Tag Archives: Whaleyville Virginia

The HEART of Christmas

Christmas dinner at 6416 Three Chopt Road mid 70’s

“Fla’Leigh, I need the table.” This will be my grandmother pleading with her oldest to please move her Christmas present wrapping project so that the big dining room table can be set for dinner. I haven’t quite got the spelling figured out; but, my grandmother is extremely good at blending my aunt’s given name of Florence Leigh, which is what she is always called by her parents, into a one syllable word. Others call her Flo. Most call her I.G. I think I get that tag for trying to say Florence Leigh and coming up with an overly simplified version that sticks, but no one else calls her like her mother does. It’s a definite mother daughter thing.

“Yes, Ma’am,” everything is swiftly moved to a beautiful round cherry side table that collects odds and ends. It would be dining room table enough in any standard size room.

As I wrap up another year of present wrapping using our own long dining room table with gifts stretched out in a long line by family, I.G. and her Christmas present wrapping flurry always comes to mind. After dinner, back come all the presents still to be wrapped and the fixings.

It’s a cozy set up. The dining room is centrally located with its floor to ceiling pocket doors always open. One doorway is a view of the open staircase in the central hall ever busy with eternal holiday bustle. Carolers easily fit there when they stop by to fete us. Because there is plenty of room we invite them in for a moment of warmth.

Another pocket doorway gives access to the living room where an eternal four hand game of bridge rotates between the six adults. It is also where the tree is, so wrapped presents quickly get dispatched to a spot in the ever growing pile.

Placing packages under the tree mid 70’s. The dining room pocket door is on the right.

How did I.G. score this perfect wrapping spot? Mom always wraps presents before we leave Ohio. She plans to be ready to play bridge and shop at a moment’s notice. She even puts on bows and it is up to Dad to see that the car is packed in such a way as to minimize crushing. He could easily have created the game of Tetris. He is an expert at working all the angles. But even so, some bows suffer. Finally after too many years of even slightly smashed bows, Mom compromises. She will add bows in Richmond.

My other aunt, Keese and her husband Martin, always stay in the former maid’s room located next to the kitchen with its own outside door to the second story back porch that spans the back of the kitchen. Thankfully for cold weather this room also has an added tiny access door at the back of the connecting closet that opens into the pantry. It’s like a small apartment complete with bathroom and enough space for wrapping presents.

And so the dining room table is free for the having as my grandmother will have wrapped her few gifts before the thirteen of us arrive. She always give country hams to her three children. We grands get the balance of her gifting attention. My freshman year in college she gives me a much longed for wrap around skirt. They are the current rage. Mother Leigh has no idea what a wrap around skirt is, but that does not deter her. She gets help from a friendly clerk at LaVogue, a high end store out of her shopping league, but it’s where fashion happens. It’s my favorite present that year.

At the dining room table, I.G. can wrap presents and still be part of all the fun activities. She’ll even take a rare break, allowing me to take over after I prove my worth at proper wrapping. Together we will put ribbons on her last gifts mere moments before Santa arrives.

The dining room has one more door. This door leads to all the things that wrap every one of our family gatherings up into a figurative bow. It’s a swinging door to the back hall and beyond that the kitchen. The kitchen is where my grandmother holds court from sunrise (well before any of us are up) to sunset. She sits in the chair behind my dad in the photo and makes biscuits, rolls, and so much more but these two stand out in my mind. She cuts perfect biscuits, a few at a time from an enormous dough ball, with a drinking glass. Alton Brown has nothing on her ingenuity.

My beautiful cousin Jett gone too soon, my Dad and my Aunt Keese in the only picture that I know of that exists showing the kitchen at 6416 Three Chopt. It had our heart and is our core.

Mother Leigh’s cooking is traditional southern comfort food. She gets a real ham deep in the country. Her favorite spot is a dusty two pump gas station between Suffolk and Whaleyville. I take her on this journey one time. Those of you who know of Cindy’s Kitchen sixteen layer chocolate cake procured at the gas station in Coinjock, here’s to gas station food always ringing true. Prior to our arrival, she cooks the ham to perfection. She makes red eye gravy from the drippings. All through Christmas a bit of it will be simmering on the stove, ready to go on a freshly baked biscuit.

The smell of Mother Leigh’s legendary coffee drifts throughout the enormous house and nudges late sleepers awake. There is a steep switchback staircase between the kitchen and dining room that gives quick access to this family hub. Breakfast is an ongoing affair, something hot always waiting for each of us as we stumble down the stairs in haphazard fashion all morning long.

I make myself learn to like black coffee like my adored Uncle Dick (also godfather), husband to endless present wrapper I.G. It’s a drip affair. Eight O’clock blend beans ground to drip specification on the spot at the down the street A&P. Not content to settle for ordinary and not willing to pay more for the richer Bokar Blend, Mother Leigh cleverly pours the economy Eight O’Clock through twice making it even richer than Bokar. My sibs, cousins and I have cut our teeth on her coffee milk, mostly milk & sugar with a splash of coffee. But as the oldest grand it is my responsibility to take up the mantle of adult coffee drinking. Only Dick is a hard core purist. It’s an acquired taste but I persevere and to this day prefer my coffee just this way.

Mother Leigh’s kitchen is the heart of our Christmas. It’s where we air differences. It’s where we make up. It’s where we solve the world’s problems. And we cherish every moment. We know we are blessed.

