While my collards are cooking, I am thinking about my Great-aunt Irene. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister. She was born in Core Creek, in Carteret County, N.C., in 1919. She and her brothers and sisters grew up on a remote little farm next to the salt marsh, but Irene looks beautiful and glamorous in the family’s old black and white photographs.
Irene married and moved to Greensboro as a young woman, but came back home after her husband’s early death. For many years she lived in Beaufort, our county seat.
When I was a child, we always ate Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house in Harlowe. Irene always brought collards cooked with corn dumplings and potatoes.
She usually purchased her collard greens at Mr. Johnny Merrell’s farm, on NC 101 between Beaufort and Harlowe.
Irene knew that her collards and dumplings were my favorite food in the world. In later years, she always made sure that I would find, as the old folks back home say, “a mess of collards” waiting for me whenever I visited her in Beaufort.
In case I showed up unexpectedly, she kept a Tupperware container of collards in her freezer, knowing they would do in a pinch.
One day, when Irene was maybe 78 or 79 years old, she decided that I needed to know how to make collards like hers. She had decided that she was not going to let her recipe for collards and corn dumplings go with her to the grave.
She was also determined not to leave me bereft of collards like hers.
A farmworker in Duplin County once divided humanity into two parts for me: “Some people know they’re going to die, and some people don’t,” he told me.
He could have been talking about Irene. She embraced her mortality and life everlasting. I was going to learn how to fix collards before Judgment Day.
I thought about all this a few months later, when I was sitting by her bedside at UNC Hospital. A driver in Beaufort had run a red light and hit her car, splintering Irene’s brittle ribs and sending her to intensive care first in Morehead City and eventually in Chapel Hill.
I will not soon forget those long days and nights by her bed, even if, with every passing year I spend more time in hospitals holding hands and softly singing old hymns. (Irene herself used to joke in her last years that she didn’t have time to play bridge anymore because she had to attend so many funerals.)
Irene had a genius for storytelling, a knack for befriending the down and out, and a deep, steadfast faith. She had been a widow for nearly 30 years and, while of deeply conservative, fundamentalist leanings, she was not easily pigeonholed.
I suspect that she was the only person in America who donated money with equal fervor to evangelist Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and to the militant environmental group Greenpeace.
And whenever I lectured at the North Carolina Maritime Museum there in Beaufort, usually about something disgracefully embarrassing like race riots or militant black sailors, I could always count on Irene being there for me. She was as sweet as they come, and I loved her dearly.
There in the intensive care unit, Irene’s broken ribs and a ruthless pneumonia, indifferent to her affection for the spoken word, forced the doctors to put an oxygen mask over her face. The mask kept her from saying anything at all, though actually we did not even know if she was hearing us and could say anything.
Over those days she faded in and out of consciousness, groggy with loss of blood and the fog of the painkillers. Sitting by her bed, we all wondered if she heard us when we talked to her or if she even understood what was happening.
We read to her though, particularly from the Bible. One night around 9 o’clock, I happened to be reading from Psalms when I paused for a moment and Irene, without opening her eyes, gently raised a hand and held up four frail fingers.
Then she closed her hand, and then she lifted up two more fingers. I did not understand at first, but she repeated the gesture twice more before I finally knew what she wanted me to do.
I turned to the 42nd Psalm and I began to read:
And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in thee.
When I finished the psalm, Irene lifted her hand again and a lone finger followed by another lone finger and then four fingers more led me to the 114th Psalm.
My soul cleaves to the dust…, my soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to thy word.
Irene knew her Bible, and so we passed our last night together.
The evening after the funeral, my cousin Helen, Irene’s daughter, discovered a Tupperware container brimming with collards and dumplings in Irene’s freezer.
Knowing my Great-aunt Irene, I should not have been surprised. But I could barely breathe when Helen called me up and told me about them.
I know they were just collards—big leafy greens that smell terrible while they are cooking—but I will never be able to put into words either the sorrow or the pleasure I felt when we gathered the next day to share them with Helen and her friend Debbie.
A few months later, on a day when I was missing Irene terribly much, I realized that it was time for me to make my own pilgrimage up the road to Johnnie Merrell’s farm.
I brought the collards back to the house and fixed them just like Irene had taught me. I washed the leaves with vigor. I fried slabs of peppery cured ham and bacon drippings in a stew pot. I added water and brought it to a boil.
I tenderly dropped leaves and stems into the boiling water and let them simmer on low heat for a couple of hours. After an hour or so, I put in the potatoes.
I raised the heat and cradled cornmeal in the palm of my hand. I molded the meal into dumplings. I dropped them one by one into the boiling pot liquor.
I turned the heat down, scooped out the dumplings and drained the water from the pot. Finally, I chopped up the collards and placed them in a serving bowl with the dumplings and potatoes.
I collected the collards and all the other good things that I had been preparing. So many of them brought back memories of those I have loved and lost. I gathered them together and called my family in to eat.
Nearly all the food writing I did for the N.C. Folklife Institute’s blog can still be found on the Institute’s web site. You can also find links to those stories here on this site. However, due to a technological glitch, a couple dozen of my first stories for that blog were lost. I have personal copies of them, and every now and then I’ll post some of the missing stories here. This is one of them.