My grandmother, Mae Beam, was a true woman of the south. From the time I remember her, and I don’t recall my first memory, she looked exactly the same. Her hairstyle was a wilder rendition of an older woman in the country – dark brown and grey, cut short, curled, with no particular style. By the end of every week, it was windblown and Einstein looking. She went to her sister-in-law’s hair salon every Friday, where she got it cut, rolled, dried, and styled. Then, by Sunday, she was ready to go to church with smart new hair. Sunday was the only day that she applied make-up. I exaggerate when I say make-up. What she did was smear on some red lipstick from several of the lipsticks she kept sitting in the kitchen window that looked out onto the porch from our kitchen. She’d grab a tube, smear it on her lips with no glance in the mirror, dress in what she considered her finest (in the country of North Carolina in the 60’s, no one dressed very fine), and head to Bess Chapel Methodist Church. There, during the three hymns of the service, she would sing at the top of her lungs with absolutely no musical talent. I used to try to sit as far away from her as possible because I was so embarrassed by her bellowing. I was young and immature. This likely was a great release for her from the drudgery of her everyday life. So much of what I now know about her has raised my respect for her by miles. I wish I could go back in time and get to know her. My loss. I’ve no memory if either my grandfather or my dad attended with her.
During the week, her day consisted of rising early (I’m guessing 5:30 AM), making breakfast (eggs, bacon, grits, homemade biscuits, drip coffee), and cleaning up afterwards. She came out of her room with her usual daily uniform – a country woman’s house dress (looking much the same from day to day), an apron pinned high her chest, reasonable and ugly work shoes, and polyester nylons rolled up to her knees, then rolled in a bunch. I never wondered about her clothes or why she wore the same thing daily. This was what she wore and what she looked like from the time I knew her until close to her death. She eventually began wearing pants, and on occasion, a baseball cap, which always surprised and somewhat disappointed me.
Once breakfast was cleaned up, she opened the store. I don’t know if this consisted of any particular pattern. If it was a school day, I was getting ready and hoping not to miss the bus. If it wasn’t, then I was still sleeping. Once the store was opened, she returned to the kitchen where she began preparing dinner, which I now refer to as lunch. We operated a large working farm, and part of each worker’s pay was their dinner/lunch. She spent hours in the kitchen, usually with a helper, preparing pinto beans, cooked potatoes (which she referred to as “arsh taters”), country fried steak, turnips or greens of some kind, home made cherry, blackberry or apple pies, and homemade biscuits. I so loved the blackberry cobbler and the biscuits. On occasion, she made liver mush. I left the house for days due to the odor. In the summers, I would sometimes take the biscuit dough, create a “happy face’ with two eyes, a triangle nose, and a mouth. This would be my dinner or supper – a biscuit face, perhaps not the most nutritious dinner for a growing girl. Pinto beans were a daily staple. On the first day that she prepared the pintos, they were almost crunchy. The next day, once heated, they were still slightly crunch but better than day one. On the third day, they were perfect. Fourth day, they were losing their shape and becoming rather mushy. On the fifth day, they were soup. Sixth day, she started all over again. I look back and marvel at the tediousness of what she did, and how well she did it.
Eating dinner at noon with the numbers who came to eat was quite an accomplishment. We had a small kitchen table with six to eight chairs (as best I recall). You were to sit down, eat, get up and let the next person waiting take your place. There wasn’t time for sharing your day, talking, or getting to know the person next to you. The point was to consume and get out of the way so the next person could eat. That’s what we all did.
Once dinner (lunch) was finished, all dishes washed and stored, all food that would make it to the next day covered and refrigerated, she went into the store. There, she did a number of things. I saw her regularly speak to salespeople. I’m not certain, but I think she did all the ordering for the items we sold from a local distributor. I remember getting boxes of Vienna Sausages (in the south they are pronounced VI-eena), cans of tuna, and cans of many other items. Once the orders arrived, we had to load up the pricing machine, and put the price on every item. These were the old-style sticky paper labels on the cans. If you’d suggested the idea of a UPIC code to my grandmother, I’m rather certain she would have considered you certifiably insane. I have no idea if inventory was taken or if there were any kinds of financial ROI’s determined. This was old time buying. I rather believe that invoices were received and checks were sent. And that was it.
