A Southern Woman

Pansy Womble with Suzy Barile

A Southern Woman
The kindest, gentlest Southern woman I ever met died Tuesday. Pansy Womble taught me to how to cut up and fry a chicken, how to shell beans and make sweet iced tea, and how to dig for potatoes for mashing. She could bake a mean Pound Cake and to-die-for pecan and pumpkin pies, and she did it all while raising three children, working fulltime, and giving her best to her church, New Hill (NC) Baptist. Though she’d been ill for some time, the news of her death surprised me, and now the note I started to her this week about my summer gardening experience and how she inspired me will go unfinished, a tribute in its stead.
Pansy and her husband Wallace came into my life during my sophomore year in college when I began dating their youngest son. It was a tumultuous time in their lives: Carolina Power and Light had bought up thousands of acres to build a lake and adjacent park that would anchor its new nuclear power plant, and the Wombles’ land off NC 751 was in the project’s path.
When we met, they were preparing to move their house in the country outside of New Hill to within its unincorporated limits. But first they had to fix-up an old farm house to live in while their home was lifted from its foundation and trucked to the new site. And because Grandma Womble, who lived with them, was moving to her daughter Charlotte’s home in Raleigh, her small efficiency apartment at the rear of the house was to become a new master bedroom suite.
Despite this enormous lifestyle change, the Wombles opened their arms, inviting me, a “Navy brat, a city girl,” into their country world for many an enjoyable weekend. Sunday mornings when I visited were devoted to the 11 o’clock church service, followed by a dinner that Pansy had prepared before she left for Sunday School and featuring dishes I’d never tasted but grew to love -- turnip greens doused with vinegar, fried okra, and slow-cooked pinto beans.
Sunday afternoons were devoted to reading the newspaper and napping. But it was also a time when I learned what makes a country home truly that -- the garden. The afternoon Pansy told me to “dig me some potatoes for supper,” I looked at her like she was speaking a foreign language. She laughed heartily while handing me a spoon and told her son to take me out in the garden where the potato plants were starting to bloom and show me how to carefully turn over the soil to uncover the “new” potatoes she favored. I like to think that on those Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I was a help, that I did snap beans and shell peas and shuck corn before being instructed in how to blanch and freeze, though I truly don’t recall whether I did!
When my husband John and I moved in mid-November 2010 from Cary, a suburb of Raleigh, to three miles outside of the small town of Harmony, the first mission John undertook was to plant a winter garden. I wanted to get curtains hung and he was out putting in greens! The next summer, our garden was so large that we later admitted it was too much food for the two of us. We’d planted three rows of two kinds of green beans and one of butter beans, two rows of different peppers and one of okra, three rows of tomatoes, as well as rows of cucumber, zucchini, yellow squash, and eggplant, plus enough basil to supply every restaurant in town! We froze and canned and gave away until no one wanted the bounty we had to share – I even took a basket of peppers to my students because they didn’t believe we really had a garden that size!
Through all the hard work -- heading outside first thing in the morning before the sun’s heat became unbearable, weeding by hand because we didn’t have a tiller, picking and freezing and canning and cooking – what was in the back of my mind was all I’d learned during two summers nearly 40 years ago under the loving guidance of Pansy Womble.
And that’s what was in the note I was composing to the kindest, gentlest Southern woman I ever met.