Family and heritage take on mythic proportions in Southern culture. Our narratives about who we are arise from a long tradition of storytelling, often told in first-person and often being personal in nature. In this essay, the writer shares her experiences with an aging father who recounts aspects of his younger life to his grown daughter, and from these moments, meaning is created for them both.
So Many Folk
by DeLane Phillips
The kitchen is a sacred place for every Southern cook. In my lifetime, it was ruled only by women, whose scepter was a whisk or iron skillet. Oh, the thought of gravy now! Much of what I thought I knew about cooking, I learned from the Queen of the kitchen, my Mother. I observed her rule and execution of meals fit for royalty. It was her sphere of influence over us, her subjects, including my Father, who always received a hot, delicious meal when he crossed the threshold into her kingdom at the end of a hard day’s work as an automobile plant laborer and farmer.
Every day—breakfast, dinner, and supper; every church social, holiday meal, family reunion, baby or wedding shower, funeral dinner or grieving family casserole, was blessed by a dish from Mother.
When she passed unexpectedly in 2015, I reluctantly but dutifully took up her mantle. Cooking and caring for my elderly Father as he battled Alzheimer’s took place between the thrones of the stove and kitchen sink. There, he repeated to me his past, and I, his fifty-something divorced daughter and mother of three, was blessed to journey there with him.
In his words, “Yo’ Mother was a fine cook.”
He joined her on Thursday, October 8, 2020. He was 84.
A good picker could earn up to a dollar seven-dee-five a day. A grown man could pick two hundred pound-o-cotton in a day. I’ve picked two hundred pound in one day myself. That was pickin’ from sun up ’til dark.
Papa would announce in town he’d start pickin’ that Monday. The early cotton he’d planted back in April was ready. Ever’ black man in the county lined up for work so they’d have money for Christmas. They’d be ten, twelve black men pickin’ . . . some white. The black family behind yo’ Granny and Granddaddy’s place, they had a syrup mill, had a few girls pick’n. I went to their place with Daddy to buy syrup from them when I was little. I got on my bike ever’ day after school was out and rode to my Papa’s to pick ‘til dark so I’d have money for Christmas to buy firecrackers. I was twelve years old.
“Seriously? You were only twelve years old, buying firecrackers?”
Sweetheart… weren’t no money fo’ children at Christmas and if I wanted firecrackers I had to work for ’em! Weren’t no money, weren’t no jobs! I’ve chopped cotton, picked cotton, hauled cotton. Don’t care if I see ’nother cotton field again.
“Wow, that’s something.”
Come summer, roun’ Fourth-o-July, Granny’n Papa, my mother’s people, have a big barbeque. There’d be cars parked bumper to bumper from the crossroads at yo’ Granny’s all the way up to Bobby Farmer’s place. Look like three funerals, so many folk! Granny had thirteen, fourteen children. My mother was the oldest. We lived next to them. They’d come with their wives and children. Fertilizer man would be there—Mister Harry Arnold, Sr., Mister Eckles from the Cotton Gin at Bostwick, Uncle Charlie…
“Uncle Charlie who lived in town off Church street?”
Yes’m, yo’ Uncle Charlie Grizzle, lived next to Jack Peters’ Grocery, where I bought milk for ya’ll on my way home from work when y’all was little. Uncle Charlie loaned my Daddy the money for his place. People would come from all over the county: Monroe, Good Hope, Bostwick. Even the man from the bank’d be there, Mister George Baker.
“Daddy, which bank?”
Farmers Bank in Monroe. Sweetheart, it looked like three funerals, so many folk! The men went to the bathroom behind the barn and the women went in the little outhouse out back. I don’t know how they did it! I asked Bobby Farmer one time how they all managed and he said, I don’t know. I guess they did, that was all they had. Me and Bobby grew up playin’ on that farm, jumpin’ out of the top door o’ the barn. That barn’s still standin’ today. Only thing left cuz’ the house burned.
“Bobby still lives on the place, right?”
Yes’m, his daughter lives with him in that house he built. She works at the school teaching, like you.
See, Papa would step out on the front porch and tell ’em to be quiet. He’d ask Weymond to come up and say the Blessin.
“Who is Weymond?”
Weymond Almond, or was it Harvey Gordon . . . both preachers at the Braswell Holiness Church. Yo’ Grandaddy gave them the land for the church. He gave the land for the road to come through. Yo’ Granny was kin to Bessi, Weymond’s wife.
“Daddy, do you mean the road that runs between the church and Grandaddy’s place that you sold when he passed?”
Aw, you never seen so much food! They’d be three wagons full. The men would bring out the sawhorses and make tables. Melvin Farmer, yo’ Granny’s brother, was the barbeque man. He’d say, start the night before . . . have a couple black men helpin’ . . . dig a big hole in the ground . . . burn the wood to get coals hot enough . . . cook that hog . . . stay up all night. I remember one time they cooked three hogs.
