How many hundreds of times have I watched my Grandmothers, Aunts and Mother’s hands deftly turn raw flour, shortening and buttermilk into biscuits? With the addition of a little sugar and vanilla that same mixture would turn into melt in my mouth sugar cookies.
In my earliest memories of Grandmother Hattie Gay’s kitchen I am seated on the 6’ long bench hand carved by Granddaddy, my elbows propped on the table, drinking in the sights and smells of Grandmother’s bustling endeavors. Grandmother made cat head biscuits…the kind of biscuits that would see a man through a day of cutting timber or laying railroad line. Her biscuits were huge, more like tomcat head size, and for a little girl of 3 or 4, required both hands just to lift them from plate to mouth.
She always had a churn of butter going so when those biscuits made their way out of the wood fired oven there was a mound of butter waiting to be slid between bottom and top. On special occasions she would have some black strap molasses heated on the stove, into which a pinch of baking soda had been whipped. Once the ‘lasses foamed, the biscuits were torn apart and that hot ‘lasses poured over both sides. It was only when I was an adult that I heard the phrase that fit, “to die for”.
Aunt Bonnie’s hands could turn out a pan of cathead biscuits as well. She, like her mother, would use fresh ingredients, a wood fired oven and make the same miracle. Aunt Bonnie had the rolling pin that her Grandpa Samp had carved for his wife using a solid piece of poplar wood. Even so, Aunt Bonnie never actually rolled out the dough, but rather patted them into a round shape and took her tin can and cut out the biscuits. She said the more you worked the dough, the tougher the biscuit. The little leftover bits she would pull into a longish shape, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and tuck in the bread pan alongside the biscuits.
Mother doesn’t make cat head biscuits. She likes her biscuits a little less doughy and a little smaller. They taste just as good but, somehow, my eye and my mind are at war with each other. It just seems like such a waste of effort to butter and ‘lasses what should rightly, to my mind, be a ham biscuit biscuit. You know, one of those cute little biscuits made by beating the dough 300 or 400 times.
I, as you might imagine, make cat head biscuits. When Mother and Daddy visit, I do try to remember to make a couple of ham biscuit size biscuits but my hands reject the betrayal. It is always an argument to get my hands to pat out thinner dough in smaller sizes. Too often my hands are the victors and the loss is my mothers. When I bring the biscuits to the table, I see in her eyes a slight disappointment. Once again, I have failed her and we are each reminded of the differences between us.
My parents have a snapshot taken of me when I was 6. I stare defiantly into the camera and am wearing a cowgirl outfit complete with hat, boots and twin six shooters. I’m seated on a pony attached to a carousel and the owner had interrupted my daydreaming long enough for whom – Mother or Daddy? – to take my picture.
I always wanted to be a cowboy and live on a farm (never a ranch). I wanted to tend to animals, fix fences, work a garden but never hang curtains, vacuum rugs or wash dishes. On top of the betrayal of not wanting to be a “girly” girl I also made cat head biscuits.
My mother has often despaired of me over the years; but she and I are also alike in many ways. I share her tender heart toward animals, children and old people, her love of books (especially the Bible), putting up (canning) the garden every year and her dislike of wasting anything.
As importantly, I share her hands. Side by side the older and younger hands speak silently to decades of honest work, of loving play, of making a life for our families and ourselves. In her case, she tries to keep her nails manicured; I simply try to keep mine trimmed and clean. In the years I’ve lived on our farm, I’ve had nail polish on exactly one time but I do wear good gloves and that helps. Working with the sheep also helps as the lanolin works its way into my hands and, eventually, softens them somewhat.
I don’t think Mother understands my love of the farm, the mountains, my horses and sheep. She questions why I do the physical labor necessary to keep the farm going. My lifestyle puzzles her much, I imagine, as I did when she was trying to tame an unruly tomboy into a ribbon and lace little girl.
It is not in our physical looks that we are alike either. She is dark haired, brown-eyed and turns a lovely golden brown in the sun. I am her exact opposite; I am blond, green-eyed and sallow skinned. Rather it is in what lies below the surface that bonds us more tightly than death could separate. We are both strong women with strong opinions, strong likes and dislikes, strong love and hatreds. It is in our strengths that I find I am, after all, my Mother’s daughter. I look at our hands, Mom…our hands and our hearts.