Black-Eyed Peas

on June 4, 2013 in Black-Eyed Peas, Southern Charm

In Lincolnton, Georgia, several years before the Great Depression, lived a man, Horace Lawton Story, Sr., and his wife, Nancy Elizabeth Bentley-Story. Before it was all said and done, they had nine children. They lived in a farm house built by Lawton’s father, Rad Story.

Life was hard on the farm especially for Lawton, mainly because he suffered from asthma. He also struggled with the rock ridden land and fought bow weevils. But on he went with his farming and caring for his family; a family he adored.

Nancy did her part. She could sing like and angel and cared for her prize Rhode Island Red chickens. She was the only one who could approach the “wild thangs” without getting flogged. She was happiest when pampering her chicks; the Reds and her baby chicks: Grace, Beau, Sarah, Robert, Miriam, Caleb, Gene, Tom and Nancy, Jr.

The children stayed busy with school, working the farm and throwing a basketball at a hoop made from a bushel basket. They all worked together and played together. The Storys were all for one, and one for all.

“Do you see this stick?” Lawton Story would ask his children. When he had their attention, he would then snap the stick in two.  “See what happens when you stand alone?” Then he would hold a stick, one for each member of his family, and try to break the bunch in two, as he did with the single stick. Even his strong hands could not break the bunch. “When we stand together as one, nothing can break us. We stand separate in the world, we can be broken. Stand together children, be there one for the other.”

As it would happen, tragedy befell this lovely family when one of the daughters became ill. Miriam was the fifth child; a child who was born with a “blue veil” over her face. Miriam was sickly much of her childhood and smaller than her siblings. She was very young when she came down with “the fever.” A burial dress was purchased for her and stored away in the wardrobe. The dress was a large version of a christening gown; dark creamy in color. Nancy Story prayed that little dress would never be worn by her daughter.

All care was given to Miriam, but to no avail. Then the day came when she refused food and became lifeless. It was impossible to keep the child awake.

Nancy had spent days working frantically with Miriam. She had racked her brain to remember all the ways of healing practiced by her grandfather, Dr. John Bentley. Nothing was working.

The doctor was sent for yet again.

“I don’t give her any hope, Nancy. There’s nothing to do that has not been done. She’s in the hands of the Lord now,” the doctor said as he looked out the window, so not to look Nancy and Lawton in the face. “Let her rest.” The doctor struggled to find the words, “Make preparations – now.”

The stunned family could not come to terms with the thought of losing little Miriam. How could they survive as a family, without her silly little giggle and bright eyes? The family encircled Miriam’s bed and they all prayed and spoke their minds – hoping the good Lord and Miriam could hear them.

Nancy was the first to make a move away from her daughter. She went to the kitchen and poured dried black-eyed peas into a pot of cold water. And then she did something never done before. When putting away the sack of dried peas, she stopped and held the sack close to her heart. She walked back over to the pot of peas soaking in water.

Nancy put her hand back into the sack and pulled out three more handfuls of dried peas and with each one she said, “One for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Spirit. Now,” she said calling out with authority, “that will do. Lawton, tomorrow we will all leave this house and catch up on the chores.”

Lawton was stunned and the children dismayed. What was Mother thinking? Mother was speaking out of the realm of reality. The children reminded her of the stick story and how they always stood together. They would not leave their sister.

Nancy Story stood firm, “Everything is backed up. We have stock to feed, wood to chop and corn to pull, and,” she hesitated, but being a strong and sensible woman, she continued, “and Lawton, you have a job to do in the barn.”

Lawton fought back tears and said, “Come sunlight, I’ll get started on the coffin.”

The black-eyed peas cooked throughout the night and before daylight, Nancy cooked cornbread. The children questioned why they were eating black-eyed peas and cornbread for breakfast.

“Where’s the ham and eggs, Mother?”

miriamwithleastones

Older Miriam with the “Least Ones”

“The eggs are in the hen house and ham is in the smoke house, waiting for us to tend to it,” answered Nancy Story to her children. “Today we will eat peas and cornbread, catch up on the chores. Grace, you and Sarah, go to the smoke house on the way in and cut some ham for dinner.”

The children ate their unusual breakfast of peas and cornbread while they took their assignment from Mother; that is all but the Least Ones: Caleb, Gene, Tom and Nancy, Jr.