In the store, she did different things besides purchasing. She folded small papers into fans. Repeatedly. I’ve caught myself doing the same thing. Tiny little fans from receipts no one took. She also crocheted doilies, which used to both fascinate and repel me. It was a lot of time spent on something that ended very small. If you’ve never seen a doilie, it is a tiny little crocheted item that goes underneath a keepsake. She also spent time speaking to customers, sharing their life stories, and listening to their hardships. It was in the store that she taught me to sew on an old pedal sewing machine. She used to make quilts with any scraps she could find. As an historian, I now wonder if that was part of the depression mentality – use everything. I recall looking in the kitchen cabinets and seeing things we had never used. We had quilts galore, and now, I’ve no idea where they are.
In the store, people came to sit and talk. To share their struggles. If farmers had a rainy day, there were many in the store either playing rook (a card game), or checkers. Lots of farmers sat in the store (known as Flay) to get away from their daily troubles. The store was a kind of group therapy session. There, you could discover what other problems the rest of the farmers dealt with. You may find an answer to the bug problem, or the lack of workers, or the low yield on tomatoes. The store provided a connection for these men – and for my grandmother – that may have helped save their lives. I know it helped save mine.
After the store closed at the end of a regular work day, which was around 5:30 or 6:00 PM, we had sandwiches for dinner. These were always a choice of either tomato sandwiches (which I never ate nor understood) or banana sandwiches. I always chose banana. That was until my sister, Noel, and I began cooking. We introduced our family to spaghetti, lasagna, and waffles. I think we ended up eating Italian more than any family in the country of North Carolina ever imagined.
Both my grandparents went to bed when the sun went down. In the summer, they may have gone to sleep before night came. But, once the sun rose, they were up. I think that is the direction of a farmer’s life.
The connection to my grandmother consisted of these daily things. When my parents divorced, my brother, sister, and I went to live with my grandparents in the home known as “Flay.” It took me years to even begin to understand what that must have been like for two older people who had worked all of their lives both in the store and on the farm to suddenly have three young people thrust upon them. I seriously doubt they ever had the opportunity to say no. Family is family and when your oldest son shows up with three children, you open the doors, add two rooms on to your house, and accept what is happening. They did exactly that.
The few things I did with my grandma was to help her hoe the garden. I was the usual tempestuous preteen. “Lucy, wanna go help me hoe the garden?” Do I get to say no?
“Not really. When?” “Now.” I’d get in the car with her and her driving skills were, let me say, not particularly good. She pushed on the gas pedal like she was on a bike. Fast – slow – fast – slow. I’d almost vomit before we’d get to the garden. Then I’d take the hoe and behave as if I’d recently had a stroke. I don’t know why she didn’t take the hoe up beside my head. But, I was a preteen. Please forgive me, grandma. I was way too young, too immature, and too stupid to recognize that this was a great learning experience. I’m still working on it. I did my best to learn nothing. I accomplished it well.
On occasion, Grandma would ask me if I wanted to ride with her to Lalncarn. Translation – Lincolnton. That was the actual word. Sometimes, I did, and sometimes I didn’t. Going to Lincolnton meant not throwing up while she was pushing and pulling on the gas pedal.
My grandmother was a background figure in my young life. But, without her, I may not be here today to write this. I have a great admiration for her because I’ve grown up. Some people get no grandmother. That was true of my mother’s mother. Never knew here, don’t care to know anything about her, I only share DNA. It takes a lot more than DNA to create a true connected relative.
Grandma, I love you. I wish I had been mature enough and smart enough to reach out and get to know you. I know what you did for me. For us. I’m eternally grateful. I wish I could go back and really know you. I think you did that for me. Thank you. I love you.