Putting in tobacco, finding life friends

Growing up, summer always marked the end of school and the beginning of lazy days, hooking up with friends, going to the pool, and outdoor sports. When I was a teenager, my parents decided that summer meant something else: no more allowance. I was old enough to do real work. Ugh!

Aunt Janet, my mother’s middle sister, and Uncle Arthur Lee lived in Carpenter and grew tobacco. He was always in need of helpers to “put in tobacco.” Since I lived in Lumberton, this meant I would be staying with them or with my Grandmother Lizzie, who also lived near to Aunt Janet and Uncle Arthur Lee.

Fortunately for me, I was a girl. This meant working at the barn, stringing tobacco or handing leaf bundles to the stringers. I took pride in handing the bundles fast. Mornings came early and the days seemed very long. I usually came in dirty with tobacco gum on my hands, all sweaty and dirty. All I wanted to do was get a bath and go to bed.
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Over the course of my “summer camp” putting in tobacco, I recall the enormous lunches. My uncle’s aunt lived next door to them and would fix lunch for the crew. Boy, what a lunch it was. She would cook all morning getting ready for us to come in from the barn to eat.

Prepared and set before us would be a buffet of pot roast, fried chicken, ham and homemade biscuits. We always had potatoes, corn, butter beans or snaps and peas and more as vegetables were plentiful. Desserts were in equal abundance. She made chocolate pie, coconut pie, banana pudding and chocolate layer cake. My mouth waters as I think back.

I know now that my aunt and uncle were doing my parents a favor letting me work and earn some money. I actually didn’t know how to put in tobacco. But my uncle was very patient, and his easy manner helped me learn to do enough that I felt I was not a hindrance. He also had a sixth sense and knew when boredom was setting in. He not only provided lunch for everyone, he also provided for an afternoon break.

One day my uncle came up to me and handed me the keys to his truck and said for me to go to the store to get drinks and snacks. I was stunned. Since I wasn’t old enough to take the driver’s education class, I had only dreamed of driving.

I didn’t hesitate. I got the list, the keys and a few instructions and off I went to the store. The road I drove on was only about a mile away from the store and not busy at all. Even though I didn’t know formally how to drive, I managed to keep the truck on the road, between the white lines and park it without hitting anything. I returned more mature than when I left and with cold bottles of Coca-Cola (no cans back then), Nabs, peanuts and Moon Pies.

Some of the summertime I would spend the night with grandmother and Aunt Mina Ree. My Grandmother Lizzie lived in an old house in Carpenter that had been divided into two apartments. It didn’t have very many amenities, but it did have a tin roof and a wrap-around porch, large shade trees and a dirt yard. The rain would lull me to sleep as it pitter-pattered on the tin roof while I lay in one of her feather beds.

As the summer waned, I found a friend in my Aunt Mina Ree, my mother’s youngest sister, who was only four years older than me. Sometimes she would have a girlfriend over to spend the night. They would let me pile into bed with them. I felt so grown up. They liked to talk about boys (of course), but they were masters of using “pig Latin.”

I managed to learn a few words, but they were so fluent in it that mostly I fell asleep and left them to their stories.

I really enjoyed hanging with Aunt Mina Ree. One day we complained so much about how hot it was that my Grandmother Lizzie fetched two galvanized tubs and filled them with water. Before we had time to fuss over our plight, she proudly presented us with our own private pools. Of course we took only a few minutes to be insulted that she would think we would be caught dead sitting in the front yard in a tub of water. It took us only a couple more minutes to put on our bathing suits and crawl into the cool liquid. Silly laughter could be heard as we threw caution to the wind and enjoyed our personalized pools. Aunt Ree was so much fun to be with. Her laughter was infectious.

When I travel around North Carolina and see a field of tobacco, old brown barns, faded white washed houses with large, tin-covered porches, I remember those summers. My Aunt Janet, Uncle Arthur Lee, Aunt Mina Ree and Grandmother Lizzie provided me with the sort of memories that you tell your children and your grandchildren about.

We have all grown older and have seen the passing of Uncle Arthur Lee and Grandmother Lizzie, but my memories of those summers past will last forever.


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