Red Beans and Biscuits after a Cold Walk in the Dark

IMG_0006Yesterday, I went to visit Esther, who was a dear friend of my mother’s and has become my friend, too. Esther grew up in rural Maine—in Vassalboro—in the 1940s, and I love listening to the stories she tells of her childhood. Esther is only twenty years older than I am, but it almost seems as though she were born in a far-gone era, where life was contradictorily simpler and harder.

Esther made lunch for me, and as we ate her delicious beef stew, she told me that as a young girl she often walked home in the cold and the dark to her mother’s red bean stew and biscuits.

“Back then, no one took me anywhere or picked me up. If I wanted to go to a girl scout meeting in the village, I had to walk home afterward. Getting to the meeting after school wasn’t too bad, but coming home, it was a long, dark walk.” (Esther lived on a country road about two miles from East Vassalboro Village.)

I thought about how children were certainly hardier and more self-sufficient in those days, but I just nodded and helped myself to seconds of the beef stew. (As friends and family know, I am, ahem, a good eater.)

“Mom would have red bean stew and biscuits ready for me, and they tasted so good after that long walk.”

“I bet,” I replied, savoring Esther’s beef stew—the potatoes, turnips, and beef so tender it practically melted in my mouth. I also remembered hearing about how Esther’s mother, who worked in the factory in North Vassalboro, did her own walking in the dark and cold.

Esther is writing a memoir for her family—I hope I get a copy, too—and we talked about some of the vignettes that would be included in her book. “I’m writing about some of the unsung heroes in Vassalboro. My school bus driver, for example. One day after school, I went home with a friend, who lived on Cross Hill Road, and there was a bad snowstorm.”

“There’s quite a hill on that road,” I said. “I’ve gotten stuck on it once or twice.”

“That road was so bad that the bus driver decided he just couldn’t make it up that big hill. So the he stopped the bus in a safe place, let us out, and walked all the kids to their homes.”

“He felt responsible for the safety of the children on his bus,” I said.

“Yes,” Esther replied.

As I finished my soup, I thought about this bus driver, a man clearly concerned about the welfare of the children more than he was about his own comfort. He could have let the children walk home on their own. I doubt any of the parents would have given it much thought. As Esther’s story about the girl scout meetings indicates, children walked a lot back then, and in all kinds of weather. But the bus driver didn’t want the children to walk on their own in a snowstorm.

Generally, when we think of heroes, we think of some grand, brave act such as jumping into an icy river to save a drowning child. But Esther is right to honor the unsung heroes in her town, the men and women who thought of others, who in many small ways made life better for the people in Vassalboro.

In a life that is hard or hectic or filled with other kinds of stress, it is not always easy to give, to be decent. But give we should, despite the effort because as Esther’s story illustrates, this generosity ripples out through the years, well past the time when it was given.


20 thoughts on “Red Beans and Biscuits after a Cold Walk in the Dark”

  1. I think I’d like to share a bowl of stew with you and Esther. πŸ™‚ That bus driver was a hero and wouldn’t his family have been proud to know the lasting effect he had on his children on the bus. Wonderful post as I sit today and look out the window and around my neighborhood and have to recognize that we don’t even know the names of the people who live in the houses. Our ancestors were strong but caring.

    1. Wouldn’t that be fun! Then, we could all share stories, because we all have them. And, yes, that bus driver’s family would be proud to know the lasting effect he had on at least one very observant child on that bus.

  2. Unsung hero stories are worth the telling, virtues are least celebrated in today’s world. My heart sank when my nephew told me that a rugby player was his hero; he has two boys of his own so you can imagine the standard being set. This particular player who was his team’s captain (after being sacked by another team) was let go after numerous offences of bad behaviour including drink driving and setting a man on fire. He was sacked by a third team after a photo of his urinating into his own mouth was released to the media. He was a fallen ‘hero’ ; a ‘hero’ just because he can play ball. As far away from walking children home in the snow as you can get.

    1. Mary, unfortunately there are fallen heroes as well as unsung heroes. I love the sound of “walking children home in the snow.” And let me tell you, that hill on Cross Hill Road is a dilly. I bet walking up that hill in a snowstorm wasn’t easy.

  3. I love hearing the old stories. Too few are recorded, so many pass away with their tellers unheralded. My boys aren’t even interested in their heritage, but they are young yet, so hopefully, that may change in time.

    1. So true, Eliza. How good it would be—or would have been—for those who are so inclined to write a memoir for their family. Because you are right. The stories pass away with the tellers. I am hoping that Esther will finish her memoirs, and that I’ll receive a copy. In the meantime, I’ll be pumping her for stories whenever we meet.

      1. Maybe we should write our own – it is a thought! I have years of journals to draw from, but the thought of going through them makes me groan! πŸ˜‰

      2. In twenty years, our childhood experiences may seem as far removed as Esther’s are. But, yes, going through years of journals can be a daunting task.

      3. The thing about waiting until my later years, my memory may be a bit off. πŸ˜‰ A contemporary of my father’s wrote a memoir and quite a few details were inaccurate. Her memory vs. fact. Memories are seated within the mind and can change with age. I have forgotten so much that my older sister (no kids – that explains it!) has retained. Sigh! πŸ˜‰

      4. Memory is notoriously unreliable. Yet even so, I expect the truth breaks through. Perhaps all an honest writer can do is acknowledge a dodgy memory and press on anyway πŸ˜‰

  4. Oh, how I love homemade biscuits. Those look especially scrumptious. I also really appreciated your story of the heroic bus driver. I completely agree that there are many people who perform heroic everyday deeds while living in obscurity.

    1. Thanks, Jason! Yes, they are all around us, and Esther’s story illustrates how their deeds ripple forward.

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