I decided to make three bean salad for the cooler we would take on our road trip. Otherwise, I never would have snapped those beans. Like many others, I’ve taken to calling them green beans and serve them crisp and whole, rarely broken up and certainly never cooked to mush with a ham hock!
So I found myself standing over the sink snapping beans into a colander. Before I finished one handful, I was back in Washington, Georgia, in the 1950s and 60s where Mama and Aunt Virginia next door spent many a summer afternoon snapping and shelling some kind of beans or peas: snap beans, pole beans, butterbeans, black-eyed peas, field peas. And talking. That’s what they did in the summer. They were joined often by Aunt Norma up the street, or grandmother Agnes from across the street.
During the school year, after Aunt Virignia, science teacher and guidance counselor at the high school, got home, the two of them would sit at one or the other’s kitchen table and drink tea. The “tea” I recall was that innovative mix of instant tea, Tang, sugar and some spices that folks called “Russian Tea.” It was all the rage for a while. I suppose they had regular tea, or coffee sometimes, too. My aunt smoked her Kent cigarettes and used her asthma inhaler. That’s not the important part of the story, though.
The important part was the talk. I adored sitting and just listening to them talk. My beloved red-headed cousin, her older sister and I would sit for what seemed like hours and just listen. I couldn’t tell you the details of a single one of those conversations. I remember only that they were utterly fascinating.
These two women would never have met had not World War II brought them into contact with two brothers. They married those brothers, who were also business partners in 1947 and 1948. They were thrown together as young marrieds, bought houses next door to one another and across the street from the in-laws. Between them, they had seven children between 1949 and 1957. Her second daughter, my red-headed cousin was born on her big sister’s second birthday, just seven weeks after I had arrived next door. The boys, my three brothers and their male cousin, were stair steps. Folks who didn’t know us real well couldn’t keep straight who went with which parents.
Raising us was a joint effort and that’s a good thing. This particular bunch of seven cousins, augmented by two more up the street, generally required more than one adult just to stay out of the emergency room. Or, more accurately, required an ever-present adult to drive to the emergency room. We were all right smart, so could think up more interesting ways of hurting ourselves. There’s a whole book to be written about our childhood injuries.
Mama and Aunt Virginia were very close. They were both women of culture. They wanted us to be as well, encouraging musical and artistic talents. They took us to concerts in Athens. For a few years, they took turns shuttling my red-headed cousin and me to Athens for piano lessons. Both were musicians, Mama a professional, Aunt Virginia an excellent pianist. Both were voracious readers. They shared books back and forth a lot.
Neither of them cared for gossip, so if they were talking about someone, it was usually in the context of something at church or school, or a new baby, or an illness. I have a few of Aunt Virginia’s recipes in my file, written in Mama’s hand. My aunt’s handwriting was beautiful and I wish I had some sample of it. Both had cooks, but were excellent cooks themselves. I seem to remember a constant exchange of pound cake recipes—chocolate, peach, bourbon, lemon. Jell-O salads were big, too. And casseroles made with canned mushroom soup.
Surely they talked about their children, but I can’t imagine them talking about their worries or aggravations with us when we were around. OK, some of the aggravations came out. They often used the afternoon chat as an opportunity to explain to us girls the finer points of manners, and admonish us to be nice to those kids no one else was nice to.
That last one was the hallmark. We were frequently reminded to be kind to particular girls at school, the ones who didn’t smell good, or who were a bit peculiar and had a hard time fitting in. I don’t recall any of us being terribly good at that then, but I’m quite sure Aunt Virginia would be very proud of both her girls’ natural kindness, especially to people who are down and out. Each of us does this in her own unique way, and I do believe the lesson took.
My Aunt Virginia died in 1987, those Kent cigarettes having gotten the best of her lungs. I miss her still. Mama misses her, too. Not long ago she told me it had taken her years to stop herself from heading next door around 3:30 every afternoon.
My two girl cousins and I produced only one girl among us. And we’ve never lived closer than 40 miles from each other, most often several hundred. Rarely any little girls to sit and listen to us talk. Every once in a while, nowadays likely around a funeral, a couple of our five nieces will end up in the same place with us. They still sit and listen while we talk. But it just isn’t the same. It’s more often listening to outrageous tales of our childhood than the daily ups and downs of life. That’s a crying shame. They’ve missed all the wisdom they could gain from snapping beans on a summer afternoon.