Photo from Flickr--no photographer identified--used by a cooking blog.
The original story in the Roanoke Times included a picture of white-haired Elizabeth holding a can of beans with a title something like, "Women Hasn't Opened Can of Beans for 57 years." I wrote this to imagine why....
"And as the years passed
the beans became a reminder
of her long-departed youth."
--Roanoke Times and World News, 10/26/78
Last week Elizabeth turned eighty.
She touches her hand to jar
blue against the velvet green of her beans
canned 1921, last year they had the farm.
The beans curve, green fingers
tip to tip
as hers were that July
everyone said she'd the prettiest hands.
She feels cool weight of quart
thinks of pots steaming
so hot that July
Jonathan drug the woodstove out in the yard.
She is telling her daughter
a teaspoon of sugar
a teaspoon of salt
now wipe that rim.
Beans were scarce that year.
She paid her little ones
to pick beetles off
not before the vines all wilted.
Only one row in the new ground thrived
an odd row planted when she ran out of corn.
She sowed and picked beans by the moon
not enough to can
she canned them anyway
stacking beans upright
in concentric circles.
Nights she lay at Jonathan's side
stared at beans in the moon patterned ceiling.
she finally slipped from the bed
counted stripe on stripe
tomatoes, peaches, corn
a hundred quarts
and that can of beans
soothing her to sleep.
Wish I had a copy of the article in the Roanoke Times with me, so I could scan the picture of Elizabeth.
This poem was originally published by Artemis, as I recall. Although I started it in 1978, when I first joined a writers' workshop, I didn't finish it until several years later at the Hindman Settlement School's Writers' Workshop. It turned out to be the first of a series about Elizabeth, called Weatherings, which take place over the course of a year in which the weather evokes earlier memories. Fred Chappell used to sign notes to me Old Fred and tease me that I was writing about myself. (He didn't know that my birth name is Beth, not Elizabeth, but maybe he was on to something.)
I read it for an audience most recently on September 25 at Voices from the Mountains (the lead-up to the march and sit-in on September 27) and got compliments from our emcee Reverend Billy, novelist Silas House, poet Bob Henry Baber, activists Roland Micklem and Sue Rosenberg and musician Carry Kline, among others, which was heartening.
To tell the truth, following barn burners like Larry Gibson and Micky McCoy, I was glad that there was a musical interlude before I read : ). After this I finished out with Looking Out Over An Abyss in Boone County, one of my own barn burners. The latter is about Larry Gibson's 50 acres at the edge of an mtr site and I don't think I had ever read to an audience when he was present.
UPDATE: I also read the poem on the Floyd Radio Show January 7, 2012, where it was recorded and you can now listen on an archived podcast, which I've included at the link.