Places I am writing about in the novel:
A Little Book of Holiday Comfort
SWEET POTATO PIE
Bertha Mae Washington was at her usual place along the very long table the Blue Ribbon Sisters set up in front of Super Tigers that crisp November morning when Lazyboy Carruthers dropped Maybelle off with her contributions. Lord what that man has done to her in the course of seventeen years, she thought, as the rusty old truck pulled up to the table. Poor soul. She aimed straight for the truck as she walked, the full 300 pounds of chocolate smiles on her lighting up every room she had ever entered. Even this old parking lot seemed to hum when Bertha was around. As if it were suddenly singing gospel songs belted out from deep down someplace only the Lord himself knew.
Maybelle’s hair had changed from chestnut to solid white in the course of the years Bertha had watched her bake. She was just a ghost of the girl she once was.
“Don’t you go making any trouble Bertha,” Priscilla said. They both weighed the same, and were the same height, and had the same bossiness in them. “Help me set up these paper decorations and the napkins.”
“Bertha I need you to taste this Pumpkin Bread and see if the spices are right.”
“Just a damn minute Priscilla, I’m going to help Maybelle out of that old truck of his.”
“How you been doing child?” She smiled broadly. “The Good Lord looks like he loaded your plate with too much this year.”
“Bertha,” Maybelle sighed. “I’m so happy to see you.”
“Let’s get those pies on the table fore they cool off. Knowing your crust they’ll be the ones to go first.”
One by one the women unpacked the pies from the back of Lazyboy’s old truck. They glimmered golden. Maybelle had been the beauty of the county at one time. Now she walked hunched over as if the winds had flattened sea oats in her soul after a hurricane. You might say that Lazyboy had never been nothin’ more than a storm across the face of her life. It’s just that when his temper flared she cowered. Bertha Mae checked her face for signs of any bruises. It was something she did every year in November. The cold seemed to make the tempers flare harder in the men who had suffered the bad economy. Especially if they drank too much.
“That’s such a pretty dress Maybelle.”
“Why thank you Bertha, that is very kind of you to say.”
As they carried the last of the pies to the long tables, Bertha wrapped an arm around Maybelle. “I have a surprise for you tonight.”
“I brought you some of that ham you love.”
“Oh, I can taste it now.”
On nights when the Blue Ribbon Sisters did a big sale like today, they spent the night at each other’s houses. In this case, Maybelle was to sleep on a sofa Bertha always fixed up just right. Every time Maybelle slid under the piles of crocheted afghans and Bertha tucked her in, Lazyboy was gone, if even for one night. The strength she drew those evenings was enough to get her through the next holiday. It was the low hum that Bertha used singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as she ran her hand over Maybelle’s forehead, singing her to sleep.
“Landsakes, we seem to have everything we need, don’t we?” said Priscilla, buzzing over like the busybody she was. “This year we are going to have enough to get that little school over in Perquimmans painted.
Now, it would only be fair to say that though all of the Blue Ribbon Sisters had very little actual money, what they had was kindness, and in life that’s the thing that counts for most. Each one of them looked out for the others, on the sly. They existed in a world that was truly all their own, based on the golden nature of things like crusts.
“Will y’all come and look at what Maybelle did this year.”
That was Bertha who liked to oooh and aaah the most. Her feelings came out so largely that they seemed to travel up from the roots of the ground like an old pecan tree that had been standing for years no matter how buffeted by the winds.
“Will you just look at this pecan.”
The Sisters gathered around Maybelle and each one touched her arm or her shoulder, some even hugged her or gave her a kiss on the cheek. Maybelle could make something out of nothing at all. That was her special skill in life. Bertha’s was to spread joy.
“Tina Pinkerton was by here earlier,” Priscilla remarked. “Not that she could ever make a pie like ours now could she?”
“Now Priscilla you just shush,” Bertha said in a rich laugh that matched the burnished brown glaze on Maybelle’s pecan pie. “I need me a bite of this one right now.”
Maybelle made lots of kinds of pies. The old pecan trees gave her plenty to work with and the little country store had everything else she needed. The Sisters chipped in all their coupons to get flour and sugar and butter for her. Lazyboy never had to lift a finger except to drive her out when they met at the bake sales. Of course he didn’t mind, because it meant she was baking and he liked the kitchen to smell like a real homeplace. Not that he had ever made it so.
