As we walked up the rock and dirt path to the quaint house, we could already sense that we were going back in time. A wire mesh covered the small front porch with ivy and other wandering plants winding their way in and out of it above our heads. Next to the front door a now yellowed paper was tack to the house telling us of the dangers of drugs that had been found grown in the area many years ago.
We stepped in through the front door and had to wait a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room as there were only a few antique lamps set throughout the room. A thin layer of smoke hung in the air just below the beams that stretched at odd angles across the ceiling. The smell and warmth of the old wood stove greeted our noses and skin first thing. An elaborate tapestry, stitched by its owner, of "Daniel in a Den of Lions" hung framed on one wall next to another thick antique, but empty, frame. Next to a well used children's story book with frayed edges, sat a petite, solid brass, ladies' dress boot gathering dust.
The floor boards under our feet creaked in a few places as we ventured our way past inlayed shelves stocked with jars of every kind and color of canned fruit, vegetable, and meat you can imagine. Stepping into the kitchen, the aroma of food directed our noses and eyes to a huge kettle of simmering stew waiting next to a steaming pan of freshly baked yet crudely cut corn bread. Tw large pitchers of southern sweet tea sat on the crowded kitchen bar next to many thick glass mugs full of ice. My thoughts reminded me that caffeine gives me headaches. To the left of the stone fireplace built by her Cherokee husband, hung a painting of that very spot, with an old couple and a golden retriever gathered around, warming themselves in front of it.
"Isn't nice." Ruby stated, and then all, in turn, exclaimed how wonderful and realistic it was.
I thought the chairs looked like they might fall over and the proportions of a few things looked a little off.
"It's very nice." She stated again, "Now, my husband really like this one, except he said it wasn't right. He said, 'My hair's the wrong color.' He was a Cherokee man, and his hair was as black as night. We used to laugh at that."
Ruby looked at us out of the corner of her dancing eyes, then turned her own gray head toward us and grabbed our curiosity with her words, "You know, we didn't even speak each other's language when we got married!"
She paused a moment to give the eight of us a chance to gasp and exclaim.
"How did you decide to get married then?" Nancy asked.
"He used to walk down the dirt road by my house every day," she explained, "its possible to communicate without words you know, and when we got married, it didn't take long to find out what marriage is all about, even without language."
Then, just as suddenly as she brought up the subject, she directed our attention back to her old house.
"Why, he even built this very house for me many years ago. Now look at this wonderful room!"
We stepped down through a small open doorway and saw an adjoining room full of windows, almost like a green house. The sun sent streams of light in through the vines of various green hanging plants. An old wooden table filled the center of the room so we took positions around it and stood in awe with what captured our eye. Paints and brushes of all colors and sizes were scattered about. All eyes were drawn to a half finished painting of bright life-like irises standing at the far corner of the table.
"Look at this painting, you'll never see anything like it," she stated.
"Never see another on like it?" I thought, "Why, I've already seen hundreds of paintings of flowers. Sure it is pretty, but what makes this one any different from all the others?"
"Now come over here so you can see it better." Ruby directed, "Aren't these irises beautiful brother Ray?"
With that lead in, Mr. Ray Chitwood couldn't help but continue his boisterous telling of Ruby's artistic abilities that the world never had the opportunity to discover.
"Ruby entered a painting in a contest once, and she easily took first prize, but otherwise her art is just hanging in the homes of her family. Someone asked her to paint these irises and said they would pay her to do it. I think she should up the price, and if they don't pay it, Gene and I will."
Mrs. Chitwood agreed with a small laugh that she always used when she wasn't sure what others were thinking. Her thin face showed a smile as she said, "I think the irises would look lovely in my country kitchen."
"Yes, if Ruby didn't give her art away to all her family, she could be rich!" Mr Chitwood almost shouted.
"Oh, Brother Ray!" Ruby said, but one look at her face showed no signs of doubt or disbelief in that fact.
"Now you boys and girls are hungry. How about some of that delicious food?" She turned and headed back into the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, "Come and get some southern sweet tea. It's the best you'll ever taste!"
