Imperial Ham: The Wondrous Alchemy of Childhood in a Semi-Rural Township

In the summer of ’79, I came to live with my grandparents. The Greens owned 1/3rd of an acre in the small Limestone Township in Illinois. They had bought a tiny house with three rooms in the mid-1940’s. Over the years, my grandfather, the oldest of 12 children from a rural Kentucky family, added a large kitchen, am indoor bathroom and a back bedroom. The houses in the neighborhood were mostly larger with two stories and nearly all of them had large families. My mother was one of the few little girls on the block and held her own with the gang of boys who ran and played and shot arrows and bb guns.

IMG_2888

My mom with the neighborhood kids, second from left.

Every house also had a backyard vegetable garden. While the neighbors to the immediate right had corn and beans, my grandparents had a brilliant, strong nightshade patch. Bell peppers, okra, eggplant and some of the largest and sweetest beefsteak tomatoes on the Earth.  That summer we also added cucumbers. My grandfather could grow anything he put in the ground.

He worked at it, he watered and weeded and whistled parts of songs.

gpafarm

Grandpa Alvie Green with my uncle and my mom.

And in late June, we would walk back to the further edge of the yard, across the swath of thick, Kentucky bluegrass. We’d pick one of the 3 to 4 pound scarlet gem tomatoes, rinse it with the garden hose and bite right in. There was a magic in the ritual of it, to the true reward of working with nature, There was a bliss and comfort to it.  A heaven that did not come from some store. It came from the dirt where you grew up. It came from the plot of land chosen by a WWII veteran who decided to migrate from his home in Kentucky and make a life for his wife and children. That tomato was a manifestation of love and home and family.IMG_2887

We’d make glorious sandwiches of Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip and thick tomato slices. We’d make pepper relish. My grandmother would marinate the cucumbers with onions in vinegar, salt and sugar. When I was sunburnt or started to break out, she would pulverize a cucumber and put the juice on my skin. We would trade our extras with neighbors. There was an unspoken connection and wealth in the ability to share.

That summer, my grandmother asked my grandfather for a meat grinder. And he bought it for her. It was huge. It was supermarket-deli huge. It had a lot of sharp, shiny parts which I was told not to touch. It was loud. I immediately hated it.  She bought it for one thing: Imperial ham.

Not to grind beef or make sausage. We raised no animals except the baby squirrels that my grandfather trained to come and take walnuts from his shirt pockets. They were friends, not food. Imperial ham.  What is Imperial ham?  Well…

It’s baloney. And mayonnaise. And onion. And sweet pickles. And it’s somehow suddenly a royal delicacy. Apparently, if you put baloney through a meat grinder and add these things in the proper amounts, a certain kind of alchemy occurs in which it is now both Imperial and Ham. There is nothing like it. It smells weird and it tastes like summer and it’s amazing on white bread. And especially magical topped with a tomato slice.  And a side of marinated cucumbers. We would put it all on white paper plates, sit outside in the big swing together, watching neighbors and squirrels.

IMG_2884

I remember it clear and precious, because we have had nothing like it for so long. Everyone I shared that with has died. My grandfather in 1997, grandmother in 2001 and my mother in 2010. I am heartened because I am seeing a renewal in the importance of local family gardening. Small farms that have grown to bring their organic bounty to market.  People who can grow anything and what they produce is beautiful and healthy, fresh and practical food to share, tokens and totems of home and family and love.

I dream of having the right and proper place to do the same one day.

 

Poetry: Mermaids

The first mermaid legend came from Assyria. Sea goddess Atargatis was made half-human for accidentally killing her human lover. Sirens, undines, malevolent waves and crests, selkies stories are ancient. As old as lamia or Lilith or were-creatures. Each story built on themes of sex and and death and the desire to possess abilities and beauty without consequence.
A-ningyo
A-Ningyo
Why? There are enough earthbound mythic monstrosities roaming the haunted forests and windy moors. Witches and bogeymen aplenty lurking in caves and closets. Fear of our demise through the supernatural has been around since our common grunting ancestors heard something in the dark that was not familiar.  And then there is the sea. It’s no coincidence that historically, biblically and geographically that Mesopotamia (the cradle of civilization) is nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates. Water is life. But even greater, water is bacteria!
Fiji-Mermaid
The Fiji Mermaid
On January 30, 2017, Sam Russell published this article:
It’s a mind-blowing read. It’s the prequel to Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Eschewing the primate loop, abandoning the man with one less rib in a pefect garden. It postulates that the stuff that makes us the creature we are today, was basically a primordial kombucha batch from 540 million years ago. And we were NOT attractive in the least.
saccorhytus
A Saccorhytus. Our ancestors?
So what is it we fear with mermaids?
Drowning?  Losing our life by the pressure and glory of taking in all that salt, all that bacteria, all that magick to become fish food. To give our corporeal selves over to desire, drift in the siren song until our breath is not enough to sustain us. To attach ourselves in a haze to beauty until it murders us. To willingly love a creature whose world we cannot inhabit.
mermainchurch
Mermaid carved in a bench Zennor Church, Cornwall UK.
Or is it simply to give in to the call of what we once were?  To reconnect with ancestors in a way far deeper than anything that can be mapped through genealogy. What do we lose in ourselves when we blindly believe a theory?  What do we regain in ourselves when we allow a story to take root in us?
Are you a dreamer or an independent thinker?  Are you driven by love or fear?
egypt
Egyptian cave drawings depicting merfolk.
If mermaids are us, then they are that part of us that stubbornly refused to leave the ancient waters. They are the part of us that builds unseen, ornate kingdoms where only the imagination can visit without dying. They are the part of us that wants revenge on ourselves for buying into the idea that life is so much better on land.  Mermaids want to prove that they were right all along to stay in the briny, prehistoric depths where technology, money, fashion, celebrity and all modern human trappings mean nothing.
Remember what you where before you became what you are? Mermaids do. That is what their siren songs are about.  There is a beauty beyond all this earthly treasure, there is an authenticity to your being for which evolution provides no escape.
In my poem below, the mermaids have surrounded a drowning man. He is no more to them than a toy, an air-filled thing that has come untethered, an amusement.
Mermaids
You spring from the green
sea, a bloated
baby half-airborne, pink
fat nude bald sentient,
wheezing like some beached orca. Earth bleached salt
and scales from
your body.
You vanish; only your
sunburntscalp, salmon pink breaks the milky
surface.
Hairs on your back
prickle, clinging beads of ocean water.
Your hand, stripped of
its webbing clamors to your
sky-god. He does
nothing
to save
you.
You evolved from
dark ooze
without Him.
You bob against the waves like
some grotesque purple
ragdoll.
Your skin colored with madness.
You receive our briny kiss.
Lungs fail. Machines stop with hollow,
empty roaring like the inside
of a spiral shell.
We mermaids embrace you.
We wrap you in seaweed, pickle you in
brine, place green bronze coins
over your pale
dead eyes, and breathe into
your gaping futile
mouth;
It’s an old joke, still
it makes
us laugh.