$18 sets up a home in 1940

$18 sets up a home in 1940

The loving tribute to my friend of more than half a century, Sarah Grubbs, was written by Sarah’s daughter, Jan Grubbs Beasley. Jan has been married 49 years to Melvin Beasley and has three children and six grandchildren. She is retired from CSX Transportation as senior director, Labor Relations, and has been a children’s Sunday school teacher for 51 years. Sarah changed her address to Heaven on May 13, 2010. Earth lost a good woman.

Mama’s black frying pan was manufactured on July 25, 1911. It was nearly 30 years old when she bought it secondhand in 1940. She gave it to me several years before she died, and I count it a treasure. The bottom is warped. The sides are pitted. The cornbread that Mama baked in that pan always came out the same way: crunchy and well-browned on the sides, top and bottom. The insides were melt-in-your-mouth perfection. Butter wasn’t really needed. Mama used lard and often put in a tablespoon of bacon grease for good measure.

The day she bought that pan was a good day for 18-year-old Sarah. It didn’t start out good, but Sarah said a prayer and then put feet to her prayer. She had married Jack in March and now in May, she was already pregnant. Her first baby was due in January 1941, just 10 months after her marriage. But on this particular day, Sarah was not thinking as far into the future as the baby’s arrival.

Her problems were far more immediate. Ruth, the mother-in-law that Sarah had heard so much about, had told Jack to bring his bride to Columbus, Ga., where the cotton mill was hiring. Sarah had already heard about Ruth’s terrible temper – how she could go from sweetness and light to foreboding verbal attacks in a moment’s time. Everyone in Jack’s family had warned Sarah that absolutely no one could live with Ruth. That included Jack’s father, who had left Ruth years before. It also included Jack himself, who moved in with his grandmother at a very early age.

But with no work available in Quitman, Ga., Jack and Sarah were on a bus headed to move in with Ruth until Jack could make enough money to get them an apartment. Jack’s better judgment told him this would not work, but it was the only solution he saw. He borrowed $50. He would use some of it for their expenses until he had his first payday. The rest would be kept to pay for the baby. Fifty dollars was a lot of money and if used carefully, they would be fine. The bus cost $2.50 for the two of them.

Sarah settled back on the bus seat with her mid-length strawberry blond hair gracefully framing her face. She leaned her head onto Jack’s shoulder. She weighed almost 100 pounds and she was 5 feet tall if she had her shoes on. As the oldest of seven children, she could cook, clean and take care of the younger children. During planting and harvest, she was in charge of the house while her parents worked in the fields.

As the bus rattled down the rural highway, passing red clay side roads, Sarah reflected on the twists and turns of her life. She had actually graduated high school. And even more amazing, she had attended Georgia Women’s College through the NYA, thanks to President Roosevelt’s programs. Then she met Jack. They dated just a short time when he convinced her to elope. When word leaked out that she was married, Sarah was told she had to leave college. Married women were not allowed to attend under the NYA. But it was just as well, with a baby on the way.

Jack and Sarah arrived in Columbus and were met by Ruth at the bus station. They walked the few blocks to her house. Ruth was pleasant. The house was neat. Four days later, Sarah was on a mission to get herself and Jack out of Ruth’s house.

Her goal was to accomplish this before Jack clocked out at the cotton mill at four o’clock that very afternoon, which was his first day at the mill. It had taken less than three days to know that they could not live with Ruth. To use Sarah’s words, Ruth went from one “wranglement” to the next. She was never happier than when she had everything and everybody stirred up.

To Sarah, it was divine providence when she heard about an elderly man who wanted to sell his household items and leave town. She took some of the money she and Jack had hidden and quietly left the house, walking briskly down the crowded street to the rooming house where the man lived. She eyed his belongings, quickly deciding which items she needed and how much she could offer for them. They settled on $18 for everything she bought. She gave him cash and told him she would be back as soon as she secured some rooms at a nearby boarding house. He offered to help her move the things with a wheelbarrow he could borrow, saying he knew a man who would help him.

Sarah hurried to the big frame house around the corner and found that two rooms and a small kitchenette were available. She and Jack would have to share the only bathroom with other occupants of the house, but that made no difference to her. It was a haven. It was peaceful. It would be the first home she would share with Jack.The old man was as good as his word. He and another man made three trips balancing all manner of stuff on the wheelbarrow plus four more trips to hand-carry items too big for the wheelbarrow. Before they left, the men put the bed together and placed the heavier pieces where Sarah directed. She tipped the men each a dime, shut the door and started to work.

The bedroom was first. The maple bedstead was sturdy. The mattress sat atop metal, coiled bedsprings, which rested on wide wooden slats. The second-hand sheets were decent and had been washed and folded. The blanket and bedspread were likewise satisfactory to Sarah. She set a bare orange crate with a lamp on top beside the freshly made bed. There was a flowered throw rug to put between the bed and small maple dresser. She plumped the pillows and stood back to admire her work.

The tiny kitchen was next. Four plates, mismatched flatware, odd glasses, cups and bowls of varying sizes went into the limited storage space over the two-eyed wood stove. The sparse pots along with the 1911 black frying pan were placed atop the stove. She put the trashcan in the corner. She moved the bare, scratched up, inadequate table and two chairs to the only place they would fit, snug against a wall. Dishtowels, two potholders and cleaning supplies the man had thrown in free were placed in a corner cabinet. The mop and broom were put on the small porch outside the kitchen. Again, Sarah admired her work.

Then she addressed the living room and the items she had for it: a small settee, two more orange crates for end tables, a wooden rocking chair, a real coffee table, a lamp, a vase. She arranged and rearranged these items different ways until she finally settled on the best use of the space. She patted the rocking chair and thought about the coming baby.

Sarah loved pretty things and she knew with just a little bit more money, she could make the place look like a home. She hurried to the dime store where she bought several yards of powder-puff muslin material and a red-and-white checkered oilcloth for the kitchen table. She bought thread and needles and a pair of scissors.

By three o’clock, she had transformed two bleak rooms and a little kitchenette into the first home of her married life. The table was set for two on the clean oilcloth. The living room orange crates were covered with pastel flowery material (which Sarah would hand-hem tomorrow) and fresh flowers, picked from the yard, were in the vase. She wished that she had Jack’s table-top electric radio to plug in for some music, but that would have to wait until he could go to his mother’s to get their belongings. She would not go there alone.

She met Jack at the gate of the cotton mill and led him to their new home. He laughed all the way as she told him about her day. “I knew we couldn’t live with Mama for very long, but I didn’t know you could do all this in a single day.” She was pleased that he took pride in what she was able to accomplish with so little.

Jack and Sarah were married for nearly 65 years. He never underestimated her ability to get something done quickly, with little cash and an eye for beauty. Like the woman in Proverbs, Chapter 31, Mama worked willingly with her hands, reached out to the poor and watched over the ways of her household. She was a good woman. He was a good man. Together they were a good team.

And I am proud to own the black frying pan whose handle reads: NYS CO ACME PAT’D SPIDER JULY 25, 1911. It hangs on a wall with other old things.

Brenda Cannon Henley is an award-winning journalist and writer living on the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast. Having enjoyed more than four decades in ministry, Brenda shares her columns with our readers and works with churches and faith-based programs nationwide. She can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.