Monday, August 1, 2011

Watermelons Cooled in the Creek

Afternoons beside the Illinois River are not my earliest memories, but they are certainly memories I hold dear. Sun-dappled waters, clear enough to see the tiny bait fish nipping at our feet; cold stream-fed waters, a pebble palette of pinks and bronzes and eggshell, below and along the shore. Our dog’s soft pink feet grew sore as she padded after every member of our family, patiently keeping watch, waiting for some of lunch to be tossed her way. As strangers floated by in canoes, we waved. Dad gathered clues about where the fish were biting from men in flat-bottom boats.

For these afternoons, Mother packed homefried chicken, Dad’s favorite. He said her chicken was better than anyone else’s, even the chicken sold in fine restaurants. Mom said her secret was being willing to make a mess and clean it up.

“The oil has to be so hot,” she said, “that the batter sears and crisps up while the meat inside turns white. Fried chicken has to cook fast and hot or it soaks up the grease; a cook has to let the oil sputter and spatter, and she has to wipe down every square inch of her stove when she’s through.”

Mother also stirred together the family recipe for potato salad, tangy with dill pickle and a touch of mustard to take the shine off the Miracle Whip. She added bread and butter sandwiches, more pickles, black olives sometimes, warm sliced tomatoes, and watermelon. These are still among my favorite foods--probably because I associate them with picnics beside the Illinois and special occasions like Dad’s July birthday in July.

The picnic lunch filled the back seat between my sister and me. The poor dog hopped in the trunk because we didn’t know better back then and because Mother would not let her go if she would be put in the car, smelling of wet dog.  One of Mother’s first acts when we arrived was to carry the watermelon to the river, dog at her heels, and let it drop. Sometimes, after hard rains, we wrapped a rope around the melon’s length and again around its width, securing one end under a large rock on shore so that the river could not steal our dessert, but most of the time, the river was not at all wild and the melon stayed put.

We learned not to venture in too deep when we’d had the gift of rain after we watched the river catch our dog, Cinderella, and carry her downstream even as she paddled hard upstream. We hopped up and down on the rocky shore, calling her name and shouting for Dad, fishing downstream. He just shifted his pole from left hand to right, as if he’d saved a dog from drowning many times, and grabbed her by the tail as she floated by. We cheered and ran to lead the dog back to us and keep her close.

When the water was not too deep or fast, we climbed into big truck tire inner-tubes and floated, letting the water spin us with the current. We paddled only hard enough to stay away from low-hanging tree branches. Someone told us or we made up a story that snakes hang in those trees just to slither onto the backs of children and hitch a ride downstream. Along the route, we scanned the deep shady pools for big fish, especially lazy, fat catfish. When we sighted one, we hollered for Dad to come catch them, but he only promised to look later while staying downstream, farther from our play, letting the waters wrap around his legs as he cast and reeled over and over.

We ate after Dad caught a mess of fish and tied his stringer close to our picnic place. Then Mom made us take naps on blankets in the shade. When we awoke, the sun was halfway between high noon and twilight and the watermelon was cool. It was never cold, just cool, and Dad never failed to tease Mother about her silly habit of cooling melon in the creek. “Who ever heard of such a thing?” he asked and smiled, but no other melon has ever tasted sweeter to me.