In Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard we take an adventure with Starla, a fiesty nine-year-old girl who runs away from her strict grandmother’s home in 1963 down in Mississippi. Starla’s ultimate goal is to get herself to Nashville, to see her momma who is a famous singer. But seeing as how she’s nine, Starla’s only means of transportation are her feet. That is until she accepts a ride from Eula, a black woman traveling alone with a white baby. This unusual trio makes its way through the south in order to get Starla to her momma. Throughout this road trip, Starla realizes for the first time what life really is and how to reach for her dreams of what life could be like one day.
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I got up the next morning and it looked like Eula had been up all night baking. I bet she’d used up everything in Miss Cyrena’s kitchen that could be made into a pie or cake. And she didn’t even have a single order yet.
I stood there looking at them all lined up on the table. “How come you baked all these?”
Eula was at the counter, her hand deep in a mixing bowl, squeezing and patting, squeezing and patting. “Sometimes I just gotta bake.”
“What’s this one?” I pointed to a pie that kinda looked like apple, but not.
“Green tomato, for Miss Cyrena. She near ate the last one all herself.” Eula leaned close. “So I reckon it might be her favorite.”
“That one pumpkin?”
“And that?” I pointed to a round cake with a hole in the middle.
“Surely you know apple-dapple cake?”
I shook my head. “Never seen a cake with a hole.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Angel food?”
I shook my head.
“Well, we got our work cut out for us. You gotta know what they taste like if’n you gonna make ‘em.”
I eyed the table. There was lots of things that didn’t look familiar.
“We gotta eat ‘em all?” I was all for sweets, but even I couldn’t eat all these, even if I had a week.
“Miss Cyrena said she’d take some in town, maybe give out a sample to some of the restaurants and a couple of her friends. Try to scare up some business.”
Then it hit me. Eula and I had to know if I was gonna make ‘em. “Am I helpin’?”
I nodded. This’d be almost as good as when I got to Nashville and got to make Christmas cookies with Lulu.
“Good. A lot of soothin’ come from bakin’. Get your hands washed and down in this here dough.” She wiped her hands on her apron and stepped back. “We makin’ a chess pie.”
“Shouldn’t I use a spoon?” I asked before I plunged my hands in the bowl. “Mamie always said to keep your fingers out of what you’re makin.”
“Oh, no, child. Gotta get your hands deep in a pie crust. That how you know when it right. Just gotta barely hold together. Too wet and it won’t be nice and flaky.”
We spent the rest of the morning making that chess pie. Eula explained to me how you had to use ice water when mixin’ crust. She showed me how to put it in the pie tin and brush it with egg white and prick it with a fork and bake it for a few minutes before adding the filling – which was mostly eggs and sugar, but had cornmeal in it! – to be baked. That made for a nice crisp crust, she said. But it was only for a chess pie. Every pie, it had its own special trick. I wanted to learn them all.
Eula was right, baking was soothin’. Too bad baby James was too little to do baking, maybe he wouldn’t cry as much.
The baking business in Miss Cyrena’s town turned out to be real good. So good that I didn’t even have time to go out and collect bottles for deposit money. I was a little sorry ‘cause I missed being outside.
Me and Eula … I mean Eula and I (Miss Cyrena was real picky about the way we talked in her house; Mamie was too, but I cared what Miss Cyrena thought of me so I tried) we started rolling out pie crust and mixing cake and muffin batters first thing in the morning, even before we ate breakfast. When I bellyached about being hungry, Eula told me I was lucky that Miss Cyrena had a nice new electric mixer or breakfast would be even later.
Even though I had to wait for breakfast, I was glad Eula had decided to do baking instead of going to work at people’s houses and whatnot. I could keep my eye on her and know she was safe. Besides, if she hadn’t I might never have found out something about myself. Turned out, taking care of babies wasn’t my only gift. Eula said I got me a special gift for rolling pie crust, too. She only had to show me how to do it once. And then she helped me with my first one by putting her hands over mine and letting me get the feel for how hard to press the rolling pin and how to go this way and that to make the dough a circle. In the four days we’d been baking, I’d only rolled one too thing and had to start over. Eula said that messing with the pie dough – she called it “working” the dough, but I was the one working, so it didn’t make any sense to me – too much made it tough and not nice and flaky, so I was real careful from them on.
I wondered, what other gifts I got bottled up inside me? That question had started to gnaw on me some.