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Filed under Christmas, family, Richmond VA, Richmond VA West End, Three Chopt Road

Branch Leigh Arthur Jett

Mother Leigh & Other Dad

Mother Leigh (Leigh Jett) & Other Dad (Rev Starke Jett II)

“I’m your youngest daughter,” time and again I tell my grandmother, whom I am named after and whom I decide to call Mother Leigh. I live with my paternal grandparents (I name our grandfather Other Dad) so much in my single digit years that it feels like that to me. She smiles and pats me on the head, never a word one way or the other crossing her lips.

It is she who teaches me to cook, by example. Mom, a teen bride, becomes a great cook but in her early married life years she is just beginning to hone her skills.¬†Mother Leigh never lets lack of a recipe stop her. Once she chases a dressing that a chef refuses to divulge to her until she gets it to her liking. It’s simple but I can understand the elusiveness of it. It’s a sweet and sour combination dressing for a fruit salad. Donny & I both love it.

In my years with my grandparents (Other Dad is a minister on the Methodist circuit so they move a lot) I collect a plethora of amazing memories. Mother Leigh making me white sugar and butter sandwiches on the new time saver, sliced bread. Or scrapping the burnt topping off of breakfast toast and then convincing me that it is perfect. And she sells me on the chicken back. That piece that no one ever wants has a sweet chunk of hidden meat if you know where to look. Being a child of a successful gentleman farmer Mother Leigh learns this secret and more from her practical upbringing. She calls out a butcher if he offers her less than the prime cut of any animal. She knows where to find the best country hams. Usually in some out of the way gas station. She is onto the marvels of gas station food decades before it becomes popular.

Mother Leigh

Branch Leigh Arthur. She does not like the name Branch and always uses Leigh instead. She tells me that she is named Lee but that she changes it to Leigh when one of her brothers also named Lee keeps opening her mail.

A young wife and mother during the depression, she is never one to waste a thing. She has a continuous ball of saved string that she uses and adds to with such regularity that it hardly ever changes size. She gives me the task of turning plain lard packed in a new novel plastic sleeve into a buttery looking color by squeezing the red dot of food coloring tucked inside back and forth. She takes me with her to downtown Farmville, Virginia to buy real butter by the measure for special occasions. We walk. It is a short distance and ladies of her generation do not drive.

Mother Leigh spends her entire life going everywhere she wants to go, and she is a mover and a shaker, without ever getting behind the wheel of a car. Her oldest daughter, also a Leigh (Florence Leigh aka as IG. Go figure where that came from, no one seems to know. Not from me although I like it.) finally bites the bullet and learns to drive when she turns fifty.

I beg my grandmother to take me on a train ride and so she does, not once but over and over. We get our tickets at the tiny station in Farmville and patiently sit in the waiting room until our train arrives. The conductor helps us board, then folds up his steps and with a whistle the train leaves the station. We get off at the first town and take the next train home. It is all so exciting. I never tire of it.

When I am in college she quizzes the young neighbor girls and gets me the new fashion at the time, a wrap around skirt. (How could she know that I am wishing so hard for one.) She has no idea what they are but that doesn’t stop her. She takes the Westhampton bus to LaVogue (a very high fashion store) in downtown Richmond and tells the sales clerk what she needs.

evangeline

B Leigh (as she signs her books) plays the role of Evangeline in a ‘Colonial Tea’ at the local movie theater March 1911. Her note to me written in the flyleaf August 1968 just months before I meet Donny.

When we live in Whaleyville and there is no heat in the house, save a wood stove in the living room, she bundles me up in blankets warmed by the stove to make going to bed less chilling. And then rewarms the blankets as many times as I ask her. In Farmville she packs cold buttered rolls and the Sunday comics to entertain me while my grandfather preaches his sermon. No nursery for me. I will attend the service. But my young status is acknowledged. She knows the service will not ramble on. She taps her watch if my grandfather goes over his allotted minutes.

And the cooking, oh the cooking. She’ll gladly give you any recipe but it goes something like this. A lump of butter the size of an egg. About 3 cups of flour. Never an oven temperature or time with any of her recipes. She just knows and so will you after enough trials. She rolls biscuits from a huge ball of dough using a drinking glass to roll and then cut. She doesn’t own a spatula. Her knuckles do a better job of cleaning out a bowl than any tool.

wedding reception (1)

Our wedding reception at 6416 Three Chopt Road, June 7, 1969

She is her own woman. When she is a young adult, my grandfather is assigned to her family church in Alta Vista, Virginia. He pays all of his parishioners a visit. The day he arrives at my grandmother’s house she expresses no interest in meeting the new minister feeling that her sisters can cover the job well enough and sequesters herself in her room. Her mother will have no such nonsense and scoots her downstairs. At this point everyone is in the living room visiting. Slowly descending the staircase (think antebellum home) my grandmother pulls out her best manners for the young minister who rises to meet her, “So glad to meet you Rev Jett.” Her sister Clara’s up coming wedding at which he will officiate on her mind, she continues, “I understand that you will soon have the honor of changing one of our names.”

Already smitten by her charm and beauty he replies, not missing a beat, “I hope so Miss Arthur. I certainly hope so Miss Arthur.” She is teased the rest of her life for ‘proposing’ to my grandfather at their first meeting. She gives me her copy of Evangeline that seals the deal for their courtship. She writes their history on the flyleaf. She is the lead in the show and has gone with another but walks home with my grandfather who proposes to her.

And so there will be no other place for our wedding reception than her beautiful Richmond home. Miles from St James Episcopal Church where Donny & I are married makes no difference. I begin my formative years at her knee and I will enter my married life with her southern charm blessing our path.

With this I give you my last post for 2015 dedicated to the woman who set the grandmother bar for me. It’s a high one. I stretch up to reach it with her hand on my shoulder.

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Filed under family, Richmond VA West End, Three Chopt Road