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  • Writer's pictureJerri Lynn Sparks

Canning Day

“Tough times don’t last, tough people do. Remember?” – Gregory Peck The big, black basin was filled almost to the rim with water. Ma had gathered large stones around in a circle to surround the big tub, the same one the family often used to wash laundry and other things in. She propped the tub up on the rocks and lit a fire under it as her grandchildren watched. There was no grass to worry about scorching. No, this was a dirt yard, fine gray silt that felt cool on bare feet in the summer. Every day I’d be covered in the stuff from head to toe, once causing my grandpa on my mother’s side, an always well-dressed man with a fedora and nice jacket, polished shoes and polished look, to catch his breath at the messy sight of me when he visited us “Billy Goats,” his name for me and my Blue Ridge Mountain siblings. (Goats live on the side of Stone Mountain, my favorite place, and Paw Paw often referred to mountain folk this way.) “Now, c’mon,” Ma said. “Let’s get to breakin’ beans.” I’d never heard of this so I didn’t know what to expect. Were we all going to start throwing canned beans onto the ground to break the cans open? Or were we going to snap butter beans in half? I’d never seen what was about to happen before so I just followed my older cousins to the front of the cement porch, a big rectangle that in my child’s mind seemed to be about four feet high off the ground. (It’s always surprising to go back to childhood places that you grew up thinking were huge only to find short rises and small hills in place of high ledges and daunting cliffs.) Ma had arranged straight-backed chairs in a neat row at the edge of the porch. An old white refrigerator was standing nearby outside the front door that led to the inside of the house, a small cabin where she’d raised seven children with no running water. The first child, a son, had died during childbirth so there would have been eight had he survived. His name was Kenneth, a name she spoke with such pain in her eyes I could feel the sharp knife of memory in my own chest when her eyes welled up and she’d get this far away look in her beautiful Cherokee face, as if she was seeing him in the horizon in front of her. I remember looking up to where she was looking once but I couldn’t see anything. It was then that I understood the bite of belonging with someone who is no longer there. Because of that, I tried not to let her dwell on it. Always quick to change the subject in uncomfortable moments (a habit of being the oldest child in an often contentious home), I would ask her a question about what we were doing at the time. (There’s a reason my nickname was “George” growing up. I was a “Curious George” and still am but I also learned early on that questions are a great diversion. Survivors know stuff.) This would pull Ma’s memory out of misery and back to the happy but hard work of tending to her growing brood of grandchildren and cousins while all our mothers worked in nearby factories and stores. There were about nine of us at any given time along with a handful of cousins, friends and neighbors. She raised us on ice cold well water drawn from a well down the dirt road that led to great-grandma Emma’s house, Kool-Aid, government cheese, beans and fatback. And then there were the vegetables and fruits. I don’t remember ever buying them at the store. Instead, all spring and summer we planted seeds and waited. Rows were dug with hoes and rowdy grandkids, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Potato day was the worst. I hated potato day. All that digging and then you’d accidentally chop them in half with the hoe or, even worse, you’d stumble across a rotting one that smelled like death. I can still spot a field of potatoes a mile away as I drive my own kids along the back roads of Upstate New York. Then harvesting season would come. The big cabbage patch was farmed mainly by Mexican immigrants that my great-uncle Claud hired. They’d come in on a flatbed pickup truck and silently go to work. There was no warning to us kids that they were coming, just an unfamiliar truck filled with young men quietly looking out at us dust-covered, barefoot children. Then by the end of the day what was once a blue-green sea of orbs would be stripped bare. Discarded half shell leaves lay in messy rows like a dry green sea. My cousins and I would walk around out there and all you could see for what seemed like a mile was the aftermath of harvest day. Stubby stalks looked like temporary tombstones the birds lit on or pecked at, signaling the end of summer was upon us. This always triggered my grandma to line up the kids on the porch and hand us each a big metal bowl. Then she handed us each a little knife (somehow we never got cut) and filled each bowl with long, thin green beans. I didn’t know what to do with this so I watched her as she showed us each how to string them. “First, cut off the end halfway and then grab the end between your thumb and the knife and pull it all the way down to the other end and then snap it off. That’s how you string a green bean. Then you break the pod at each seed, about an inch long. The flesh will give where it should break.” “The flesh will give where it should break…” My cousins were dutifully stringing and breaking the green beans and tossing them into this big basin in the middle of the porch at our feet but I kept hearing Ma’s words echoing in my mind. Did my flesh give where it should break? There was that one time when Cousin Curtis told me to jump over a downed log whose limbs he’d been whittling which later impaled my leg. It avoided my shin bone so maybe that was true. I still carry the scar on my shin to this day though, a constant reminder to be more careful when chasing after wild boys who let speed trump safety. And there was the time I caught a softball with my face, the reason I wear glasses to this day. The retinal scarring is still there, still pushing back against a line drive I managed to stop while still finishing the game. If I’d been hit a little bit to the left or right or a little deeper, I may have lost my vision in that eye. Then there were the times I gave birth, all of them easy, quick and without much trouble. A few hours in and I had a new little life clinging to me. The last one was barely ten minutes because a snow storm kept me from the hospital. I never got to know the two lost ones, they weren’t here long enough for me to see or know them, to hold them, my heart having been saved from the pointed and precise pain my Ma experienced with Kenneth. Years later, my flesh would give where it never should have gone, reshaped by the fists of a madman… “You’re very lucky,” a medic told me as my blood spilled out onto the ground. “A few more centimeters and we’d be looking at a compound break,” he’d said. A compound break…is that what they call a messy divorce these days? It certainly *felt* like a compound break. And it’s funny, I didn’t feel “very lucky.” Still don’t. Never will. But perhaps my grandmother was right. My flesh *has* given where it should break: - It gave to shattered glass when I ran through the storm door at my mom’s Avon party. - It gave to a sharp log in wild woods. - It gave to a line drive in 8th grade. - It gave to various bees, wasps and W-A-S-P-S whose sons I dated in college. - And it gave to four incredibly beautiful humans I’m blessed to shape and set free to their own breaking. By the end of the late summer’s day, the big basin was filled to the brim with bright green one-inch pieces of beans. Little white seeds popped out from each break so that the tub looked like a giant succotash. Ma confiscated the knives (probably sensing Cousin Curtis had other ideas) and told us all to “go on and play now” as she gestured with a fistful of knives towards the woods a few feet away from the front porch. Canning Day was complete. Cousin Curtis stood up and grabbed ahold of the old white refrigerator for steadying himself and noticed that he got a little electric shock as he did so. “Here, grab my hand,” he said snickering with that evil grin he got to his little sister, my cousin Carol. As always, doe-eyed, trusting Carol did what her older brother said to do. “Weeee!” she said in glee. “That feels tingly!” Then all of us held hands and let the light buzz of a bad machine run through us all. (How on earth I survived childhood is truly a miracle.) “Cut that out!” Ma said as she shooed us off the porch, mumbling that Pa had better get that thing picked up and out of there soon. Sufficiently electrified, we all ran off barefoot into the woods while Ma and my older cousins put the green beans into glass Mason jars with water, sealed the lids and placed them in the now boiling water in the basin. They cooked all day and into evening, wisely planning for winter in the only way the poor in Appalachia knew how, by plodding on and valuing what they had, which was often little more than family. And we kids stayed safe from the fire, somehow knowing how to avoid getting burned but not shocked. I believe that distinction has served us all well… And when winter came, we had the best beans I’ve ever tasted.

(Photo from Jerri Sparks' family collection: Ma & Pa Sparks & cousins) ### #Canning #Appalachia #Cherokee #BlueRidgeMountains

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