Canada, the log my daddy thought might lurk large enough beneath the surface to damage a boat and so fired up the motor to steer around it. As he did, he watched the log become a bull moose and rise from the waters that kept the flies off his back. I know that story real good. I know them all. The women in my family never forget anything.

Now, on the back half of my forties, I am dependent on the writings of Guy de la Valdene and Jimbo Meador. I am stuck waiting, waiting for the next book Charles Gaines will write, the next magazine article published, the next story John Currence will tell of the camaraderie and laughter, of the tradition and the table. I can only wait.

That girl child still stands at the window and looks down a gravel road. But now it is the postman who kicks up dust as he brings to her the stories of the hunt, books wrapped in brown paper.