My Turn, Roger Barbee: Grateful for ‘a mess of beans’ in 1950s textile towns

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 25, 2021

By Roger Barbee

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

She asked me some questions concerning what I wanted and talked about the meal. This year, she would purchase the cranberry sauce instead of making it from scratch. It is our yearly discussion in which I mostly listen, but this year, for some reasons, it stirred a memory.

Life on the mill hill in a 1950s North Carolina textile town was sparse. My mother worked on the second shift hemming washcloths in Plant No. 1, and in this way she provided for her six children. Our life, while not harsh, did not have extras. We had a clean, safe home that had enough furniture, but not too much, and we had access to the small, independent store just a short walk through our backyard. It was there that we charged to our mother’s account a package of honey buns for breakfast along with a half-gallon of milk or some bologna and loaf bread for supper sandwiches. (I liked to fry my bologna and curl its edge.)

Working on the second shift meant that our mother was not at home from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. We lived close to Plant No. 1. So, she could walk to her work, but she was not  present when we came home from school and not there to prepare an evening’s meal, which we called supper. So, each of us individually “made do” with what was in the rather bare Frigidaire. If nothing suitable was found, one of us would make a quick run to the small store behind our house. Loaf bread, milk, peanut butter, jelly and other staples went a long way for us. However, sometimes our mother managed to leave us a treat before she trod to the sewing machine in Plant No. 1. 

Language of the Mid-South textile towns 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 wrong. Yes, we called the water hose a “hose pipe” and the wool hats worn over the entire head in winter “toboggans.” A tow truck was referred to as a “wrecker.” 

But our language also carried a rhythm and lyrical history from our ancestors. For instance, a passel (late 14th century) of land meant a small piece but a passel of folks meant a large crowd such as “We had a passel of folks at the reunion.” If someone was “tickled,” that usually meant the speaker was pleased. So, when our mother managed with her meager resources to prepare “a mess of beans” for our school-day supper, it was a treat because “a mess of beans,” straight from Middle English, meant an abundance of good food.

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

All of this happened more than 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 me and our approaching Thanksgiving meal, our mother had little, but she gave us all she had. 

And that is a blessing for which to give thanks.

Roger Barbee lives in Mooresville.