The Importance of Ernest’s Cornbread

In November of 1977 my marriage and quite possibly my life were both saved by an eight by twelve-inch pan of cornbread. Not the metal pan itself, mind you, although had the situation been allowed to deteriorate any further, I may have required it defensively; perhaps to deflect a projectile. No, my salvation lay with the recipe for the pone itself, and its architect, its composer; my father. That he was some two-thousand three hundred miles away when he saved me was irrelevant, and actually, he didn’t know he was saving me at the time. Truth to tell, I wasn’t sure that he’d saved me until after the fact.

Bear with me, it’s a long story.

I am not a Southerner by birth; I am a Californian transplanted to the South by way of Colorado. My forty years as a Nashvillian notwithstanding, I confess that half of me still feels inexorably drawn towards The West and the birthplace of my mother; a longing I don’t believe any amount of time lived elsewhere will diminish.  It is the yin to my yang half, which is pure unadulterated East Tennessee DNA, courtesy my old man. Like the cellular tides within me that physically pull me towards the shores of the Pacific, I confess that I feel a similar, equally strong molecular magnetism when I’m around a pan of sawmill gravy; an iron skillet delicacy I believed for years was a beverage.

I moved to Tennessee in 1976 as part of my Five Year Plan on How to Fail in The Music Business — which worked beautifully, by the way.  Phase II: Using Your Publisher’s Office as a Second Home was just concluding when I met my wife, Murphy, and the entire itinerary basically went to hell in a handbasket. I still failed–successfully–but a little ahead of schedule, and not quite according to The Plan.

The story really begins about the time Murphy’s father reluctantly agreed to allow me into the family, an event which came to pass some four and a half months after our marriage: an earlier event which we notified both sets of parents about after it had happened. Not a good idea, in retrospect. I was suspect from day one; a ne’er do well, a rake, a roué. A transplanted libertine from the west coast who would have to prove his worth, have his mettle tested, and otherwise convince her father and mother that they shouldn’t simply kill me out of hand for marrying their daughter unannounced.

The kill me part came closest to happening one afternoon towards the end of November– the very day I speak of in this brief memoir–when Murphy and her mother both suggested that I ride to Sonny’s Bait Shop with my father-in-law, Bratten.

Now, I grew up around bait shops, and naturally jumped at the prospect. No better place on earth for a little male bonding with my new father-figure. And because he knew my Dad was a Tennessean, and had actually fished a good deal in that part of the country, I figured Bratten would be of the same sort of mind-set.

I kindly figured wrong on that one.

Murph and I had just driven in from Nashville, and I was still wearing my mid-70’s Twang Town wardrobe: two-inch platforms, blue stovepipes and a wool-knit tam. Like John Lennon’s. Way cool. I had on my favorite snap-button shirt, one I’d bought that summer at the Loretta Lynn Western Wear store in Donelson.  Midnight blue with about a thousand tiny little white stars. With the tam? Please. The whole look said … well, I don’t know, it said something. Frankly, I thought it said I looked fabulous.

Bratten, however, was of a…differing opinion. I knew this from overhearing the colorful way he was telling my mother-in-law, Jo Bill, that perhaps I should’ve chosen another ensemble. Something, perhaps, that made me look a little less like an idiot.

He said maybe three words to me on the way to Sonny’s. When we got there, he suggested I wait for him over by the minnow tank, that he’d just be a minute. Well hell, the minnow tank was a good twenty-five feet from the counter, where he ambled over and spent the next ten minutes be-essing with Sonny, who kept cutting one eye over towards me like we’re doing a scene from Easy Rider 2. Finally, he cocks his head towards the tank, then back to Bratten and says, “Who you got there with you, B.H?”

Bratten doesn’t turn his head, he lowers it, slowly, like an old horse, his eyes closing briefly as he exhales a long plume of smoke from the Camel that’s been alongside the toothpick that he keeps wedged between a coupla molars about halfway back in his jaw. The smoke hits the top of the old glass counter-top and spreads across it like dry ice across a concrete floor. His head shakes side-to-side almost imperceptibly. But before he can say anything, Sonny takes a long pull from his Lark, and fairly spits the smoke out. In the general direction of the minnow tank. “And where’d you get that hat, son?”, he asks me, the words pumping out with the smoke, like exhaust coughing out of a tailpipe.  “Carnaby Street?”

