Yvonne and I drove up to Fredericktown in Knox County this past weekend to spend a couple of days with my sister, Kathy, and her husband, Don. Shortly after their marriage in 1964, Don and Kathy purchased a lake house at the end of Schultz Road on Knox Lake. Except for moving away for a few years because of Don’s work, this has been their home for over 40 years.
The edge of the lake is no more than a stones throw from their back porch. It is a picturesque setting to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning while watching the mist slowly rise from the lake. On these occasions I feel as though I’m sharing the quiet solitude that Henry David Thoreau enjoyed as he sipped his morning coffee on the shores of Walden Pond.
Fellow students of Thoreau’s writings will recall that, for several years, he lived in a crudely built cabin at Walden Pond, taking his food from the land in the corn and beans that he raised and the fish that he caught from the pond. Although almost a vegetarian, I suspect Thoreau occasionally dined on squirrel or other wild game.
One wild creature I’m sure Thoreau did not eat was opossum. The same cannot be said of my family. Last Sunday was my 65th birthday, and as Kathy opened the front door to greet us on Friday evening she announced, “Little brother (after all of these years she still sometimes calls me little brother), I’ve fixed a special supper for your birthday.” As she made this announcement she gave me a little wink, which I knew was a signal not to ask what the surprise would be. I didn’t need to ask because I could already smell the sweet aroma of the opossum stew drifting from the kitchen, and my mouth was beginning to water for a sip of the delicious broth.
However, it was an aroma with which Yvonne was not familiar, and as we entered the kitchen she said, “Kathy, the stew smells so good, what is it?” To which Kathy replied, “Oh, it’s just one of our favorite meals from childhood,” and then she quickly changed the subject, showing Yvonne some needlework she was doing, making something for one of her grandchildren.
We sat down and Don said grace, placing special emphasis on asking for God’s blessing on the stew which we were about to eat. Big ladles of opossum stew were shared all around, along with a tasty salad, and we laughed and reminisced about favorite birthday memories. After second helpings of stew, we were too stuffed to eat birthday cake, but Kathy lit the candles anyway, all 65 of them. Despite being stuffed, I drew in a large breath of air and managed to blow them all out without passing out. We agreed to wait until our meal had settled to cut the cake.
As Kathy and Yvonne starting clearing the table, Yvonne noted that the stew was almost all gone and asked again. “Kathy, the stew was really delicious. I would like to have the recipe. What kind of stew is it?”
Kathy smiled. “It really is a surprise,” she said. “It’s our Mom’s opossum stew recipe, but I doctored it up with my own herbs and spices.” I watched as Yvonne’s face suddenly turned a pale shade of green, and she clasped a hand over her mouth as she ran for the bathroom.
I looked at Kathy and she looked at me. “Is she alright?” Kathy asked. “I’m sure she will be fine,” I said, and then added, “Maybe she will be ready for a piece of birthday cake since her meal has already settled.”
When Yvonne returned from the bathroom she still looked pale, but her color was now more of a ghostly white than a pale green. “Are you okay?”, I asked. Yvonne just nodded and said she thought she would sit down for awhile, if that was okay. Of course it was. Resting for a few minutes with a cool washcloth on your forehead is always a good idea after you’ve eaten opossum stew for the first time.
I had taken over helping with the dishes. Kathy leaned over and whispered, “Do you think she still wants the recipe?” I whispered back, “I don’t think so, but I would like to know if the opossum was still warm when you picked it up.”
“Oh, yes”, Kathy answered, in a fully audible voice. “I didn’t get this one off the road. I caught it at our birdfeeder the same way Bob caught that opossum when we were kids.”
Bob is our older brother, a year older than Kathy, and leader of our little trio when we were kids. Kathy launched into her story. “Do you remember that time we were hiking at Mohican State Park and we spotted that opossum getting a drink of water at Big Lyons Falls? Remember, Bob poked it with his walking stick and when it played dead he grabbed it by the tail and stuck it in his backpack; and we took it home to Mom.”
“I’d forgotten that story, until now,” I said. “I thought Bob was so brave to even get close to it.”
“Well,” Kathy continued, “I caught this opossum the same way. When I saw it at the birdfeeder, I grabbed Don’s cane and my backpack. I went outside and poked it, and when it rolled over and played dead I grabbed it by the tail and bagged it just like Bob did.” There was a tone of excitement and pride in Kathy’s voice as she told the story, like a boy scout who had just earned his “Bag an Opossum” badge.
Kathy went on with her story. “I remembered how Mom gave that opossum a ‘little tap on the head’, and then skinned and cleaned it to put in a pot of boiling water…” Kathy suddenly stopped in mid sentence as Yvonne jumped up and ran to the bathroom again.
There was no point in Kathy finishing her description of making opossum stew. I turned and gave her a big hug, and said, “I love you Sis. Thanks for making opossum stew for me, but I guess I’d better not ask if we can take the leftover stew home with us.”
George Brown is the executive director of Clermont Senior Services.