“You Least Ones come with me,” Lawton said to his babies. He looked at Nancy and said, “They can hand nails to me, and I can keep a close eye on them in the barn.”

So, off they went after each one kissed Miriam goodbye. They would work hard today. They would keep Miriam on their minds and hearts. They would pray in the field or in the barn; no matter where their assignment took them.

Miriam was left alone in the house. She was not able to speak, but had heard the words of the doctor. She had heard the prayers pleading for her life. And come sunlight, she heard her father hammering nails into her coffin. She was sick, she was weak, but with every pound of the hammer, something inside her stirred. It was the will to live.

And she knew what she had to do.

Miriam had to get to those black-eyed peas on the kitchen table. Somehow, someway, Miriam slid out of bed and crawled to the kitchen table. She struggled to the chair. She fell time and time again. Somewhere along the way, she passed out. When she regained consciousness, she tried to climb onto the chair again. And finally she made it. She mustered up energy to get onto the table. Miriam crawled to the big bowl of black-eyed peas where put her little mouth on the rim. She sipped black-eyed pea juice.

When her family returned to the house midday, they found little Miriam unconscious on the kitchen table. They were shocked and speechless.

Robert, the fourth child and detective of the family, pointed to Miriam’s mouth. “What is that on her face?” Robert got closer and smelled Miriam’s mouth. “That’s black-eyed pea juice! She’s been eatin’ black-eyed peas!”

With that Lawton found his voice, “Beau!”

The eldest son knew exactly what that meant. Beau scooped up little Miriam into his arms and put her back into bed. The rest of the family circled her bed and quietly sobbed and gave thanks. Nancy stayed in the kitchen where she pulled out another big pot and “put on” more dried black-eyed peas to soak, all the while thanking the  good Lord.

From that moment on, someone stayed with Miriam during the day and fed her black-eyed pea juice, one drop at a time. Miriam recovered and grew into a lovely young woman. She married and became the mother of four children: Frances, Rachel, Curtis and David. And thank the good Lord Miriam never wore that little dress hanging in her mother’s wardrobe, though she kept it as a keepsake and on occasion pulled out the dress to show it to her children and grandchildren. Miriam believed the sickness made her smaller than her brothers and sisters, but she was Story enough to beat the death angel on that day in Lincolnton, so long ago.

My father, Tom Story, was among the “Least Ones” who went to the barn that early morning and handed nails to his father to make Miriam’s coffin. And though he was only a tot, he carried this story in his heart his entire life.

I remember Daddy and his family, telling the black-eyed pea story from my early childhood, as did all Story cousins. Miriam held a special place in the hearts of her brothers and sisters, as she was the bridge who connected the older ones to the “Least Ones.” Whenever there was a disagreement amongst brothers and sisters, it was Miriam who reminded the family of the stick story. She had a way of pulling peace out of thin air. Another “Least One,” Gene, would later say of Miriam, “We all loved each other and we all love our children, but it seemed like Miriam just loves a little bit more.”

And even today, whenever a stubborn sickness enters my home, I give the Holy Trinity its due, give thanks for my Grandmother Nancy, and “put on” the black-eyed peas.

Recently my friend, Sheila Kirkman-Barron, told another black-eyed pea story. Years back, her children’s pediatrician, Dr. Leila Alice Denmark, advised Sheila to throw out the cereal and eggs and feed her children black-eyed peas for breakfast. When Sheila did so, her children became free of allergies.

Dr. Denmark ate black-eyed peas for breakfast. She lived to be fifty-three days shy of one-hundred-fourteen years of age. Well known Georgia pediatrician and author, Dr. Denmark died December 10, 2011. But before her departure, she prescribed black-eyed peas to many Georgians.

Black-Eyed Peas Recipe

Sort 1 lb. dried peas (look ’em is what I’ve always heard) and remove anything that is not a pea – also throw away ugly peas

To cook peas quicker, soak dried peas in cold water – an hour or so

Rinse peas in cold water

Put peas in large pot and cover with about 6 cups of  hot water

Add salt and pepper to taste along with seasoning (I use chicken bouillon, some use fat meat)

Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to a simmer.  Cook until tender – about 45 minutes.

Delicious with hot cornbread.

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