My turn, Roger Barbee: grateful for ‘a mess of beans’ in 1950s textile towns – Salisbury Post


By Roger Barbée

The other day my wife Mary Ann and I were preparing our Thanksgiving meal.

She asked me a few questions about what I wanted and talked about the meal. This year, she would buy the cranberry sauce instead of making it from scratch. It’s our annual chat that I mostly listen to, but this year, for some reason, it stirred a memory.

Life on Mill Hill in a 1950s North Carolina textile town was scarce. My mom worked the second shift hemming the washcloths at Factory # 1, and that way she supported her six children. Our life, without being hard, had no extras. We had a clean, safe house with enough furniture, but not too much, and we had access to the small independent store just steps from our backyard. This is where we debited our mother’s account for a package of honey buns for breakfast with half a gallon of milk or bologna and bread for the dinner sandwiches. (I liked to fry my bologna and curl its edge.)

Working on the second shift meant our mom wasn’t home from 3pm to 11pm. We lived near Factory No.1. So she could walk to her work, but she wasn’t there to cook an evening meal, which we called supper. So each of us individually “did with” what was in the rather bare Frigidaire. If nothing suitable was found, one of us would quickly walk into the small store behind our house. Sandwich bread, milk, peanut butter, jelly and other staples have helped us a lot. However, sometimes our mother managed to leave us a treat before walking to the sewing machine at Factory No.1.

The language of the textile towns of the Middle South was always interesting. Ours was a mixture of many cultures, and we used terms and words that I now recognize as archaic and sometimes just plain wrong. Yes, we called the garden hose a “garden hose” and the woolen hats worn all over the head in the winter “slides”. A tow truck was referred to as a “tow truck”.

But our language also carried a rhythm and a lyrical story from our ancestors. For example, a passel (end of 14e century) of land meant a small piece, but a group of people meant a large crowd like “We had a group of people at the meeting.” If someone was “tickled” it usually meant that the speaker was happy. So when our mother managed with her meager resources to prepare “a bunch of beans” for our school day supper, it was a treat because “a bunch of beans”, straight from Middle English, meant an abundance of good food.

While we were at school that day, the mother would have washed, soaked and then placed on the electric stove to cook our “bean mess”, which were usually pinto. She had a used pot that in a previous life had been a pressure cooker, but it was now just a dull silver container with a wooden handle. By supper time, the beans it contained were tender, hot and nutritious for our hungry bodies. A bowl of them (I smothered mine with chopped white onion) with a slice of cornbread from the oven and a glass of cold milk jelly was a special gift that our mother had prepared and left for we.

This all happened over 60 years ago, but our mother’s gift of pinto beans, cornbread and milk is more than a memory. Like the poor widow and her two mites in Mark 12, our mother gave us, her six children, all that she had. Unlike Mary Ann and I and our next Thanksgiving meal, our mom had little, but she gave us everything she had.

And it’s a blessing to give thanks for.

Roger Barbee lives in Mooresville.

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