The Sapient Next Door | Tea Cakes


Four O’Clocks Evening Bloom

Remember that you live best as appreciator of horizons whether you reach them or not.David Whyte


As a wee bit of a person, I considered being old as something mysterious and beloved. My parents were helpful in ushering me into life like that; we spent a lot of time with old folks. Wrinkled faces delivering barks and hugs felt like the real thing to me.

The memoirs of old people were better than story time. Sagas of love, loss and rehabilitation were fairy tales until I experienced some rough weather myself. Then they began to advise as a how-to or how-not-to handbook. Many truths prevail from those stories, but ultimately, I now see, the open-hearted win the day.

Mrs. Brown knew how to do it. Funny, she stands a goddess in my memory and I don’t know her first name. She was my old friend when I was five.

For decades at dusk, she was a steadfast walking partner to my grandmother after mealtime. We would meet on the sidewalk in front of their neighboring houses and strike out down Canal Street over the railroad tracks until the town of Yazoo City petered out. Then back again.

Mrs. Brown’s voice was soft and chimerical: her gait was playful. She laced her old fingers as she talked.

Likely born around 1900, she rode out a fire that swept away the Yazoo business district, The Great Depression, and World War II. Grateful by this time for routine, she counted her days in a slow cadence with my grandparents, CM and Margaret, on one side and brother and sister team, Emma and Alvin, on the other. Pre-air conditioning, they often would be seen rocking on their front porches in rhythm.

She and Mr. Brown lived much of their lives in a large rambling white wooden house with a side screen porch framed with irises.  The one car garage detached from the house was marked with a zen-like driveway of striped grass and pebbles.  Her bedroom and my grandparents’ kitchen were intimately close in proximity.

She spoke kindly of others. She lifted my sense of engagement by asking everyone questions in an excited voice. She spoke her feelings. She encouraged me to give my smile to everyone. My grandmother adored her.

One early fall evening before bedtime, my grandmother asked me to put a sweater over my pajamas. “Mrs. Brown wants to take a walk,” she said. Afterwards back home, we dawdled where driveways co-exist.

The next morning, my grandmother’s voice trembled at breakfast when she told me that Mrs. Brown had died in her sleep. The story goes that I told my grandmother that we must look for her because Mrs. Brown’s arms and legs were not seen hanging from the clouds where she must have gone up to heaven.

Though ascend she did. And in time so did my grandparents and then my parents. Before they each left, they slowed it down, their ambition a crazy world of the past. A prayerful way to live, it is now a sacred place in time where I reside and revere.

As Joan Didion said, “Self respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had it instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doings things that one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts aside, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.”

Like the walk you took with your friend and her granddaughter, when you felt like staying inside.


Jo Lynn’s Tea Cakes

Sometimes Mrs. Brown prepared a tin of cookies to help my Grandmother out when the grandchildren came for a visit. In honor of that gesture, I offer a delicacy from Jo Lynn Williams’s cookie repertoire. Mrs. Williams can ever bake a cookie.

1 egg
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Mix dry ingredients together, set aside. Combine sugar, butter and oil. Add egg. Stir in dry ingredients. Roll into ball and mash with bottom of glass (dipped in flour) or with fork. Bake at 325 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. These should be the lightest of brown. The dough works best if refrigerated over night.


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