Learning the hidden rules of one’s own and others’ environments can be a challenge, especially when the rules are unclear. When relatives from New York visited our tobacco-farming family, the hidden rules of economic class, experiences, and region of the country were almost more than I could deal with, primarily because I didn’t understand the “why” behind them. Eventually, my goal became “Don’t get caught!” as the following episode illustrates.
Uncle Joe and Aunt Eddy got out of the car first. When I heard them say, “Hi, Buck. It’s good to see you,” I couldn’t believe my ears. So, this is how rich people talk, I thought. They really sound rich.
Uncle Joe and Aunt Eddy’s three kids followed. In a group they stood in the front yard staring at our house. Karen, who was a year older than I, put her hand over her heart and acted like she was vomiting. She hates our house, I thought. None of us kids in either family spoke to one another as we followed our parents into the house, found somewhere to sit, and began our staring match.
Finally, after lots of grown-up talk, it was time to eat lunch. Momma had borrowed a little table for the three New York kids while the grownups and Josephine sat at the big table. Amy and I shared the footstool and held our plates filled with pinto beans in our laps.
Uncle Joe put a jar of something on the little table for his kids. The oldest one removed the lid and stuck a spoon into the jar. When he removed the spoon from the jar, it was covered with something tan colored and creamy looking. He spread the tan stuff on his bread and started to eat. The two younger kids followed suit.
“Here,” Uncle Joe handed the jar to Josephine.
“No, thank you,” she said as she continued to eat her pinto beans.
“I don’t want any, either,” I parroted Josephine when Uncle Joe held the jar in front of me, because Daddy told us before the company arrived that we must not eat their food. He said we had plenty of food to eat without begging from people.
“You don’t like peanut butter?” Uncle Joe asked.
“I don’t know what it is,” I answered him honestly.
“So, you’ve never eaten peanut butter before. Then you’ll try it now,” Uncle Joe responded with enthusiasm.
“No,” I answered, glancing toward Daddy.
“Here, take some and taste it, for crying out loud,” Uncle Joe persisted.
“Go ahead,” Daddy chimed in. “Go ahead and taste it.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Daddy said I could have a taste of the peanut butter. I stuck the spoon Uncle Joe gave me all the way to the bottom of the jar and pulled out so much peanut butter that it fell off the spoon onto the floor.
“It’s okay,” Aunt Eddy said, jumping up from the table. She found an old cloth and cleaned the floor. Then she added, “We have another jar.”
This time Uncle Joe helped me spread peanut butter on my bread. I appreciated his help, but I would have spread it much thicker if he had allowed me to do the work myself. Amy shook her head “no” for peanut butter. She was truly happy with her beans.
When I tasted my first-ever peanut butter sandwich, I thought I was in fairyland. It was intoxicatingly delicious. I finished eating that sandwich in seconds and wanted another one, but I was too scared to ask. I sat looking at the jar, hoping to remember the taste of peanut butter for the rest of my life.
After lunch Daddy took Aunt Eddy and her whole family outside to see the rest of “the place.” Amy followed them out while I stayed inside to help Momma and Josephine clear the tables. Once all the visitors were out of the room, Momma threw her dishtowel down into the dishpan, turned to me with her hands on her hips, and said, “Your Daddy told you not to eat their food.”
“But then he said I could,” I protested, confused.
“He had already told you not to eat their food, and you should have listened to him the first time. You’d better listen from now on. Whenever you do something stupid like that, he gets mad and takes it out on me.”
“Why was it stupid?” I ventured a question even though I knew Mom hated for me to ask them.
“You know good and well that rich people are uppity. If we eat their food, they’ll think we’re beggars. We eat our food, they eat theirs. That’s the way it should be.”
Momma turned her back to me and started washing dishes again. I fought back tears while I helped Josephine finish clearing the table.
That evening Aunt Eddy started cooking supper. She opened a package of round, flat slices of red meat and put them into a frying pan to cook. The mysterious meat smelled delicious.
Once it was brown around the edges, Aunt Eddy placed a plateful of what she was now calling “fried bologna” on the big table for the adults, and another on the little table for her kids. Then she put a slice on Amy’s otherwise empty plate and one on mine. I watched Momma, Daddy, and Josephine to see what they would do. They started eating their bologna, and so did Amy. I didn’t know what to do. Tears streamed from my eyes.
“Hey, skinny girl, why aren’t you eating?” Uncle Joe asked me.
Momma looked in my direction and saw that I was crying. “I think she don’t feel good,” Momma said. She got up from the table, took my plate from me, and led me into the bedroom. “You’d better stop crying in front of company,” she whispered in a low, scary voice. “Stay right here until you stop it.” Momma left the room, closing the door behind her.
I couldn’t stop crying, so I sat on the floor at the foot of the bed all through suppertime. Gradually the sounds of chatter and laughter grew fainter and fainter until finally everything was quiet. I opened the door slightly, peeked around it, then ventured out of the bedroom. Momma, Daddy, and the New York family were getting into the guests’ car. Josephine took Amy’s hand and went outside without speaking to me.
Finally the coast was clear. I lifted the tablecloth that Momma had spread over the leftover food and looked around to see if there was any bologna left. There was one piece. I gobbled it down. The slice of bologna was so delicious that I picked up the plate and licked it. Still hungry, I lowered the tablecloth and looked around. There it was, on the cabinet ledge—a jar of peanut butter, still more than half full.
I can eat just a little bit and no one will know, I told myself as I tucked the jar underneath my shirt and found a spoon. Slipping into the bedroom, I ate a spoonful of the luscious, creamy treat. They’ll never miss that little bit; I won’t get caught, I told myself. Since it was hard to tell that the first spoonful had been taken from the jar, I thought it would be safe to eat another, so I did. And another. And another.
I was scraping the sides of the jar with the spoon when I heard people entering the house, so I shoved the spoon and empty jar underneath the bed and hurried into the kitchen to join the others. My full stomach felt so good that I was happy all evening. I even smiled and giggled and talked to people a little bit.
The New York family left early the next morning; the empty peanut butter jar was in the middle of the kitchen table. Daddy called the three of us into the kitchen, pointed to the jar, and stood looking at us without speaking. Then he started fussing at all of us for eating the company’s food. He was really mad.
“You’ll learn to listen to me one way or another!” Daddy’s anger was worse than I’d seen it for a while.
“I didn’t do it, and neither did Amy,” Josephine responded.
“Yeah,” Amy looked at me with an angry expression that I had never seen on her face before, and it hurt my feelings badly.
Daddy seemed to get mad more often since we’d moved to the country. He didn’t want us to associate with outsiders, and this included eating their food.
I got caught, I said to myself as Daddy took off his belt. I’ll be more careful next time.
From that day forward I tried hard not to get caught. It didn’t matter if what I was doing was right or wrong, because often I really didn’t know what was acceptable and what wasn’t. When I did get caught, I denied it. Later in life I had to learn to take responsibility for my actions, and to this day I still work on trusting others and accepting their help when it is offered.
Bethanie Tucker is author of Tucker Signing Strategies for Reading and coauthor of Research-Based Strategies and Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students, among other titles. She is an aha! Process national consultant training on the programs she created, plus A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Research-Based Strategies, and others. Keep an eye on the aha! Process blog to find out what happens next in Tucker’s memoir series “Many Bridges to Cross.”