Averyell A. Kessler
Saturday Reprise I was already awake when the butter bean lady walked into our driveway. “Butter beans, black eyes, okree,” she called out. Her voice was a blazing trumpet. The Panama Limited had already blasted into downtown’s Illinois Central depot and its low moaning horn was more powerful than any alarm clock. Everybody in Belhaven heard it, just as we heard the rattle of freight trains in late afternoon. First the horn’s deep blaw, blaw, then the clackity, clack of box car wheels as the train skirted the far edge of Belhaven and eased into town. The sun had not yet risen above the trees, and I didn’t want to get up. I pulled my pillow over my head and dove under the thin sheet covering my bed. It was the middle of July and precisely seven weeks of freedom remained until school started again. Please let me sleep late. Its Wednesday, there are no cartoons.
“Field peas, tomatoes, purple hulls,” she continued. “Okree.” My windows were wide open. After the train, her cries were a one-two knock-out punch, and any possibility of sleep vanished. I slipped out of bed and ran to the backdoor.
“Better hurry,” Ella said. “She’s almost here.” Ella Mason, our housekeeper, knew that butter beans were one of the few vegetables I would eat.
“Butter beans, black eyes,” The lady was behind our house now, following the sidewalk leading to our back door. We were a slam dunk sale and had been all summer. Ella and I opened the door and there she stood, happy to see us and smiling sunshine. She arrived pulling a child’s red wagon filled with pillowcases, each containing bounty from her garden, okra, tomatoes, ears of corn and an assortment of peas. A bushel basket of unshelled butter beans hung from her left arm, as well as a tin measuring cup.
“We’ll take that bushel,” Ella said, handing her a five-dollar bill. “And three cups of black eyes.” After Ella and the lady traded greetings and swapped gossip from Greater Fairview Baptist Church, she continued down Laurel Street. “Okree, tomatoes, purple hulls,” Her voice echoed in the distance until she rounded the corner of St. Mary Street.
“We’ll shell them after lunch,” Ella said. “When my story comes on.”
“This is going to be fun,” I thought.
After lunch, Ella and I settled into our usual positions in front of our hulking black and white Stromberg Carlson. She sat on a step ladder kitchen chair and held an empty bowl in her lap. I sat cross-legged on the floor beside her. After a crescendo of dramatic soap opera music blared from the tv’s powerful speakers, we began, each of us picking up a single pod, carefully pulling the string away from the stem, then raking out treasure. When the bowl was almost full, I asked a question. “Will you show me how to cook them too?”
“Yes,” she answered. This was my first lesson from a brilliant woman who knew every recipe by heart and taught me the basics of Southern cooking. Her skills did not come from Cordon Bleu’s elite kitchens or The Culinary Institute of American, but from knowing what tastes good and what doesn’t. Slowly, I received a simple culinary homeschooling from a woman who cooked like a dream and knew how to make the biscuits rise. I still hear her say, “the secret to this is….” Between us, there has only been one true disaster, when a hungry Afghan Hound gobbled up four out of five tasty salmon croquettes. I don’t know why he left the fifth, perhaps he was full.
In the end, Ella Mason left a worthy inheritance. It had little monetary value and could only be measured in the currency of the heart. Her legacy is unseen but not invisible. Over the years she taught me how to produce a 1-2-3-4 cake, tender collards, and delectable yeast rolls, as well as the most sumptuous chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted. She taught me a rule of life – always sing when you fry chicken, so you’ll know when to put the lid on. Take it off when the last verse ends. On Thanksgiving Day her cornbread dressing and fluffy mashed potatoes are always on our table. Her squash casserole still bubbles in the oven, while her pecan pie cools in the kitchen. I always make an abundance of yeast rolls to avert a dispute over the leftovers. My granddaughter is learning her secrets just as I did, and I hope she’ll pass them along.
The butter bean lady doesn’t come anymore. She’s long gone, Ella is too, just as my ability to sit cross-legged and shell butter beans. But my memories of Ella’s face and the sound of her voice are clear as glass. She’s always around, especially when I lift sugar cookies out of the oven and their edges are golden and crisp. And always when I hear the first notes of Amazing Grace. But she wasn’t finished with me yet. On an extraordinary day last summer, she gave me an unexpected gift. I was driving home from McDade’s and I seemed to hear her singing again “swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” It wasn’t real, of course, but a sweet memory from childhood when I snuggled in her lap and she sang me to sleep. Still, it was strong enough to bring tears. Some things never go away. I hope her song never does. The working title of my current manuscript in progress is Carry Me Home. I love you, Ella. Thanks.