My great-grandmother, Jessie Mabel Coble — “Granny” to my mother — lived in a two-story wooden farmhouse out in the country in Julian. The siding on the house wasn’t painted, and the front porch didn’t have any underpinnings. Chickens ran around beneath the house.
There was no heat, except for a woodstove in the kitchen. Jessie Mabel’s husband, Henry Pat — “Papaw,” to my mother — got up at 3 a.m. every day to light the woodstove for heat and so Granny could cook.
There was no running water in the house. No indoor plumbing. They got their water from the well house, and drank it, ice cold, right out of the dipper. A washtub stayed outside, and they filled it for their baths in the evening.
Jessie Mabel — Granny — was country. No one ever taught her proper manners or etiquette. She dipped snuff in the day and sat on the front porch of an evening with a broken-off hickory stick between her fingers, peeled back the bark, and cleaned her teeth. She sat like a man, with her legs apart. She reached for things across the table. She never wrote a single thank-you note.
But Jessie Mabel Coble set pitchers of tea for the 15 or so tobacco hands who came inside for lunch. And she kept food on the table all the time: fried chicken and bowls of cucumber and onions in vinegar and pickled beets and potatoes and corn and homemade biscuits — all this beneath a tablecloth to shield the food from flies.
My mother loved it at Granny’s house, a place with no running water and no heat and where the food had to be covered up. Because for everything it didn’t have, here’s what it did have: It was warm. It was friendly. It
In the mornings, Granny sat with my mother on the front porch, the two of them side by side in old cane-bottom chairs. They shelled butter beans and churned buttermilk. She taught my mom how to pour butter into wooden butter molds and how to tap it out so that the pretty leaf pattern showed up on top. You wanted your butter to look nice, not for company, because company rarely came, but simply because it looked nice.
In the evenings, Granny brushed my mother’s hair, long, slow strokes over and over, smoothing out her thick strands and checking for ticks.
It felt good to have someone care about you like that. To have someone give you that kind of attention.
When Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954, my mother was at Granny’s house. They were terrified of the wind and the rain. They hid beneath a quilt on top of Granny’s iron bed, and when they heard the hickory tree fall on the well house, they held on to each other, waiting for the storm to pass.
Many years later, after I was born, my mother drove out to the country to pick up Granny and brought her home to stay at our house for a week. The two of them made a quilt, a Grandma’s Flower Garden pattern. My mother still has this quilt — it covers the iron bed, Granny’s bed, in my parents’ house — and you can tell whose stitches are whose: My mother’s are precise and even; Granny’s are longer and a little more ragged. Both are beautiful.
Jessie Mabel Coble couldn’t have told you what Southern hospitality is. She didn’t know to bring a covered dish to a church supper — in fact, she didn’t even go to church, although she carried thankfulness in her heart. But she knew it was important to share her resources, as limited as they were. And she knew that it was important to give her time, her care, and, especially, her comfort to a little girl.
Southern hospitality isn’t always fancy. Sometimes, it’s unadorned. It doesn’t always need white linens and porcelain teacups. It doesn’t always remove its hat.
It just needs a place where people, when they come there, feel at home.