Eventually, Bratten introduced me–as we were driving away–and eventually Sonny and I became friends, but frankly, the whole thing kind of hurt my feelings. I’m a sensitive guy, you know, an artistic hyphenate, and trust me, I was sensing it. I was picking it up like a telegraph. For example, riding back in the Fleetwood I could sense that a nightcrawler would have a better chance of bonding with a small-mouth than me with my new father-in-law.

But that all changed in just a few hours.

It got worse.

I am not a vain person. I have as big an ego as I need, but, vain? I don’t think so.  At the time of this adventure, however, I was, maybe, just a tad vain. About hair, mainly; mine in particular. Principally because I was losing it. By the day. An aerial shot would have revealed expanding crop circles in the follicle fields of my pate, leaving distressed and bare ground where once grew mighty stands of strands, thick and dark. And wavy. Thick, dark and wavy. In the wake of this exodus, what hair I had left was…retracting; curling inwards at the ends in thinning strings; all a-knot and askew, giving me, when not wearing a hat, the appearance of a simpleton.

When bringing this to Murphy’s attention, knowing my wife shared my view of the importance of hair; mine in particular, she smartly suggested we go to Rite-Aid and buy a hair straightening kit for men. “Or maybe women,” she said. “We’ll see which works best.”

On the way back from the strip mall, I drove to Murphy’s parents’ in a state of almost giddy anticipation; a euphoric hunch that in a matter of hours, I would look like the guy on the front of the Pantene Pro-5 Straightening Creme box in the plastic Rite-Aid bag on the seat between us. That my strength, my… essence would be rejuvenated, re-awakened. Renewed.

And I’d be able to comb it again.

In today’s world of hair care, I’ve learned that straightening takes nothing more than a shampoo, a conditioner, and voila, you’re essentially done. In nineteen and seventy-seven, however, the process was a bit more involved, requiring me to commandeer the one bathroom in the house for a rather extended period of time. A couple of hours, if I remember right. For Step 1 and 2.

Alone and freshly shampooed, I carefully removed the contents of the box and arrayed them in order of use on the built-in shelf behind the vanity. Conditioners, tools, lotions, applicators, a cool comb (a comb!) and a special silver hat with an elastic band that fit over my head like a bathing cap made out of Reynolds Wrap. A perforated bathing cap made out of Reynolds Wrap. Perforated with scores of tiny little holes not much bigger around than a belt notch.

Like a surgeon prepping for the OR, I fit the cap snug around my head, snapped the elastic just above my ears, cracked opened the bathroom door and signaled Murphy, who was waiting patiently in the adjoining bedroom, keen to hasten the experiment and my new vitality. Together now in the bathroom, a towel caped across my shoulders, the cap upon my head, she selected a tool from the kit’s contents that looked like a yarn hook for doing macrame. With the dexterity and speed of a weaver, she deftly thrust the hooked end of the thing through each hole in the cap, rotating it slightly, as if twirling pasta around a fork, then pulled long cables of my hair through every port until the whole field of the cap looked like a rice paddy. Brown rice.

Swiftly, she selected a small tube of straightening lotion from the ingredients and with the Special Applicator, varnished all twenty-five hanks of hair flat against the top of the bathing cap, where they’d have to stay for the next hour. Finished, I stood, pulled the corners of the towel around my shoulders, pinching them at my throat like a manteau, and turned to face the mirror.

Which was precisely when Bratten opened the bathroom door.

Normally graced with a stoic visage—John Wayneian profile and jaw framing resolute, piercing eyes—I watched as the entire plain of his face changed in front of me. His mouth slowly slacked open, like it was being lowered mechanically, a half-smoked Camel hanging somehow on the rim of his lower lip. The toothpick hung on the edge of a piece of bridgework. His eyes went from the towel to the bathing cap and then to his daughter. He got three words out, “…What in the–”, and then she shut the door, muffling his last two words: “…goddamned hell….?”

