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SOME PEOPLE might have classified Bessie as queer, but she was not. She was an unbending, strong-willed individualist who believed completely in people doing right whether it concerned their daily living or letting alone the pears on her pear tree. If one did wrong, he or she received severe censure from Bessie both orally and physically if she was able to get her hands on the culprit.
Bessie was a powerhouse of stamina, courage, faith, endurance, sincerity and rage if imposed upon. She attended strictly to her own business. In fact, an almost impenetrable wall of isolation seemed to surround her at times. She allowed no meddling from anyone. The only person that could in any degree cause Bessie to reteat from a chosen conviction was my mother. Any deviation from her chain of thought only occurred because Bessie loved her sister, Nannie, so dearly. After the death of my father, Bessie gallantly came forward to do what she could to help Sister Nannie rear her fatherless brood.
Bessie was tall and angular in build. She never seemed to gain an ounce of weight no matter how much fattening food she consumed. She never considered her boiled greens to be just right until tiny strips of fat meet were laid across them in criss-cross fashion. Cabbage was cooked with slices of fatback or a chunk of streak or lean/streak of fat. Her famous and delicious corn cakes were fried in shortening. Bessie copiously and constantly used fats, but the marvel was that never a bit of it was added to her lean frame. Her weight never changed.
To us, Bessie was perennially young. We all knew that she was our mother’s youngest sister and much older than my mother’s oldest child. But when it came to her spirit and ability to do things, she seemed almost as young as any member of the family. If Mother wanted someone to do climbing, Bessie would ascend a ladder with the agility of a sixteen-year-old.
Bessie loved to play ball, and I always sat entranced as she would tell of her prowess as a ball player. Her eyes flashed and sparkled as she described going to her club’s picnic, playing baseball and winning. She would say with pride, I slammed that ball way down in the field and made my home run. Few women could match Bessie when it came to batting and running for home base.
Boys who had the nerve to venture into her backyard to snitch pears from her pear tree knew that Bessie was no ordinary runner, and they took heed of this fact.
If Bessie spied the culprits, she would start for them. Some boys might see her and call, Here she comes! Then you’d see boys drop from the pear tree like falling meteors and fly with Bessie in hot pursuit. Sometimes she would seize a tree limb as she went along to use in case she needed it, but boys knew better than to let Bessie catch up with them. She maintained her ability to move fast and be very agile until she had reached a ripe old age.
Bessie was an excellent cook. I have often regretted that I didn’t get her recipe for corn cakes while she was well. No one has ever been able to cook such delicious ones. Few days ever passed without my going to Bessie’s house. She was our wall of strength, a refuge in time of need. Sometimes when Mother was away, I would come from school awfully hungry, stop by Bessie’s house and ask, What you got good today, Bessie? If she had a plan of fried spots and several of her tiny corn cakes on the back of her iron range, I was delighted. I knew that I was sure to enjoy a good feast.
I always remember with joy Bessie’s Christmas dinners. They were a family institution that flowed like a river from one year into the next. A certain amount of continual planning seemed to go on. For example, if during the summer she happened to chance upon a thick log of wood that looked as if it would make an excellent back log for her grate fire, it was carefully stored away out of the weather in preparation for later use.
Our family always made it a habit to eat dinner around our own festive table on Christmas Day, and Bessie usually ate with us. However, on any day afterwards during the Christmas season, we could look for the invitation to come to Bessie’s house for her Christmas dinner for the family.
She planned her tasty menu for days ahead of time. The door to her dining room would be closed and off limits for several days. In this room she stored the things to be used for the dinner.
Sometimes a friend who cooked well was asked to come and assist her in serving or to do certain assigned duties. Nevertheless, she alone took care of the final touches such as seeing that the gravy was the right consistency and that the turkey was tender and browned all over. Few people in our section served turkey at any time except on the important holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. Since these birds were somewhat of a rare dish, the turkey meat and the rich corn bread stuffing had to be just right.
Most families baked several cakes at Christmas to provide for themselves as well as for friends. Bessie rigidly adhered to this custom. Her coconut cake was irresistible. For days she would hunt for a fresh coconut with plenty of milk in it. Then she would carefully crack it, hull it and grate it to be used in the filling. Bessie never considered buying boxed coconut because she thought it was too dry to make the moist, fluffy filling she freely piled between cake layers.
Sometimes she made locust and persimmon beer long before the holiday season began so the nippy drink would be ready to serve with the dinner and with the cake, if the guests so desired. If locust trees or persimmons were not available, Bessie knew how to make a substitute delectable concoction from corn cobs that have a most delightful taste.
When the date for the dinner arrived, we all dressed for the occasion. As we entered the dining room anticipating a delicious meal, the roaring open fire game a welcome glow that made each person experience a cheery warmth within. We were never allowed to assist with dinner, even though we were her family. We were her guests at this event, and she treated us as such. We, in turn, did nothing but enjoy ourselves.
Sister Nannie, our mother, was always placed at the head of the table in the seat of honor, and we were seated around accordingly. After the family was in place and the table blessed, Bessie was a superb hostess. No French chef could serve cuisine with more elegance than Bessie. She fairly hovered over each plate, continually urging each one to take plenty. When she was sure that each one’s appetite was completely satisfied, she would relax and sit down to enjoy her own meal. Whenever she sat down, though, she stayed down until she had finished and her instructions were not to bother her after she had started to eat. And we didn’t.
In fact, few people opposed Bessie once she had made a decision. She had a proud, queenly and firm countenance that made people recognize instantly that she meant what she said. I remember an incident at our home one day while Mother was at school. Bessie always tried to arrange her work and daily duties so she would check by our home from time to time so see how we were getting along while Mother was away. This particular day, we had been treated rather unkindly by a neighbor or so we thought.
