Before Mother’s Day, it’s Derby Day

“Weep no more my lady,
 Oh, weep no more today.
 We will sing one song,
 For My Old Kentucky Home,
 For My Old Kentucky Home, far away.”

— “My Old Kentucky Home” by Stephen Collins Foster, known as “the father of American music.”

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May 6 is Derby Day.

That’s when jockeys dressed in brightly colored silks will parade thoroughbred horses before fans at Churchill Downs. The University of Louisville marching band will play “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Ladies will sport their finest in large, lavish hats. Men and women alike will wash away all cares enjoying the time-honored ritual of sipping mint juleps from frosted cups.

Week-long activities will peak late Saturday afternoon with the starting bell for “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” Time will stand still for the “Run for the Roses.” The 149th running of the Kentucky Derby will be underway in Louisville.

If you’re new to the Derby and by chance find yourself engaged in lively conversation about it, make sure to pronounce the city’s name correctly. That’s ‘Lu-ah-vull’ or even ‘Lu-vull.’ Pronounce it ‘Louis – ville’ with an ‘s’ and you’ll become a social outcast, ignored as someone who knows nothing about the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

The event that made Lu-ah-vull famous, the first leg of horse racing’s legendary Triple Crown for three-year-olds, has long served as my reminder that Mother’s Day is just a few days away. The two events are one to me. My Mom, Indianola Johnson, was born in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1923 and graduated from Clark County High School in 1941. 

A couple years of college and working defense-related jobs later, she met a soldier from East Texas. He was a young recruit with the U.S. Army 276th combat engineers on maneuvers in Tennessee preparing for action in the European Theater as World War II raged. 

On leave following training in August of 1944, the young soldier took her to his hometown of Pittsburg, Texas, where they were married at the Methodist parsonage. Days later when the 276th sailed for Belgium, she lived with his parents until he returned home after V.E. Day. They spent 63 years of married life together in Texas before Dad died in 2007. Throughout those years, Mom never forgot her roots in the Bluegrass State.

Mom was the oldest of six siblings and was the first to marry. As she was planning a wedding and a move to Texas, her father wrote her a letter that she kept in her cedar chest. It remains with me today. In the letter, Arthur Johnson advised his oldest daughter to be true to God, herself, and her family, emphasizing the importance of staying close to her siblings as each of them began their own families.

Remain close they did. Annual family reunions spread between Texas and Kentucky, and Christmas season gatherings rotating between homes for decades clearly defined the meaning of ‘family’ for me.

That heritage led me not only to an appreciation for the Kentucky Derby, but it also strongly influenced my fondness for food found in the region. Namely snappy cheese dip, and Ale-8s. 

Originating in Clark County more than 85 years ago, the tangy cheese snack debuted at a well-known Kentucky River eatery at Fort Boonesborough called Allman’s Fisherman’s Inn. The dip and its heritage are alive and well today thanks to Hall’s on the River, a restaurant near the location where Allman’s once stood.

Snappy cheese is best enjoyed with a ginger flavored Ale-8 soft drink bottled only in Winchester since 1926. A favorite snapshot of Mom captured her standing under an Ale 8 sign with her sisters. They appear to be teenagers, dating the photo in the late 1930s.

Mom often talked about introducing my father to snappy cheese and Ale-8 at Hall’s before they married.

For many years, my watching the Derby included a phone call to Mom regardless of where my wanderings took me. It gave her an excuse to talk about Kentucky, sharing often repeated stories of her memories of growing up in the horse racing region of Kentucky.

It also gave me a chance to wish her a happy Mother’s Day.

Mom died in 2010, but Derby day still reminds me of her. And it still reminds me that Mother’s Day is coming up.

I miss you, Mom. Thought about calling you with the Derby approaching. Saw some odds in the paper yesterday that Forte out of South Gate Farms is the 5-2 favorite to win. Tapit Trice is the 6-1 second choice, and Angel of Empire at 9-1 is third.

And by the way, Mom, Happy Mother’s Day. Once the Derby’s run, it’s just a few days away, you know.

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

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