"There she goes again, making claims she cannot have the right to claim," I thought, "I will decide that for myself."
Mr. Chitwood said a prayer of thanks for the food and a hearty praise for the hands that made it, then we dug in, filling our large mismatched ceramic bowls to the top as Ruby directed, and taking hand sized pieces of cornbread.
"Mmmms," and "Ahhhs," and "Wows" escaped lips between bites.
It tasted just like any stew to me.
All the girls and Mr. Chitwood sat crowded along the kitchen bar (I sat atop a big stump with my legs dangling down, and Sian and Paul ate at the table by the irises. Ruby sat down with empty hands and a big smile for she had gotten hungry and eaten while waiting for us to arrive.
I wished that I wasn't being watched as I reacted to what I ate. The southern sweet tea was as any other I had tasted in Cherokee country. Our bowls of stew filled with spoon size chunks of beef, potatoes, and carrots, were seasoned nicely to someone else's tastes, but I feasted on the laughter that seasoned the room as Ruby recounted to us mischievous stories of her childhood.
"Have some more of my wonderful stew," she inserted more than once. "You'll never taste anything like it again! Here boys, finish this pitcher of sweet tea."
Again my thoughts replied that stew was not really one of my favorites, and yes, I would probably taste many like it in the future.
Somehow Ruby got Mr. Chitwood in such a jovial mood with her stories and her exclamations of, "You tell it brother Ray," that he forgot his problems of the day and entertained us with jokes, silly dances, and wild laughter.
At the point where stomachs begin to ache with laughter and the belt buckles are loosened a notch, each finished the final bite of their second (or third, or forth) helping of food and managed to convince Ruby that we stopped eating because of satisfaction, not distaste, though I had eaten so much that I would probably have distaste for stew anytime I saw it again.
"Now, wasn't that the best food you've every tasted!" Ruby exclaimed, then, without waiting for the answer my mind was forming, she took a few strides over to her pot bellied stove and came back carrying two of the biggest pies a person has ever seen. My stomach moaned just thinking of stuffing anything more in it.
"Brother Ray, I know you love my lemon pie, and I made a custard too!"
"Woop-ee, would you all look at that!" he exclaimed and received a large slice of each.
"How will I do this?" kept running through my mind. I watched wide eyed as a piece twice as large as I could possibly eat was lowered on to my plate, and then another.
"This is the best lemon pie you will every eat."
I remembered my mom's lemon pie, and I doubted it.
"You'll never forget it!"
Well, at least that part is right. My eyes met Jeanna's with eyebrows raised, and we both suppressed a laugh as the same was repeated at each plate. We began eating slowly. On small bite at a time passed our lips and stayed for a moment in our mouths before being swallowed, as if we were being sure to savor every morsel, when really we were just trying to find a space for it. The lemon, though very good when a person has room for it, made my mouth want to pucker, and the custard I slid onto Jeanna's plate after washing a few bites down with tea.
After many stories from Ruby and "Brother Ray," the pie had been eaten clean from all the plates I could see. Now all I had to do was endure this uncomfortable stuffed feeling for the rest of the visit.
Ruth and Natalie, a student who enjoyed the art that she herself did, were now engaged in a conversation on how to paint a glass vase over the stems of the irises, when fits of laughter burst from the other room. Seeing that the Chitwoods and Nancy were now involved in conversations trying to help put a bridge of understanding between the generation gap, Jeanna and I slipped into the little room where the guys were. Sean and Paul each sat (almost laid) slouched on their chairs with their legs stretched out in front of them, staring with glazed eyes ahead at their plates. The equivalent of half a pie each! Laughter burns calories, I hear.
Ruby beamed with pride to hear such happiness coming from within her usually quiet home, and suddenly I understood the importance of Ruby'l stew, cornbread, and sweet tea. My heart was stirred, and at last I tasted the flavors of this meal. Flavored with the uniqueness of it's maker, and seasoned with sweet laughter and fellowship, draped with adornment from an age most only read about, a meal unlike any I've had before. And on the day, it was the best meal I could ever have had.