That Thursday morning, my wondering was bigger than ever. And so was the orders. Folks in Miss Cyrena’s town must eat an extra lot of cake and pie on Friday and Saturday, so Eula said we had to work extra-fast – which made our conversationing time shorter. We wouldn’t get to sit at the table and have a banana and a glass of milk while we waited for a batch to come out of the oven. That was my favorite time of day, me and Eula at the table talking with the timer ticking behind our words. I’d already found out she’d been a maid to three different houses with kids before she switched to baking. When I asked why she changed families (Bess and Ernestine sure had stayed put with their families), she’d got real quiet before she said it was ‘cause she loved them babies too much. She said that was the reason she changed to baking, too; too much baby love. That didn’t make a lick of sense to me, but she got some tears stuck in her eyes, so I didn’t ask any more about it.
Even though our conversationing time wasn’t gonna be, I was determined to get my questions asked about my gifts. Just as soon as we had the pie dough getting cold in the Frigidaire and the first cakes in the oven, me and – Eula and I finally got to sit down and eat our grits and eggs and fried bacon. Miss Cyrena said Frosted Flakes was nothing but sugar, and a growing child needed protein. I’d been growing just fine on Frosted Flakes so far, but didn’t argue ‘cause we was guests in her house.
Even though I was starvin’, as soon as Eula finished saying grace I got right to it. “Eula, you got any more special gifts … other’n pies and babies?”
She stopped with her coffee cup halfway to her mouth. She shook her head. “Reckon not … none that I know ‘bout anyhow.” She blew on the coffee, then took a sip.
“When did you know ‘bout the ones you got?”
“Well now, the babies come early, when I helpin’ my cousin take care of the littler cousins while their momma worked.”
“How old were you?” I was wondering if I was late in finding my own gifts, or right on time.
“Changed the first diaper when I was four.” She wrinkled her nose and waved her hand under it. “Stinky one, too.” She laughed a little. “You find out someday. Them new baby ones like baby James has ain’t so bad yet. I was takin’ care of ‘em all on my own by the time I was nine.” She picked up her knife and nodded for me to start eating, too. “Time short, eat up.”
I felt a little disappointed. I thought having the gift before I was ten was real special.
I swung my bare feet, liking the feel of the linoleum swish, swish, swish with the tick-tick of the timer as I thought. I put a big bit of eggs into my mouth.
As Eula buttered her toast, she said “Soothed the colic in the baby when I was eight. The rest just come a little at a time.”
“How’d you know ‘bout the pies?” I asked. My mouth was full, but Miss Cyrena wasn’t in the room to scold me.
“Here’s the thing ‘bout gif’s.” Eula stopped buttering her toast and looked straight at me. “A body don’t know how many the good Lord tucked inside them until the time is right. I reckon a person could go a whole life and not know. That why you gotta try lots of things, many as you can … experiment.”
I took a bite out of bacon, forgetting that I always saved if for last because it was my favorite.
Mamie always made me do the things she wanted me to do, which was never the interesting stuff. Whenever I asked to do something, she said I’d make too much mess, or too much noise, or it was too dangerous, or I’d break something, or people would think I was unladylike, or think I was trashy. Why, if I hadn’t met Eula, I might never have found out about the babies or the pie crust.
“How do you know what to try?” I asked. There don’t seem to be enough time to try everything. What if I was trying race-car driving (dangerous, unladylike, and trashy) when my gift was really doctoring animals?
She looked at me like I wasn’t getting the point. “Why, when your mind gets curious ‘bout somethin’, you know you should experiment. You a white child, you can do anything you want!”
I snorted. “you don’t know my mamie.” I realized too late that I wasn’t stickin’ to my story. I held my breath for Eula to say something, but she didn’t even look my way, so I reckon she was so caught up in talkin’ gifts that she missed it.
“I ain’t sayin’ doin’ it right the second it pops into your mind. Rules keep a child safe. But as you growin’, the chances gonna be there for you. Why you can be anythin’ when you grow up.”
The way she said it got me thinking. Mamie said girls grow up to be secretaries or nurses or teachers and then turn into mommas, and that’s their job for the rest of their life. But my momma was famous for being a singer. She must have tried things that weren’t secretarying or nursing to find out she had a gift.
Right then I got a little sick feeling in my belly. She had been a momma … but had to leave to get famous. Do you have to choose one or the other?
Eula said, “you got all sorts of gif’s hidin’ inside you. I can tell.”
“Clear as the sun in the sky!”
“What are they?”
“Ohhh,” she said real serious. “They don’t got names yet. That’s the part you have to find out with your experimentin’.”
The timer went ding! Eula got up to check the cakes with a toothpick; that’s how you could tell if they was done. As she did, she patted my shoulder. “Jus’ remember, they’s all there inside you, waitin’ to be found.”
I sat there finishing my breakfast, feeling around inside to see if my mind got curious about something.
Curiosities started snapping like popcorn.
If you were to run away one day and leave life as you know it behind, where would you go? What would be your ultimate destination?
Answer in a comment below by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, September 25 for your chance to win a copy of WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD by Susan Crandall!
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