Growing up, I understood there was a particularly strong bond between Mama and her older sister, Ozelle. It would, however, take me years to figure out what was the foundation of that bond.
The two sisters were similar in many ways. Both were talented seamstresses, they dutifully planted summer gardens then put up reserves for the winter months, they were frugal, each handling a dollar bill as though it was a jewel, their houses were always tidy, and they could fix anything with twine, baling wire, or masking tape.
They spoke to each other in mountain language that each understood and whenever they quoted the Bible, it was always the King James.
One day, several months after Mama died, Aunt Ozelle called me. We talked at length. After about 40 minutes, she said, “Well, I’ll let you go. I hated to call and hinder you but I just needed to hear your voice so bad.”
Hinder. It was a word that she and Mama used often.
It was only after I began to make my living as a storyteller and I listened more carefully to their stories that I realized: Hard times had created a bond between the two, who were 18 months apart in age, that time could never diminish.
They had grown up together in the poverty of the Appalachian foothills during the Great Depression and learned how to make do with what they had, which wasn’t much. Milk and butter were kept in a “spring box” — a slatted box that was set down in the creek behind their house. They toted eggs to the store and traded them for what could not be made by their hands: coffee and salt.
With what the mountain people call “umption”, they had bravely left the small, secure world carved deep into the woods and started down the road to a better life. Then World War II came and tested the mettle of their beings. For two years, Daddy served in the Pacific with only censored letters to keep him in touch with his young wife.
From those difficult times came a bonding and a sense of survival that only the participants could understand. When Mama died, she left behind, along with hundreds of spools of thread, two deep freezers filled with food. She had an “old” freezer that was over 50 years old and a “new” freezer that was 40 years old. I decided to discard the old freezer (while the new one, now 50 years old, is still going strong) which meant spending two full days, throwing out Cool Whip containers filled with homemade vegetable soup. Most of it was at least 10 years old.
“If times get hard again, y’all will welcome eatin’ that soup,” Mama used to say.
Though my family laughed, I kept her vegetable soup in the new freezer and did not throw out her home-canned green beans or tomato juice (unless the top pops — then I throw it out). The other day, I was digging deep in the refrigerator-freezer in the kitchen and found a jar of homemade apple sauce. Aunt Ozelle brought it to me when she had Thanksgiving with us the year before she died.
I took it out and smiled. She had put the apple butter in a glass coffee jar because she, like Mama, never threw out what could be used again.
“There is no way I am throwin’ you out,” I said aloud to the memory I held. “Times might get hard enough that we need to eat this and all Mama’s vegetable soup in the new freezer.”
Aunt Ozelle’s apple sauce made me think of this, too: Though times are challenging now, there is an upside. We will survive. And when it’s over, there will be a bonding between us all that will puzzle future generations to come.
But we, forged and made stronger by these struggles, will always know.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of There’s A Better Day A-Comin’. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.