Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
The okra was the worst. The plants were all scratchy and you had to wear long-sleeved shirts to keep your arms from getting all cut up, but no matter what sort of clothing you wore you’d come from the okra patch itching like fire.
I hated it. I hated getting up at sunrise on Saturday morning, piling into the station wagon. We rose with the sun because by the time the Mississippi Delta summer mid-morning rolled around it was already getting too hot to be comfortably working outside.
I hated it. I wanted to be watching cartoons. It was Saturday morning, after all. The peas weren’t exactly fun to pick, either. You know the expression, “…pea pickin’ good?” Maybe not. And it’s just as well, ’cause it ain’t true. There’s nothing good about pickin’ peas.
On the work farms they called it “stoop labor.” Work farms were the South’s way of making the transition from slavery to whatever Yankee nonsense it had to be called now. The logic being: If we can’t call ’em slaves, we’ll arrest some able-bodied black boys on some Jim Crow charge and put ’em in the work farm. It’s like a prison, except that instead of making license plates you pick the peas, chop the cotton and generally make lots of money for the Man. Slavery by any other name …
Of course, having to pick the garden once a week under the supervision of my grandparents was hardly akin to early 1900s work-farm conditions, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell me that at the time.
My grandmother’s aunt and uncle had a huge peanut farm about 15 miles out of “town,” and each year they’d plow up a few acres for my grandparents to plant a garden in. And plant they did, lemmee tell ya. Peas (purple hulled), corn, beans (butter, snap and string), okra, crooked neck yellow squash, eggplant and tomatoes would grow like mad in that rich Delta soil, and during the summer months nary a meal went by that didn’t have a fresh-picked, home-grown vegetable in it. And because my grandmother was so skilled in canning and freezing, we’d eat home-grown veggies year ’round.
After we came home with our bounty, the work was far from over. Papa and I would shuck bushels of corn outside while my grandmother worked at the sink. Then, inside, under the cool breeze of the swamp cooler and the lulling hum of the television, we’d all sit around and shell peas or butterbeans or snap beans. Even the smallest of the four grandchildren had a little workstation.
I wish I could say that I was a long-suffering rural moffet with a sense of family duty and a desire to put food on the table. But no. I hated it. I hated missing cartoons. I hated the absolute drudgery of shelling peas. Shucking corn bugged me deeply. All I wanted to do was go swimming, or play wiffleball, or play Leggos … anything besides watching the bowl of peas fill up so painfully slow.
Most every night Papa would sit there at the supper table, slathering a thick, fresh slice of tomato with mayonnaise, scooping a spoonful of purple hulled peas over his cornbread, arranging his fried okra just next to the mashed potatoes and say to the grandkids, “You just don’t appreciate these fresh vegetables, do you?”
And guess what? He was right. He was right! How could I appreciate them? I was still itchy from picking them that morning. I had no way of knowing that the food on my plate was any different from the food on anyone else’s plate. I had never known hunger. I had never known anything other than fresh, home-grown vegetables. How could I know?
“You kids just don’t know how good you have it,” Papa would continue. “When I was your age …”
Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah. Do I have to hear this again?
My grandfather was the youngest of 10 kids. His parents were both dead by the time he was 16. He lived with his brother, who gave him a quarter a week allowance. My grandmother was poorer than poor, and in the poorest state in the country. Whatever. What does that have to do with me, having to shell these stupid peas? I don’t even like peas THAT much. I want a Snicker’s and a Coke.
Now. Ask me what I wouldn’t give to be 11-years-old, up at 5 a.m. and driving that rutted back road to the peanut farm. The scratch of the okra plant on my arm. The stinging sweat that rolls into your eyes as you bend down to grab more peas from the vine. Ask me what I wouldn’t give to be sitting, right now, in that living room, a mound of peas in front of me, and an empty bowl to fill.
If only I could hear Papa say, “You just don’t appreciate this, do you?” one more time, I could finally tell him how right he is.
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