Beulah Mae didn’t have much in her life. But, everything she got, she worked hard to get it and worked even harder to keep it. She was known around Yellow Pine as the candy lady. She would make peanut brittle and hard chocolates and sell to anyone who had the money. She dreamed of opening a candy store. But Beulah knew the dream would only come true in heaven. So, with that and her husband, John Daily’s wages from the saw mill, they made do with what they had. They rented a tiny house from a white farmer on the outskirts of the little town called YellowPine, Alabama. Beulah kept a small garden on the side of the house. This way, her children could have fresh turnips to eat for supper. The house had three rooms and a big porch. A small stream flowed through the backyard and into the woods. The children called it “tiny river”, a name they borrowed from their new daddy, John.
John was Beulah Mae’s last attempt at finding love. It was easy to attract men and that was her problem. She was a pretty woman. Her mother used to tell her that God mixed that Indian and African blood real good to make her. Beulah’s daddy was one of the few Indians left in the area. Bud Squire Houser had taken to Alabama life and married Beulah’s mother, Rosie Lee. Beulah cared for her mother long after Budsquire died. She wanted the love they had—strong, brave and true. She wanted a man like her daddy. Only, she didn’t have much luck in that area of her life.
She once told one of her women friends, “If I eva’ catch that cupid, I’mma take that bow n’ arra and shoot him in the ass!”
But that was before she met and married John, the last lover in her life.
Out of the three marriages, she did manage to have 12 children. Only seven were still too little to move out and start lives of their own. Her youngest, was little Ella Mae. Ella Mae didn’t look much like her mother. She was tiny for her age. She had dark chocolate skin and skinny legs.
“We gotta fatten you up, child,” Beulah would tell her. “Ain’t nuttin’ but skin and bones. No man ever gon’ want you!”
Ella ate as much as she was allowed but the weight her mother so desperately wanted her to gain, never came. Her family thought she was sickly but she wasn’t, just skinny. There was nothing frail about Ella Mae. She could run and wrestle with all of her brothers and sisters. But the kids at school still picked on her because she was so skinny and so black. They called her “tarbaby” and “bony”. Ella learned not to cry about it. She found other ways to pacify herself. Afterschool, she would get away to herself and chew the tree sap from the big pine tree in the back yard. That sweet sap was her secret. She had made up her own candy like her momma. Ella Mae was proud of herself. No name the children at school called her could take this feeling away. She would sit and chew and listen to her brothers and sister play with the neighbor’s children.
One of those children was big Bo Wilson. Bo was Ella’s age but opposite of her, he was big for his age. Bo ate so much that his momma often hid food from him. That’s when he would come down the hill to see Ms. Beulah. Bo loved Beulah’s biscuits. He asked for a biscuit on every visit. Ella Mae hated Bo. He was big and healthy like her momma wanted her to be. She thought that’s why her momma always treated Bo with a biscuit when he came by. If she could have gotten over her dislike for him, she would have asked how he gained so much weight. Eating and gaining didn’t come easy for everybody. And, little Ella was one of the unfortunate.
The sound of the children playing tag in the front yard had stopped. Ella Mae spit out her tree sap candy and ran around the house to see what was going on. Her momma had just taken a batch of biscuits from the fireplace oven. Her brothers and sisters and Big Bo were waiting on the front steps. Beulah stood in the doorway with a big pretty grin, holding a hot pan with her apron.
“Ya’ll wash ya hands over there?”
She nodded towards the pump a few feet away.
Ella ran to it and washed her hands. She had a plan. She was going to watch Bo eat and do everything he did. Maybe, she could gain weight like him.
“Yes,” the children answered, waiting eagerly for their treat.
“Alright then, come and get it,” Beulah announced. “And get one! The rest is for supper.”
Bo was first to grab the hot biscuit. He nearly dropped it trying to protect his hand from the heat. Beulah frowned at him.
“Boy, you know its hot,” she scolded him. “Use ya shirttail!”
“Yes ma’am.” Bo obeyed, slightly embarrassed.
Beulah smiled and shook her head at him as he reclaimed his seat on the top step. Ella stomped up the steps and gently ticked Bo with her foot.
“Ouch, gal,” Bo yelled. Biscuit crumbs fell from his mouth.
“Sorry,” Ella Mae snapped back in her tiny voice. “You was in the way.”
“Stop that, both ya,” Beulah ordered. She turned to Ella Mae. “Here, you take a big one.”
“Thank you, momma.”
Ella Mae took her biscuit to the small patch of pine trees that lined the front yard. She sat and crossed her legs, Indian style and watched Bo. She turned her head to the side like Bo. She took a big bite, like Bo. She hummed while she chewed like Bo.
The secret must be in the humming, she thought.
Bo stopped humming and chewing and turned to Beulah. He looked worried like he had done something wrong.
“Momma said if I keep eating biscuits, they gon’ kill me. I don’t wanna die,” Bo told her.
“What you say,” Beulah asked, trying to hide her laughter.
“Will they kill ya’, Miss Beulie? Will the biscuits kill ya?”
The other children stopped eating and waited for her answer. Little Ella Mae got scared. She had just eaten half of a big biscuit and her stomach was starting to hurt a little.
“Naw boy! Ain’t no biscuit gonna kill you! You eat all you want. You is a fine healthy boy!” She laughed and turned to go back inside the house. “Ailene ought to be shamed of herself.”
Bo was satisfied with the answer. They children went back to eating their biscuits. Ella went back to mimicking Bo.
Ella Mae didn’t start to gain weight until her teen years, when she started to become a woman. But Ella Mae kept the idea that big is healthy in her mind.
She married and had eight children. Her sole responsibility was to care for them. Like her mother, she loved her children. She showed that love by spending most of her day in the kitchen cooking and making sure her children were happy and healthy.
Ella Mae made sure every night was a feast. They dined on rich foods like fried chicken, greens from the garden cooked with ham hocks, freshly baked breads and sweet yams loaded with butter and sugar. There was always enough for seconds. Her children often made a competition out of whom would finish first. Ella Mae didn’t care. Her children were big and healthy.
It wasn’t until years later that Ella Mae and her children realized that their eating habits were just the opposite. All eight children were diagnosed with diabetes as adults. One of those children is my father. He is among the seven of Ella’s children who also developed high blood pressure along with unhealthy eating habits. But this family is not alone.
Ella Mae was not educated in healthy eating and cooking. Nor was her mother. Few people knew about illnesses due to diet in those days. Like Ella, they had all been conditioned to believe that big meant healthy. They only knew how to make the best foods they could with what they had. Later in life, Ella developed diabetes too. Armed with information, she made a change to her dinner table. She added fresh fruit and vegetables. She and the children who were still at home, started taking afternoon walks. Her love for her children didn’t change, of course. But she still made sure they were happy and healthy.
From Wearing the Blackbelt: Hard Lessons Learned From A Simple Life