Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be
While my great-grandmother, Mary “Miss Mollie” Perline Inman Cox was a generous and charitable woman, that charity didn’t extend to the point where her family would be deprived. Next to her and her husband’s (John Needham Cox, Jr.) farm was a smaller farm being operated by a tenant farmer and his family. One day, two little boys from this neighboring farm came over to my great-grandmother with a wagon and called out, “Miss Mollie, Miss Mollie, our mother sent us over to borrow your wash pot.”
In the late 19th Century, before washing machines, washing clothes had progressed beyond pounding them on rocks beside the river bank. The method of choice on farms of the time was to wash clothes in a big cast iron wash pot. The pot would be filled with water, heated to a boil, the clothes would be immersed, and then boiled to cleanliness. Depending on the fastidiousness on the person washing the clothes, the water would be either dumped or left in the pot. Those who wanted their clothes as clean as possible would dump the water and take the trouble to refill the pot with fresh water before the next cleaning. Those who didn’t care, would leave the water in the pot and reuse it in future washings.
In response to the boys’ request, Miss Mollie told them that they and their mother were welcome to use her wash pot anytime, but they had to bring the clothes over to her farm and couldn’t take the pot back to their farm. This didn’t set well with the tenant’s wife and she never did like having to haul her clothes over to clean them in Miss Mollie’s yard. About a year later, the tenant had a particularly bountiful crop, with plenty left over after the landlord took his share. With the proceeds of the excess, the tenant and his wife had some cash to purchase a few extras for their family. Among the first purchases they made with the surplus that Fall was a cast iron wash pot. On the way back from town they passed in front of my great-grandmother’s home on their horse drawn wagon and the tenant’s wife shouted out, “Oh, Miss Mollie, I shall be neither a borrower nor a lender of wash pots!”
In the part of North Carolina were my great-grandparents lived, hard freezes were few and far between. But shortly after the first hard freeze that Fall the two boys from the neighboring farm showed up in front of my great-grandmother’s home with a cart full of clothes. The boys called out, “Miss Mollie, may our mother use your wash pot?” My great-grandmother replied that she could, but the wash pot had to stay in her yard. They said they knew and had their clothes with them.
Apparently, the tenant’s wife was one of those washers who believed that emptying the wash pot after each wash and refilling it with fresh water before the next was an unnecessary effort. While cast iron is tremendously strong, it is just as brittle and its brittleness increases as the temperature drops. The inexorable expansion of freezing water is a force that not even cast iron can withstand. A hard freeze will crack a cast iron wash pot filled with water every time, as apparently it had done to the tenant’s wash pot.
Miss Mollie knew that the margin for error on 19th Century farms was razor thin. The difference between a day-to-day subsidence existence and accumulating wealth to provide a better life for one’s children was often as small as doing little things like dumping wash pots before a freeze could damage them.
Miss Mollie’s efforts to provide a better life for her four sons were successful beyond her dreams. All four of her children, Grover, Headley, R. L., and Allen, graduated from college and went on to prosperous lives and productive careers.
The work ethic, dedication to success, and value of education which Miss Mollie instilled in her sons is still being felt by her descendants, over one hundred years and five generations later.