Granny would have a couple black ladies helping in the kitchen.
“Did they pay them?”
No, didn’t have to, they wanted to help. Papa had a couple black families livin’ on the place. Ever’ Lady would bring a dish. You never seen so much food! Three wagons’ full. They had that barbeque ever’ year from the time I was just a little thing ‘til I joined the military in the 1950s.
I was with my Granny when she left here. My Papa had died when I was in the Service overseas. My Mama sent me a letter ‘bout it.
“Daddy, do you mean your time in the Army?”
Yes’m. After I got out of the service. they had put my Granny in the hospital. She couldn’t talk, you know, on account of a . . .
Yeah. I was the only one in there with her. I saw her when she left here and her breathin’ stopped. I just sat there. Little while later, one of the workers came in to check on her and I told ’em she’d already left. The workers come in and cover her face and took her out on one of those tables with the wheels to the people who would fix her up, I guess.
Sweetheart, them eggs you fixed sho’ are good. You hear me? I said them eggs sho’ was good.
“Thank you, Daddy. I just boiled them, that’s all.”
Sweetheart, there weren’t no goin’ to a store for food, there weren’t no jobs to be had! Black man couldn’t get none! Black man didn’t have a chance! If you ate it, you grow’d it. Weren’t no welfare money. I could tell you what I was havin’ fo’ supper on Friday night a month from now.
“Really, Daddy, what?”
Buttermilk and cornbread! Mama’d send us children to the branch or the well with a jar full of buttermilk, a lid on it with a little rope tied to it. We’d set that jar down in the water to cool all day for our supper that night. Weren’t no driving to the store for food! If you ate it, you grow’d it! Weren’t no jobs! Weren’t no welfare money. Weren’t no jobs to be had. I remember I got a job at the cotton plant when I was grown. The women worked there sweat so bad in the summer they’d be soaking wet all the way through their tops at the end of the day. I gave my Aunt Marjorie a ride to work. She worked like two slaves, raisin’ two children while your Uncle Rex pretended to farm.
Yeah, he didn’t work. He rode the roads ever’ day gatherin’ information.
“Daddy, do you mean he was a gossip?”
“That’s hilarious! I wonder if Momma and Aunt Donnie tag-teamed Uncle Rex, when he got to heaven?”
Well, I hope he got rite ’fo he left this world. See there weren’t no jobs! Weren’t no money! We didn’t get ‘lectricity ‘til I was thirteen. Nobody had it! We had to wait fo’ it to come to Good Hope.
Ever’body had a fireplace. My Mama had a little box by her cookstove. She’d tell me to go out and fill that box up with wood and she’d make me some tea cakes. Sometimes Mama kept baby chicks in that woodbox by the stove to keep ’em from freezin’ in the winter. Mama had a couple settin’ hens and ten-twelve what you call fryers. Settin’ hens had a nest out there in the barn.
“Are those smaller than a hen?”
Yeah. She’d take a little cornmeal, mix it with water, roll it around in a pan, make little balls and go out in the yard and call them hens.
“Okay, Daddy, I’m getting my coffee now and I might head back to bed.”
Okay, Sweetheart, I’m going to hit the trail come daylight.
“How far do you walk now?”
I make four rounds.
“That’s about four miles, isn’t it?”
“That’s pretty good for 82 years old.”
I guess so.
Come’ere, let me tell you somethin’. See there weren’t no money back then. Weren’t no jobs! Black man couldn’t get one. Black man didn’t have a chance! If you ate it, you grow’d it. Weren’t no tractors in the area yet. Plow’d with a’mule. Didn’ have no ‘lectricity. I could tell you what I was havin’ fo’ supper a month from Friday.
‘Bout six weeks fo’ Christmas us boys would make fireballs.
“Daddy, What’s a fireball?”
Us boys roll up some wire into a ball, leave a little tail hangin’ from the ball. Take some old rags, wrap the ball, set it down in a bucket o’ kerosene to soak ‘til Christmas Eve.
Come Christmas Eve, we’d have piled corn stalks in one of the fields and have a fire. All my cousins’d be there. My uncles too. We’d get out there in that field, light them wire balls, give ’em a swing or two, and let ’em go in the dark! I’d set off ’em firecrackers I bought with my cotton pickin’ money. Mama have to make us come in about one that morning so we’d be ready for Christmas.
Come Christmas mornin’, Mama’d fill a couple old shoe boxes full of sandwiches wrapped in paper she’d made to take to my Granny’s for us children a snack. Some pineapple—I ’member the first time I had a pineapple sandwich. Some Lady made a whole box o’ pineapple sandwiches with mayonnaise ’n white bread. We boys thought that was somethin’ special. We snuck into the kitchen and got into those sandwiches! They was gone by the time we had lunch.