Our mother had always maintained a fence around her property, and there was a gate that opened on the lot next door. This gate had been used by my mother and family to go to a nearby well for water several times a day for many years. Getting permission to cross the lot next door never occurred to us. It seamed to have been an understood fact that the right-of-way to cross began with the purchase of my mother’s lot from the original owner. Since that time, new tenants had moved into the house several times, but none had ever objected to our crossing their yard. Without a warning, the new tenant went out and nailed the gate closed.
Unaware of this, we went out as usual to go to the well, and the gate wouldn’t open. All we knew to do was to wait for Bessie to arrive. In a short while, Bessie came, and we told her what had happened. Bessie was furious. She moved into the yard and called Hey, you, come out here. The tenant came out, and Bessie proceeded to tell him what she thought of him for imposing on children. And this is not your fence, she continued. I’m going away for a few minutes, and you have this barricade off this fence when I get back! The man mumbled some spiteful retort at Bessie as she angrily went back into the house. It was winter, and we had a brisk fire burning in the big kitchen range. Bessie seemed to run her hands unknowingly over the side of the stove. We always joked and said that Bessie was so angry she didn’t feel the heat.
Bessie went off and stayed a short while. In the interim, the tenant hastily dismantled this fastening from the gate. He erected another type of barrier on his property a foot in front of the fence, but never again did he nail up my mother’s gate.
Bessie had large feet and very large bunions which plagued her most of her life. She would laugh and tell how she put a large marble in her new shoes and packed them in with paper to form a bunion place in her new footwear. For years, Bessie was employed as a maid at the post office. Walking for long distances to and from her home in Brooklyn to her work had a telling effect on her bunions. But she lived with them the best she could. Various well-wishers had suggested surgery to Bessie, but she did not intend to lose any part of her anatomy.
Bessie was faithful, punctual and dedicated to any job she accepted. She worked at the post office for years until time for her retirement. One of the proudest moments of her life was the ceremony at which she received a lovely gold watch and recognition for her devoted years of service. Bessie came home to rest, but I think she was unable to do so. She had worked too long and too hard. I don’t think she ever adjusted to being at home alone or to a partially non-active life.
Bessie had been married and was the mother of two children who both died while they were very young. Their deaths caused her great sorrow, and I remember hearing her repeat this Bible passage over her small son’s corpse: Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him. This affirmation showed her intense, devoted faith in God and her complete resignation to His will.
She believed in prayer, and her well-used Bible was always very close at hand. Most of the time, it was on the table where she ate her meals. She was a member of the First Baptist Church, and to this church she gave an untiring, dedicated devotion. She was a Sunday school teacher, member of the senior choir, and gave of her services to any activity that needed them.
She faithfully attended Sunday school and morning services, went home for dinner and often walked back again for evening services. She also attended Wednesday night prayer meeting as long as she was able to go. She dearly loved God. He was her constant guide, and she tried to live accordingly to His word.
Bessie was fortunate enough to be able to buy her a home about two blocks from my mother’s home. Her lot was a large old-fashioned one about two hundred feet deep. A small sturdy house, which Bessie later had remodeled into a large two-story home, was on the lot. She always said that she wanted a two-story home.
On this deep lot was space for a garden, a black walnut tree, and two pear trees. They are now about seventy-five years old and still bear fruit abundantly in good seasons.
Bessie was ambitious and appreciative of the many good things in the world whether they were creations of God or man. She loved flowers, shade trees, running vines and the beauty in all things. Although she never had the money to purchase priceless works of art or to invest in luxuries, she tried to enjoy some of life’s finer things in proportion to her wealth.
This is a humorous anecdote, but it illustrates her determination to participate in good things. One day, she walked by a candy counter in an uptown store and saw some delicious-looking expensive candy. She knew that her pocketbook was almost depleted, but she stopped quietly and asked to buy a nickel’s worth. As she told me what she did, her eyes twinkled, and she laughed. To me, this act was indicative of her. She recognized values, and she tried to partake of them if only in small amounts.
My discussion of Bessie would not be complete without some remarks about her grenadine. The grenadine was a piece of cloth or dress pattern, as she called it, that Bessie had secured. She had probably obtained it from a mail-order house because she was once an agent for this type of firm. I have never been able to find out why the cloth was grenadine unless it was a particular kind of material that was popular during the period.
Bessie had paid a large sum for it. Exactly how much, I never knew, but it was expensive. Years ago, one dollar bought a yard of what was called fine material. I am sure the price that she paid for this dress pattern was almost or perhaps more. She must have loved it at first sight and been determined to have it—high cost or not—and it became one of her most treasured possessions.
I think I remember seeing a dress she made of the grenadine, but I do not have a vivid picture of it because the grenadine had been taken apart and transformed many times into whatever style of dress suited her fancy. When she looked at a picture of a dress she liked, she might remark, This would be a good style for my grenadine. The grenadine became a symbol of strength and durability. She talked and thought of it as being something constant, enduring and having the capability of becoming any type of creation she desired.
The grenadine must have been forty or more years old, but it was a possession that she valued as some art lovers value a rare tapestry. It seemed to glow with deep meaning through he years, and its age meant absolutely nothing. After her death, the grenadine was lost. Somehow in my mind, the memory of the treasured material lives along with my memory of Bessie, one of the most beloved people in my life.
My grief was intense when her mind finally gave away, and I was one of the persons who had to arrange for her to go to a mental hospital. After she was duly entered in the hospital and my brother and I turned to go and leave her there, my heart seemed to shout against it, but we had no alternative. We were never able to bring her home again. She died in that hospital.
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996