The vocabulary choices one makes when cursing can reveal a great deal, if one pays attention. And, as Murphy herded her father to the other end of the house, he was revealing plenty. For example, through the bathroom door, I could hear him revealing to Jo Bill back in the kitchen how badly he’d like to see my license plate disappearing out of town, and our marriage license disappearing in an ashtray.

I looked quickly in the mirror, then looked at the Panasonic AM-FM LED clock radio on the vanity. I had fifty-three minutes left. I had to make a decision. I couldn’t very well remain locked in the bathroom for another fifty… two minutes, now, and sequestering myself in the back bedroom until I was presentable was out of the question. I was weighing the pros and cons of sneaking out the back door for a hit off the roach I’d saved from the drive up when Murph walked in.

“You can’t stay back here for another hour,” she said.

I glanced at the clock radio again and offered that it was actually only going to be more like forty-seven minutes now, but having inherited a great deal of the stoicism of her father, Murph didn’t see the humor I did. Nevertheless, she was right. I couldn’t stay back here. I was an actor…a musician… I was an an artist, for God’s sake. Image was everything. Every. Thing. And I, by God, was doing something about mine. More to the point, I was her husband. Their son-in-law. I had to find some way, some…tactic of connecting with her father. Bonding with him. Bridging the divide. Closing the gap. Taking his .22 shells away.

I suggested that we start packing when there was a knock at the bedroom door.

“Murph?” Jo Bill… Murph’s mom. “Are y’all ok?”

“We’re fine Mom.” Eyes cutting to me. “We’ll be right out. Do you need anything?”

“Well…” And then, like a song from an angel came seven words from Jo Bill Cook. Alone, they were merely seven plain and unassuming bits of language; one pronoun, one objective pronoun, two verbs, one preposition and article each, and one noun. Root terms employable in uncountable ways grammatically, and yet, strung together in the order in which they filtered through the bedroom door, they carried with them a power…a saving grace that seemed to fill the room with light. Seven common parts of speech that held the answer to all my hopes and my prayers. Seven words that would build the bridge to reach across this depthless gulf between me and the rocky, adamantine shoals of Bratten Hale Cook.

Seven simple words.

“I need you to make the cornbread.”

By the time of this story, the marriage that Murphy and I had was just shy of five months old. Not a stretch, by any stretch, but long enough of a spell that I’d already treated her to more than one pan of Ernest Ford’s cornbread over that short half a year. And with the occasional hint from the old man on his own recipe, each pan was better, lighter, and more golden that the last. Being a southern girl, she knew from cornbread, and like me, knew that our ship had just come in.

I stood up, snapped the towel off my shoulders and peeled the Reynolds Wrap cap off my head, leaving a crop of twenty-five saplings of hair still cabled together with straightening solution. I looked at the clock radio. Thirty-one minutes. To hell with it, I thought. We’re talking about cornbread, here.

I turned to Murph who took one look at me and dissolved onto the bed in near-silent hysterics, tears streaming down her face. I grabbed the ceramic-handled, paddle-styled hairbrush with cushioned and synthetic, round-capped bristles from off the chifforobe and thrust it her hand. “For God’s sake,” I said, “Snap out of it. I’ve got a bridge to build.”

____________________

I have no real recollection of how many squares out of that pan of cornbread Bratten ate that night. When I watched both he and Bill sopping up the redeye gravy she’d made with it, I knew that, while there would be (and there were) other gulfs, and other canyons, there was one less to cross than before.

Today, my marriage to Murph, like Bratten and Bill, is gone but for the memories. For thirty-three years I stood in their big kitchen in Smithville, a Cook in all but blood and name. Thirty-three years of births, deaths, fights. Christmases, Easters and Graduations. Vigils, elections and Fiddler’s Jamborees. Thirty-three years of hopes and dreams. Of love and of loss.And all of it…. all of it held together with the most unlikely bindery, the recipe for a family’s history, passing down through the years and generations.

A single pan of Ernest Ford’s southern cornbread.

 

Thank you, Dad.

 

© 2016. J. Buck Ford