Tuesday evening, Myrtle met Vera at La Página de Tierras for Taco Tuesday. Both of them chose the trio of beef, chicken and fish. With the unlimited chips and salsa, they were stuffed after dinner. It was a beautiful March night that hinted of the spring to come; so they decided to walk down McGregor Street to see if they could make room for some dessert. Vera tucked her arm into Myrtle’s and they strolled quietly. None of the retail stores were open but they both enjoyed window shopping almost as much as the real thing. They walked along one side and then turned to make their way back to their cars.
As they neared the parking lot, Myrtle said, “Do you think you’ve got room for a piece of pie? I’ve got one of Miss Freeman’s chocolate lovers delight. Can I tempt you?”
“You had me at ‘Miss Freeman’ and you know it. I’ll meet you at your house”, Vera replied.
When they arrived, Myrtle unlocked the door and heard the phone ringing. She rushed to reach it and answered breathlessly, “Hello.”
“Hello. Is this Myrtle Mills?”
“Yes it is. Who is calling?”
“My name is Elizabeth Jordan. I’m the daughter of Paul and Laura Jordan.”
“I know who you are, sweetheart. What can I do for you?” Myrtle asked
“I was hoping that you might be available this coming Saturday for a few minutes. If so, I can come by your house.”
“Oh, okay. I’m supposed to go to Columbia for the day but that can be rearranged. Please come.”
“If you are sure?” Elizabeth asked tentatively.
“Of course. Of course.”
“I’ll be there at 11:00 if that works.”
“That is absolutely fine. I will see you then.” Myrtle hung up the phone and said “huh”.
“Who the heck was that, Myrt? You have a very confused look on your face.”
“That was Elizabeth, Pop’s daughter. She wants to come see me on Saturday. I guess we no longer need to make that trip to Columbia. The mountain is coming to Muhammad.”
“That’s interesting…or something. Have you ever spoken with her before?” Vera asked.
“Nope. It’s strange; especially given the timing. But she sounded sad on the phone so how could I say no. Plus we were planning to try to go see her anyway.”
“Don’t furrow your brow Myrtle Mills. The years have given us enough wrinkles without you adding more over this. We will just see what she has to say when she gets here.” Vera said in a matter-of-fact fashion.
“You can’t get angry with me, Vera, but I don’t think you should be here. She called me and might not be willing to talk about whatever it is that she wants with someone else. There was something guarded in her voice on the phone and I can imagine it will only be worse face-to-face.” Myrtle glanced at her friend who didn’t seemed surprised by the request.
“That’s fine. That’s fine. You’re probably right anyway. What if I call up Shelby and see if she wants to go over to Johnny’s shack that day and we will talk to him?”
Myrtle felt a slight pang and realized that she was jealous of Vera and Shelby hanging out again this weekend. Shaking her head, she reminded herself that she and Vera had been friends their entire lives and she was being silly. “That sounds like a great idea, Vera. What if y’all do that and then we all meet here for dinner Saturday night?”
“You cooked dinner last time. Let’s meet at my house instead and I will make my famous chicken casserole with all the side dishes we love.” Vera said.
“That would be wonderful; I haven’t had your chicken casserole in ages. Now, before it gets too late, let’s have that chocolate pie.”
The remainder of the week was uneventful for Myrtle. She spent her days working and her nights doing her bible study homework, watching television and reading. When she got home Friday after work, she decided to take a walk and head over to Vivian and Steve’s house. She was thankful that her daughter and family lived just a few blocks away. When she arrived, she was greeted at the door by Vivian’s youngest, Cindy. Full of energy, the child never seemed to run out of steam. Everyone loved her infectious laugh and sweet disposition. Mary walked in the room shortly after that. While she was more reserved, she still had the sparkle in her eye that hinted of mischief.
“Girls, I swear you grow bigger every day. What is your Mama feeding you? And where is that daughter of mine?” She hugged both girls as she talked and felt her heart swell with love for them.
“Mama’s in the kitchen making dinner. It’s witches stew* tonight. Will you stay?” Mary said.
“If Vivian is okay with it, I just may do that.” Myrtle answered.
Walking into the kitchen, Myrtle saw her daughter at the stove. She could smell the onions browning on the stovetop. Beans and cooked hamburger meat were on the counter waiting to be added in. Turning around, Vivian exclaimed, “Where did you come from Mama? I didn’t know you were here.”
“Sorry, after I got home from work, I decided to walk over and see what you all were doing. The girls asked me to stay for dinner but I don’t want to impose.”
“Mama, you housed and fed me for 18 years, you are welcome here to dinner anytime. And, you know that witch’s stew serves as many as it needs to. Will you help me mix up the cornbread? I’ve already got the salad ready and in the fridge.”
Mary and Cindy had been standing off to the side to see if their Granny was staying. Mary said, “I’m going into my room to read until dinner. Is that okay?”
“Of course, Mary. Cindy, you go play in your room and I’ll call you both when everything is on the table. And, don’t forget the rules – I made dinner, so you two rascals are responsible for cleaning the kitchen after dinner.” Vivian said with a smile.
Both girls rolled their eyes (a family trait) but smiled and said in unison, “Of course, dear Mother.” They laughed and ran off to their rooms knowing that their Mama wasn’t angry.
Myrtle laughed as she grabbed an apron. “Those girls are so much like you. It’s payback, you know.” She started pulling the ingredients for the cornbread and grabbed a mixing bowl.
