June, 2018

Shiny new Denmark High and Stadium centerpiece a sprawling Forsyth County meadow. No expense spared. Adjacent the new facility, a once grand two story home being swallowed up by magnolias and creeping vegetation, signaling bulldozer time. Beside this yesteryear home stands a country doctor’s office, small but big enough, sandwiched between chimneys made of rock and red Georgia clay.

The office hours sign removed; the empty space screams – doctor not in.

Years ago, the doctor walked Mullinax Road with aid of a tall walking stick. Tiny, no more than a hundred pounds, wore a simple cotton dress to the ankles. Her face shadowed by that pioneer bonnet. Her outline was that of the Dutch Doll quilt pattern.

Once we stood together in a buffet line at our neighborhood restaurant.

“Well, Dr. Denmark, I see you like black-eyed peas and tomatoes.”

“Yes, I do love vine ripened tomatoes. They peel them nicely here. Most places don’t peel. Black-eyeds mighty fine.”

“By the way ma’am, I like your bonnet. I pass you on Mullinax all the time, I know it’s you by the bonnet.”

“Where’s your bonnet? Need protection from the sun.”

“One day, maybe I’ll get one. I do use sunscreen.”

I followed the serving line to the peach cobbler, cakes and pies. She broke line and returned to her table.

Sorry to say, that’s all we ever said to each other. I saw her less and less, then noticed stillness about her home, sadly heard she passed away. Seven years later, I still look for her when driving down Mullinax. Gone the wise woman who prescribed black-eyed peas to her patients, who loved peeled vine ripened tomatoes.

Prescribed black-eyed peas? Yep.

Recently my friend, Sheila Kirkman told a black-eyed pea story. Years ago, pediatrician, Dr. Leila Alice Denmark, advised Sheila to throw out the cow milk, bread, box cereal and eggs, instead serve black-eyed peas for breakfast. Much to Sheila’s surprise, her children became allergy free.

Dr. Denmark ate black-eyed peas and shredded cabbage for breakfast; she drank lemon water. Born 1898 in East Georgia, she lived 114 years 60 days. At 100 she stopped lecturing at the University of Georgia. At 106th birthday party, she refused cake saying she’d not consumed added sugar in over 70 years. Received Fisher Award for research on whooping cough vaccine. Wrote two books. Dr. Denmark died December 10, 2011. Before her departure, she prescribed black-eyed peas to many Georgians.

I wish they’d make a pea patch on that land, plenty of room for agriculture even with the new facilities. Only right for students to wonder, “Hey, what’s with the pea patch?”

Now when I drive down Mullinax, I see a sign: Denmark High – Home of the Danes. I like to say, Denmark High – Home of the Dame! She was a Southern woman and she was mighty fine!

Below, my black-eyed pea story and recipe, excerpt from Ghosts of Lincoln County by Diane Story.

Black-Eyed Peas

Lincoln County before 1928

Miriam Dieudonne Story was born in 1917 with a blue veil stuck to her face. This strange occurrence happens less than one out of 80,000 births. A caulbearer was considered powerful, lucky with special talents in the fields of leadership and judgment. The next Dalai Lama is sought by looking for one with birth membrane still attached, someone able to look beyond the veil. Miriam was in the company of Albert Einstein, Napoleon and Alexander the Great.

For all the good fortune attached to Miriam’s birth, she faced death early. So likely her mother purchased a burial dress, a beige Christening gown made for a child rather than baby. Perhaps it was her good fortune that she did not wear it.

Little Miriam became too sick to eat or drink, became lifeless. Nothing worked. Doctor sent for again, in the middle of the night.

“We done all that is earthly possible. Don’t give her any hope. It’s up to the Lord now,” the doctor said. “Let her rest.” He hesitated. “Lawton, make preparations – now.”

They prayed. The sun peeped, the rooster crowed. Mother quoted Bunyan: What God says is best, is best. She walked away. She made cornbread. Put on a pot of black-eyed peas. She blessed the peas, then stepped away.

