Monday, June 20, 2016

"Frank and Mabel"
© By Jack Bogut

            Mabel was not pretty.  By all standard measure she was plain. But she was one of the most beautiful women I've ever known. She wore “bottle-bottom” glasses that were so thick they made her eyes look twice their size...and when she looked at you, she looked  at you!  I always swore she could look into my eyes and see right to my shoes.  Mabel was about shoulder high to an average sized man but seemed much taller.  She stood very erect,  squarely over her feet and seemed poised on the brink of something all the time.  Frank, her husband, used to say that she must have been an unruly child because she had two speeds: wide open and sleep.

            Mabel was also incredibly resourceful.  When her husband, Frank, was a fairly young man, he had a heart attack and was retired early from the railroad. He was just settling into some serious leisure time when Mabel informed him they were going to be chicken farmers.
            "What?"  Frank asked.
            "Chicken farmers.  We'll raise them together.  You'll butcher and clean them.  I'll inspect and sell them.  They'll be the finest chickens anyone can buy.
            “Chicken farmers!?"
            "Well, we're not going to just sit around and spend your pension, you know.  We're going to be busy and happy!"  
            Frank told me one time that he didn't dare be unhappy!

            If Mabel was a strong personality, she was also a gentle soul, with a soft, dry sense of humor that she used to constantly jab at herself as well as those around her.  She felt that she, as a person, was a little stuffy and needed to be “taken down a peg or two.”  She thought that would be a good idea for me too.  Because I had a radio show, I was considered to be a celebrity by some people—Mabel was not one of them!  She loved my wife and family and constantly told me that there was a chance, “Just a chance, mind you," that I had married above  my station in life.  She always said this with her back to me so I couldn't see the expression on her face or the twinkle in her eyes.

            This grand lady was also an early day Julia Child.  She was a wonderful cook who gave a running commentary to all within earshot as she candied orange, lemon and grapefruit rind, made pie crust so tender and flaky it would just barely hold the strawberries and rhubarb, home canned cherries, apples, blueberries and other fillings she used to make the desserts that live in my memory to this day.  My mouth waters as I write this.

            To outward appearances, Mabel Clift could have been considered a grump.  She was very intelligent, highly articulate and given to fearlessly correcting people, even those she didn't know (I always suspected she had been a teacher at one time but she wouldn't admit to it)!  Mabel never minced words, and she chose each one carefully, is if it had to mean something.  There was also a firmness to her jaw that created the impression she was in charge of everything.  The key to knowing and loving Mabel was looking her in the eye.  Those twin looking glasses into her soul gave her dead away.  In the midst of one of her gentle, cranky, tirades she was a soft touch for an arm around the shoulder or a waltz around the room.  Especially when she was working in the kitchen.  In fact, Frank, all six feet four inches of him, would pick her up and whirl her into a breathless giggle every time she started to give orders or dictate kitchen policy.  When the chips were down, Mabel was someone you'd want in your corner.

            Frank Clift was one of the tallest men our kids had ever seen. And one of the most handsome.  He stood ramrod straight when he walked and seemed like he was seven feet tall.  All the features in his face were rather grandly organized around high cheekbones, a perfectly straight nose sitting on a white mustache that only partially hid his teeth when he smiled, which was most of the time.

            There were lights behind his clear blue eyes that never went out and his gaze was direct.  Every time I saw him he looked like he'd just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  He was one of the most poorly disguised children I've ever known; one of those people you're always glad to see.

            Frank had worked for the railroad when he was a young man, traveling with the train for days at a time.  He had just enough of a heart attack to get him early retirement but not enough to spoil his lifestyle.
            “Death is nature’s way of saying you ought to slow down," he told me one time with a grin.

            Frank was seventy eight, Mabel seventy six, in their case, years young, when they kind of adopted us.  We became acquainted when Mabel sent some oatmeal-raisin cookies to the radio station.  She said in the enclosed note that they were for me but I should share them.  If I didn't, she wouldn't send me any more.  That sounded like an offer to me so I talked about "Mabel’s Cookies" on the air, she became slightly famous (a lady said something to her at a gas station), and the friendship was born.

