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Daily Journal
     May 13, 2021      #95-133 KDJ
 

The crossing from poor country to here 

By Gary W. Moore

I always try to make sure my column has a point to it. I want to share a life lesson and encourage readers to live an optimistic and positive life. As for this column, I really don’t know what the point is other than I’m missing my mom and dad now … and decided to write about them. I hope you’ll allow me just this once.

May I?

My dad grew up in the coal mining area of deep southern Illinois. If you asked my dad what nationality we were, he’d usually laugh, then respond, “Hillbilly.” My mom was from Sands Springs, Okla. When asked the same question, Mom would say, “Okie.”

As such, they lived their newly married years bringing their culture with them to their new northern Illinois home. I remember early in my life, eating lots of squirrel, rabbit and catfish. I remember a neighbor asking my dad in disbelief about eating squirrel, to which he answered, “When you catch a squirrel, it’s like being given a free chicken.”

I look back and realize two things. 1.) It was part of my parents’ culture, and 2.) It was an economic issue. My mom would fry squirrel just like chicken and it was delicious. I loved it. The rabbit was usually made into a soup or stew and the catfish fried in cornmeal.

I realize many of you are grossed out while a few may have some of the same early memories. When you were born into the Great Depression as both of my parents were, I think you ate what was available and were grateful.

Today, I look at my kids, nieces and nephews and realize they’ll be shocked to believe their dad and uncle ate squirrel ... and I did. Mom breaded the squirrel and fried it like chicken in an old cast iron skillet. After removing the squirrel, she’d make a milk gravy that we’d pour over the squirrel and fried potatoes. It was delicious.

I guess if tuna can be labeled “Chicken of the Sea,” squirrel can be labeled “Chicken of the Trees.” And I’d choose fried squirrel over tuna anytime.

My mom and dad are both gone but their lives and culture still course through our veins. I was born in Kankakee County, but I still feel as though the little coal mining town of Sesser, Ill., is home. There is a world of difference between where I live now in a growing suburban area, but when back in Sesser, I’m transported back, unconsciously using the dialect and accent of the area.

While on a book tour a few years ago, the route took me near Sand Springs, Okla., and I stopped at the family cemetery to see my two oldest brothers. Once again, even though I had not been there in 40 years, it immediately felt like home in ways my real birthplace never has.

The older I get, the more I yearn to relive my early days. To be scrambling up and down the streets of Sesser. To run past Caesar Marlow’s Bar and hear the voice inside yell, “Hey, aren’t you Gene Moore’s boy?” I’d stop and walk in. Someone would buy me a kiddy cocktail and start telling me stories about my dad and his baseball career. Getting up before the sun with my grandfather to go to the barn and get a bucket of coal for the furnace was an early morning joy. And yes, eating squirrel. The son of a Hillbilly and Okie is who I am, and I could not be prouder.

Our family prospered in an adopted life in the suburban north and our cuisine changed along with it. One thing that never changed was country music on the weekends and WSM Radio and the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights.

I moved to Chicago and received a degree in music education. And for a while, I turned my nose up to the music of my youth, but now it’s back in my life, and I love it. The food and music are permanent threads in the fabric of our family. Over Memorial Day weekend when we all get together, just open your car window and follow the sounds of Merle Haggard, George Jones, Ray Price and Dwight Yoakum ... and point your nose to the smell of barbecued ribs. There you’ll find the kids and grandkids of a Hillbilly and Okie, celebrating our family and heritage ... without the squirrel.

My mom and dad were far from perfect people. At times, I think I may have been unfairly critical of their lives and parenting skills. The truth is they loved us and did the best they knew how. I was never hungry or without clothes. Their children all turned out well and successful. Their grandkids and great-grandkids are wonderful. I’d say all-in-all Mom and Dad raised a successful family. They never left us and always loved us. I wish they were here so I could thank them.

As the saying goes, “What is remembered, lives.” I guess I not only want my parents remembered in our family, but I also wanted you to know them, too.

And besides ... no one could fry squirrel like my mom.

Gary W. Moore is a freelance columnist, speaker, and author of three books including the award-winning, critically acclaimed “Playing with the Enemy.” He can be contacted through the Daily Journal at editors@daily-journal.com.

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