It's been a while since I posted here, so thought I'd share something that crossed my mind this evening as I cooked supper. Hubby wanted burgers grilled outside (in 100 degree weather no less), so I did. As a side dish, I made what we call onion potatoes, which are basically cubed potatoes fried with seasoning and onions.. Every single time I make them, I think of my grandmother, Maw Maw Willie Lozano because I learned to make them from her. It's a rather long story, but here goes. You see, I learned one of my greatest life lessons thanks to her fried potato sandwiches and wrote this story about them.
I grew up in rural East Texas, and by today’s standards, poor. In fact, I am convinced the phrase “poor as a church mouse” was created with us in mind. The second of seven children, we lacked a lot of the material things most people take for granted, but we shared an abundance of love and faith that got us through all manner of difficulties. We were taught to be proud of who we were, keep our head high and ignore those who would attempt to embarrass or belittle us because of our situation in life.
There were no after school programs or sitters in those days so we spent a good part of our summers with my grandparents who were tenant farmers. They lived in the country, in a house with no electricity or running water and we had a variety of chores to complete before we got to play. We worked in the garden, gathered eggs, milked the cow and churned butter. Our favorite reward for this was to ride the wagon to town with Paw-paw when he sold his vegetables at the hitch lot (local Farmer’s Market), so called because of all the wagons ‘hitched’ there. We roamed the hills around their house without a care from daylight to dark, knew every neighbor around and they knew us.
And never once thought we were poor.
When I was about eight or nine, circumstances were such we had to live with my grandparents for a while. Paw-paw Willie (his wife was Maw-maw Willie) was a very proud man and did not want us getting free lunches at school so our homemade lunch consisted of whatever they had available. More often than not, it was Maw-maw Willie’s fried potato sandwiches. Not that we minded at all because we loved them. She cooked them in this huge cast iron skillet on a wood-burning stove with onions and garlic and butter – real butter, mind you, the kind we churned ourselves. Some cooked up nice and crispy while others were a little mushy. Then she would slice open a huge buttermilk biscuit, pile the potatoes on one side, top it with the other half and that became our lunch.
There are always those kids who take joy in ridiculing others and we got their attention because our clothes were old and patched, and because we ate weird stuff for lunch. We ignored them as much as we could but sometimes, it was just too much. Like the time my teacher, who had daughters about my age, brought some dresses to school for my two sisters and me to take home. We were so excited to have something new-to-us to wear, we could hardly wait to show off. The next day, we dressed with great care and proudly got on the bus.
Our joy was short-lived, however when the mean kids began teasing us about our hand-me-downs. By the time the day was over, we were all in tears. We ran off the bus and Maw-maw Willie listened patiently as we lamented our lot in life.
She dried our tears with the hem of her worn apron, poured us a glass of cool, fresh milk and said something I have never forgotten.
“The only reason someone makes fun of you is because they are jealous of something you have.”
I never heard such a ridiculous thing in my life. Jealous? Of us? “Maw-maw, we live with y’all in this old house with no electricity and we have to use the outhouse. Why would they be jealous of that?”
She insisted we had something they wanted and while we may not be rich in material things, what we did have money could not buy. “People who make fun of you do so because they are jealous; you have something they don’t." She went on to tell us how some people have to tear others down to make themselves look better.
My young mind tried to make sense of what she said without success. And then it dawned on me. It was the sandwiches! They wanted our sandwiches!
The next day, when the teasing started, I said I knew why they did it and it now and was not going to let it bother me anymore, and no matter what they said, they would never, ever get my fried potato sandwich.
Needless to say, this change in tactic surprised them and before long, they moved on to someone else. A couple of other kids finally asked for a taste and I eventually shared bites with a select few, forming friendships in the process.
Times improved and by high school, those lean days were a distant memory. We grew up and each learned to deal with the world in our own way. As for me, I always reminded myself of what my grandmother told me all those years ago: “They are jealous of something you have and they want.”
With the clarity of adulthood, of course, I understand what she tried to tell me then which had nothing to do with what I ate and everything to do with belief in myself and being proud of who I was. But, as a child trying to understand the complexities of human nature, that sandwich explained everything.
To this day, I try to duplicate her recipe. While the results are always good, it was never quite the same. And then one day I finally realized what was I missing; it wasn’t the amount of garlic or butter I used; it wasn’t the wood stove or the iron skillet. It was the unwavering love in her heart that found its way into every single bite that made the difference. Her steadfast support made me believe I was special, that I could do anything, be anything and those sandwiches gave me that little something extra I needed to get through the hard times.
She passed away many years ago, but I swear sometimes I can still hear her say, “Don’t fret none, baby dear, they just want that fried potato sandwich I made for you.”