“Now, that will do. As soon as we eat, we leave this house,” said Nancy Bentley.

Husband stunned. Children dismayed. What was Mother thinking? Talking out of her head? They reminded her of the stick story about staying together. They would not leave Miriam.

Nancy stood firm, “We have stock to feed, eggs to gather, wood to chop and corn to pull, and Lawton,” she hesitated, “you have a job to do in the barn.”

Nancy set peas and cornbread on the table.

“Where’s the ham and eggs, Mother?”

“Peas and cornbread. Finish your work. Meet at the well. We come in together.”

Just not herself, but then how does a mother act knowing her child is dying? They ate their unusual breakfast while taking assignments.

“You little ones come with me,” Lawton said, “I can keep an eye on you in the barn.”

They kissed Miriam and wondered, would it be the last time? They left the house. They worked. They prayed in the field, the smokehouse, the henhouse and the barn. They kept moving.

Miriam drifted in and out of consciousness; in enough to know she was alone. Not supposed to be like this. She heard hammering. With every pound, something stirred. It was the will to live. Knew what must be done. Gotta get to those black eyed-peas, her only focus. She slid out of bed, crawled to the table. She sipped pea juice. They found her asleep on the table. Until full recovery, little Miriam was fed black-eyed pea juice, one drop at a time. She never wore the dress that hung in Nancy Bentley’s armoire. On occasion Miriam pulled it out to show it off.

“Yes ma’am, yes sir, I want you to look at this! My burial dress. Hadn’t got around to wearin’ it yet. Didn’t use that coffin Papa built for me neither. That’s ’cause I beat that death angel! Aunt Donn said it’s ‘cause I was born with a blue veil attached to my face.”

“Blue veil?”

Yes, according to Aunt Donn, I’m a caulbearer. That’s why she named me after her. Miriam Dieudonne Story, the special one! Even though I didn’t grow Story tall like the rest, I was Story enough to beat the Death Angel in Lincoln County!”

My father, Tom Story, helped build Miriam’s coffin. It was his childhood story.

“Ah was about four when Papa took us to the barn; the mornin’ we come to call the black-eyed pea breakfast. Papa hammered awhile, cried awhile. He told us that Meerum was goin’ away. He said we need to always remember her, ’cause she loves us so. Gene and Caleb cried while handin’ boards to Papa. Ah handed the nails and wiped tears with my sleeve – his and mine. He told me one day Ah’d make a fine carpenter. That moment on, never wanted to do anything else. Depression came on and couldn’t afford nails to make things anymore. Pulled nails from the barn. Took so many, Papa told my older brothers to go to town and buy a pound of  nails and get ’em in those boards, before a big wind blew the barn down.” He laughed then got serious, “And my sistah, Meerum, didn’t go away after all.”

Miriam held a special place in the heart of her eight brothers and sisters. The fifth child who bridged the older to the younger; she could pull peace out of thin air.

Gene said of Miriam, “We all love each other and we all love our children, but it seems like she loves a little bit more. Nobody can out-love Meerum.

Many a Story puts on the black-eyed peas when need arrives. Give the Trinity its due, give thanks for that strong willed woman from Lincoln County, Nancy Bentley. As the peas cook, we remember that newborn who first saw the world through a blue veil, a special one indeed.

New to the South? Never ate black-eyeds? Recipe below.

Black-Eyed Peas Recipe

Sort 1 lb. dried peas, remove bad peas or stones

To cook peas quicker, soak in cold water – an hour or so

Rinse in cold water

Put peas in large pot and cover with 6 cups hot water

Pepper to taste

Seasoning (chicken bouillon, fat back or hog jowl)

Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until tender – about 45 minutes. Add salt to taste after peas are done.

Good any time with hot buttered cornbread and ice tea. Peeled vine ripened tomatoes make it mighty fine.

Welcome to the South!