Mmmm, Soup Beans!

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

The first time I remember being ashamed of my mother was in third grade. I had left my yellow Snoopy lunchbox at home on the kitchen counter. I was so proud of that thing. It was plastic, not metal, and shaped like Snoopy’s doghouse.  The sides were covered with peanuts characters. It was not, like most everything I “owned” a hand-me down. Still, I was eight, so I forgot it.

This was the era of stoplights in the lunchroom to gauge students’ volume. Our principal, Gordon Pope, rode to school on his motorcycle in a burgundy polyester leisure suit with zip up boots. He seduced a fourth grade teacher, who mysteriously became “Mrs. Pope” over night. He enforced the rules at school with a paddle. When the stoplight turned red from too much volume, he called for silent lunches. All he had to say was, “Let’s have a no talk” and the lunchroom fell silent. It was during one such “no talk” that my mom arrived.

If I had to guess, she was wearing jeans, a down jacket over a t-shirt, and Ugly boots, the pre-cursors to Uggs. Her hair was frosted, but not at the roots, which would be about an inch long and medium brown. I was one of those kids, long hair neatly slicked back with ribbon barrettes, who had firm ideas of what she would and would not eat. I did not eat school lunch. I weighed maybe fifty pounds. My mom came into the silence of the lunchroom in a commotion. I slid down into my seat as far as I could without hitting the floor. She held out my bright yellow lunch box, triumphant. I imagine now that she had rearranged several obligations to my four sisters and broke a couple of traffic laws to get me the lunch box, but I didn’t consider that then. Since I had forgotten my lunch, the teacher had made me get a tray of pinto beans, corn bread, and some kind of mystery meat.

“Mmm, Soup beans!” my mom called out, looking at my tray. Her words echoed off the cinder block walls. Before the horror could register on my face, she had grabbed my spoon and taken a huge bite. Chris Cash, the troublemaker who would put soup beans in my long hair during lunch a year or two later, grinned wide. “Soup beans!” he said.  He would repeat this to me for years, in my mom’s enthusiastic tone. Soup beans, you see, were what mountain people ate. I didn’t know that I was supposed to be ashamed of that, the poverty of the place my family came from. I just knew my mom was so loud! And she ate the food no one at the table would touch,not because she had to, but because she loved it.

My mom grew up in Eastern Kentucky, but she never learned how to cook mountain food. When I grew up and moved to the mountains and learned to cook, I made her collards and soup beans and corn bread and all the other comforts she had denied herself in trying to look sophisticated among adults.  She just couldn’t contain her joy that day, finding a comfort of home in the lunchroom.

My mom embarrassed me, shamed me plenty later in life. She was always “the life of the party,” meaning she’d get wasted and dance at every graduation, every holiday party, every evening for that matter. I can hear her laugh fill a quiet room–a cackle really, with a couple of bars, the first octave low, then on up the scale, then breathless.  Still, when I think of her now, I think of the joy of her twirls on the dance floor, the easy wide smile, the way she never met a stranger. It makes me want soup beans.






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