My Granny’d have three or four settins’ Christmas day.
“Daddy, what is a settin’?”
Sweetheart, that’s folks eatin’ at the table all together at the same time. The men would eat first, then the ladies, then the children.
“I guess the ladies fed the men first to get them out of the way?”
Probably, so they could eat and talk. Granny’d probably have a couple hams, a roast or two, chickens—fried, and all kind-a-ways.
“Daddy can you help me? I need to wash these dishes.”
Yeah, I can help you, Sweetheart. The military taught us how. I probably washed more dishes than most folk. You want me to take ’em to the laundry sink and wash ’em?
“Daddy, I don’t care what you do as long as they get washed.”
Some Kind o’ Mistake
I had KP duty on a Friday. We washed metal trays all morning. That’s what the military fed us on. Sergeant told us if we finished we could have a break. I was soakin’ wet from washin’ all those dishes. I walked over to the KP schedule that afternoon and saw I was scheduled for the weekend. I thought they made a mistake! I walked over to my sergeant’s door and knocked and he asked me what I needed. I said, Sir, there’s been some kind o’ mistake. He said, No mistake. You have KP duty one weekend during the month and once during the week. So mine ran together.
We’d take care of each other in our room. There were four of us soldiers. All men. See, Matthews from Tennessee slept on the top bunk, I was on the bottom. ‘Self’ was from Alabama. I once slept in a pup tent with Self in Germany. Some man was from up North. When one of us was on duty we’d pick up his laundry, make his cot up. We took care of each other. We had to—we were all one another had. Matthews talked in his sleep. One night we heard him yell out, If you gonna shoot, shoot me now, ’cuz I’m going home!
When I volunteered for the military, Mama and Daddy had a fit. Daddy threatened to go to the recruitin’ office in town and tell ‘em I had asthma when I was a boy so they wouldn’t let me in. My older brother, Jamie, told ‘em, Y’all let Horace alone. He’s tougher’n a lighter knot. He can handle it. So I joined. Yeah, I’ve got training on those dishes! I can wash them up quicker than anybody. They taught us in the military. Some o’ these young hotheads need to spend time in the Military. They’d straight ’em out. They can’t call Mama and cry to come get ’em overseas. I had grown up on a farm and I knew what work was.
See there weren’t no jobs. Weren’t no money. Weren’t no driving to the store for food! My Mama had a talk with the four of us in the car ’fore we left for dinner at the neighbor’s. Let’s see, it was me, Mary Jo the oldest, Jamie next, and Dot the baby. Mama says, If the lady serves fried chicken, you take out only one piece, ya hear me? I better not see you take more’n one piece o’ chicken ’cuz you’ve had it when we get home.
Say, maybe on a Sunday company visit and they sit outside talkin’ a spell. Afterwhile, Mama would look at the lady and ask, Why don’t y’all stay fo’ dinner? The lady would look at her husband and they’d discuss it and she’d look back at Mama and agree. Mama would say, Alright, you come in the house and help me while they stay out here. Didn’t seem but a little while dinner was ready. Mama would take some cornmeal and water in a pan, make little balls. Go out’n the yard and call ‘em chickens. ‘Em chickens come runnin’! She grab one fryer by the neck, grab another, ring one’s neck, then ’nother. Boil them feathers off. Didn’ seem like thirty minutes she’d have fried chicken, biscuits, cornbread, gravy, maybe some green beans—leftover from dinner that day. Yeah, my Mama was a fine cook. Yo’ Mother was a good cook. Everythin’ she cook was good.
Sweetheart, you think you could ride with me down to Good Hope to the graveyard while I dig a hole and bury yo’ Mother’s ashes?
“Sure Daddy, we’ll take Sally with us. Those sure are pretty flowers.”
I picked ‘em out myself at the Walmart.
“How many you got there?”
A dozen. Can you help me put them on her grave?
“Sure, Daddy. Did you load the shovel?”
Yes’m. I told ‘em for twenty five dollas I’d bury her myself. She’s been sittin’ in the laundry room for the past year. I’ll crank Betsy up. Sally can ride in the back. The Braswell Holiness Church is where yo’ Uncle Paul, Uncle Charlie, Alonzo, Granny, Grandaddy, and Cousin Nelson’s buried. I put yo’ Mother to the right of me on the headstone I bought ’cuz the woman should be on the right of the man. Sally, can stay in the back o’ the truck. Yo’ Mother loved that dog. Do you know Sally still comes to the kitchen door in the mornin’ and whines fo’ her? Yo’ Mama’d brang Sally a slice o’banana ever’ mornin’ after she got up. Yo’ Mama slept in the bed while I got up early and walked. The military taught us to get up early . . .