            Frank and Mabel sent or brought us cookies, pies, cakes, packages of steaks and chickens.  It seemed the avalanche of goodies would never stop. If I went on a remote broadcast someplace, Frank and Mabel began to show up regularly; never obtrusive, never abusing the social privilege of watching someone work, they'd stay in the background until the time was right. 

            After a while I began to look for them, hoping I'd see their old pickup with a camper on the back; they went everywhere in that thing.  And it never occurred to them that they might get hurt when they were a hundred miles from nowhere; that one of them might become ill or break something.
            "Can't live your life in fear!"  Frank said.  “What kind of a life would that be?"
            The camper gave them the freedom and independence they both wanted.  It wasn't fancy but had been modified over the years so that it fit their lifestyle to a "T."  It contained an icebox, a kerosene stove, all the things necessary to cook over a campfire (including an oven), a pantry that was more like a small grocery store (never knew when company might drop in....and anyone who showed up was company), plenty of storage, a dinette that seated four and a bed for the two of them over the cab of the truck.  It was a true home on wheels.  And Mabel could and did whip up some real gourmet meals in that camper.

            One time I broadcast from a pure bred Cattle ranch about eighty miles from the station, and Frank and Mabel came out in their camper.  They said after I was done they'd meet me about “two miles down the dirt road to the right.”  Sure enough, there they were, camper parked on the banks of the Yellowstone river, cooking dinner.  Frank had caught and filleted four beautiful rainbow trout, Mabel had dredged them in salt, pepper and flour cooked them in a skillet full of bacon drippings.  They were the first course.  Frank was barbecuing three T-bone steaks on the grill outside.  I asked how they knew when to start cooking?
            "We listen to the radio?" he said with a wink.
            "Are those steaks about ready?"  Mabel hollered from inside the camper.
            “I’ll be ready before you are, old woman!" 
            “Be careful what you say, Jack's too young to hear talk like that," Mabel said as she appeared in the doorway of the camper with a wet dishtowel in her hand. Then, as Frank bent over to check the steaks, she snapped him right in the fanny.  Frank straightened up like he'd been shot.
            “Gaaahdd . . . bless America,"  he sang, looking a little sheepish.
            “My, that was a nice song, Mabel said.  Now, if you patriotic souls are ready, so's supper."
            You had to love her.

            Mabel insisted that Frank and I sit on the side of the table with a view of the river.  She sat across from him and the two of them needled each other the whole meal.  I think Frank must have run his foot up and down Mabel's leg a couple of times because I saw her fidget and squirm a little, stony-faced.  And when he tried to hold her hand, she whispered,
            “Don’t touch me!”
            He did it anyway. 
            They had more fun together than most people I know.

            We ate freshly caught trout, homemade coleslaw and those big steaks, pink in the middle and so tender they melted in your mouth.  We wolfed down hash browned potatoes with onions, home-made cottage cheese with chunks of home canned peaches hidden in the lumpy whiteness.  And then, as Frank poured big, thick mugs full of strong black coffee, Mabel brought out home-baked shortcake almost hidden by sweet, wild blackberries as big as your thumb. As Frank and I smiled she spooned dollop after dollop of real whipped cream on the berries in a pile so high it finally toppled over.  There wasn't much conversation during that meal.

            Afterwards, the three of us sat there for a long time, just listening to the river run, watching the day fade.  There was no need for talk.  There was eloquence all around us: the sinking sun pushed shadows stored in the cliffs behind us across the river like a blanket; we watched a bald eagle swoop down and soar up from the darkened water, bursting out of the shadow into what was left of the day still hanging over us.  The sunlight reflecting off the white feathers on his head was almost blinding; the cool air of evening moved around the table like velvet, freshening as a celestial rheostat slowly turned on the moon.

            We sat there like that for a short, long time until Mabel reached out and took Frank's hand.  And then, with her other hand she took mine.
            “I’ll get you some more coffee.  You can drink it while Frank and I do the dishes," she said.

            She did and I did and they did.  And it was at that moment that I remembered something I'd been told or read somewhere or maybe just felt.  A man's real wealth is his family, his health...and his friends.

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