The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mrs. ‘Berbee’ Burton

By Lawrence R. Burton © 1983

Issue: May, 1983

(Editor’s note: Mr. Burton, in his kindness has given us several of his poems to choose from for printing in the Mountain Laurel. One in particular, “My Mother’s Coffee” seemed to fit so well in this issue because of our accent on Mother’s Day. I never had the opportunity to meet his mother but I have been told she was a remarkable woman. With this in mind, I asked Lawrence Burton if he would write something about her to share with our readers. The following is his recollections of memories and reflections of his mother: a woman respected and loved by her family and the community as well.)

My mother, I have been asked to describe my mother and in attempting to perform that seemingly impossible feat, considering the space allotted here, I must begin by telling about a farmer I once heard of. He was a proud but uncompromising man who admitted to but one mistake in his entire life and quickly explained that away by adding, “and I seen it right off and taken it back.” Now lest you get the wrong impression, my mother was not that type of person at all but she was proud and uncompromising in her beliefs. Proud that God was her shelter and uncompromising in that she never (and I mean never) deviated from her religious and moral convictions, whatever the price they commanded. And she made those commitments with total ease, unfailingly and unflinchingly at life’s every turn. She was neither a prig nor a prude, on the contrary, she forced her religious views on no one. She simply set examples for others to follow, and follow they did, by the scores. When Miss Berbee (as everyone called her) went on to her heavenly reward, her church was never quite the same again, to no one’s surprise. While she was a tower of strength as a Christian, she produced like attributes as a wife and mother.

During the early years of the Great Depression, I remember her best. My father was heavily in debt and although he was a lawyer with a good practice, few could pay his fees in cash. Almost all of them went on the cuff or were paid in produce or other farm products. Mother met the challenge in every way imaginable. The produce we couldn’t eat, she canned; along with the vegetables she raised in her garden. Then there was milk and butter she sold to the neighbors and the chickens she raised and traded to local merchants in exchange for a variety of staple items needed by the family. She also kept a few pigs. They were fed on the milk she couldn’t sell. To waste was to sin. She made almost all the children’s clothes on the “Singer” and used a scrub board to wash them. She cooked entirely on her wood fed “Majestic” stove and could she cook! Her biscuits, cakes, pies, fried chicken and coffee were legend. There were all too many friends and neighbors who just “happened by” at suppertime. In the summer when the tomatoes were half ripe, she would prepare a meal I’ve never heard of since but deplore its absence in my present bill of fare for my wife doesn’t make hot biscuits, one of the necessary ingredients in the recipe. I now suggest you must try at the first opportunity. Here’s the way it goes: First fry up some bacon and save the grease. Then cut up one or more half green tomatoes in slices about 3/8 inch thick and flour them on both sides. Fry the tomatoes in the bacon grease on medium heat until almost crisp, turning them with a spatula to prevent their falling apart. Then place the fried tomato slice on an opened and buttered, hot biscuit, adding a layer of sugar and the bacon strips. Put on the lid and bite into the most succulent, mouth watering treat you’ve ever tasted. Take it from me, it’s almost as good as mothers coffee used to be.

Yes, mother was quite a woman and amid all her labors, there was time always for her children. Before her marriage, she had been a teacher and her quest for knowledge was imparted to the children through the books she would read to us during the day. One of the most vivid recollections I have of her is in the kitchen, sitting at her churn, with a book in her lap and reading to me another chapter of “Tom Sawyer” or “Huckleberry Finn.” The next such session might involve the encyclopedia and stories about the sinking of the Titanic or the aborted flight of the Graff Zeppelin, Hindenburg when it met its untimely end at Lake Hurst, New Jersey in 1937. Then there were books of puzzles, riddles and poems. Poems that ran the gamut of “Little Orphan Annie” and “Little Boy Blue” to “The Raven” or “Crossing the Bar.”

These were the experiences that endeared her to us as a mother and serve in these troubled times as a stock reminder of the tragic vacuum that exists in family life today. But what our mother gave us is set in stone. God bless her and all mothers of her ilk.