I wouldn't say that I have excelled in writing obituaries, or delivering eulogies, although I have done a few over the past few years. Often times, an uncontrollable abundance of words flow from my mouth, and the filter gets dislodged along the way. People are either left laughing or crying; I hope for the first, but am okay with the second. It's cathartic, or so someone said.
What can I say about Betty McArthur Estep? In her 90s, she could still write a wonderful letter, filled with newsy information, bits of family history and even a recipe or two. As she began to age, I noticed the letters began to grow shorter, and you could see the instability in her handwriting; I presumed her hand was quivering from fatigue. But the letters came, and I felt supremely blessed with the arrival of every handwritten note.
When I first met Betty, my husband John had brought me to a McArthur/Burns family reunion in London, KY. I drank too much on the plane, got a bit sick, made a jack ass of myself and got off the plane and into eye shot of my new brother in law Walter (Mac) and my young nephew Rob. I can only imagine what my new, gracious country folk family were thinking - "Boy, John sure knows how to pick 'em." I'm all about first impressions, so I went all out. I wondered if Walter ever told John to return me to the land of fruit and nuts that is California.
Having never experienced a true southern family reunion, I knew nothing of canning, quilting, pie making. I was from a large Irish Catholic family where we were more likely to throw darts at each other as foreplay to dinner. So, here, in the dead of July, I found myself amongst a large group of Kentucky southerners, and a table that reached from here to the next county, filled with every imaginable food dish possible.
As I surveyed the dishes, I can upon something that resembled a pile of worms found in a garden. I stared at that dish, trying to examine it from numerous angles, hoping that I might be able to identify what was in a large bowl in front of me. "What the hell is this?", I whispered to my husband. "Shuckey Beans", as he placed an enormous helping on his plate. I considered passing the mystery dish all together when John insisted I try just a bit.
Bravery can be a strong suit, but at that point in my life, trying different foods was not my purple heart heroism award. I suddenly felt a great, imposing presence behind me. I looked over my right shoulder and then gazed up towards the tall trees. There behind me stood one of the tallest, ominous, stern, bible loving faces, clothed in a somewhat plain dress, glasses and gray hair women I had ever seen. Eyes burned holes straight through me and could have ignited anything.
There, in all her glory, was the woman who had prepared the bean dish, doubling as earthworms. I suddenly felt the taste of my own leather shoe in my mouth and most like shrunk 5 inches in height. My face turned red, my knees trembled and I slowly reached for my husband's now absent hand. "Oh Lord', I thought...I'm about to have someone mark me, "Return to Sender".
As a courtesy, I placed a small amount of Betty's beans on my plate, and sought out a quiet spot where I might be able to retreat to Yankee territory or hide amongst the cattle grazing in the adjacent field. Surely these people aren't going to kill me on the first night. I began to taste the food I had selected, bite by bite, slowly allowing the food to dance upon my palate so that I could play..."Identify the food". Finally I could no longer avoid the brown, worm shaped things on my plate. One bite.
"Hey, these are pretty good", I thought. A rich aroma of hickory filled my nostrils, and the sweet taste of honey, brown sugar, ham stock and butter filled my mouth. "These are NOT earthworms" 3 helpings later, I had stuffed my stomach full of "shuckey beans". They were divine. I couldn't get enough of them.
I often wondered if Betty saw me going back to the mile long table and filling my plate with what I had mistaken for worms. Was it the eagerness to consume this dish that tasted like something from heaven or that I made a point of thanking her for the lovely dish she had prepared? Either way, I believe great strides were made that day in London, Kentucky.
For us Yankees, a "Shuckey Bean" is a string bean that after harvest, is strong up with twine, hung neatly in a root cellar and dried. No doubt, this was a custom handed down from generation to generation by the tough as nails Appalachian women in Betty's family (The McArthurs). These beans hung in root cellars and then were "revived" by soaking them overnight.
The first batch that Betty sent me about a year after the McArthur/Burns family reunion arrived just in time to be prepared for a family dinner with John's brother Jimmy and then partner, now husband Jim Daugherty. At the time, I was still into the Martha Stewart fad of actually cooking. Jim Daugherty and I were like old friends in the kitchen. I made a ham and Jim helped me prepare a blueberry cobbler that was to die for. The Shuckey Beans came out and were introduced to the ham stock. I have my own way of preparing a ham. I make a very rich, aromatic and flavorful stock. Those southern beans from the wilds of Appalachia simmered for quite a spell in a Yankee/California stock until they split wide open and turned a brownish color; like the earthworms I thought they were years ago. Home made buttermilk biscuits, corn bread and Irish mashed potatoes were part of the menu. It was divine.