Bertha cut a piece of pie and smiled. “Maybelle, I wish I could get my lumpy old sweet potato pie to look like this one of yours.”
Priscilla cut in and grabbed the biggest piece for herself. “Bertha, you know damn well that your pies sell the fastest, now don’t you?”
And that’s how the quibbling would go all day as all the ladies fussed over each other’s baked goods. Those clerks in Super Tigers popped in and out all morning and afternoon like sparrows after whatever crumbs might fall into their waiting hands. The cookies alone were enough to make them swoon.
“Here Maybelle, take this chair of mine,” one of the Sisters said. “I did your cap this year.”
“I made it a purple one.”
“Oh look at this dear little hat,” Maybelle smiled. “Is this one really for me?”
“It is and I did one for Bertha Mae this year too.”
The Dollar Store had yarn now and again, and the Blue Ribbon Sisters made sure to stock up. Every single one of them had a talent for creating things. Some were better than others of course, as it goes with most things. But each one had some kind of childhood skill she remembered, and usually their mothers had passed this gift on to them.
Bertha Mae could crochet just about anything but afghans were her specialty. She’d sit on her porch rocker all through the winter making tiny little multi-colored squares that she stitched together when the storms came fiercest. Maybelle had a gift of growing Camellias. They were the best flowers anyone had ever seen, in just about any county. It was that rich soil over in Perquimman’s that had done it. Tucked in her bag were corsages for all the ladies.
Bess had knitted the hats this year for winter, and there was one for each. It was a tradition for the Sisters to have the best hats in town. Now, over the years they had had specialists among them. Real milliners. At this point, the hat collections each of them had amassed held cherished memories of all the sales and all the things they had ever done. Like getting those old schoolhouses painted in every single county there was. They tackled that every year for just one school. The combined strengths of the hearts of the Blue Ribbon Sisters were something to behold.
Maybelle and Bertha had their new hats, and all the ladies were tasting the pecan pie. The corsages were coming out of Maybelle’s bag one by one as Lazyboy drove off.
“He’s probably going fishing with the boys isn’t he?” Bertha whispered. Maybelle nodded her head and slipped on her new purple hat. It was like a French beret in the way it fell just to one side framing the silvery curls. “Bess, how does it look?”
“Just like you. Just like a violet in the woods.”
“Bertha Mae let me see yours.”
“Oh Bess look what you have gone and done.”
Bertha Mae’s face was framed in a deep Cranberry red. It would have been hard to describe exactly what the hat did for her complexion but if you wanted to capture the soul of the whole earth and spin that out as knitted yarn, well that was what Bess had made.
“Where is mine?” Priscilla whined. “I want mine!”
“Hang on just a second you bossy old thing. I’m getting there,” said Bess as she dug through the pile of hats. “Hang on.”
“I have to get our ribbons.”
“You run along to the Dollar Store, Priscilla, while I find yours. I brought the safety pins so we won’t need those,” Beth smiled.
“That bossy old thing. For 28 years old she sure is pushy,” Beth said as she watched the very rounded hips of Priscilla sway their way across the parking lot to the little store. The blue ribbons adorned every hat that had ever been made on the days of the bake sales. No matter what color that the hats had ever been? The many types of blue ribbons always matched. The ladies would fuss and figet choosing who should wear which color ribbon and sometimes this took all day to figure out.
“Leo is going to have a handful in her,” Bertha Mae replied with a raised eyebrow. “He certainly will.”
“Maybelle, guess where we’re going tonight?”
“Where?” she said with her eyes twinkling under the new purple hat.
“The Jolly Pirate.”
“Bertha Mae you know I can’t go in there, Lazyboy would never agree to that.”
“Maybelle Carruthers there is a contest on tonight and I’m going to be in it.”
“Yes, and I need you there with me because we’re sisters.”
Bertha Mae twinkled under the cranberry hat. It had the fanciest stitches of any of them. Not that she’d known the hat had her name on it when she’d seen it over at Priscilla’s place a few weeks ago. Why, every single one of the hats was just beautiful. It’s just that, certain hats seem to have your name on them. And Bertha Mae had prayed that this particular hat would be hers. Wearing it might even mean she was going to win the contest. She was going to be singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” before a pretty large crowd. With her friend Maybelle there? Well things were going to go just fine…