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  • Writer's pictureK. Arthur

"Sugar Cane Elementary"

Updated: Apr 4

There was a ripe watermelon waiting on my arrival, with a salt shaker nearby because she knew I liked salted watermelon even better than I liked giant Sweet Tarts. Spending the night with Aunt Lilly and her tomcat Charlie was something I looked forward to every Summer.

"Can I rummage through your jewelry box?" I asked when I first got there. In the bottom of the coffer, she kept tarnished brooches and trinkets that she no longer wanted, costume jewelry treasures for the taking. I wore fancy clip-on earrings and bangles too big for my six-year-old wrists, while we played Crazy-8 with her Bridge-playing cards. At bedtime she recited the famous This Little Piggy nursery rhyme. "Aunt Lilly, Aunt Lilly, pop my toes!" I begged. Instead of gently tugging on each toe like aunts usually did, she cracked my little piggy joints producing a popping sound and a shriek of laughter from me, the kind of laughter that made the tom skittish and tear out running through the house. My bed was sink-in-the-middle soft and high off the wooden floor with a stepstool for climbing into it, and I fell fast asleep.

Morning brought the smell of pancakes and bacon sizzling on the griddle. The bacon was cut thick, as directly requested from the butcher at Piggly-Wiggly. Her griddle cakes were fluffy on the inside with a dark crispy ring around the edges. I have never figured out how she did that, but I think it has something to do with getting the temperature of the grease just right. A Mason jar of cane syrup and room-softened butter were set on the kitchenette table covered in vinyl.

After her divorce, Aunt Lilly lived in the second floor apartment above her older brother's main house. There was a broken down school bus in his backyard adjacent to a sugar cane plot. On days without rain, we played school outside. Being at least 60 years young at the time, she used a Massey-Ferguson tractor to fashion the sugar cane plot into a maze of hallways and small rooms. The tops of the canes were tall and made a nice canopy for shade. One room was reserved for the principal's office, where imaginary unruly students were sent for some sort of punishment other than a time-out, which didn't exist back then. We named the school Sugar Cane Elementary, and the old bus was permanently parked at its entrance.

I reckon the real reason for the sugar cane plot being there was to make syrup. Absent a cane mill, syrup was made by boiling chunks of the sugary pulp in a stock pot. Continuing to cook the syrup rendered blackstrap molasses. Not only did Aunt Lilly know how to make blackstrap, she knew how to use it. Although molasses are usually associated with slow movement, taking a teaspoon at night will produce anything but a slow movement the next morning, more effectively than prune juice. Bad toileting behavior aside, she used blackstrap molasses to make old-fashioned gingerbread, fruitcakes, and dressed-up baked beans. Apparently, fermented molasses eventually turns into rum. But my folks are Southern Baptists, tee-totallers, except for a few dissenters who are Methodists. I know about the rum because a homemade Christmas fruitcake wrapped in tinfoil reeks like Cooter Brown by Easter time.

She removed a pearl-handled Case knife from her pocket and took to cutting a thin green stalk. A hard exterior was peeled back exposing the sweet fibrous pulp that she cut into smaller pieces for chewing. We gnawed on the pieces until the sugar was all gone.

"You ready to spit?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," I eagerly replied.

We spit out a wad of the remaining pulp together, like two old men forcefully propelling a plug of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco to the ground. One small section of a stalk lasted us all day, while we taught reading, writing, and 'rithmetic to invisible children.

Maybe Aunt Lilly was making up for lost time. She was the youngest of eleven siblings, but being the baby of the family did not get her out of working on the farm. Like my grandmother, she was raised in the Piney Woods of Mississippi in the early 1900s. My grandmother told me, "If you were old enough to hold a hoe, you were old enough to work in the fields after school." I wondered if there wasn't enough playtime when my fun-loving aunt was growing up, if she played hopscotch, had a Raggedy Ann doll, or a tin of jacks. She was a child of the Great Depression, but she was as colorful as a sprung jack-in-the-box, arms stretched open and smile wide when she walked in a room. She liked surprising folks with a hug, and sometimes a temporary tattoo of red lipstick on their cheek. I loved her dearly -- and still do through the stories I tell.

Around the time I first started paying taxes, she moved into an assisted-living facility. I visited, we played cards, and talked about the good times we had at Sugar Cane Elementary. This time I brought the watermelon and the salt to her. But I forgot to ask how she made those pancakes with the crispy edges, so consistently.


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