I had begun to write to Betty a few times a year, along with her remaining sisters, Margaret and Mary Lou, lovingly referred to as "Punk". I wrote with great fervor of the feast I had created with the very beans she had shipped to me.
Those 3 sisters brought such humor to me. I would write each auntie their own letter; those gals would copy and send the letter to the next one in order to be sure no one missed a bit of news. I would later write one letter, and Xerox it 2 times and send it and the original to the Appalachian aunties.
One custom I found out was that John's mother Ms. Juanita (McArthur) and Auntie Betty shared the same birthday, Christmas day. As another "lucky" lady, my birthday falls a week later. I never had the honor of meeting my mother in law. as she had died suddenly of a brain bleed earlier in John's life; in fact he was in the U.S. Navy, overseas, when he received notice of his mother's untimely passing. At any rate, Auntie Betty and Ms. Juanita, along with Christmas cards, would make sure that both received a birthday card. Those "combo" cards and gifts can be such a sublime habit.
I have always enjoyed writing letters to my elders. So much can be learned from the notes. The pages contain history of a family. The southern way of life had been so very rough for the McArthur/Burns clan back in the days living at the foot of the beautiful, mysterious and often times deadly Appalachian mountains. Their way of life was decades behind how I was raised. I felt almost unworthy to even begin to believe that a letter from a young lady in California would be good enough for them.
The first few letters went well. I would receive either a phone call from one of the sisters, or 3 letters in return. Each hand written in long form (BTW, an art form we need to rediscover) discussing their daily adventures, and I could close my eyes to be transported to Benham, Gate City, Harlan, Webber City and imagine their lives.
My first and thus far only trip to Benham, KY where my husband was raised, shocked me out of my too good for anything attitude and towards a deep respect for the southern Appalachian way of life. Steep mountains almost overtook the small coal mining town, where the sun hit the streets from about 10 to 3 p.m., then would cast everything into chilled shadows. Poverty was evident everywhere. I realized that these coal mining families had an abundance of love and the fierce determination to survive. Upon seeing the house where my husband was raised, I felt guilty. But, as I walked through the back door of the house on Spruce Street, I had an epiphany. It's not the amount of money that one has but the love within their hearts. It filled me with utter joy.
As the years passed by, I continued to write to the three sisters. Margaret was widowed, with children and had very long sweeping penmanship. Sometimes pictures were included of grandchildren, cousins, etc. Margaret was the first to pass away. Then there is Punk. She is a hoot. The story goes that Ms. Juanita and Punk would sneak booze into red solo cups or coffee cups, and drink (innocent drinking), hiding their rambunctious behavior from Betty who was a devout Scottish Presbyterian. At the family reunion, Punk and I did the same thing; filling red solo cups with wine, and then sitting outside, on the patio swing, giggling and believing we were getting away with murder. I still laud my telephone calls to Punk.
To carry on in my mother-in-law's shoes, I wrote Auntie Betty a birthday card every year. 20 years of exchanging letters and birthday cards. Even though we had only met once, a solid and life lasting relationship was formed through those cards. There was a sense of comraderie between two Capricorns lost in a world of wrapping paper and a jolly man making a late night appearance down a chimney.
In one of my letters to Betty this past June, I told her about my son Bryan's excellence in cooking. I let her know of the fond memories of the infamous experience with Shuckey Beans, during the summer of 1993. Before I knew it, a small square box arrived, filled with long strands of beans; dried and strung, ready to go. Just a few weeks ago, I made mention to John that we would have beans with the ham I was going to prepare for Christmas Dinner. How would I know Betty would leave us before Christmas?
Dozens of letters fill a box. I look at them, re-reading each line. Pages filled with years of advice as to how to raise a family, how to laugh, to pray, to find God, to live each day as if it were your last.
A green bean, a stern woman, a family reunion, 20 years of letters and birthday cards taught me, the Yankee from California how to embrace life, cherish family and most of all that a bean on string is the path to happiness.
- My husband tells me I am a makebate. So, what's wrong with that? I love to write. I have 2 great kids and 1 grandson. I'd love to say I am "retired" but really, who retires from life? Shoot me a question, comment, rant or rave. They are all welcome here. Love dogs, my family, and most of all, debate. Pro NRA, conservative and a right wing lady.