Here, brang me her box and let’s see if that box’ll fit in this hole I dug.
“Daddy, I think you need to dig it out a little more. Make the hole more square to fit the box.”
Alright. Let’s see what we can do. Here, try that.
You wanna say anythin’ ’fore I cover the hole?
“Let me get Sally out of the truck so she can say goodbye.”
Mister John Daniels said to tell you thank you for making him that food. He said, Yo’ daughter sho’ can cook. I told him, Why don’t you tell her yourself? He didn’ say nothing, him being a black man and all.
“Daddy, it’s 2018!”
I know, but you know . . . Mister John still livin’ in the old days. Black man don’t visit no white woman and talk to her.
“How much rent you think the Miltons charge Mister John to live in that little frame house?”
Oh, I heard at one time three-hundred a month.
“I wonder if it has heat?”
I don’t know, but I believe I saw John going outside to the bathroom one time. Mister John been livin’ in that house as long as I can remember. His daddy rented that house when you was a girl.
“Daddy, I can remember little children playing outside in the yard there when we drove past the house in the station wagon.”
A Fine Cook
Sweetheart, you feedin’ that dog too much. I never seen a dog so picky it leaves food alone. Most dogs eat food fo’ it hit the ground. My Mama had a couple dogs, fed ‘em scraps. Dogs and cats ate together. Didn’ leave nothin’ behind. What you feedin’ that dog there?
“Daddy, she only eats people food. She doesn’t like the egg whites. She eats the yoke and leaves the white behind.”
Yo’ Uncle Paul had huntin’ dogs. Wouldn’t feed ’em nothin’ but cornbread! He’d say, Pauline, fix me up a pan of cornbread fo’ them dogs. Aunt Pauline would bake up a big pan of cornbread, and Uncle Paul would cut it in big chunks and feed dem dogs. Look like it was gone ’fo it hit the ground! Me and Jamie, my brother, would go rabbit huntin’. Kill ten or twelve rabbits. Mama’d cook fried rabbit, rabbit stew.
“I remember, Daddy! I was a little girl. It was during winter, dark, and cold. Granny made rabbit stew. It was so good.”
Yeah. Yo’ Granny was a fine cook. I can picture her now. Company come. Sit a spell. After while Mama’d look over to the Lady and say, Why don’t y’all stay for supper? The Lady’d look over at her husband . . .
“Do you think you could help me peel these potatoes?”
Can I help peel taters?
Sweetheart, I peeled mo’ taters than most folk! The military taught us. I remember I was on KP duty. Some boy told the sergeant, I didn’t join the Army to peel taters. Sergeant left and a little while later brought back the authority and handcuffed that boy. It was a court martial offense disobeying orders from a commanding officer! See, we’d peel taters in large metal drums. We had to feed about two hundred men.
“Daddy, Would you go out to the porch and bring me about ten potatoes off the shelf? I’m going to make some soup.”
I peeled mo’ taters than most folk. We left out at daylight marchin’, the mess hall would go ahead and meet us. We’d eat out in the field, march again, come back that night. March all day. How you want these taters peeled?
“Just peel and cut them up in chunks then cover them with water in that large pot over there.”
Yes‘m I peeled mo’ taters than most folk! I can peel some taters. Bring me a knife.
See, there weren’t no money. Weren’t no jobs! Black man didn’t have a chance! Weren’t no welfare money. If you ate it, you grow’d it. I remember all the families that owned land down ‘roun Good Hope. Folks go-in-halves.
“What’s a half, Daddy?”
Sweetheart, poor man couldn’t get ahead. Say the owner of the land rented out part of his land and families would grow cotton and give a portion of it back. Alright, these taters is ready. I peeled ’em.
“Thank you, Daddy. I’m making soup with them.”
Can I watch you?
“Of course you can.”
What you put in that soup?
“Whatever we have in the kitchen—onion, celery—a little of this and a little of that, chicken broth. Mother taught me how: Cover the potatoes and boil down until a thick broth forms. Add chicken broth and spices.”
Yo’ Mother was a fine cook. Everythin’ she cook was good. Sure do miss her.
“Daddy, no crying today. You’ve still got me.”
DeLane Ashe Phillips fell into writing accidentally while completing a late homework assignment for English (in her forties). The assignment— a short story, turned in at 3:00 AM, eventually found a home in Emmanuel College’s annual Montage for creatives. She continued to write, while completing a degree in Education at 45 and teaching high school English until stepping back to care for her family. The family home place welcomed the return of voice. Now sold, like so many, the land, flora, fauna, and wildlife served as solace and birthed poetry, short stories, narratives and much conversation, including a revival of love for the Southern palette, slow speech, and complexities of the changing life in the South.