What comes to mind when you hear pink butterbeans? I posed the question to my critique group, a creative bunch of vivid imaginations, and they fed me just what I wanted.

"I love it!" Susie said. "It sounds homey, comforting, soft, girly, southern--makes me sigh."

"Feminine, southern, earthy," Colleen offered.

"Sentimental and homegrown," Currie said.

"I think of my grandmother's kitchen," Chance commented. "There were always beans at meals, and a lot of the time, they were butterbeans. It makes me feel warm, like home."

"I picture lush, plump beans piled high on a plate, salted and buttered and steaming," Kristin said. "The anticipation makes my mouth water!"

 

Butterbeans remind me of my grandmother. She lived on a farm and tended a big vegetable garden. It was behind the old white farmhouse, at the rear of the smokehouse, and had a wire fence around it. A hydrangea bush stood at the gate, zinnias grew at the ends of vegetable rows, and morning glories and pink roses climbed the fence.

Summers, when the garden came in, Grandma pulled on her brown scuffed work boots and a faded, pink-flowered bonnet, took a few pails, and went out early to pick dew-kissed squash, pole beans, okra, cucumbers, field peas, tomatoes, and butterbeans.

Then she sat in a wide green rocking chair on the front porch, a white enamelware pan in her lap, and shelled the butterbeans in slow, methodical rhythm with the rocker's movement. Sometimes I sat beside her and helped. I stuck my thumbnail into the rounded outside edge of the hull and opened it. A few butterbeans popped loose and fell into the pan, one by one. They added up fast, and after a while, there was a whole pile of them. I loved the look and feel of those fleshy, heart-shaped butterbeans. Sometimes I'd slide my hands under the pile, gather some in each hand, lift them up, then let them fall between my spread fingers back into the pan. Then I'd do it again.

Grandma cooked some of the beans for the noon meal and served a steaming, soupy, buttered bowlful with hot skillet cornbread. Then she canned the rest of them and set the jars on a shelf in the pantry. By the end of harvest, jars were lined up one after the other on narrow shelves that went from floor to ceiling. During winter months, she'd pull out a jar and serve those lush, plump butterbeans, fresh and warm with a taste of the earth and summer sun.

The 50 essays in this book are like that, too--fresh, warm, and picked from a southern garden. Delightful servings that hold the essence of the land, the land that is so much a part of me, the land called Hill Country, home of my father, my grandfather, and my great grandfathers. Land that I now own. It's that land and everything around it--red clay dirt, fresh cool spring water that trickles under oaks and chinquapins and muscadine vines into a grassy pasture, brown-needled paths under tall pines, and fields of cotton, corn, peanuts and broomstraw.

And it's the land called Delta, my home, that evocative black land, with its relentless heat, its interminable rows of white cotton, its flatness, mile after mile as far as you can see, all the way to the horizon, and its complexities and hidden secrets and haunting mysteries--you can feel it and sense it all around you, and it comes up and sits on your skin.

It's all this that makes the South a character in its own right. And it's from all this that I pull up out of myself the deepest thoughts and feelings and experiences that make me who I am.

I place them before you--stories from the heart of a southern woman--like a serving of those heart-shaped butterbeans. It's good to sample them fresh, then pull them out later and savor them again and again.

"Pink Butterbeans sums up the style of your essays,"Currie said. "Heartfelt and unpretentious."

EXCERPT

Grandpa's Watermelon Patch

In late summer, the watermelons came in. It was a good time for a trip to the farm. A visit to Grandpa's watermelon patch for a slice of sweet, succulent pink pulp was a simple pleasure of my childhood.

Late afternoon, when scorching Miss'ippi sun slid halfway between noon and sunset and sneaked behind tops of tall trees, Grandpa'd say in his slow, southern drawl, "Come on, y'all younguns. Let's go get a watermelon." After a hard morning's work in the fields, he was ready to frolic with his five grandchildren.

We'd squeal and skip barefooted across the yard to the yellow dirt lane beside the barn where Grandpa hitched Dixie, the old mare, to the slide. A slide is a homemade sled, of sorts. It's a bunch of boards nailed together to form a flat, four-foot square platform on runners--no sides, used for transporting people or supplies. Pulled by a horse under the same principle as a plow, it slides smoothly over a dirt trail.

Grandpa stood on the slide, guiding the horse, geeing and hawing. If I were an artist, I'd sketch a picture, capturing the particulars of Grandpa's profile. The folds and creases in the khaki work pants hanging loosely on his tall, gaunt frame, knees slightly bent. Scuffed brown brogans, heels touching, toes pointing out. The straw hat skewed forward and sideways. Shadows cast across his sun-bronzed face. The high points and angles of his bones etched above hollow cheeks. Lips, thin and taut, set to a task. Deep coal eyes, pools in furrows like the long rows of crops he worked in every day. Purple veins carved around brown spots on weathered, leather hands that clutched worn reins loosely, moving up and down, rhythmically, like someone shaking a sieve, searching for gold, giving little tugs now and then.

The grandchildren sat on rough planks, cross-legged or legs hanging off the back of the slide, dragging our bare feet in the yellow dirt. The ride in itself was a treat. Sometimes, we rode quietly, slowly flowing along, listening to the sound of the runners scrape against the bare earth or Dixie's chains rattling a slow ragtime beat to the clop clop clop clop of her hooves. Sometimes, we squealed as the slide hit a bump and jostled us. Sometimes, we giggled or played with a dog trotting beside us, barking. Always, we were anxious to get there.

We plodded between the white cottonpatch and tall, tasselling rows of corn until the road forked. The left fork curved northward to the pond and pasture. In the middle of the fork, in a field of broomstraw, a plum tree spread its gnarled arms, teeming, overflowing with plump fruit. The right fork hugged the northern edge of the woods and emptied into the watermelon patch, its twisted vines rambling to and fro, umbilicals to the luscious striped green gourds.

Grandpa tiptoed among the trailing vines and thumped the possibilities, those having ripened in the sun's oven that day. He picked out the ripest one from a whole field of choices. After making a selection, he took his long pocketknife and in slow motion, sliced open the melon, as the grandchildren eagerly waited to see the inside. The oblong fruit was first sliced in half, and then the long halves with ripe, red centers, were cut in two. My mouth watered as I awaited my wedge of the sun-warmed, wet, yet crisp flesh.

As I bit into the watermelon, sweet syrup stained my cheeks, dribbled down my chin, dripped onto my cotton shirt, and rolled in streams across my dusty legs. I swallowed the pink pulp, and I spat out all the black, slippery seeds. "Y’all younguns, be sure to spit out the seeds," Grandpa always warned. "A watermelon will sprout and grow in your stomach." I believed him.

We'd always eat one watermelon and load a few on the slide to take back, the grandchildren guarding them, making sure they didn't roll off. When it was time to go home, we left the patch sticky and dirty, but full and satisfied.

 

The visit to Grandpa's watermelon patch is an analogy of life. We go after what we want. We're eager to "get there." We try to make good choices. We wait anxiously to see the results of our choices. We relish the good. We spit out the bad. When it's time to go, we leave fulfilled.

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