By Greg Brown
I expected sunshine upon clearing the clouds at Paducah, Ky., and perhaps a golden brick runway. Although I’d never been here before, a special person from my youth had cast a spell on this Ohio River town, as real as any bright-hued fairy tale.
I was only 6 years old when Blanche came to Chicago from Paducah. For a decade, she nurtured our frenetic family of four children and two working parents; with soft words and a chuckle, she could calm any domestic storm. We kids cuddled on Blanche’s lap to enjoy her beloved “Lawrence Welk Show,” and chimed in singing the program’s popular theme: “Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime.”
In her previous life, Blanche served as chief pastry cook for Paducah’s prestigious Irvin Cobb Hotel. It was her proudest achievement, and no one who tasted her cooking doubted it was true. Among countless mouthwatering specialties, her crispy fried chicken was spectacular, and her sweet potato pie was legendary.
Not even culinary pride could derail Blanche’s sense of humor, however. One evening she introduced chess pie, a new-to-us southern specialty. Despite our eager anticipation, furrowed brows followed everyone’s first bite. Not knowing how the treat should taste, we suffered uneasy silence until a grin brightened my mother’s face.
“Was this made with the sour cream from the refrigerator door?” she asked.
“It was all we had,” replied Blanche. “I tried to get all those little green things out.” They turned out to be chives. Other chefs might have cried over onions in their pie, but Blanche led us in tears of laughter.
As with any cherished family member, we never imagined that Blanche might leave one day. I was a teenager when her son Robert joined us one morning harvesting apples from our backyard trees.
“You need to let Blanche retire one of these days,” he chided my mother. “She’s well into her 70s.”
“That can’t be right,” said my mom, startled. “When I hired Blanche she was 49. That makes her 59 now.”
“She might have stretched the truth a bit,” chuckled Robert, “After all, I’m 52.”
By then Blanche was woven inextricably into our family fiber. Her retirement to faraway Paducah cast a pall over our home, and a disappointing series of would-be replacements followed. One turned out to be a closet chain-smoker in our non-tobacco household, and another absconded with my mother’s jewelry. Each new difficulty deepened the void.
Years passed without us seeing Blanche, and when she couldn’t make my wedding, I grew increasingly eager for my new wife, Jean, to meet this special lady. Our first opportunity was a professional conference at Kentucky’s Lake Barkley State Park; we’d fly to the meeting from our northern Indiana home and land at Paducah on the way back. But then I blundered. Casual comments to a coworker about the trip snaked their way to my employer’s company legal department.
“What if you run into an airliner?” said my boss, forbidding me to fly.
“What if I ram a bus with my car?” I blurted in angry response.
There was no point in arguing; piloting a personal airplane to this or any other meeting meant I would be fired. The painful lesson was never to inform corporate employers about flying missions, however remotely related to work. Just say you’re traveling by private vehicle, and submit car mileage for partial reimbursement.
Now, two years later, Jean and I were finally fulfilling our mission to the Bluegrass State. Renting a speedy Grumman Tiger, we stopped along the way to collect my sisters Leslie and Denise at Champaign, Ill., where both were university students. It was a miserable flying day, but vanquishing clouds and rain just magnified the wonder of my first landing at Paducah. I recited Blanche’s street address to the taxi driver by memory, having inscribed it so often on envelopes as a child.
Like a magical grandmother, our Kentucky belle waited beaming at her door. She was frailer than before, but warmed our hearts with her undiminished smile. It was intriguing to visit Blanche in her own world, having previously known her only in ours. Although modest in size, her home was scoured lovingly clean and crowded with colorful mementoes. Our pulses jumped when we entered the kitchen, for among photos of her grandchildren on the fridge were our own images and crayon drawings we’d given her as gifts during our long-ago childhood.
To honor the visit, Blanche had prepared a sumptuous banquet incorporating every one of our individual favorite dishes: the centerpiece was chicken with giblet gravy, followed by apple and sweet potato pies to satisfy our various tastes. Love flavored every bite and there were tears all around when it was time to leave.
When next our busy lives permitted a Paducah visit, only my sister Denise could join me. It was gray and blustery when I landed at Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport to pick her up, and as always, there was a lesson: don’t simultaneously open both doors of a Cessna while the wind is blowing. After chasing charts across the ramp, we took off for Kentucky, reveling en route at how flying had made our family whole again.
By this time, Blanche had slowed considerably and was less gregarious than in the past. She still laughed with her old sparkle, however, and served up fresh apple pie. I’m just glad we didn’t know the tasty slice would be our last. Later, we’d appreciate our good fortune in not waiting longer to reunite with her.
Driving to the airport that evening, Denise and I sought out the Irvin Cobb Hotel, decaying but soon to be refurbished into apartments. In seeing Blanche, we’d rekindled the warm rays of our childhood. Now, if only we could glimpse the glory days of this grand old hotel, when a proud young woman starred as chief pastry cook.
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for AOPA Flight Training magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog, and visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com].