I confess, I seldom dine at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant, but I couldnt refuse Linda Clarks preference. She feeds 800 hungry people a month as director of a local pantry. I learned why she liked Cracker Barrels fun, homey culture.
I was born into a farming family…near Elgin, she related. Linda reminds me of my best friend Graceblonde, sunny smile, deep laughter. Like Grace, she has the serious look of one who has worked hard all her life.
I didnt like getting up at 5 a.m. to wash cows…carry milk, Linda said. We made a ton of milk a day. I had the biggest arms of anyone in my class. I could climb the ropes from the floor of the gymnasium to the top without using my feet.
The middle child of five, Lindas dad bragged they were the best hired hands money could buy.
But he didnt pay you, I said.
No, she confirmed.
She would do chores before breakfast, eat, then tidy her room before the bus arrived at 7:15 a.m.
You still had the barn smell on you, she explained.
Our meals arrived. Linda and I thanked God for our food and our chat.
Dancing was her familys one extravagance, but Linda was stuck at home to babysit for her little sister. She resented missing dancing every Saturday night. So the day after high school graduation, she moved to Madison to take on a secretarial position.
I thought I hit paydirt…$52 a week…filing, sending out stuff, she said. Nothing I dreamed of, but Madison, Wis.!
And she could go dancing every Friday and Saturday.
It was the most exciting thing in my life, she said. I could not stay home. I had a car.
You were a party girl? I asked.
I was, she admitted. I worked hard, too. I got to do what everyone in my family had been doing for years. It was my time. People liked me. I couldnt believe they liked me.
You didnt smell anymore, I teased.
Two years later, her sister-in-law asked her to move to Texas.
She was lonely for family, Linda said of her sister. I thought I was ready to see something else.
It didnt work.
I still wanted to party, meet people, she said.
Linda moved back home.
Most women then were thinking about marriage, I said.
I was, she said. I wanted to meet someone right for me. I thought I knew what I was doing…dated almost a year. He was in the service [during] Vietnam…working from a helicopter [picking] up bodies. Mentally, it ruined him. Every time a door closed…a loud noise…would put him back there. He drank. I thought I could get him out of this. Two children later, we were destitute. He beat me. The children didnt have food in the house. When he brought guns out, it was time to leave. I had to get my children out of there.
What in our culture taught women to ignore these red flags? I asked.
I know, she said. What an idiot I was. Hed drink so badly that theyd lock him in the tavern…[and] the next morning, Id go and say, Do you guys know that you have taken every dime…and just to make sure you get anything thats left, you keep him here so he can start all over the next day? Do you know my children have no milk? No bread? Nothing to eat?
Im seeing why youre passionate about the food pantry, I commented.
After seven years of marriage, Linda was a single mom, working two jobs.
I apologize to my children over and over for neglecting them, she said. [Today,] Id be put in jail…at work at 4:30 a.m…. . Id call to wake them up. Theyd get themselves ready.
She worked nights and weekends as a waitress at a restaurant and weekdays at an office.
You never saw your children, I said.
They used to come to the restaurant to do homework and sit there until I got off, Linda said.
One patron, a farmer, Ken Clark, ordered the same breakfast daily: hash browns, two eggs over easy, bacon and toast.
Friends and relatives pushed her to call him.
Linda said: Ill give you a try, he said. It broke the ice. I laughed. When he came to the door, it was like angels started singing. Our first date, we knew we would be married.
Two months and one day later, they were. They went from Lindas three-meal repertoire to feasting, according to her.
Heres how I cooked: mac and cheese, tuna casserole, or spaghetti, she said. Hed say we had this last night. Id say, we have four more nights. I didnt know how to make anything else. He bought us a grill. He spoiled me rotten. Id never been spoiled rotten.
Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health and business. She can be reached at email@example.com.
From the Jan. 24-30, 2007, issue