Vivian was slowly working on mixing everything together for the stew. She said with a wry grin, “Well, I’ve always been told that I take after you so I guess it runs in the family.” Turning to her mother she added, “You mentioned that you and Vera were asking some questions about Pop’s death but I haven’t had much time to talk to you about it. How is it going?”
With a sigh Myrtle proceeded to tell Vivian about the details she and Vera had been able to find. Because she trusted Vivian implicitly, she shared Rhonda’s story about Pop’s married lover and illegitimate child. She could see the wheels turning in Vivian’s head and decided to give her a few quiet moments and some space to think about the things she had just learned. Myrtle knew of her daughter’s ability to solve puzzles. Combine that with her inherited love of mysteries and she just might think of an angle that she and Vera had missed.
Vivian continued to stir the stew as Myrtle put the cornbread in the oven. With a furrowed brow, Vivian asked, “I know Rhonda said she didn’t know the year that Pop’s other daughter was born, but did she have any idea as to when or who it could have been?”
“If she did, she didn’t tell me. It was obviously after his divorce from Laura but before his marriage to Rhonda. That leaves a pretty wide open window.” Myrtle said with a sigh.
“It does but let’s think about things. He did eventually start sending money to the mother so maybe that’s an angle to investigate. Another thing is that if he told Rhonda this story, chances are he told other people he was close to. Who was his best friend?” Vivian asked.
“Honestly, I’m not sure he had a best friend.” Myrtle said sadly. “He worked and was friendly with his customers but it’s not like he went out and played golf or poker with buddies. From what I saw, he kept to himself when he wasn’t working. The only thing I can think of is that he might have told one of his children. After all, they had another sibling and he may have felt an obligation to let them know. I’m actually supposed to see Elizabeth this weekend. I will try to find a way to ask her about it.”
“I think you should do that, Mama. Unless the killing was random, my gut is telling me that this other child plays a part in this drama. But, be careful. I don’t want to see you pulled into something dangerous.”
Hugging her daughter, Myrtle assured her, “I will be careful. Don’t you worry, sweet pea.”
“Alright then. Let’s eat dinner.” Vivian went to get Steve, who was outside, working in the yard, and her daughters. Myrtle set the table and retrieved the cornbread from the oven. Transferring the stew to a serving bowl and getting the salad from the fridge, the food was ready as everyone else filed into the kitchen.
Steve washed his hands at the sink and then sat down. “Cindy Lou, why don’t you say the blessing.”
Blushing, she said, “Okay Daddy.” She closed her eyes and clasped her hands as she recited, “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. By his hands, we all are fed. Thank you for this daily bread. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhmeeeeeeeen.” She opened her eyes to see the adults smiling at her and Mary rolling her eyes (again). Cindy was infamous in the family for adding her personality to any blessing or song that she sang. This time she had chosen to sing “Amen” in the Gregorian chant style she heard on PBS earlier in the day during one of the boring documentaries her Mama was watching.
The family started filling their plates and the food was quickly consumed. Myrtle looked at the witches stew and remembered the day that she taught her daughter to make this simple dish that became a staple in their growing family. She smiled at Vivian and then thought of Pop’s daughter, hoping that she had grown up with all the love that was evidenced around the table this night.
After dinner, Myrtle spent several hours at Vivian’s house. Most of the time, they just all sat around and talked. That was all that a family needed. When it was time to go home, Steve insisted on driving her back even though it was only two blocks away. Myrtle was secretly pleased to have a son-in-law who was so attentive. Once home and ready for bed, she said a quick prayer of thanks for her family and that the next day’s meeting with Elizabeth would go smoothly. ‘Ahhhhhhhhhmeeeeeen.’ She thought to herself with a smile right before she fell asleep.
*See recipe below
Vivian’s Witches Stew
1 1/2 pounds hamburger meat (80% fat)
1 medium yellow onion
2 cans pork and beans (do not drain)
1/2-1 cup of ketchup (more or less to taste)*
Salt and pepper
In a large pan, cook the hamburger meat over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper before browning but do not add oil. Using a slotted spoon, remove the hamburger meat from the pan. Drain off excess fat – leaving only about a tablespoon in the bottom of the pan (any small pieces of hamburger left behind are just fine).
Rough chop the onion and place into the pan. Season lightly with salt. Cook over medium heat until the pieces are soft and slightly brown. Don’t overcook.
Reduce heat to medium low. Add hamburger meat back to pan along with both cans of pork and beans and ketchup. Stir to mix and allow to simmer for at least ten minutes.
Serve with cornbread and a simple salad.
*The ‘best’ brand of ketchup is a running joke in our household. We girls always preferred Heinz but would use Hunts in a pinch. One day my Daddy went to the store and brought home Del Monte. We were relentless in telling him what a bad choice it was and that we didn’t like it. To this day, I check the labels in restaurants to make sure they are using the right ketchup. (As an adult, I now see that Daddy probably bought the one that was on sale and I feel slightly bad that we gave him such a hard time. But, it was all in fun and we still laugh about it so that’s okay.)
**P.S. In many ways, Witches Stew is similar to a basic, inexpensive chili without the extra spices. In our family, this was a quicker and easier alternative that worked for two young kids who wouldn’t want the spiciness of chili powder or the smokiness of cumin. Plus, we almost always had the simple ingredients on hand. You can add things that you like (jalapeños, sour cream, cheddar cheese, etc.) and make it your own. Think about using fresh cooked beans to save even more money or a homemade tomato sauce for a different flavor. Either way – Enjoy! (P.S. Don’t throw away those leftovers. It’s even better the next day with some cornbread broken up over the top.)