Aunt Lona ( p ro – nounced Loney) Adams was married to my Uncle Willie who was my mom’s oldest brother and they lived next door to us, some 250 yards down the hollow there in the head of Blair Branch. Points East
My younger brothers and I were always glad when Dad and Mom needed to go to town or to a funeral wake because Aunt Lona would “baby-sit” us, which meant we got away with mischief that our parents would not tolerate. She even taught us how to roll and smoke rabbit tobacco, a wild herb also known as life everlasting.
She wore a big apron with a pocket on the front where she carried a can of Prince Albert tobacco and a pack of OCB (Old Country Boy) rolling papers. Her everyday aprons were dotted with dozens of tiny brown holes where slivers of burning tobacco had fallen while she sat and smoked.
It also meant making fudge, baking cookies, popping corn and, in warm weather, frying potatoes, bacon and cornmeal fritters in a big iron skillet on an open fire outside. Sometimes we might kill a frying chicken and fix it over the open fire and it would be flavored by the wood smoke from the fire she made of wood chips scattered about the chopping block.
Essentially, all she did was give instructions and we boys did all the work such as peeling and slicing the potatoes, scalding and picking feathers off the chickens, gathering up the wood chips and keeping the fire going, stirring fudge until our arms ached.
I can remember whining and complaining when Mom asked me to perform the same chores but with Aunt Lona, any chore turned out to be great fun even if it was mopping the linoleum-covered kitchen floor. She was a jolly woman and her constant happy demeanor was infectious. She laughed loudly and often and her eyes twinkled with delight when she was in the presence of children.
It was practically impossible to be around Aunt Lona and not feel secure and at ease with the world. She was also one of those rare individuals whose cooking was so distinct that you could almost always tell that whatever you were eating had been prepared by Aunt Lona, whether it was fried chicken, gingerbread or breakfast gravy.
No other woman in our huge extended family could fix what we called “fruit cake” that was in the same league as Aunt Lona’s. “Fruit cake” was actually a dessert made from five or so thin layers of spicy short bread with sauce made from dried apples spread between each layer and then finally the whole thing was covered with the sauce.
Aunt Lona would let the cake sit atop her refrigerator for a day to allow the juices from the apple mixture to soak in and the result was something rarely found this side of heaven. She never measured her ingredients. A pinch of nutmeg, dash of ginger and two or three dashes of cinnamon and allspice. A few scoops of flour, some baking powder, and just enough sugar. The spices and flour were sifted several times in an old hand-cranked sifter, a chore that I dearly loved to perform.
Into the dry stuff went an egg or two, molasses, sugar, and melted lard. The end result was a dough not quite as thick as biscuits that she patted down to less than an inch in cast iron skillets and then baked in a coal- and woodfi red oven. There was no thermometer involved, but Aunt Lona knew how to keep the oven heat just right and the cakes were done when they smelled the way they were supposed to.
On numerous occasions when I was home from college on weekends, I would talk Aunt Lona into making a fruit cake that I could take back to my room where I hid it under the bed and sparingly shared with my roommate. At Christmas I would give her a 12- can carton of Prince Albert and a pack or two of OCBs.
Aunt Lona spent the last 10 years or so of her life with her daughter, Inis, on a mountaintop near Clintwood Va. She passed over to the other side in 1981. She was 82 and she is buried beside my Uncle Willie there under the pines and cedars in our little family plot at the head of Blair Branch.
Sometimes when the air is just barely moving at dusk here in Paint Lick, I will be sitting on the front porch and thinking about home and I would almost swear that I can smell her shortbread baking on the breeze.