My grandmother taught me to drive. I mean, she didn’t teach me to feather the clutch or work the stick shift or anything like that, but she set an example. She used to take us on all these back roads in East Texas looking for whatever the woods and winding roads would deign to show us. I remember the exhilaration I felt as we went around curves on dirt roads and I felt the tires let loose of the road and begin to slide in a kind of controlled chaos. It wasn’t rally racing by any stretch of the imagination, but it could spark a few fantasies for a child.
When we weren’t sliding through turns and building better berms, we were exploring graves behind old churches looking for kin. Apparently, my roots run six feet under the East Texas clay and sand with more than a few entanglements. We would almost always find someone related, but I guess she knew just where they’d be, so she wasn’t performing acts of magic, even if I couldn’t figure out the trick.
For sustenance we’d stop along the way to pick blackberries, muscadine (I was an adult before I figured out they weren’t called Musky Dimes), pecans, and sassafras root (for home made root beer). From time to time, we’d also steal a little bark from a zanthoxylum clava-herculis tree, or Toothache Tree. I wouldn’t want to rely on this bark for actual dental work, but it sure did make the tongue tingle and feel a little numb. It’s the same chemical you find in hot Szechuan oil, so you may be familiar even if you never chewed the bark of an actual Toothache Tree.
My grandmother hated her name, Lula Mae, so anyone who knew her well called her “Sis,” even if they weren’t related to her. Anyone who didn’t know her well enough to call her Sis would have to settle for Mrs. Walding, and I never heard anyone complain about that, either. If you stopped to see her, you would get a glass of iced tea immediately and most likely a meal would be offered in due course. If you were really lucky, you’d be offered a slice of freshly made coconut pie. Over the years, people have gotten the impression that I love coconut pie, but I’m really pretty indifferent to coconut pie generally. I loved my grandmother’s pie, specifically. She always shredded fresh coconut herself, and she seemed to have a preternatural ability to sculpt the perfect merengue. I’ve never met anyone who could do it better.